Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Maclehose Press, Pierre Lemaitre, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Wedding’ by Pierre Lemaitre

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 312 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately with way too many books on the go and none of them really hitting the spot, as it were. And then I picked up Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding and — cliché alert — I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

Set in Paris, France, the story focuses on Sophie, a nanny, who wakes up one morning to discover the little boy in her care is dead, a shoelace from her own boot around his neck. Having no memory of the night before but knowing she will be accused of the murder, she withdraws all her savings and decides to flee the city. Not everything goes to plan, and before she’s even had time to book a train ticket she commits another horrendous crime that serves to make her situation even worse.

Running from one calamity to the next and frightened that she will be arrested, Sophie makes a series of blunders that threaten to expose her. It becomes clear that she is deeply troubled. She’s mentally unhinged, often blacks out and, as a consequence, has giant holes in her memory. Her problems seem to stem from the death of her husband in a terrible road traffic accident several years earlier. Since then, everything has spiralled out of control.

Now, convinced that the only way to hide from the authorities is to assume a new identity, she sets into motion a plan to find a rich man to marry and take care of her. But the person she marries isn’t who she thinks he is and this fast-paced octane-fuelled novel switches into an even higher gear.

Lemaitre then does something superbly clever — and unexpected. He tells the story from a different point of view so that we see Sophie in a whole new light.

Someone watching over you

Frantz is a voyeur who has been keeping an eye on Sophie for quite a long time. He stalks her and knows her every movement and records it in a diary, but Sophie has no idea she is being watched in this way. It makes for an insidiously creepy read, but it’s also highly intriguing. Who is Frantz? Why is he so obsessed with Sophie? What does he know about her husband’s death? And will he sabotage Sophie’s plan to assume a new identity?

Both storylines come together neatly at the end, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. I have a lifetime of reading experience in this genre but even I couldn’t guess what would happen — or how. It felt like such a rare treat to be so absorbed by a suspense novel in this way.  (Indeed, it turns out Lemaitre is an award-winning writer — his first novel to be translated into English, Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime in 2013 and in the same year he also won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Great Swindle.)

In this book, nothing is as it seems. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the author throws in a new piece of information that turns everything on its head. It is pointless to second guess. And that’s the beauty of this compelling suspense novel.

Blood Wedding really does quicken the pulse. Its intricate plot twists and turns its way towards a satisfying could-never-see-it-coming conclusion. I loved being held in its thrall for two days and missed it when it was over. It got me out of a reading slump, and has me inching to read more by this talented French author.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Egypt, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing, Picador, Publisher, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Saqi Books, Setting, UK, USA

3 novellas by Nawal El Saadawi, Olivia Laing and Roland Schimmelpfennig

I do love a good novella.

Wikipedia defines these books as “somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words”, but I generally think anything under 150 pages qualifies. Alternatively, anything I can read in around two hours is a novella to me.

Here are three excellent novellas I’ve read recently, all of which I highly recommend.

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

Fiction – paperback; Saqi Books; 128 pages; 2019. Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

First published in Nawal El Saadawi’s native Egypt in 1960, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a fictionalised account of growing up female in a restrictive culture where women are second-class citizens and often denied a chance of an education.

In this first-person story, our narrator defies tradition — and her family’s claustrophobic expectations that she’ll marry and produce children — to go to medical school. Here, in the autopsy room, she dissects a male body — her first encounter with a naked man — and “in the course of it men lost their dread power and illusory greatness in my eyes”.

Later, she forgoes her independence to marry a man, but that turns sour when he tries to control her at home. She wastes no time in divorcing him — a huge no-no in Egyptian society — wondering if she will ever find a partner who respects her as a person and not as a “chattel” to own and objectify. The ending, I’m happy to say, is a satisfying one.

This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. It has proved an excellent introduction to this author’s work, which has just been reissued by Saqi Books as part of a new series of classic work by writers from the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

I ate up Olivia Laing’s Crudo in an afternoon. It is an amazing little book about the power of now — or, more specifically, the summer of 2017 — when the main character, Kathy, turns 40 and falls in love but is scared of committing herself to the one man. She goes ahead with the wedding regardless.

