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, historical fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Russia, Sean Michaels, Setting, Tin House Books

‘Us Conductors’ by Sean Michaels

Us-Conductors

Fiction – paperback; Tin House Books; 459 pages; 2014.

Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin*. After living in the US for many years, he was repatriated to Russia and imprisoned in a gulag, where he worked in a secret laboratory inventing devices for Soviet espionage.

A book featuring a scientist as the lead character may sound like a strange concept, but it works extraordinarily well, probably because Michaels gives Dr Theremin such a compelling voice — part arrogant, part naive, often bewildered and constantly lovelorn — and adds a few fictionalised elements to his character — he practices kung fu, for instance — which gives the story an almost surreal quality.

I’m going to be completely up front and stake my colours to the mast, or the flag to the pole, or whatever that saying is and confess that this is my favourite novel on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It’s the kind of book that takes you on an adventure and is told in such a refreshingly intimate way that I felt slightly bereft when I finished the book (about a month ago) because I did not want the journey to end. And ever since, I’ve been thinking about Lev/Leon and marvelling at his extraordinary life.

A confession at sea

The book opens with Leon onboard a ship “plunging from New York back to Russia” .

But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key.  Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

This story is essentially a love letter to a young American musician called Clara —”the finest theremin player the world will ever know” — who has spurned Leon’s advances and married someone else.

His tale is divided into two main sections: his life in the US, where he pursues the idea of mass producing the theremin so that every home has one; and his life back in Russia, sent to a gulag for the rest of his life for a reason that is never quite made clear. But the one constant in his life is his unrequited love for Clara, which thrums like a theremin throughout.

Admittedly, the first section, set in glitzy Manhattan during Prohibition, is far more exciting than the second, but each informs the other, because it allows us to experience both Leon’s (almost spectacular) success followed by his dramatic fall from grace. Once courted by the rich and famous, showcasing his invention in Carnegie Hall and performing with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, and hanging out with the likes of Einstein, his life takes an unexpected twist when: (1) he finds out he hasn’t paid his taxes in six years and is going to become bankrupt; and (2) he’s coerced into becoming a Soviet spy, informing on people and institutions he appears to know little about.

A compelling voice

What makes this story so interesting is something I mentioned earlier: Leon’s voice.

It’s not that his voice is unreliable, but when he becomes a spy it’s hard to determine to what extent this is deliberate or accidental — we can never be 100 per cent certain that he is telling us everything he knows. Is he being economical with the truth, is he merely naive or has he become caught up in events his scientifically minded brain can’t comprehend?

At times he seems alarmingly trusting  — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

UPDATE — SUNDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2014 : The Shadow Giller Prize jury has chosen Us Conductors as our winner. You can find out more via the official announcement on KevinfromCanada’s blog.

Giller_Winner

UPDATE — TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2014: The REAL Giller Prize has also chosen Us Conductors as its winner! How wonderful! You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.

* You can see a clip of  Leon Theremin playing the theremin on YouTube. Brits of a certain age may be more familiar with musician John Otway playing the instrument.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Love and Summer’ by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 2009.

The oppressive nature of village life — in which privacy is virtually non-existent —  comes to the fore in William Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, which also explores guilt, forbidden love and the strength we all require to rise above our circumstances.

Set in Rathmoye, a small Irish town “some years after the middle of the last century”, it follows a handful of residents over the course of one fine summer.

Trevor takes his time to introduce them all, chapter by chapter, including: the former librarian Orpen Wren, who seems to have lost his marbles and only talks about people and events from the past as if he is stuck in a time warp; the troubled Miss Connulty, who has taken over running the town’s B&B with her “weasel faced” twin brother, Joseph, upon the death of their community-minded mother; and the hardworking widowed farmer Dillahan and his second wife, Ellie, a foundling who first moved to the farm as a housekeeper, an arrangement organised by the nuns who raised her.

But the equilibrium of Rathmoye — where “nothing happened, its people said” — is disturbed by the arrival of a tweed-clad stranger on a bicycle. He causes a bit of a stir when he turns up on the morning of Mrs Connulty’s funeral asking for directions to the ruins of the local cinema, which he wants to photograph.

