Category: Slovak

My favourite books read in 2021

Here we are again, approaching the end of another year. As usual, I’ve picked out my twelve favourite books that I read in 2021, regardless of when they were first published. I always find that doing this provides me with an interesting snapshot of my reading year as a whole. This year’s snapshot has given me cause to reflect – but more on that in another post. For now, here are my reading highlights of 2021:

12. Angélique Villeneuve, Winter Flowers (2014)
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (2021)

A novel set in the aftermath of World War One, in which a woman tries to rebuild her relationship with her disfigured husband, while the community around comes to terms with its own traumas. Winter Flowers is one of those books that cuts through preconceived notions about its subject matter to capture raw feeling. 

11. Judith Bryan, Bernard and the Cloth Monkey (1998)

If it hadn’t been for the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo, I might never have come across Bernard and the Cloth Monkey. I’m so glad I did. This tale of a young woman returning to her family home constantly shifts in register, creating a kaleidoscope of emotion in a seemingly ordinary setting. 

10. Adam Mars-Jones, Batlava Lake (2021)

I like stories that are shaped by a strong narrative voice, and that’s very much the case with Batlava Lake. Mars-Jones introduces us to Barry, a matey, chatty engineer who’s really not equipped to convey the brutality of war in Kosovo. But that very inadequacy is what makes the book work so well. 

9. Andrew Komarnyckyj, Ezra Slef, the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (2021)

Of all the books I read in 2021, I think this was probably the most fun. It’s a spoof literary biography whose purported author talks more about himself than his subject, and deals with a Twitter troll by (inadvertently) making a deal with the Devil. Just thinking back to reading Ezra Slef makes me smile. 

8. Rebecca Watson, little scratch (2021)

little scratch was the least conventionally written novel that I read all year, with its words scattered in different patterns across the page. Those words are the thoughts of a young woman going about her day while something plays on her mind. It’s a technique that really brought me close to the narrator and the tension that grows throughout the book. 

7. Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue (2009)
Translated from Slovak by Julia and Peter Sherwood (2019)

This book was probably my biggest surprise of the reading year, in that I wasn’t prepared for the way it turns, so subtly and effectively. Its protagonist takes a summer job working with disabled people, but struggles to cope. Her mental health is affected, which we see entirely through changes in the shape of her narration – which is what makes the effect so powerful. 

6. Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)

More shapeshifting prose here, but in this case the protagonist is finding her voice. A Black British woman working in the banking industry reflects on her situation, and asks herself how she really wants to be. The prose is constantly changing to match her thoughts as she assembles the pieces of her life, building to a crescendo for narrator and reader alike. 

5. Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (2021)

A worthy winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, this novel strikes me as a carnival – in the sense of both an entertainment and a festival challenging social structures. Sterling and their friends face a nightmarish authoritarian world that works against them in ways they don’t understand. There are matadors, showtrials, time-travelling spaceships – and hope to be found in pushing back. 

4. Federico Falco, A Perfect Cemetery (2016)
Translated from Spanish by Jennifer Croft (2021)

I love story collections that work as a whole, and this one certainly does. Falco’s protagonists are all facing pivotal moments of change in their lives, and his stories are suitably dynamic. There’s a great sense of place and character about these tales, and each one opens out memorably as it ends.

3. Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows (2007)
Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena has Parkinsons, and this novel is structured around the ebb and flow of her energy levels. She’s forced to confront the limits of her knowledge about her daughter, which reflects the limits of what she can do during the day. With so many of the books on my list, the language brought me right into the protagonist’s world – perhaps none more so than Elena Knows.

2. Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand (2021)

I was intrigued at the prospect of a Jon McGregor novel set partly in the Antarctic. In the end, I experienced Lean Fall Stand as viscerally as any of his others. A polar guide tries to rebuild his life and self after a stroke. McGregor explores how language breaks down and re-forms around this event, in a dizzying rush of a novel. 

1. Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians (2021)

The single most powerful reading experience I had in 2021 was this slim novel interweaving conversations between the guardians of Christ’s tomb and a present-day lecturer examining 16th-century depictions of them. The book hovers on the knife-edge of uncertainty, and rivals Convenience Store Woman for the sudden power of its ending. This is why I’m reading fiction in the first place.

***

There we go. I hope you’ve found some books in 2021 that you enjoyed as much as I did these. If you’d like to see my selections from previous years, you can find them here: 2020, 20192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. As ever, thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year – you can also catch me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová: Women in Translation Month

The book and the reading both start out innocuously enough: Blanka, a young Slovak woman, takes a summer job in Marseille, at the Bellevue centre for people with physical disabilities. Her main reason for applying is the chance to practise her French in an immersive environment. She doesn’t really seem to have considered the work involved, and that’s where her problems start. 