It is all stream-of-consciousness, written in a fast-paced, fragmentary style, but riveting and so akin to my own line of thinking about the modern world — Brexit, Trump’s America, politics, social justice and climate change et al —  that it almost feels as if it fell out of my own head.

Supposedly based on the work of Kathy Acker, whom I had to look up on Wikipedia (her entry is a fascinating read in its own right), it took me on a short but jam-packed journey about art and love and life and everything in between. A wow of a book that I hope to read again sometime soon.

‘One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 240 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

This German novella has been reviewed favourably by Annabel at Annabookbel and Susan at A Life in Books, but I think I probably saw it first at Winstonsdad’s Blog.

It’s a highly original story that follows a diverse group of disparate characters living in Poland and Germany who are all united by one thing: they have spied the same rare wild wolf in the snow en-route to Berlin.

Written by a German playwright, the book is intensely cinematic and told in a fragmentary style using sparse prose and small vignettes which provide glimpses into the lives of those who people it, including two young people on the run, a Polish construction worker and his pregnant girlfriend, a small business owner who runs a kiosk with his wife, and a woman intent on burning her mother’s diaries.

It’s an absorbing, if somewhat elusive, read, one that requires a bit of focus to keep track of who’s who as the narrative twists and loops around itself, a bit like the wandering wolf at the heart of the tale. But on the whole, this is a fascinating portrait of modern Berlin and its diverse population after unification.

Have you read any of these books? Do you like novellas? Do you have any favourites you can recommend?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iceland, Jón Kalmann Stefánsson, literary fiction, Maclehose Press

‘Heaven and Hell’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven-and-hell

Fiction – paperback;  Maclehose Press; 215 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell, which is set in Iceland at the turn of the 19th century, explores the fragility of friendship amid the dangers posed by the ocean. A quote on the front cover  describes the book as “an unusually intense reading experience”. I would add that it is heart-breaking and utterly beguiling, too.

Sea-faring drama

The story brings to life a small fishing community at the “far end of the world” — sandwiched between “the sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other” — and is, essentially, a novel of two halves: the first explores a treacherous overnight fishing trip in which one man dies from the ice-cold temperatures; and the second recounts the impact of his death on his closest friend, who is known throughout the narrative as “the boy”.

The first 100 or so pages are among the most exciting — and eloquent — that I have ever read. It is written in the present tense, so the prose is immediate and often electrifying as it draws you into a foreign world full of life-or-death moments. It feels like an adventure story — and brims with heart-hammering drama.
As a portrait of fishermen putting their lives in danger every time they go out on the water it is intimate and fascinating. We learn how much they hate the ocean (“cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes”), the great leveller which does not choose whom to drown and everyone — “rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and sad” — is made equal.

There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it’s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble the lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.

We learn how important religion is to them — they make the sign of the cross over everything and hell is all around, for instance, “hell is having arms but no one to embrace” and “hell is being seasick in a sixareen out on the open sea, needing to work and many hours from shore” — and how dependent they are on the weather, which is often stormy and ominous.

But we also learn how their difficult and often lonely lives are made bearable by small pleasures: letters from their wives and children living on the other side of the mountains, dry socks, newspapers, coffee, brennivín, tobacco, rock candy and books. One particular book — Milton’s Paradise Lost — has special significance in the story, not least because lines of poetry fill the heads of “the boy” and his best friend, Bárđur, who later dies at sea.

A grieving boy

The second half of the story — entitled “The Boy, the Village and the Profane Trinity” — is set on the other side of the mountains, as far from the ocean as the bereaved boy can get. There is a substantial drop in narrative pace, but nonetheless it is a beautiful portrait of small town life, albeit in a 19th century Icelandic village, and of coming to terms with great personal loss.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson is a masterful storyteller. His prose style switches from fable-like simplicity to long, rhythmic, beguiling sentences, and back again. Perhaps it is a strength of Phillip Roughton’s translation that everything flows seamlessly — nothing jars, nothing is out of place. It’s the kind of novel I want to read again, if only to recount the joy of the beautifully crafted sentences, ripe with meaning and metaphor, and to revel in the language Kalmann uses.

