Author, Book review, Books in translation, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Milena Agus, Publisher, Setting

‘From the Land of the Moon’ by Milena Agus (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Europa editions; 108 pages; 2011. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

From the Land of the Moon earned debut author Milena Agus the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò Prize for Fiction in 2008.

It’s a simple tale but it packs an emotional punch — and it’s the kind of book you want to reread as soon as you reach the final page. That’s because there’s a little unexpected twist right at the end that turns everything on its head and makes you reassess all your assumptions about the characters and the way they chose to live their lives.

Sardinia setting

Set in Sardinia, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who tells us the story of her grandmother, who, in 1943, was forced to marry a man she did not love. She was 30 and considered an old maid; he was more than 40 and a widower.

There was a “veil of mystery” over her and a troubled history that few knew about, much less discussed. Just days before meeting her husband, for instance, she had thrown herself down the well but had been miraculously rescued by her neighbours. She had a penchant for blades, secretly cutting the veins in her arms and hacking off her hair so that she “looked like a mangy dog”.

After their wedding, her new husband continues to frequent brothels. She doesn’t mind because it relieves her of her conjugal duties, but when she discovers the cost she makes an offer: “Explain to me what you do to these women, and I’ll do the same.”

A spa trip

In 1950, after several miscarriages, thought to be due to kidney stones, she is prescribed thermal treatments and sent to a spa on the mainland. Here she meets a handsome well-dressed man, an army veteran, who has a crutch and a wooden leg. The pair fall in love and she shows him the self-inflicted cuts on her arms (which she claims are from working in the fields), as well as the passionate love poems she has been secretly writing all her life.

He shares with her his love of music and reveals how he would play the piano at home for hours and hours.

Here at the baths he missed the piano, but that was before he began talking to grandmother, because talking to grandmother and watching her laugh or even feel sad, and seeing how her hair came loose when she gestured, or admiring the skin of her slender wrists and the contrast with her chapped hands — that was like playing the piano.

Return home

When she returns to her husband in Sardinia, she bears him a son — coincidentally, exactly nine months after her spa trip — but can’t stop thinking about her lover.

With him, she felt no embarrassment […] and since her whole life she had been told that she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her that she had finally met someone from her own land, and that was the principal thing in life, which she had never had.

When her son (the narrator’s father) is seven she takes two jobs as a maid to fund the piano lessons she organises for him. As an adult, he becomes a world-famous concert pianist, but she never goes to listen to him; it is too upsetting for her.

Many years later, in 1963, on a family trip to Milan to visit her sister and brother-in-law who had moved there, she wanders the streets alone in search of the Veteran’s house. Her plan is to run away with him, even if that means abandoning her husband and son, because she has such “heart-stopping longing” for him…

Devastating read

From the Land of the Moon is a quick, devastating read. It’s bittersweet, romantic, and tinged with melancholia but also punctuated by small moments of joy. And it asks important questions about love and marriage, commitment and desire, and the role of women in 20th-century Italian society.

The prose is charming, understated and rich with historical detail (particularly in relation to the Second World War and the devastation it wreaked on cities, people and the economy). And while the pacing is slow and steady, it builds to a surprising climax, one that had me turning back to the first page to begin the story all over again.

Any wonder this is an international bestseller.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

Author, Bae Suah, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Korea, Vintage

‘Untold Night and Day’ by Bae Suah

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 156 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Where do I even begin with this strange and cryptic novella from South Korea?

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a bit like a fever dream with no seemingly coherent narrative thread. It feels disorientating and disjointed, but peel away the chaotic tumbling of words, repeated phrases and motifs, and you discover a world that feels a lot like this one yet doesn’t quite follow the same rules.

Time, for instance, is warped; the past and present collide in a way that is far from linear, and sometimes it’s hard to follow the identities of people, so you’re never sure if you are following multiple characters or a single character with multiple identities.

A simple story, extravagantly told

On the face of it, the story is a simple one: it charts the movements of a young woman across the space of a single day and night (hence the title) in the middle of summer.

During this short period, Ayami — who may or may not be an actress, or may or may not be a poet — finishes up her shift at an audio theatre for the blind, bumps into a former businessman, searches for a missing friend and looks after Wolfi, a visiting poet from Germany.