His name is Florian Kilderry, “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father”, who has inherited Shelhanagh, a large crumbling house, with its own lake, seven-and-a-half miles from Rathmoye. He cannot afford its upkeep, so his only option is to sell it:

“She’ll fetch a bit, I’d reckon,” the man from the estate agents’ office had said when he’d finished with his tape measure; and the Bank of Ireland thought so too. With the debts paid, there would be enough to live on, if not in splendour at least in comfort for a while. Enough to be a stranger somewhere else, although Florian didn’t yet know where. He had never been outside Ireland.

As Florian goes about getting the house ready for sale — disposing of its contents, including a car — he often travels into the village on photographic excursions (he’s dabbling with it as a potential occupation), and it is here that he strikes up a friendship with Ellie when she’s out and about on her errands. This friendship blossoms into something much deeper and it is this forbidden love affair which forms the heart of this rather genteel novel.

But to dismiss this book as merely a romance would be to do it a disservice.

Trevor is an economical writer, keeping both his prose and his narrative pared back to basics, but his characterisation is superb and the ways in which he draws such a diverse cast together is nothing short of genius. Every character has a back story — Dillahan’s first wife and young child died in a tragic farming accident for which he blames himself, Miss Connulty was “disowned” by her mother following an abortion 20 years earlier, Ellie was raised by nuns who taught her to be chaste and pure, Florian holds a torch for the Italian cousin he no longer keeps in touch with   — and it is these heartaches and desires which play a key role in giving Love and Summer such unexpected strength and power.

Trevor is also superb at capturing the tenets of rural life — the changing seasons, the day-to-day tasks that a farmer must carry out, the routine of keeping a house, the reliance on neighbours and community for help, amongst others — often bringing to mind some of my favourite rural Irish novels, such as John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun and Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn.

There’s no doubt that Love and Summer is a deftly written novel, one that unfolds gently to reveal what it is to be confronted with difficult, heart-rending choices. I loved its quiet beauty and its truthful depiction of rural life and romantic love.

For other takes on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and Lisa from ANZLitLovers review.

To see reviews of other William Trevor novels on Reading Matters, please visit my William Trevor page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Graeme Simsion, Michael Joseph, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

The-Rosie-Project

Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 329 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I often think that voice is everything when it comes to the enjoyment of a novel, particularly if that voice is distinctive, unique, intimate and funny.

The first person narrator in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project has one of those voices. It’s droll and original and quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny. I read this book with a mixture of delight and joy, and found it the perfect antidote to a slew of much harder hitting novels.

Offbeat search for a life partner

The Rosie Project is a lovely offbeat story about a socially inadequate man trying to find a wife. That man is Don Tillman, a 39-year-old professor of genetics at a university in Melbourne, who doesn’t seem to have much luck with women. That’s probably because he’s unconventional — in all senses of the word. He has odd fashion sense, lacks empathy with other people and doesn’t have the faintest clue about small talk or social niceties. He is the type of person that lacks any kind of “situation sense” . Everything is run to a very tight and precise schedule, right down to a minute-by-minute blow of his entire day.

This compulsive need to have everything timetabled follows through into Don’s search for a “life partner”. He devises a rather complicated 16-page multiple-choice questionnaire which he gives to prospective candidates so that he can filter out those women he thinks will be unsuitable. If you smoke, you’re out. Ditto if you are vegetarian, have no cooking skills or lack punctuality.

As Don sets out to find the ideal woman for him, his project gets sidelined by Rosie, an academic (and barmaid) with a penchant for cigarettes, laziness and lateness, who seeks his professional help in using DNA analysis to determine her biological father. A new project is set up to acquire the DNA of potential “suspects” in somewhat underhanded and dubious ways. As it evolves, the pair find themselves spending more and more time together — but can Don put aside his prejudices to accept Rosie for who she is, and not what she isn’t?

A series of funny set pieces

The novel is structured around a series of humourous set pieces designed to show Don’s wacky and unusual side, including his extraordinary ability to absorb vast quantities of information in a short space of time. For instance, Don learns an exhaustive amount of dance moves and sexual positions, he learns how to make every single cocktail in a cocktail guide, and he manages to teach himself all the rules about baseball without having ever seen a game.

