Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation (wild card): from ‘Academy Street’ to ‘The Dinner Guest’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation!

This book meme is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

This month the starting point is a wild card — any book that’s been at the end of one of your previous chains — so I’ve gone back to June 2019 where I finished with a novella.

In honour of  Novellas in November, every book in my chain is a novella. The starting point is…

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello (2014)
This is a profoundly moving story about one woman’s quiet, unassuming life from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement (as a nurse) in Manhattan more than half a century later. It’s written in beautiful, pared-back language and remains one of the most emotionally potent stories I’ve ever read — of loneliness, of literature, of never quite fitting in. Another story about a woman not fitting in is…

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi (1960)
This fast-paced novella, which spans decades in less than 120 pages, reveals the sexism at the heart of Egyptian culture and the courage required for a woman to be accepted in a profession long dominated by men. A fiercely independent woman also features in…

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall (2013)
Translated from the Polish, this short novel is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer and internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it. Another story about a woman fighting for survival is…

The end we start from

‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter (2018)
Set some time in the future, this story follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. She has just given birth to her first child, so all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern. Another book that shows the world descending into chaos is…


‘High-Rise’ by J.G. Ballard (1975)
Set in an apartment block where the floor in which you live reflects your social standing, this dystopian-like novella shows what happens when petty grievances amongst the residents are allowed to escalate unchecked. The breakdown of the building’s social order is a metaphor for society as a whole when the thin veneer of civilization is allowed to slip. It’s really a book about uncomfortable truths. Another book about uncomfortable truths is…

‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra (2013)
Set in the author’s native Chile, this novella uses the devices of metafiction to explore memory, love, truth, deception, guilt, family life and political responsibility. It particularly focuses on the generation born after Pinochet came to power in 1973 and how, in young adulthood, they have had to come to terms with uncomfortable truths: that their parents were either victims or accomplices in the murderous dictatorship that lasted for 17 years. Another book dealing with the generational outfall of a deeply divisive and violent political era is…

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra (2018)
Billed as fiction, this novella is really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as the author attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born. It is an intriguing story, often deeply disturbing, about inter-generational trauma and forgetting, with a particular focus on the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children and families in the Basque Country.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a woman’s life lead quietly in 1950s Manhattan to a novella about the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children living in the Basque Country, via Egpyt, the Holocaust, dystopian London, a high-rise building, and modern-day Chile. Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

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

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

I do love a good novella.

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

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

‘Memoirs of a Woman Doctor’ by Nawal El Saadawi

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

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

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

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

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

‘Crudo’ by Olivia Laing

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 176 pages; 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abdelilah Hamdouchi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hoopoe, Morocco, Publisher, Setting

‘Whitefly’ by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Fiction – paperback; Hoopoe; 136 pages; 2016. Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Smolin.

First published n 2000 as al-Dhubaba al-bayda by al-Muttaqi Brintira, Whitefly is the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English.

I bought it in Kinokuniya, in Dubai, earlier in the week, because I was looking for something “local” to read — or at least originally published in Arabic — and this seemingly fit the bill. (I love that the Dubai store has a whole section devoted to Arabic fiction, and another for Asian fiction, which makes the browsing experience so much more fulfilling if you’re looking for something in those areas of interest.)

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have an “about the author” section, so I had to Google “Abdelilah Hamdouchi” to find our more about him. According to this article on Words Without Borders, he was born in  Morocco in 1958 and has written several police detective novels with a human rights bent. Whitefly is his third.

Detective story set in Morocco

Set in modern-day Morocco, the book introduces us to Detective Laafrit, a 40-year-old policeman, married with a young child, who is well respected by those he works with, including the Commissioner, who is of a higher rank but treats him as if their positions are reversed.

The story follows his investigation into the death of three young men, washed up dead on a local beach over the course of a couple of days. It’s believed the men are harraga (illegal immigrants) who have fallen overboard while trying to reach Spain.

When a fourth corpse washes up the case takes on a new dimension, for the man has been shot four times and it’s clear that the leather jacket he’s wearing has been put on him after he’s been killed.

Laafrit pins his hopes on finding the gun, because that will ultimately lead to the killer. (Guns are illegal in Morocco and very difficult to obtain.) He uses his underworld contacts to help him find the weapon and to find out more about the identities of the men. Did they all know each other? And, if they did, what is their connection? Why was one brutally murdered?