But so much happens — and doesn’t happen — that the edges of reality seem blurred, confused, dizzying. There’s a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the prose which shifts between poetic eloquence and a plain-speaking simplicity, sometimes within the space of a single paragraph. And it offers a richly multi-sensory experience.

Someone bumped into Ayami and muttered an apology, muffled and inarticulate, as though they had spoken into their scarf or collar. When they moved past the faint scent of cat came from their clothing. Or it might have been the smell of a pine marten or badger. Ayami was sitting alone in the outdoor smoking area. A withered, neglected hydrangea was tangled against the wall. Ayami was watching her own huge shadow wavering on the wall.

A sense of déjà vu

It’s the kind of writing, with its recurrent motifs — “exposed skinny calves corded with stringy muscle”, “pathetically small feet” and “sunken eyes” are just some of the many examples dotted throughout the text — that provides an ongoing sense of déjà vu. Haven’t I read this before, I kept asking myself?

And that’s what also provides the narrative with a beguiling feeling of time collapsing in on itself.

Ayami was her future self or her past self. And she was both, existing at the same time. In that other world, she was both the chicken and the old woman. That was the secret of night and day existing simultaneously.

Yet, despite the lush language and the simultaneous experiences that occur, the book is rooted in philosophy, asking serious questions about the meaning of life. Most of the characters rail against loneliness, seek meaning in beauty and are looking for direction — in love and careers. They are all seeking a life less ordinary.

My whole life, I’ve only ever walked well-trodden paths. I’ve been afraid of being alone. Thinking about it now, it’s not clear whether it is loneliness or meaningless that I’ve truly feared. Even so, I’ve always failed to get people to agree to things. That smell of the suburbs, of people who have jobs, have mainly been sinecures, I’m well aware of how it pervades me.

Strange and unusual

Untold Night and Day isn’t an easy book to love. It’s complex and confusing, but it also does amazing things to the brain and images seep into the subconscious only to arise when you least expect them. In that sense, it’s hugely reminiscent of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, a series of interlinked short stories in which characters move from one tale to another and recurring images and motifs work together to create a dreamlike reading experience.

I enjoyed the experience of reading this one, but it’s not a book to go into lightly — it’s one that demands focus and attention, the kind of tale to get completely lost in, metaphorically, of course.

For a more eloquent and detailed review of this book, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Publisher, Setting, Vertical

‘The Name of the Game is Kidnapping’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – hardcover; Vertical; 238 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash.

Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino has once again broken the conventions of the genre with his standalone novel The Name of the Game is Kidnapping, which was first published in 2002 but only translated into English by American publisher Vertical in 2017.

In this story, a disgruntled employee takes an opportunity to scam a client who has complained about him — but with unforeseen consequences.

The book is not a typical whodunnit or even a whydunnit — it’s really a howdunnit and showcases Higashino as a true master at plotting, something that is apparent in all of his novels (or at least the ones I have read, which you can view here).

Playing a game of revenge

The Name of the Game is Kidnapping is narrated by Sakuma, a project leader for a PR and advertising firm who is booted off a campaign for a car manufacturer, Nissei Automobile, when a newly appointed executive vice president (EVP) decides he wants someone else in charge.

Sakuma decides to play it cool, although he’s raging inside — “It was as though rage and humiliation were filling my entire body; I felt as though if I said anything, I’d yell, and if I moved, I’d throw my glass” — so when an opportunity comes along to wreak a form of revenge he grabs it.

Except he doesn’t see it as revenge; he sees it as playing a game, a business game that “requires scrupulous planning and bold action”.

That game — as the title of the book suggests — involves kidnapping the EVP’s daughter, Juri, who is in on the game because she has a troubled relationship with her father and wants to get her inheritance early.

The narrative charts how the kidnapping unfolds and shows how cool-headed Sakuma plans the whole thing while holding down his job and sheltering his “victim” from any unwanted public attention or police investigation.

Everything goes perfectly to plan — perhaps too perfectly — and just when Sakuma thinks he’s got away with the entire scheme something happens that turns the game on its head. It’s a heart-hammering twist that makes the novel’s last 40 or 50 pages especially exciting.

