Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sabahattin Ali, Setting, TBR2020, Turkey

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2017. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

If you have ever stopped and stared at a painting and been slightly bewitched by the subject, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat will resonate.

This haunting Turkish novella drips with melancholia and heartache. First published in 1943, it tells the tragic story of a young man from Ankara who travels to Berlin in the 1920s where he falls in love with the portrait of a woman he sees in an art gallery.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman. But while that face was utterly new to me, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen her many times before. Surely I knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve. […] She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined.

He eventually meets the woman from the painting and the pair strike up an intense friendship. But when he is called back to Turkey, following the death of his father, their romance is cut short. They never see one another again.

A story in two parts

The book has an unusual structure. An unnamed first-person narrator introduces us to a colleague named Raif Efendi, a talented but reclusive translator, whom he befriends. When Raif takes to his bed suffering from an unspecified illness, the narrator visits him at home to discover that his living arrangments are odd and that his family is kept at arm’s length. It is clear that Raif is deeply disturbed by something.

When he collects Raif’s belongings from the office, he discovers a notebook. Raif encourages him to read it. It is this notebook, a reflection on what happened in Berlin 12 years earlier, that forms the rest of the novella. In it, Raif explains his quiet disposition, his incredible shyness and his inability to properly communicate with people, including his immediate family who shun him because they fear he is too feminine.

This lack of typical masculine traits is what brings him close to Maria, the Madonna in the painting, because she recognises that his kindness and quiet, caring nature is far removed from the men she normally meets in the cabaret hall where she dances.

‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men … I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say … just know that I am always completely open … like this … like a man … I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone …’ She looked me over, before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you … Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a young girl …’ How surprised I was – and how saddened – to hear a new acquaintance echo my parents’ words!

But Raif’s inability to overcome his low self-esteem and his constant self-flagellation leads to his undoing, for even when he is deeply in love he cannot quite bring himself to fully open up to Maria. He keeps her at an emotional distance, in much the same way that his family keeps him at an emotional distance.

Never in my life had anyone loved me, ever.

Hypnotic, languid prose

I really liked this story with its hypnotic, almost languid prose and its acute psychological insights into one man’s soul.

And while Raif’s passivity annoyed me, there was enough character development to completely understand why a naive 24-year-old man — his first time in the West — might behave in such a way. (Anyone who has ever travelled alone for any length of time will know that there is something about being outside of your comfort zone in a foreign land that can inexplicably lead to a torpor from which you can’t escape. This is especially true if you are an introvert. I recall that Gail Jones writes about this, too, in her novel A Guide to Berlin.)

What is perhaps less understandable is why his siblings, his wife and his children seem to care so little for him, but perhaps that’s because he’s shut them out emotionally. It’s hard to know.

But I digress. As you might have guessed, this is a rather sad tale. It focuses on missed opportunities, thwarted love and the perils of living too much in your own head. If you like reading romantic stories full of tragedy and pathos, then Madonna in a Fur Coat is definitely a must-read. I promise you, it will linger in your thoughts for days, possibly months, afterward.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this Kindle edition on 9 January 2019 for £3.99. I have no idea why. Perhaps it is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and that’s why I bought it. Unfortunately, I can’t check because my copy is still in London, but if anyone knows maybe you could enlighten me…?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Máire T. Robinson, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Skin Paper Stone’ by Máire T. Robinson

skin-paper-stone

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“I don’t believe there’s one true path. There’s endless paths stretching out to infinity. You just have to choose one and walk down it and see where it leads. We’re all stumbling in the dark, but how we stumble is our choice, nobody else’s.”

So says Alex, a small-time drug dealer, in Máire T. Robinson’s debut novel Skin Paper Stone. Set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, after the economic crash, the story revolves around a group of 20-somethings trying to find their rightful place in the world.

Stevie, an ancient history graduate, has decided to return to university to pursue her PhD after spending many years as an office temp. She’s broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Donal, and moved from Dublin to Galway, where she hopes to put the shadows of the past — including a teenage brush with anorexia and ongoing body image problems — behind her.

