Tag: books

Peirene Press: Body Kintsugi by Senka Marić (tr. Celia Hawkesworth)

The latest Peirene title is translated from Bosnian, but its title nods to Japan. Kintsugi refers to the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with gold, so that the broken edges are highlighted rather than hidden. Senka Marić’s protagonist discovers a lump at the start of this novel, which leads to a diagnosis of breast cancer. The rest of the book chronicles her changing relationship to her body as she undergoes treatment. 

Be warned, the protagonist’s experience is vividly – at times brutally – described; but that’s also what gives the book is power. Marić depicts the protagonist struggling to come to terms with what’s happening to her, but also a gradual sense that these changes are becoming part of her, like the cracks in a work of kintsugi. 

The novel is also structured in a way that reflects the idea of kintsugi: short chapters, not just from the present but also the protagonist’s childhood. In other words: pieces of her life, the joins visible, that are put together into this striking work. 

Corylus Books: Deceit by Jónína Leósdóttir (tr. Quentin Bates)

Today I’m welcoming Corylus Books back to the blog, with a stop on their blog tour for Deceit, the first novel by Icelandic author Jónína Leósdóttir to appear in English translation. 

Expat English psychologist Adam receives a call from his ex, police detective Soffia, asking to speak to him urgently. Adam is not happy about this, as he’s worried about catching Covid, but there’s no one else available for Soffia to turn to. She explains that the fresh fruit in a café has been found to be contaminated with needles. Other incidents of contamination emerge, and it turns out there’s a web of family ties connecting the targets. 

Deceit is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning and just keeps on going. I was especially intrigued by the setup, which grows only more complex as the pages turn. Adam and Soffia are a pair of contrasting and engaging characters that really help to give this mystery a distinctive feel. It was a pleasure to spend time in their world. 

3TimesRebel Press: Mothers Don’t by Katixa Agirre (tr. Kristin Addis)

This is one of the first titles from 3TimesRebel, a small press based in Dundee, who specialise in books by female authors, translated from minority languages (Mothers Don’t is translated from Basque). It’s a compelling book, and quite a statement of intent for the publisher. 

The book begins with one Alice Espanet being found at home with her twins, whom she has apparently killed. Two weeks later, Agirre’s narrator is in the middle of giving birth when she realises that she knew Alice for a time at university, though in those days Alice was named Jade. The narrator comes to find that motherhood is taking over her sense of self. Having found some success as a writer of true crime, she decides the way to get back to herself is to write about Alice Espanet. 

Agirre’s protagonist tries to understand what drove Alice to kill her children. She visits the Espanet house, goes back to an old friend who also knew Jade, attends Alice’s trial… but the answers remain elusive and ambiguous. At the same time, the narrator is questioning her own feelings about motherhood: sometimes it feels beautiful and fulfilling to her; sometimes it pushes aside everything else. 

It seems to me that Mothers Don’t is an example of what Javier Cercas terms a ‘blind-spot novel‘ – a novel searching to answer a question that ultimately can’t be answered, so that the search itself becomes an answer. The narrator’s feelings about being a mother, the competing stories trying to explain Alice Espanet’s actions… These things are not reconciled, but the contradictions in them animate the novel and help give it its power. 

Corylus Books: Harm by Sólveig Pálsdóttir (tr. Quentin Bates)

Today I’m joining a blog tour for Corylus Books, a small publisher of European crime fiction. We’re off to Iceland for Harm, the third of Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s novels to feature detective Guðgeir Fransson. It’s the first I have read, but it worked as a jumping-on point.

We meet Ríkharður, a fifty-something doctor on holiday with Diljá, his much younger girlfriend (ex, he has to remind himself), and four of her friends. Diljá finds Ríkharður dead one morning, and flees. Enter Guðgeir and his fellow detective Elsa Guðrún, who start to question Diljá’s friends while the police are searching for her.

Harm is a relatively short novel that moves along at a brisk pace, with a plot that shifts in several directions. The initial rounds of questioning uncover a darker side to Ríkharður, a fragile side to Diljá, and mysteries among Diljá’s friends – but Sólveig’s tale does not rest on its laurels.

I was pleased to find that I really couldn’t tell where Harm was going. I also appreciated the way Sólveig explored her characters’ backgrounds, illuminating complex moral issues. All in all, this novel was a highly intriguing read.

#GoldsmithsPrize2022: Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi

The voice of Mona Arshi’s debut novel belongs to Ruby, a young British Indian woman. It’s an expressive voice in this written (or thought) form, but Ruby decided as a girl that she would stop speaking:

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again.

The scattered vignettes of Somebody Loves You are appropriate for a narrator who’s not used to telling a story to an audience. Still, Ruby’s tale covers a lot of ground in a relatively short length, including growing up, racism and mental health. The latter is explored through the character of Ruby’s mother, and I’m picking it out because I think it’s a good example of how Arshi’s book works.

This is how the subject is introduced:

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

It’s an arresting line, but one that’s at least as interested in the fox as in Ruby’s mother. Actually, in that whole short chapter, the mother’s mental breakdown is strikingly ‘off-page’. Quite a lot (though by no means all) of what happens in Somebody Loves You happens to characters other than Ruby, and of course she can’t see into their experiences – though she can observe.

Ruby notices that her mother finds respite in the garden – a defined space, so rare in this novel of hazy edges. Gardens become one of the book’s recurring motifs, an anchor point for characters and reader alike. The vignettes of Somebody Loves You build together into quite a powerful whole.

Published by And Other Stories.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Santa Monica Press: The Revenge of Joe Wild by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Andrew Komarnyckyj wrote one of my favourite books from last year, Ezra Slef. That novel was a joyous romp about a pompous writer who makes a deal with the Devil. The Revenge of Joe Wild is something rather different: a coming-of-age yarn set in 19th century America. What unites the two books is that they’re anchored by strong narrative voices. Here’s Joe Wild:

The schoolhouse was the worst house in the world ‘cept our house. It had a bell on the roof that went right through you like a stone through a window when it rang. If you warn’t inside when that bell rang woe betide you, you was in for a leatherin’. I knows better’n most about leatherin’.

In 1861, Joe is a twelve-year-old boy from a poor Illinois family. When he’s wrongly accused of murdering a neighbour, Joe runs away from town and into an even wilder world than the one he knew. Eventually he will join the army and return home a man, to set the past right.

Joe Wild is as compelling in its own way as Ezra Slef, a tale of vivid set-pieces that just doesn’t let up. If you’re looking for a rip-roaring adventure, this is a book well worth your time.

Published by Santa Monica Press.

Gallic Books: The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert

A new book by Charles Lambert is always worth a look. This one is a Victorian ghost story, with an eerie atmosphere similar to his earlier novel The Children’s Home.

In 1880s London, Edward Montieth is a young gentleman who goes along to a séance with a group of acquaintances from his club. He becomes captivated with Settie, a flower-seller he sees outside the theatre, and they embark on a relationship. But society would frown on their love, because Settie is Romani. When she falls pregnant, Edward feels forced to take drastic measures – and tragedy follows…

Two years later, Edward has turned away from his old life and now lives outside of the city with his Sicilian wife Marisol and their son Tommaso. However, although Edward may wish to leave the past behind, the past isn’t finished with him. Lambert builds up an unsettling feeling through ordinary sights and sounds, like a child’s cry, that seem oddly out of place. The strangeness grows, in a tale that pits rationality against the supernatural as much as social structures clash with the freedom to go one’s own way. The Bone Flower is engrossing stuff, especially as the autumn nights draw in. 

Published by Gallic Books.

Faber Editions: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Originally published in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not a book I had heard of before, and indeed the recent Faber Editions publication is the first UK edition. I’m so glad to have come across Maud Martha, though, because I loved reading it.

Maud Martha Brown is born in Chicago in 1917, and we follow her life into adulthood. She dreams of more than her immediate life can promise; for example, here she is thinking about New York:

The name “New York” glittered in front of her like the silver in the shops on Michigan Boulevard. It was silver, and it was solid, and it was remote: it was behind glass, it was behind bright glass like the silver in the shops. It was not for her. Yet.

Life turns out to be mixed. Maud Martha marries Paul, a lighter-skinned man with aspirations and eyes for other women. There are moments of racism, but also small triumphs for Maud Martha. For instance, in one chapter she visits a hat shop. The manager hides her contempt under a veneer of politeness – but Maud Martha sees straight through it and strings her along.

There is hope here, built in (it seems to me) to the very shape of Brooks’ novel. The book is a series of snapshots, which gives space for Maud Martha’s life to be more than we see – and it goes on beyond the final page, ultimately with optimism.

Sinoist Books: The Sons of Red Lake by Zhou Daxin (tr. Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan)

Family illness leads Nuannuan to leave behind her life in Beijing and return to Chu Wang Village. There she stays, falling back in love with her childhood sweetheart Kaitian – though the village leader Zhen Shideng would have liked her to marry his son.

Nuannuan settles into the farming life, but a scam causes her and Kaitian to fall in debt to the whole village. The couple’s fortunes turn when a visitor points out nearby ruins of historical interest – giving Nuannuan and Kaitian the key to building a local tourism business. There is substantial money to be made, but also two significant problems. One is that to do most things requires the village leader’s permission, and Zhen Shideng knows exactly what he can demand of Nuannuan. The other problem is the temptation that comes with money and power…

I spread out my reading of this book, and thoroughly enjoyed the result. The characters are engaging, the plot turns in interesting ways, and there’s a sharp examination of the potential effects of tourism (for good and I’ll)  on a rural community. I will be exploring Zhou Daxin’s work further, of that I’m sure.

Published by Sinoist Books, who specialise in translations from Chinese.

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