Meticulous plotting but slow-paced

That said, the pacing is a little slow. It’s not until around page 200 that things take off, so to speak, which is a lot of pages to wade through beforehand if you are expecting a crime thriller.

The prose is pedestrian and full of exposition — which is fine because I have read enough Higashino novels to know you don’t read them for their literary merit — but I found the narrator’s voice, which is arrogant and misogynistic, a little grating.

Despite these faults, the novel’s meticulous plotting and its brilliant twist of a conclusion make it worth reading, especially if you are already familiar with Higashino’s style.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, autofiction, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sibilla Aleramo

‘A Woman’ by Sibilla Aleramo (translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2020. Translated from the Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell.

What a “cheery” book this turned out to be. I’m being facetious, of course, because Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman, first published in 1906, makes for some depressing, albeit important and serious, reading.

Regarded as one of the earliest pieces of Italian feminist literature, it charts the experience of an unnamed Italian woman from girlhood until her mid-twenties at the turn of the 20th century.

During this time she gets married and has a child, but her husband is abusive and the story follows the narrator’s attempts to forge an independent life for herself — but it comes at a high price.

Said to be autofiction and therefore based on the author’s own experiences, it’s a startling and often shocking account of one woman’s determination to reject the life mapped out for her.

A false and petty life

This opening sentence sets the tone and mood for everything that follows:

My childhood was carefree and lively. Trying to resurrect that time now, to rekindle it in my mind, is a hopeless task.

The narrator, looking back on what she describes as a “false and petty” life, reveals how happy she was as a young girl, the oldest child of a middle-class Italian family whose father doted on her.

When the family move from Milan to a rural location so that her father can take up an important job running a factory, she leaves school and begins working for her father as an administrator. She loves the sense of purpose the role gives her, but it’s a false sense of independence because her life as a woman is already mapped out for her: she must marry, have children and be “naturally submissive and servile”.

An unhappy marriage

As a 16-year-old she develops a crush on a factory worker many years her senior. He takes advantage of her youth and brutally rapes her, but she’s naive enough to think he loves her. They marry and have a child. It is not a match made in heaven.

He begins to control every facet of her life and restricts her to one room in the house. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed and yearns for something more. The only thing that appears to keep her sane is an undying love for her young son and a passion for writing.

For a while he maintained his prohibitions and I continued not to go out, spending long afternoons shut indoors with a controlled amount of writing paper for correspondence, not allowed to see anyone apart from my relatives, the doctor and the housemaid – all under the pretence of ample freedom, but with such crude surveillance that I would have found it amusing were it not for the fact that at still not twenty-one years old my life had become so irremediably joyless.

It’s not all bad. Eventually, her talent as a writer affords her an opportunity to become a journalist. She makes a name for herself writing about feminist issues and social inequality for a publication based in Rome but she has to tread a fine line between dutiful wife and successful career woman.

Self-indulgent story

The book, which by its very nature is quite self-indulgent, details the narrator’s thoughts and feelings and philosophies on life, her outrage at the divide between the way men and women must live their lives, and the double standards when it comes to love and marriage.

It is confronting in places, especially when she is subject to nightly terrors in the bedroom (it’s not described in detail, but it’s clear her husband rapes her whenever he wants sex) and partly blames her own family for allowing her to be married to a man who treats her so badly.

And how can she become a woman if her relatives hand her over ignorant, weak and immature to a man who does not receive her as an equal; who uses her like an object that he owns, gives her children which he abandons to her sole care while he fulfils his social duties, and while he continues to childishly amuse himself?

When her own mother has a psychological breakdown and is admitted to an asylum, the narrator begins to understand that she may be headed down the same path and that despite her attempts to be her own person she is, effectively, just reenacting her own mother’s life. It’s a depressing realisation.

According to the author blurb, Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960) was the pseudonym of Marta Felicina Faccio, who was an Italian author and poet best known for producing some of the first feminist writing in Italy and for her autobiographical depictions of life as a woman in late 19th-century Italy. She was a recipient of the prestigious Viareggio Rèpaci award and was active in political and artistic circles throughout her adult life.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 22 June 2020 for the princely sum of 99p. I have no idea what prompted me to buy it because I’ve never read a review of it. Perhaps I just liked the cover?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Håkan Nesser, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, World Editions

‘The Summer of Kim Novak’ by Håkan Nesser (translated by Saskia Vogel)

Fiction – paperback; World Editions; 217 pages; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.