Pretty much everything he does is hilarious — even if he doesn’t quite see it that way. This is what makes the book work, because the reader knows that Don is “different” you can’t help but predict the way in which ordinary people will react to his behaviour. It’s not so much that you are laughing at Don, but the people around him who get caught up in his bizarre escapades.

Of course, the entire novel is preposterous — and the way in which Don changes over time so that he becomes more and more normal probably wouldn’t happen in reality — but that is all part of the fun.

And Don’s voice, so beautifully dull, dry and monotonous, is a treat to read because it so perfectly captures his personality. I thoroughly enjoyed spending so much time in his company and can understand why other readers claim to have fallen in love with him. He might wear quick-dry clothes and cycling attire on his dates, but he is utterly charming and strangely beguiling in an odd sort of way.

The Rosie Project is published in the UK in hardcover and ebook on 11 April. It is already available in Australia, where it has received many favourable reviews, including this one by Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Haunted Heart’ by John MacKenna

Haunted-heart

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 1999.

John MacKenna’s A Haunted Heart is a rather beautiful story about an elderly Irish woman looking back on her life in which she joined the Quakers and fell in love with someone who did not love her back. The entire novel has a lovely Victorian feel to it and is ripe with mystery, forbidden love,  religious fervour, guilt and redemption.

A lifetime of journals

It is 1959. Elizabeth Hallshead is 78 and has spent the past 60 years living in England. She returns to her native Ireland after the death of her cousin, whose house she has inherited. She takes a lifetime of journals with her — 69 volumes — and prepares to write an account of her friend Abigail’s life for Abigail’s daughters.

I first met your mother, Abigail Beale (née Meredith), in the February of 1899. You were three years old, then, Lydia, and you, Myfanwy, were two. But before I tell you of that, I need to step back a short space, to the first time I saw Joshua Jacob, for he was to be the one who brought your mother and me together and the one who caused the separation between you and your mother.

But writing this memorial is not a straightforward or easy task. First, Elizabeth is gravely ill. Though we never find out the precise nature of her medical condition, we know that she is not expected to live very long. She is in the care of the kindly local doctor, who is just a phone call away, but sometimes she is in so much physical pain she cannot continue to work on the manuscript.  (By contrast, when she isn’t in pain, she enjoys exploring the countryside on her bicycle!)

And second, there are aspects to Abigail’s story which are mentally painful to recall. This is accompanied by the feeling that Elizabeth is holding things back, though whether she is trying to spare the feelings of Abigail’s daughter or is unable to confront her own truth, it is difficult to tell.

Two narratives

The novel is structured around these two intertwined narratives — Elizabeth’s present day (told in diary form) in which she writes the memorial, deals with her illness and tries to track down Abigail’s children; and her past (told in manuscript form) in which she joined an offshoot of the Quakers, run by the charismatic if misguided Joshua, and met Abigail, who had sacrificed her marriage and motherhood to become a disciple.

In both narratives, Elizabeth’s voice is engaging and intimate, and while it’s clear she is trying to set the record straight for Abigail’s children, ultimately she is confessing to a forbidden love she has kept secret for more than half a century.

In fact, this seems to be a recurring them in MacKenna’s work; two of his other novels which I have read and reviewed on this site — The Last Fine Summer, published in 1997, and The Space Between Us, published in 2009 — also deal with forbidden love, albeit two completely different types.

A moving story

A Haunted Heart is a strangely beguiling story dealing with big themes — remorse and longing, religious extremism and personal accountability, amongst others  — set in a time when not everyone was free to live the life they wished to live.

It is incredibly moving in places — at times it made me angry, at other times it filled me with despair — but in the tradition of great Irish literature it is always restrained and never sentimental.

Sadly, A Haunted Heart appears to be out of print, but you should be able to source a copy from secondhand booksellers online for just a few pennies. I paid about 2 pence for mine; I would have easily paid £20 (and more) for it and thought it value for money.