Atmospheric setting

The best bit about this novella is the setting. I’ve not really read anything set in Morocco before (apart from Nina Bawden’s A Woman of My Age, but that was simply about an English character on holiday there) and I found it fascinating to be thrust into unfamiliar territory. I had to do a lot of Googling to find out more about the tense relationships between Spain and Morocco over people smuggling, and to work out why the cities of Ceuta and Melilla were so controversial. Turns out they’re both Spanish territories on the African continent, sharing a border with Morocco, which makes it easier for Africans to enter Europe illegally.

I found out other things I didn’t know about Morocco, too, such as the fact that three million Moroccans live on tomatoes as their main food source.

The crime itself, which appears to be part of the dark shadowy world of people smuggling and illegal immigration, morphs into something else entirely (involving agriculture, food production and industrial espionage) — and I’m not sure it worked as well as it could have. It was certainly an intriguing concept, but I felt it could have been fleshed out a lot more than the 136 pages that this slim volume allowed.

And while I finished Whitefly with a sense of disappointment, I’m going to hunt out more books by Abdelilah Hamdouchi in due course because this novella, for all its faults, was an effortless read and one that evoked a strong Moroccan vibe I’m keen to experience again.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Basque Country, Bernardo Atxaga, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harvill Press; 160 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

Bernardo Atxaga is an award-winning writer from the Basque Country, in the north of Spain.

The Lone Woman, first published in 1996, is his fourth novel (and follows hot on the heels of an earlier novel called The Lone Man, which Stu, at Winstondad’s Blog has reviewed). He has written another four since, but he also writes poetry, short stories and children’s books.

As you might expect from a Basque writer, there is a political slant to The Lone Woman. Set over the course of 24 hours, it tells the tale of Irene, a 37-year-old political prisoner and former nurse, who has just been released from jail as part of an amnesty.

She has no family or friends to meet her at the prison gates because “she knew that many of them despised her for leaving the organization and taking on the role of reformed terrorist, but she found it hard to believe that everyone felt like that, that all her friends from before felt like that, without exception”.

With just a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes with her, she boards the overnight coach to her home town of Bilbao. There are a handful of other passengers on board, including a stuck up hostess, two nuns and a couple of strange men, whom she believes are following her.

[…] she too felt observed, scrutinized, persecuted, and she had the feeling that the eyes watching her were wrapping her in a sticky web that stifled her and trammelled her every movement.

As the double-decker coach wends its way slowly across the country, the narrative follows Irene’s innermost thoughts, including her worries about money and how she’s going to support herself now that she’s truly alone in the world. But the thing that plagues her most is the fear of being arrested when she gets off the bus, not for anything she might have done in the past, but for a violent act she committed the night before.

A meditative page turner

Deeply contemplative, The Lone Woman is written in carefully constrained prose, where every word counts, with a ripple of suspense underpinning the story arc.

While we never find out any level of detail about Irene’s past terrorist activities, nor how she got into the movement, it doesn’t really matter, for this is a book that looks primarily at the psychological impact on imprisonment and what it is like to suddenly rediscover your freedom.

After four years in prison, surrounded always by the same objects and by the same people, subject to the same timetable day after day, everything that she encountered outside seemed sharp and violent and dragged her spirits off on a kind of roller-coaster ride in which, with dizzying speed, white succeeded black, euphoria succeeded depression, joy succeeded sadness. The worst thing was that these ups and downs wore her out, sapped the energy that she was going to need from tomorrow onwards in the real world, not in the world of her dreams or on that bus travelling along an anonymous, almost abstract motorway.

It is also a deft examination of what it is like to be truly alone in the world, to face your past in order to move into the future and to seek comfort in artistic endeavours, such as literature and reading.

She took out a small key from her inside jacket pocket and opened the suitcase, thinking about the books she had packed. She wanted to have them near, to touch them, to open them at random and leaf through them. Now that she was out, they might not perhaps give her as much consolation as in prison, but she was sure that they would help her in what, to quote Margarita, was her “re-entry into the world”, because, like Lazarus, she had been buried and, like him, she had been restored to life.

This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year for reasons I cannot remember, and extracted it from my virtual TBR while on a recent week-long trip to the Basque Country as it seemed an appropriate location in which to read it.

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.