I’m going to tell you about a tragic and terrible event that marked my life — let’s call it “The Incident”. That fateful event is the reason I remember the summer of 1962 more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It has cast a dark shadow over so much.

So begins Håkan Nesser’s The Summer of Kim Novak, which follows the exploits of 14-year-old Erik who is drawn into an adult world of sex and drama that is beyond his ken. When the book jumps ahead 25 years, we meet an older, more reflective Erik looking back on that formative summer, analysing what happened and tidying away the loose ends that have plagued him for so long.

Most people will know that Håkan Nesser is regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost crime writers, but The Summer of Kim Novak is more akin to a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to have a murder in it. It’s not a police procedural nor is it a typical whodunnit or whydunnit. But it does have a surprise ending in which the offender is revealed, albeit too late to bring to justice because the (Swedish) statute of limitations has expired.

A dreamy boy obsessed with girls

When the book opens we meet Erik, the first-person narrator, who is a dreamy boy, obsessed with girls. He speaks in stock phrases he’s picked up from films and the adults around him, and secretly works on a comic book starring a hero called “Colonel Darkin”.

He has a crush on his relief teacher, Ewa Kaludis, who bears a striking resemblance to the Hollywood film actress Kim Novak.

She didn’t have to teach us. There was no need. We were plugging away. Whenever she entered the classroom, we sat in rapt silence. She would smile and her eyes sparkled. It gave us all the chills. Then she would sit down on the teacher’s desk, cross one leg over the other, and tell us to keep working on one page or another. Her voice reminded me of a purring cat.

When school finishes for the year, his father, a prison guard who works long shifts, warns him it’s going to be a rough summer. His mother is in hospital with cancer and it’s unlikely she will ever come home.

It’s arranged that Erik’s much older brother, Henry, a freelance reporter, will look after him during the long summer holiday before school resumes. Henry is taking the summer off to write a book and is staying in a summer house, which belongs to a relative, by Lake Möckeln, about 25km away.

Erik is allowed to bring his friend Edmund with him for company, and the pair are pretty much left to their own devices, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, cycling through the forest or hanging out in the nearest town. It’s a happy, carefree existence.

One evening they attend a summer fair and spot their teacher, Ewa, in the crowd. It turns out she’s engaged to be married, and her financé is a big-shot handball player, Bertil “Super-Berra” Albertsson. But when they witness Super-Berra beating up another man, leaving him for dead, they’re suddenly afraid for Ewa.

Later, when Henry begins bringing Ewa home with him, both Erik and Edmund are astonished, not least because Ewa now appears to be Henry’s girlfriend. No mention is made of her financé until she turns up one day with a black eye and a split lip…

Early novel

The Summer of Kim Novak was written in 1998, making it one of Nesser’s early novels — he has more than 30 to his name — but it took 20 years before it was translated into English.

I haven’t read anything else by him, so I don’t know how indicative this story is of his style, but it did feel rather basic and not particularly compelling. Perhaps because it’s essentially a coming-of-age story, there were some aspects of it that reminded me of Per Petterson’s work, but it has a very male mindset that I found a little troublesome.

I never really warmed to Erik’s tone of voice, particularly his attitude to girls (or “foxy skirts” as he once refers to them) — “If you missed your chance with one, there’d be a thousand more to take her place” — but knowing that it was written from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy I was prepared to cut some slack. Plus, I never subscribe to the theory that you have to like a character to like a story.

But even when we are reacquainted with Erik as an adult (towards the end of the novel the narrative jumps ahead by 25 years), he’s still obsessed with Ewa and prepared to risk his marriage to be with her. It all makes sense in the end though; I just can’t explain how at the risk of giving away crucial plot spoilers.

The Summer of Kim Novak showcases the agonies and ecstasies of young adolescence against the backdrop of a single languid life-changing summer. It’s a quick read with a surprise ending and was adapted for the screen in 2005 under the title Kim Novak Never Swam in Genesaret’s Lake.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Men in My Situation’ by Per Petterson (translated by Ingvild Burkey)

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 291 pages; 2021. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.