The environment of Bellevue is indeed immersive, but not in the way Blanka may have been thinking. She really struggles to be around the disabled people at the centre, to cope with people unable to look after themselves. To an extent, she struggles to see them as people. 

There are gradual signs that Blanka’s mental health is being affected: a panic attack, then this… 

…deep inside I had always known it, sensed it, but now I could suddenly give it a name, was able to articulate it, the words now pounded right in my chest, we all hate each other, suddenly nothing but this truth, this knowledge, or rather the realisation that there’s nothing but hatred in this world, that to grow up means to understand and accept all the world’s hatred directed at every single person, and therefore also at me.

Translation from Slovak by Julia & Peter Sherwood

As the novel goes on, we come to understand more of Blanka’s background, and see her continue to unravel. This is particularly harrowing because Blanka doesn’t articulate what is happening to her. Dobrakovová (in the Sherwoods’ superb translation) shows it through the changing shape of Blanka’s language: her narration frays along with her mental state. We go directly to the heart of Blanka’s experience, and the effect is powerful. 

Published by Jantar Publishing.

Anthology review: Zero Hours on the Boulevard

There have been a few anthologies published recently in response to the current political climate. I reviewed one, Tempest, last month – and today I have another. Zero Hours on the Boulevard (ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans) comes from the Welsh publisher Parthian and is subtitled ‘Tales of Independence and Belonging’. It includes a mixture of English-language originals and translated pieces, often revolving around how individuals may relate to their surroundings (whether old or new). An opening poem in three languages sets the tone: in ‘Lands of Mine’, Hanan Issa writes about being one person from multiple places.

One story that I found particularly affecting is ‘A Birthday Card From the Queen’ by the Maltese writer Clare Azzopardi (tr. Albert Gatt). Old Kelinu spends most of his time making tea, even though he doesn’t like drinking it. He struggles to come to terms with the contemporary world, thinks things were better in days of Empire, and waits patiently for his hundredth birthday when he’ll receive a card from the Queen. The sense is clear that Kelinu is a figure out of time, and his grip on life may be fragile; but there are some piercing moments, such as this, where Kelinu remembers his late wife Maria:

When the tea has cooled he pours it into the sink. He puts a lot of washing-up liquid into the glass and lets the foam rise and rise, then he rinses the glass and rinses away Maria’s face, the white dress gliding across the carpet of a humble church and the hard years that followed. Maria lying in the throes of her illness, heavy as the rain clouds dimming in the light of the room. Nothing remained of Maria’s pear-shaped body, nothing but foam.

Some of the pieces in Zero Hours on the Boulevard concern characters who move (or have moved) to a new place. In ‘When Elephants Fight’, Cameroon-born and Wales-based Eric Ngalle Charles describes his daughter being deeply concerned about what Brexit means for her and asking him where he’s really from. He tells the harrowing tale of what caused him to leave Cameroon, which gives her a new dimension of understanding. ‘The Book of New Words’ by Eluned Gramich sees a German girl start school in England, where she finds the nuances of language rather different from what she’s learned so far. By the time she returns to Germany, her sense of self has shifted. Durre Shahwar‘s ‘Split’ is the short but powerful tale of a woman turned away from the Life in the UK test on a technicality, and Faiza, the invigilator whose mother took that same test in the past. Faiza worries for the woman she glimpses through the Test Centre doors, but is grimly reminded of how little she can do to help.

Other stories in the book revolve around dealing with changes to a familiar place. ‘Mercy’ by Lloyd Markham (an extract from his novel Bad Ideas\Chemicals) takes us to a near-future (or alternative-present) Wales. 19-year-old Louie Jones is trying to jump through the hoops of ‘Careers, Lifestyle & Attitudes’ when he is assigned a work placement at the Mercy Clinic, which leads him to reconsider his relationship with his alcoholic father. This piece is a rush of developments that straddle the borderline between absurd and chillingly plausible. In ‘The Garden’ by Slovak writer Uršul’a Kovalyk (tr. Peter and Julia Sherwood), Ela moves to a new flat in the capital, her modestly-paid job leaving her in a precarious position. She finds the apartment building’s beautiful terraced garden a source of peace, and gets to know Boženska, the old woman who has lived in the building for decades and looks after the garden. The history of the garden comes to stand in for the changing world outside – and, as so many of the stories in this anthology underline, change comes to everywhere and everyone.

Book details

Zero Hours on the Boulevard (2019) ed. Alexandra Büchler and Alison Evans, Parthian Books, 248 pages, paperback.

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