Here she meets easy-going Joe Kavanagh — known as Kav — who works as a lowly paid kitchen hand in a tacky tourist restaurant and sells weed on the side. He’s given up his artistic ambitions, but has dreams of moving to Thailand and becoming a tattoo artist, yet spends all his money on dope and booze.

Predictably, the pair develop a romantic relationship, but Skin Paper Stone is far from being a romance: it’s about well educated but directionless people trying to find a way forward when there’s no jobs, no money and, seemingly, no hope for a better future — unless you emigrate to the New World.

A lost generation

This might make the book sound depressing, but it’s not. The story looks at the underbelly of Galway’s “lost generation” — young people who are “damaged” and have lost their way — post-boom, but none of them have given up.  While they’re struggling to keep their heads above water on a day-to-day basis, they all have (limited) aspirations: Stevie to complete her PhD on sheela-na-gigs — figurative carvings of naked women displaying oversized genatalia that adorn many churches — and Kav to set up a tattoo parlour abroad. Even the city’s two rival drug dealers, Alex and Pajo, want to be top dog, even if they have to achieve it through violence and intimidation.

The narrative is underpinned by a constant refrain, that of the need to escape: Kav longs to escape his older brother’s disdain, Stevie her parents’ over-protectiveness. Even Jacqui Maloney, a local girl who’s worked on a shop floor for years and been passed over for promotion one too many times, wants to settle down and get married — albeit with the thuggish, sexually deviant Pajo.

It helps that Robinson writes with warmth and understanding. She treats her characters — all well drawn and authentic — with kindness and empathy. These are not bad people; they’re simply caught by circumstance and trapped by their own inability to see a way forward. It’s only when Stevie and Kav are thrown together that their perspectives on life — and love — change, seemingly for the better.

Robinson also writes about Galway — its tacky tourist shops, its pubs, the river that winds through it and the people who inhabit it — so evocatively that the city feels like a character in its own right.

Gently nuanced read

Skin Paper Stone  is a gently nuanced book that refrains from casting judgement on any of the people that inhabit its pages. Perhaps the ending comes together too quickly — Stevie’s decision to “escape” is slightly rushed and, in my mind, inexplicable, and the “problem” of Pajo is resolved too easily — yet this is an enormously enjoyable story that rings true.

Finally, I must issue a slight word of caution — as much as it pains me to say this, because I don’t want it to put people off buying this book — I found some of the copy-editing sloppy. In one case an entire sentence was repeated, Brussels sprout was spelled incorrectly, a reference to Murder, She Wrote had the comma in the wrong place, and there were several speech marks missing. Hopefully a second print run may iron out these problems…

In the meantime, I very much look forward to seeing what Robinson writes next…

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Ancient Light’ by John Banville

Ancient-light

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Love, grief and memory are common themes in John Banville’s work, and his latest novel, Ancient Light, is no exception.

The story has two narrative threads spooling from the one narrator: a current storyline in which aging stage actor Alexander Cleave is given a rare movie role starring opposite a bright young thing, and a second storyline in which he remembers his first unlikely love affair as a teenage boy in 1950s Ireland.

Both narratives twist and turn around one another, allowing the past to inform the present, but also reminding Alexander of two tragic losses in his life: that of his first lover and that of his adult daughter’s suicide 10 years before.

A killer first sentence

The book opens with a rather striking first line:

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.

Alexander was 15 and Mrs Gray was 35. Their illicit — and illegal — affair commenced on a metal-framed camp bed — “or it might have been a horsehair mattress thrown on the floor” — set up in the laundry room and then proceeded in all manner of uncomfortable places: the back seat of Mrs Gray’s car, a derelict house in the woods and the floor of the laundry room after the bed mysteriously disappears.

This tantalising storyline recalled in snippets and moments of self-doubt — “Images from the past crowd my head and I cannot tell if they are memories or inventions” — explores how the young Alexander was besotted with his older lover. And it shows, in painstaking detail, how the pair risked condemnation, ruination and, worst of all in Roman Catholic Ireland, damnation for their sordid behaviour.

Lots of questions to think about

A book of this nature throws up all kinds of questions for the reader — particularly when you consider recent news stories in which grown men have gone on the run with teenage lovers and then been thrown in prison for their actions.