The light from inside sifted gently down over the snow on the pavement, and the street lamps turned everything yellow and each street lamp had its own circle and no circle touched another and between them there was silence.

The King of Melancholia returns with what may possibly be his best novel yet.

Men in My Situation features many of Per Petterson’s trademarks:

✔️ A solo man, with working-class roots, a bit down on his luck and prone to introspection

✔️ A focus on past relationships (both sexual and familial) and how they have panned out

✔️ An emphasis on place

✔️ An exploration of grief, occasionally manifesting in violence

✔️ Loneliness, regret, melancholia and depression

And it’s written in prose, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, that is assured, eloquent and evocative, ripe with detailed and often beautiful descriptions of snow-filled landscapes and city streets.

Arvid is adrift

In this tale, we meet a recurring character, Arvid, who is 38 and newly divorced. (He was a teenager in Echoland; 37 and heading for divorce in I Curse the River of Time; and 43 in In the Wake.)

He’s a mildly successful writer (enough to be recognised by people in the street, anyway), but things aren’t going particularly well for him. He’s alone and adrift, desperately missing his three daughters, and clinging to the routines that mean something to him: driving his old Mazda around the quiet streets of Oslo (and sometimes sleeping in the car), going to bars and drowning his sorrows in booze, and occasionally going home with women for meaningless sex.

The breakdown of his marriage haunts him. He knew things were getting bad when he and his wife, Turid, stopped going to bed at the same time — “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus” —  and started quarrelling more about silly things that “suddenly blew out of control”:

I didn’t understand why and wanted it to stop, I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know how, we were like two bicycle wheels stuck in a tram rail, and it felt ominous because she was unafraid whereas I wasn’t, and a trapdoor beneath my feet might open any second.

But overshadowing this is a fog of grief: a year earlier his parents and two brothers died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster and he’s wrestling with how to process this loss. (Petterson himself lost his mother, father, young brother and a niece in the disaster, and it’s a recurring episode in the Arvid novels.)

Arvid measures time in the distance between his wife leaving him and the ship burning.

I thought, how does one measure grief, is there a yardstick for grieving, is there any difference, say, between grieving for one person as opposed to two or three persons, or even four, as in my case, did all this fit on a yardstick, or could the level of grief register as on an instrument, such as a Geiger counter, and the closer the instrument got to the full power, the full height, the full number, the faster and louder the instrument would emit its familiar beep. And how was I to know when there was grief enough, and if grief was liquid like melting silver, could one then pour the grief into a litre measure and conclude, under these circumstances, eight decilitres ought to be sufficient, and let the silver congeal hard and shiny not far below the rim. How was I to know.

Deeply introspective narrative

There’s not much of a plot, but this is not unusual in Per Petterson’s work. Instead, we get a deeply introspective narrative about a divorcé grappling with fatherhood and newfound circumstances, of a man who is acutely aware of his weaknesses but not confident enough to overcome them, someone who wants to be a better person but isn’t sure it’s worth the effort.

He fills in his time trying to repair the relationship with his young daughters — his eldest no longer wants to spend time with him, and she’s convinced her young siblings likewise — and getting back in touch with his old childhood friend, Audun. (Petterson fans will recognize Audun from an earlier novel, It’s Fine by Me.)

There’s a terrifying sequence in which he takes his daughters on a road trip, only to run off the road doing a dangerous, unthinking manoeuvre in a pique of anger, and while no one is injured, Arvid is aware that if his wife finds out his access to the girls may be taken away. The slide into desperation, of keeping secrets from his ex-wife and of behaving recklessly, becomes more acute as the story progresses.

But it’s not all predictable. Arvid’s melancholia and his tendency toward self-pity come into sharp relief when he discovers that his eldest daughter has health issues. This forces him to play the role of a caring, dedicated father, someone reliable and trusting, someone who can rise above “men in my situation” to do something positive and helpful.

The book ends on an optimistic note.

For another take on this novel, please see Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

Atria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Marjolijn van Heemstra, Publisher, Setting

‘In Search of a Name: A Novel’ by Marjolijn van Heemstra (translated by Jonathan Reeder)

Fiction – paperback; Atria International; 198 pages; 2020. Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder.