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Update: The publisher has alerted me to a wonderful interview with the author on the Maclehose website. It explains that the book is part of a trilogy (the second volume is due for English translation next summer) and that the author is also a poet (hence the poetic nature of his writing and the references to Milton). I also like his references to brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps, which I can verify as a rather deadly drink having once brought back a bottle from Reykjavík!

Author, Åsa Larsson, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘Until Thy Wrath Be Past’ by Åsa Larsson

Until-thy-wrath-be-passed

Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 317 pages; 2011. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I remember how we died.

So begins Åsa Larsson’s haunting Scandinavian crime thriller Until Thy Wrath Be Past (the title refers to a passage from the Book of Job).

Set in rural Sweden, it tells the story of two teenage lovers who disappear while diving in a secluded —and frozen — lake one winter’s day. Their bodies are never found, but the beyond-the-grave narrator, who begins the book, reveals that they met with foul play.

When Wilma Persson’s body surfaces in the River Thorne, far from the lake, during the spring-time thaw, the authorities assume she simply drowned. But why are her lungs filled with water from a different source? And why is there green paint underneath her fingernails?

Enter prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella, two “alpha females”, who launch an investigation into the girl’s death and a hunt for her boyfriend’s body.

This fast-paced narrative, which begins on April 16 and concludes on May 3 (the dates act as chapter headings), is largely told in the third person. But early on in the novel, the voice of Wilma, the dead girl, butts in:

I go to visit the prosecutor. She’s the first person to see me since I died. She’s wide awake. Sees me clearly when I sit down on her bed.

Admittedly this supernatural element* may not appeal to all readers, but it gives the story an added dimension: that of the victim, who can tell her version of what really happened. And it also gives us, the reader, a vital piece of information that the police know nothing about: the pair had discovered a plane at the bottom of the lake, a plane that had been carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht in 1943.

As it turns out, the investigation’s success hinges on the discovery of the plane — and its reason for being there. Larsson uses this to devastating effect, by interleaving the narrative with flashbacks to the Second World War in which Sweden collaborated with the Germans. (This seems to be a recurrent theme in Swedish crime fiction.)

What particularly makes this novel work is not just the superb characterisation (both Martinsson and Mella feel like real flesh-and-blood women, one of whom juggles motherhood with her career, another who is trying to make a passionate but complicated long-distance relationship work), but the subsidiary plot lines — the police dog-handler has an unrequited “thing” for Martinsson, which is strangely moving — and the way in which Larsson keeps the momentum, and the suspense, on overdrive. She is excellent at what I call the foreshadowing effect, giving us little clues that bad things are going to happen up ahead. For example, after one character makes what seems like an innocent phonecall to a neighbour, she writes:

He cannot know what a terrible mistake that is. What consequences that telephone call will have.

And of course it wouldn’t be a proper Scandinavian crime novel without plenty of moody and atmospheric descriptions:

A week passes. Snow crashes down from the trees. Sighs deeply as it collapses into the sunny warmth. Bare patches appear. The southern sides of antills heat up in the sun. The snow buntings return. Martinsson’s neighbour Sivving Fjallborg finds bear tracks in the forest. The big sleep of winter is over.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past is a terrific thriller, and while it’s part of the “Rebecka Martinsson crime series” of which there are three previous novels, it can be safely read as a standalone. I found it to be a heart-hammering read — the first chapter is one of the most exciting first chapters I’ve read in a long while — with a multi-layered plot and a satisfying, if slightly Hollywoodish, ending.

* If that’s not your kind of thing, it might help to know the girl’s first-person account begins to wane the further you get into the book.