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.

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?

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Allen Lane, Author, Book review, Emma Jane Kirby, Italy, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

Non-fiction – hardcover; Allen Lane; 128 pages; 2016.

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You won’t understand because you weren’t there. You can’t understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

So begins Emma Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa, which tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013.

The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned. (You can read a detailed account of the incident on Wikipedia.)

Short but powerful

In this short, but undeniably powerful book, Kirby brings to life the sheer tragedy of what has become an all-too familiar news story in recent years: the death by drowning of people sailing across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. It puts a very human face on those migrants and asylum seekers who are often depicted as nothing more than statistics, as people undeserving of our care and compassion because they’re “only” economic migrants.

It also puts a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. In this case, the optician and his wife were so traumatised by what had occurred they had difficulty sleeping, became demotivated at work and had trouble coming to terms with the fact that they were unable to save everyone on that fateful day.

Everywhere he looked, there were more of them! They seemed to multiply in the water, hands breeding hands. The optician looked at his watch and felt panic rise up in his throat — he knew they were working against the clock, here. Where the hell was the coastguard? All this time he was being taunted by the nagging doubt that they weren’t doing this right, that a professional crew would be doing things differently, more efficiently, and would be saving more people. If only they could work faster.

While Kirby does a brilliant job of putting you in the shoes of the optician, showing how his rather staid and ordinary life was turned upside down on that one fateful day and depicting the long-lasting shock and trauma he experienced, it occasionally labours under its own weight. At time it feels forced, almost as if Kirby doesn’t trust that her audience will be able to understand the plight of migrants or the dastardly things that people traffickers do.

That said, The Optician of Lampedusa is a compelling narrative and a heartfelt story full of drama and intrigue. It’s exactly the kind of story that needed to be told, to help put into context what is a terrible ongoing human tragedy.

It’s harrowing and horrifying, but it’s also perversely life-affirming, because in writing about so much pain and death, it shows how wonderfully resilient, compassionate and caring many people can be. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 120 pages;  2004.

First published in 1941, Up at the Villa is a quick-to-read novella by W. Somerset Maugham.

It tells the tale of Mary Panton, a beautiful young Englishwoman, who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life following the untimely death of her beloved husband, who was a philanderer, gambler and drunkard.

Given the loan of an attractive villa in the hills above Florence, she spends her days sitting on the terrace admiring the view and her evenings in the company of a select group of aristocratic friends, including the wayward rotter and playboy Rowley Flint.

When an old family friend, Sir Edgar Swift, who has been in love with her since she was a girl, asks for her hand in marriage, she requests a few days to think about it. While she knows that she does not love Sir Edgar — he’s 24 years older than her and was a contemporary of her late father’s — she trusts him and believes his new position as the Viceroy of Bengal will elevate her social standing and provide her with a degree of financial security.

But during those three days, Mary makes a fateful decision, seemingly on a whim, that plunges her into enormous danger.

A morality tale 

I’ve read enough Maugham now to realise he’s obsessed with marriages (particularly unhappy ones), adultery, sexual restraint and class. And this book, a thinly disguised morality tale, is no different.

Mary’s kindness, compassion and desire embroils her in a scandal from which there appears to be no escape. The morally dubious way in which she then behaves when things go wrong does not make the reader warm to her.

Similarly, Rowley, who is painted as a bad character right from the start, behaves with great chivalry, but you soon come to realise his honourable actions are compromised by rather dark motivations. It’s hard to know who to cheer on and who to condemn.

In fact Up at the Villa is the sort of book that asks more questions than it answers. Its characters, all deeply flawed but terribly human, are well drawn even if some of their dialogue, especially the romantic bits, are a little unconvincing.

Despite the lightness of touch of Maugham’s sometimes silky prose, this is a story dealing with some very big themes — about beauty, the human heart and how the decisions we make can have lifelong repercussions, for both good and bad. I read it in one sitting and found it a thoroughly engaging, if slight, tale.

I believe the book has been adapted into a film starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but having read the synopsis on IMDb lots of liberties appear to have been taken with the characters and the plot. I probably won’t bother hunting it out — unless anyone can convince me otherwise.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Granta, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia

Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 122 pages; 2014. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver.

Short. Sharp. Powerful. That’s the best way to describe Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

First published in 1961 and set in the early 1940s, this novella looks at the difficulty one policeman faces when he tries to investigate a crime. The setting is Sicily, where the mafia has infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Even the average citizen on the street closes ranks when the Carabinieri start asking questions.

Dramatic opening

The book opens in rather dramatic fashion. A man in a dark suit is running for a bus when he is gunned down in broad daylight. He is only metres away from a fritter-seller and there are dozens of passengers on the bus, yet no one sees a thing.

What follows is a complicated narrative tracing the investigation into the man’s murder led by Captain Bellodi, an outsider and “mainlander” who heads up the Carabinieri. His quiet pursuit of the truth is intertwined with the voices of those who want to obfuscate his work, and yet he never gives up or takes short cuts to reach his desired outcome.

Captain Bellodi […] was by family tradition and personal conviction a republican, a soldier who followed what used to be called ‘the career of arms’ in a police force, with the dedication of a man who has played his part in a revolution and seen law created by it. This law, the law of the Republic, which safeguarded liberty and justice, he served and enforced.

But while this book might have the look and feel of a crime novel, it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. There’s no neat ending, no redemption. What it offers is an honest and authentic look at a society that has been subjugated by a small band of powerful and immoral men, who have rewritten the rules of engagement and live by their own code of honour. It is particularly good at showing what happens  when bystanders turn a blind eye to crime, violence and corruption.

Tautly written

This tautly written story, which has been pared back to its most basic elements, is an incredibly nuanced piece of work (the dialogue is exceptionally good) and is a wonderful portrait of Sicilian society at a particular moment in time. But it’s also difficult to follow. We are introduced to an endless cast of characters — informers, criminals, politicians, shopkeepers et al — and there’s a disturbing lack of place names (everything is referred to by initial), which makes for a sometimes confusing and frustrating read.

Furthermore, for anyone new to Italian history, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on politically without doing some research first. (It was thanks to this Wikipedia entry on the Sicilian Mafia that I discovered that the mafia was suppressed under Fascism, which helps put the whole of The Day of the Owl into context.)

Yet for all the difficulties I had with this book, I’d like to return to it at a later date. It’s short, yes, but it’s so dense with ideas and ethical issues that it would take multiple readings to come to grips with them all.

Finally, the author’s afterword — or “tailpiece” as it is called here — adds a fascinating insight into his fear of being charged with libel and slander for skating too close to the truth. He shortened the story — he calls it “pruning” — to protect himself from the reactions of “any who might consider themselves more or less directly attacked in it”, adding: “I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled.”

I can only imagine how explosive the book might have been had it included everything he really wanted to write!

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.

There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.

Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.

Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.

Dying days of war

The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.

The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.

Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.

Stress and fear

Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.

This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.

“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.

Creeping sense of unease

As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?

Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.

Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.