Marjolijn van Heemstra, is a Dutch poet. Her beguiling novella In Search of a Name feels like a memoir but is actually a fictionalised account of her family history.

In this tale, originally published in the Netherlands in 2017, the narrator is a woman called Marjolijn, who is pregnant and trying to determine her unborn son’s name.

She has inherited a signet ring that belonged to her great uncle — a hero of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War — and has promised her late grandmother, who bestowed it her, that she would name her firstborn after him.

But while Marjolijn likes the grand-sounding name — Frans Julius Johan — her partner, D, isn’t so sure. He challenges the idea of naming their baby after a man that neither of them knows very little about, apart from a story that’s been handed down within the family and may or may not be true.

D is right again. What I know can be summed up in a single sentence: Resistance hero delivers a parcel bomb disguised as a Sinterklaas present to an ex-Nazi.
I write “bomb”, but according to the family narrative, the bomb was always a “little bomb”, the Blackshirt was a “rat”, and Bommenneef [the nickname for her great uncle] “a rascal”. It was my grandmother’s generation that kept the tale alive, repeating it every chance they got, to whoever would listen. Rascal startles rat with bomblet.

Reads like a crime thriller

What follows is a highly personal detective story that reads like a historical crime thriller as Marjolijn seeks to find out the truth about her great uncle. Were his actions heroic? Or is there a darker side to the tale?

Her research takes her across the country — and even to Spain — as she tracks down leads and hunts out clues. She meets distant relatives, befriends fellow researchers working in the national archives and finds herself immersed in confidential dossiers, biased news stories and incomplete paperwork.

My irritation grows with every step. Why didn’t anyone take the trouble just to write down what happened? Why must I now make do with a couple of barely legible Ausweises and a pile of junk from a desk drawer? A bomb exploded, people were killed and men were sent to jail, lives were compromised, and all that’s left is this two-bit legend full of holes and cracks.

Working to a deadline

The book is structured around Marjolijn’s growing pregnancy — each chapter is headed with the number of weeks to go before her baby’s arrival — to hammer home the point that she’s working to a deadline.

Further suspense is created by the growing tension within Marjolijn’s relationship with her partner and her decision to ignore health advice when she is diagnosed with high blood pressure as a possible precursor to eclampsia.

When it looks likely that the birth may have to be induced, Marjolijn’s sense of panic is heightened, not by the birth itself, but at the lack of time to determine if her great uncle’s name is worthy of being handed down.

[…] my son has to be given the right name, and to do that I have to have the right story, and since the story I had turns out to be inaccurate I have to at least come up with a good ending — all’s well that ends well — but at the moment I am stuck in a cul-de-sac of unanswered emails and Facebook messages and I haven’t put anything right or even gotten my head around things, there are only questions that lead to more questions, I don’t even know any more if this is about courage and justice, who knows, maybe now it’s about chaos and regret.

Who knew that a story about research methods could be so exciting?

Blurred lines

What I liked most about In Search of a Name is the way the author teases out the blurred lines between fact and fiction, where nothing is as black and white as it might seem, and where family mythology, passed down from generation to generation, gains potency — and embellishment — over time.

At its heart, this novel is about truth and the ways in which it can become obfuscated, whether by accident or design.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting

‘The Left-Handed Woman’ by Peter Handke (translated by Ralph Manheim)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 68 pages; 2020. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.

Perhaps because it was written in 1976 when the idea of a woman being independent was more radical than it is now, Peter Handke’s novella The Left-Handed Woman is a relatively odd story.

Written in cool, detached prose, it explores what happens (hint: not very much) when a woman called Marianne decides to leave her husband.

She has a young child, Stefan, but it’s hard to know how old he is other than he goes to school. Her husband, Bruno, runs a porcelain company and is often away on business trips. Perhaps this is why she gets it into her head that one day Bruno will leave her permanently and so she makes the first move: she asks him to move out of the marital home.

There’s no argument, no pleading, no reaction really at all. It’s all very strange.

Bruno smiled and said, “Well, right now I’ll go back to the hotel and get myself a cup of hot coffee. And this afternoon I’ll come and take my things.”
There was no malice in the woman’s answer — only thoughtful concern. “I’m sure you can move in with Franziska for the first few days. Her teacher friend has gone away.”