This story might be about an older woman and her teenage lover, but does this make it any less of a crime? What was Mrs Gray doing sleeping with a schoolboy? And because Alex was, quite frankly, a randy young male, does this make their sexual liaisons more acceptable?

Of course, Ancient Light only ever tells Alexander’s side of the story — and even then we are never quite sure how much of it is reliable, a point that he labours constantly. The reader, however, will come to their own conclusions. Me? I figured Mrs Gray was lonely, bored and looking for a frisson of excitement in her dull 1950s small town life as a homemaker and mother (this does not make it right), and Alexander, initially thrilled by the sex, was clearly not mature enough to handle the complexity of an adult relationship. He struggled with his emotions, often rowing with Mrs Gray or sulking because she behaved in ways he didn’t expect. She fulfilled a need — and not just a sexual one.

Lovely writing, perfect voice

As ever with a John Banville novel, the writing is rather lovely, ripe with meaning and exquisite sentences. The voice of Alexander — a heady mix of pomposity, runaway ego and heartfelt regret and sadness — is captured so expertly that I did not know whether I loved or loathed him.

Occasionally alarming, often tender and moving, this is a novel of remarkable insight. And as a multi-layered confessional, looking back on a life marked by an aching sense of loss, it is a pretty damn fine one.

Ancient Light won the 2012 Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It is the final novel in the trilogy formed by Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), neither of which I have read, an oversight I plan to rectify soon.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Doubleday, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Paolo Giordano, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ by Paolo Giordano

Solitude-of-prime-numbers

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 352 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A novel written by a particle physicist that features mathematics and numbers may not be all that surprising. But what is surprising about Paulo Giordano’s debut, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is the age of the author — he’s just 26 — and the outstanding success, both critically and commercially, that the book has garnered.

According to the publisher, the book has sold more than 1.2 million copies across 34 countries since its publication in Italy last year. It has topped the Dutch and Spanish bestseller lists and scooped five literary awards, including Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Stega.

Earlier this year, I heard the author interviewed on BBC Radio 5’s Book Reviews with Simon Mayo show, and everyone on the panel raved about it. I decided then that I really ought to read it, because surely it couldn’t be that good? Or could it?

Well, I’m afraid to say that you’ll get no dissident voice from these quarters. The book is a delight. It’s literary without being pretentious, which probably explains its extraordinary success. But it also tells a wonderful story about two intriguing characters, Alice and Mattia, and their intertwined destinies.

Both Alice and Mattia are loners, who have been scarred by childhood tragedies. Alice suffered a terrible skiing accident which has left her with a pronounced and permanent limp, while Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park to go to a party, and when he returned she was gone, never to be found. These two irreversible episodes have manifested themselves in psychological conditions: Alice is anorexic, Mattia is a self-harmer.

Interestingly, Giordano doesn’t sensationalise or glorify their conditions, they’re merely character traits and never explored in any great depth. Indeed, Alice is so successful at hiding her illness that no one, not even the closest of family members, ever seems to notice it. (This, I admit, annoyed me a little: how could you not notice someone shoving food in napkins or fainting, because they’re so undernourished?)

The story, which spans 24 years, follows these two characters from childhood to adulthood, as they grapple with their lives and make decisions about their futures. The third-person narrative keeps the momentum going by toying with the idea that Alice and Mattia are destined to be together.

Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. […] Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

I won’t spoil it by revealing whether they do, in fact, get their acts together, because most of the fun of reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is discovering whether they will ever become truly romantically involved. What I will say is this: the ending is not the predictable one that seems to loom at around the 290-page mark, which only made my love for this book all the stronger.

This is by no means a perfect novel, but it’s an extraordinarily human one, melancholy and inspiring by turns. It also comes across as being very wise, particularly in terms of familial relationships, friendship, marriage and parenthood, as if Giordano is much, much older than his years. He also has an uncanny ability to get inside the head of a teenage girl who is desperate to be liked by her peers, and the scenes in which Alice is bullied at high school are incredibly authentic.

Assuming Giordano continues to pursue a writing career, rather than a scientific one, then he will definitely be one to watch in the future. But in the meantime, I suspect his debut will continue to sell like hot cakes, as indeed it should.