Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.


‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.


‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.


‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.


‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How to be Both’ to ‘Moderato Cantabile’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeYou all know that I don’t do memes, right? Well, I’ve decided to make an exception to the rule.

I’ve been reading and following the Six Degrees of Separation book meme, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and runs on the first Saturday of the month, for a long time. You can find out more about it via this post on Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then six other books are linked to it to form a chain.

It’s a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read.

Every time I see this meme pop up in my WordPress Reader I think, next month I’ll give it a go. And then of course the next month comes around and I think the same thing. And this month I figured it was about time I pulled my finger out and just did it.

So welcome to my first ever Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

How to be both by Ali Smith

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014)
Typically, I haven’t read How to be Both, so I can’t point you to a review, but I have read another Ali Smith novel, which is the first book in the chain:

1. ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith (2005)
Published in 2005, The Accidental was one of Smith’s early novels. I read it with a mixture of confusion and admiration, for it was quite unlike anything I’d read before and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not at the time. The writing was hypnotic and full of wonderful wordplay, but the characters — all on holiday in Norfolk one hot summer — were hard to get a handle on. In my review I said it had a “touch of the Paul Austers” about it, which leads me to the next book in the chain:

2. ‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster (2009)
Auster has a reputation for writing complex post-modernist novels but I like the way he uses meta-fiction to play with the reader’s mind: I often find his novels have an uncanny way of seeping into your unconsciousness to leave a long-lasting, and sometimes unsettling, impression. He’s not for everyone, but Invisible — his 16th novel! — is wholly accessible and quite a fun read for anyone wanting an introduction to his work. It’s essentially about a writer and how he comes to write a controversial book. It then examines whether that book should have been published because of its damaging revelations about the real life protagonist within it. The morality of writing novels is also explored in the next novel in the chain:

3. ‘About the Author’ by John Colapinto (2002)
About the Author is a hugely entertaining plot-driven novel about a struggling writer who steals someone else’s manuscript and gets it published under his own name. It was one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog way back in 2002, but I still remember it as a fun fast-paced read that explored lots of issues around writing and the trappings of fame. The trappings of fame are explored in the next novel in the chain:

4. ‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor (2014)
A wonderful fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s, The Thrill of it All charts the story of Irish-born Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and his subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also tinged with sadness and melancholia. It’s an ideal book for music lovers, especially if you like blues, ska, New Wave, punk or rock. Music lovers will also appreciate the next novel in the chain:

Forensic records society by magnus mills

5. ‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (2017)
The Forensic Records Society is typically kooky Magnus Mills fare: two friends set up a record appreciation society in which members meet in a pub to take it in turns to play 7-inch vinyl singles to listen to the music forensically. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. However, not everyone follows the rules and a rival group forms. The rivalry between them is what makes this story so funny — and quirky. Again, maybe not a book for everyone, but I’m a longtime Mills fan and I loved spotting the musical references throughout because the text is littered with song titles, minus the name of the performers, so it’s fun testing your knowledge along the way. Music is also the inspiration behind the next — and final — book in the chain:

6. ‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras (1958)
The title of this French novella is a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way, which could also be taken as a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. It’s a simple story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a murder that happens when her son is taking a piano lesson. But it’s not really about music; it’s more about class divisions and societal expectations, and is written in a beguiling, melancholic tone of voice, which I loved.

So that’s my first ever #6Degrees: from an award-winning British novel about art through to a French novella inspired by a musical direction.

Author, Book review, Calder, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting

‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

Fiction – paperback; Calder; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver.

I’ve been keen to read more books by Marguerite Duras having loved The Lover a few years ago. Much of her work appears to be out of print, or at least difficult to track down, so when I saw Moderato Cantabile on the shelves at Waterstone’s a month or so ago I just had to buy it.

First published in 1958, it was republished by Surrey-based Calder (an imprint of Alma Books) last year.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novella (easily read in an hour), but one that is hard to pin down. I’m not sure I fully understood everything it was about.

I’m guessing that the title — a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way — is a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. The final two are rather climatic compared with the six earlier chapters, which are so moderate as to be slow and, dare I say it, a tad repetitive. In other words, it reads a bit like a musical score: beginning slowly, repeating notes and choruses, then building to a crescendo.

A simple story

The story is a very simple one. Anne Desbaresdes, a well-to-do woman, takes her young son to piano lessons every Friday. On one particular Friday, shortly after the piano lesson is finished, she hears a scream from the café below the piano teacher’s apartment. A crowd has gathered and a man is sitting on the floor of the café, a woman next to him, whom he has murdered.

When Anne discovers that the murder was a crime of passion, she becomes slightly obsessed with it. She visits the café the next day in the hope to find out more. She orders a glass of wine and strikes up a conversation with a fellow drinker, an unemployed man called Chauvin, who claims he witnessed the murder.

Every day, for the next week, Anne visits the café and converses with Chauvin in a bid to imagine what might have made the man kill his lover. She brings her son with her, but he is free to roam the streets and the harbour of the coastal town, leaving her free to enjoy adult company.

But Anne, who is not normally a drinker, finds herself becoming increasingly enamoured by wine (“How wonderful wine is,” she states, seven days in). She also becomes enamoured with Chauvin, who seems to know a lot of detail about her life, including where she lives and what the interior of her house looks like. She’s constantly nervous — her hands shake whenever she’s in the café — but nothing untoward ever happens between them. Their hands rest side by side on the table, but they never touch.

Forbidden relationship

It’s clear, though, that their “relationship” is a forbidden one, for Chauvin is working class and Anne is not. Her husband, it turns out, owns the factory where most of the men who drink in the café are employed. The café’s landlady clearly doesn’t approve of their liaison, watching them carefully from behind the bar. More often than not they sit in the darkened back room away from prying eyes.

Anne is always careful to leave in the early evening, not long after the factory whistle has blown, presumably so that she can get home before her husband. Yet by chapter six — more than seven days after the murder — the normal pattern of her day-to-day life has been influenced by alcohol, and after drinking one too many wines, finds herself getting home late for a dinner party she is supposed to be hosting. Her husband is disgraced by her drunken behaviour and she’s left to sleep on the floor of her son’s room, presumably having been thrown out of the marital bed.

By the novella’s end we see how the murder has turned Anne’s life upside down, unravelling the tight formality of her existence, and leaving her to pursue a relationship that is seemingly just as shallow as the one from which she is trying to escape.

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Paula McGrath

Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is the Irish writer Paula McGrath, who lives in Dublin.

Paula has a background in English Literature and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Limerick.

Her first novel, Generation, was published in 2015. Her latest novel, A History of Running Away, has just been published in hardback by John Murray. I read it while on holiday a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Watch out for my review coming very soon.

Without further ado, here are Paula’s choices:

A favourite book: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Ulysses (see below), and The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino are strong contenders, but every few years I return to another favourite, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. Set in pre-war Indochina of Duras’ childhood, this novel (novella, really) tells the unsettling story of a 15 year old girl and her wealthy Chinese lover. I first read it when I was in my early twenties, and it intrigued and alienated me in equal measure; as much as I was fascinated by its protagonist, I could not relate to experiences which were just too far removed from my own. But something curious has happened in the intervening years: with each reread, my world-view seems, if not quite to converge, at least to draw closer to that of Duras’s protagonist. But there is something about the book which I suspect will always remain a puzzle, and I can’t help thinking that Duras, who rewrote her story over and over, in different guises, felt the same.

A  book that changed my world: Ulysses by James Joyce

I read Ulysses first at 18 and though most of it went over my head I was hooked. I studied it a couple of years later with then Trinity College lecturer, now Senator David Norris, a brilliant entertainer and teacher, who brought the book to life. Once you’ve heard his “shite and onions” rendition you can never unhear it. In the nineties, I was back worrying it again, comparing the Penelope/Molly Bloom episode with Edna O’Brien’s Night for a Master’s degree. Later, I bought the audio version and I listen to bits of it often. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.

I fought against it when I began writing, as every Irish writer must. I wince when I look over something I’ve just written and find unintentional stream-of-conscious sentences or composite words – a section of my novel, A History of Running Away, had to be prised gently from my Joyce-stained fingers and properly punctuated – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A book that deserves wider audience: Gods & Angels by David Park

Otherwise well-read people often admit not having read, or even heard of, David Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to learn that he’s not particularly interested in reaching a wider audience, but I can’t recommend his short story collection, Gods & Angels, enough. It takes its title from Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech, and aptly encompasses the book’s dominant theme of masculinity. Fear, inadequacy, and isolation hover just beneath the surface for most of the predominately male protagonists. Park is a consummate stylist, and this collection flows and startles by turn, its language ever-attuned to the requirements of the given moment. Sometimes these moments can seem hopeless, but for all the failings of its protagonists, the stories in this collection ultimately offer plenty of reasons for optimism.

Thanks, Paula, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

This is such a great selection of books. I’m a big fan of The Lover, which I read and reviewed a few years ago. It’s one of those books that really sticks with you, it’s so evocative and sensual. 

I’ve also read Ulysses (though never reviewed it) and regard it as one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read. No, I didn’t understand every word, but the playful use of language, the way each chapter is written in a different style and genre, the evocative atmospheres and emotions of it all, are really something to behold.

And while I’ve not read David Park’s short story collection, I’m pleased to say I’ve read two of his novels — The Light of Amsterdam and The Truth Commissioner — and enjoyed them both.

What do you think of Paula’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

5 books, Book lists

5 books for Women in Translation month

5-books-200pixAugust is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation.

Why? Mainly to redress the balance: figures suggest that just 30 per cent of literature in translation is written by women. According to blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, the situation has changed little over the past three years — and now it’s time to change it. (This post gives you all the stats you need to know.)

It’s great to see that this year’s #WITMonth seems to have really caught the imagination of readers, publishers and booksellers everywhere. All the major bookshops here in London — Waterstones, Folyes, the LRB et al — have got behind it. So, too, has the Reading Agency.

I’m a keen reader of translated fiction (you can see everything I’ve reviewed here), so thought I would highlight some of my favourites by women writers. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

This is an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which is supposedly based on the author’s own life. Set in Indochina in 1929, it is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, and the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge to it. It’s not a story that is easily forgotten…

Bad intentions

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Three young men go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake, but only two of them return to shore. It’s not so much what happens, but why that makes this novella such a terrifically good read, one that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. It’s the ninth volume of Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, but it works as a stand-alone book. I’ve read quite a few of Fossum’s crime novels — and I’ve yet to come across a bad one.

This-place-holds-no-fear

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten

One of my favourite reads from 2015, this extraordinarily beautiful novel is both a touching portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over. How do such people damaged by the unfathomable horror and trauma of the Nazi death camps get on with their lives? Based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling.

Hotel Iris

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This is another haunting tale about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. But Ogawa’s story is more dark and twisted than Duras’ (above). The affair puts the woman in danger because the man is a sexual deviant and prone to unexpected rages and no one knows that the pair have hooked up. This tension-filled story is written in such a quietly understated and restrained style it’s not until you finish it that you realise how strange and disturbing it really is…

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

This profoundly moving novella looks at what happens when a mother feels she can’t cope with her children. She takes them on a holiday to the seaside but doesn’t have the money to do much other than pay for the squalid accommodation that she’s arranged for them. The kind of story that could have been lifted from the news headlines, this has an earth-shattering ending that will make you think twice about judging women who commit infanticide.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2015

Books-of-the-yearIt’s New Year’s Eve, so  it’s time to carry out my annual tradition of selecting 10 of my reading highlights from the past 12 months.

Over the course of 2015 I read 80 books (nine of which are still to be reviewed — oops) which is about average for me. I could probably read twice that if I spent less time on Twitter and didn’t have to go to work!

My favourite books come from a variety of countries and languages. Some were published this year, most were published prior to 2014. A few could be regarded as modern classics, several may well turn out to be classics of the future. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, some made me feel sick to the stomach. All intrigued and delighted me.

Here they are. Note they have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (2015)
My favourite read of the year, Kevin Barry’s award-winning novel follows the exploits of a troubled man who simply wants to spend three days alone on the island he bought off the west coast of Ireland years ago but has never visited. The plot, which draws strongly on Samuel Beckett, is full of riotous comedy, quick-fire dialogue and surreal moments of despair and angst. I loved it.

spill-simmer-falter-wither-tramp-press

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
Sara Baume’s debut novel is an impressive achievement. Written in the second person, present tense, it’s a beautiful and sad tale about the year in the life of one man and his newly bought rescue dog. Yet the story is less about their relationship and more about how a social misfit, a resourceful man who can barely string two words together, seeks solace in a world he doesn’t really understand.

The_lover

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
This evocative novel (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) is about forbidden love set in exotic Indochina in 1929. It is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life, as she recalls the love affair she conducted, aged 15, with a Chinese man 12 years her senior. It is, by turns, heart-wrenching, sensual and disturbing, deeply melancholy and pulsates with an aching loneliness. It brings to mind the very best writing of Jean Rhys.

Young-god

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (2014)
This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The urgency of the writing and the dire predicament of the young narrator — Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old forced to live with her drug-addicted father and his underage lover — make it absolutely compelling reading. It’s not a book to be forgotten easily.

The-Good-Doctor

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year, for The Good Doctor is written in such a lucid dreamlike style I felt I couldn’t function in the real world until I’d finished it. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a middle-aged staff doctor, working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a newly qualified doctor brimming with idealism. Thrust together in this unnatural way, the older doctor who narrates the story must confront dark truths about himself — and his country.

Republic-of-Uzupis

The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji (2012)
Possibly the strangest book I’ve read all year, this post-modern novel (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is set in Lithuania even though it’s by a Korean writer.  Hal, the 40-something protagonist, arrives in Vilnius looking for the Republic of Užupis — his father’s homeland — but no-one seems to know where it is located or even whether it exists. Written in dreamlike, melancholic prose, it explores the idea of nationhood, and plays with the notions of time and memory, so it feels like something Paul Auster might have come up with. It’s weirdly compelling.

This-place-holds-no-fear

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held (2015)
I went through a phase of reading books about the Holocaust earlier in the year, and this one left a memorable impression, perhaps because it looked at what happens to someone who manages to survive the Nazi death camps; can they ever hope to find happiness and lead a normal life again? The tale is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior. This beautifully told tale offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated from the German by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds. Deeply affecting — and based on a true story.

The-Dig

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
The Dig pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control — and then explores the outfall between them. This powerful and violent novella explores rural life, Nature,  crime and grief. It is an intense and immersive reading experience, dark and thrilling, but also heart-wrenching and occasionally stomach-churning. I liked it so much I went out and bought Jones’ entire back catalogue.

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? It is essentially a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. I especially loved its depiction of life working on a magazine, and the New York setting was a plus too.

The-enchanted-april

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Proving that I don’t always read fiction that is dark and miserable, The Enchanted April turned out to be a rather delightful, joyous and, dare I say it, enchanting read (see what I did there?) 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 and follows the often humorous exploits that follow. 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 funny book.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2015?

Note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2014 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Finally, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, likes, clicks and links — both here and on Reading Matters’ Facebook page over the past 12 months; it is very much appreciated. Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! 

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Indochina, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras

The_lover

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which  mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.