And so Bruno moves out and into Franziska’s spare room and that’s kind of it. (Of course, we never really hear his side of the story, so perhaps he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with his wife any more?)

The woman takes a job as a translator for a publisher, who comes to her house armed with flowers and Champagne. The overtones are slightly creepy. He knows she is alone.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Marianne is visited by lots of different people, including her father, Franziska and Bruno, because they are worried about her being alone. “Don’t be alone too much,” her husband warns her, “it could be the death of you”.

And while Marianne does go through a period of adjustment — avoiding people in the supermarket, staring into space a lot, sinking into a kind of malaise and cutting herself off from others — she realises that she can survive perfectly well on her own.

The final scenes of the novella have almost everyone Marianne knows — and those she’s only just met, including an actor, her publisher’s chauffer and a random salesgirl with whom she’s recently interacted — arriving at her house for a spontaneous party. It’s only when they are gone and she is able to relax and put her feet up that a sense of contentment settles upon her. Perhaps having a life of one’s own will be okay after all.

This is a strange novella. The conversations between characters are often vague and dispassionate. People behave in odd ways and say odd things. The overall feeling is one of confusion, discombobulation, frustration and angst.

The main message I came away with is reflected by the afterword, a quote by Goethe from his 1809 novel Elective Affinities, which could well sum up what it has been like living in the grips of a global pandemic:

And so they all, each in his own way, reflectingly or unreflectingly, go on with their daily lives; everything seems to take its accustomed course, for indeed, even in desperate situations where everything hangs in the balance, one goes on living as though nothing were wrong.

Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2019, not without controversy (see this New York Times story and this Guardian opinion piece). I have previously read his 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is a cold-eyed account of a once famous soccer player committing a brutal murder.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Woman in the Blue Cloak’ by Deon Meyer (translated by K.L. Seegers)

Fiction – paperback; Hodder & Stoughton; 141 pages; 2018. Translated from Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

Deon Meyer’s The Woman in the Blue Cloak captured my attention when I saw it on the shelves of my local library because it was:

✔️ a novella;

✔️ a crime story;

✔️ the crime involved art from the Dutch Golden Age;

✔️ it had an evocative setting (South Africa); and

✔️ it was translated fiction.

It also helped I had read Meyer’s work before (Blood Safari in 2015, which was excellent), so I knew I could trust him to write a well crafted, intelligent crime story with plenty of social commentary.

Murder of a tourist

Despite the fact it starts with a tired old trope — the murder of a beautiful woman (sigh) — The Woman in the Blue Cloak is not a conventional murder story.

For a start, the victim, Alicia Lewis, is a foreigner on a flying visit to South Africa. She’s an American based in London who works for an organisation that recovers lost or stolen works of art.

When her body is found naked and washed in bleach, draped on a wall beside a road in Cape Town, the police investigation begins by trying to identify her, before looking into a motive for the crime and locating the perpetrator.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’m not going to give away plot spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say Ms Lewis had been in South Africa to track down a rare painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. (Fabritius is probably most famous for his painting The Goldfinch, from 1654, and the one that features in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name.)

The police investigation traces the root of the crime all the way back to the 17th century, before concluding with a relatively neat ending that, to be perfectly frank, didn’t quite convince me — although it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of this well-told story.

Entertaining police procedural

The Woman in the Blue Cloak (the title refers to the name of the Fabritius painting that Ms Lewis is trying to locate) is an intriguing police procedural set in a culturally diverse part of the world grappling with all kinds of racial and political tensions, long after Apartheid has fallen by the wayside.

It’s the sixth book in Meyer’s Detective Benny Griessel series but it works as a standalone. I haven’t read the previous books in the series and it certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of this story.

I particularly liked the camaraderie — and the lively banter — between Griessel and his colleague Vaugh Cupido, and the ways in which they worked together to achieve a result.

Griessel spends the entirety of the investigation being distracted by a personal dilemma — he’s trying to secure a bank loan so that he can buy an engagement ring. His impecunious situation is nicely contrasted with the value of the Fabritius painting, believed to be worth a hundred million dollars.

This is an enjoyable novella, tightly written, fast-paced and well plotted. What more could you want from a crime story?

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck