Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gollancz, Publisher, science fiction, Ursula K Le Guin

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 304 pages; 2018.

First published in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic science fiction novel (and often heralded as a seminal feminist and LGBTQ text).

As regular readers of this blog will know, this is not a genre I usually read (with the exception of John Wyndham, whom I love), but it was chosen by my book group and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the ideas in it (Le Guin herself describes it as a “novel of ideas” in the introduction to this newly published edition), but I was less sure about the execution.

What’s the book about?

Before I elaborate further, let me give a brief synopsis.

Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to the Planet Gethen, 17 light years away, to invite them to join a political alliance of 80 other planets. He befriends statesman Estravan, who can grant him an audience with the king, but through a cultural misunderstanding this does not happen as promised. Instead, Estravan is exiled from his community, forbidden to contact anyone on pain of death. Genly must now go about his business by himself — an alien in a completely foreign society —  trying to establish contact with the political elite to further his aims.

It is this stranger in a strange land concept that makes The Left Hand of Darkness so intriguing, because all the people on Gethen, a planet besieged by an almost eternal winter, are androgynous and celibate, apart from the two or three days in every monthly sexual cycle — which is known as “kemmer” — when they become either male or female and are able to reproduce. No one has control over which gender they transform into, which gives arise to the novel’s most famous line:

The king was pregnant.

What I liked, and didn’t like

This is what I mean about a “novel of ideas”, because Le Guin has posed a really intriguing question — what would happen if we lived in a genderless society without eternal sexual tension? — and explored it in an equally intriguing way. She also plays with the concepts of patriotism and loyalty, friendships and love, but what didn’t really work for me was the structure of the novel.

Instead of focussing on a straightforward narrative, the story for roughly two-thirds of its content is a mixture of first person accounts from both Genly and Estravan interspersed with myths, legends and anthropologist reports which showcase Gethen’s sociopolitical culture and its history. It’s not until about chapter 14 (page 185 in my edition), when both protagonists embark on a daring 800 mile journey across a treacherous ice-ridden landscape, that the book takes on a compelling, page-turning quality. That’s a lot of pages to trudge through before you experience any urgency to the tale.

That said, I guess this isn’t a book that you read for a fast-paced plot. It’s a book that asks questions about the way our own society is set up, how human biological impulses have shaped our culture and the ways in which almost every facet of our lives is dominated by sex, perhaps without us even realising it.

Personally, I also liked the way it challenges our concepts of belonging and cultural identity, because it feels particularly pertinent here in the UK with all the shenanigans related to Brexit and the rise of populism across the Western World.

As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Ororeyn [a city on Gethen]; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

All in all, this is a fascinating novel, one that feels quite relevant to the times we live in when gender fluidity is such a hot topic and there’s so much discussion about equality between the sexes. And as much as I am glad I took the time to read it, I haven’t been converted into a science fiction fan and I doubt whether I’ll ever read anything by Le Guin in the future. This hasn’t surprised me; and if you are familiar with my reading tastes I doubt it will surprise you either.

Anakana Schofield, Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Martin John’ by Anakana Schofield

Martin-John

Fiction – paperback; Biblioasis; 322 pages; 2015.

If budding writers wanted to learn how to best use refrains in their work they should read Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

This new novel, Schofield’s second, is dotted with refrains — “harm has been done”, “it is never defined”and  “rain will fall” are just a handful of examples — that form a kind of hypnotic litany that works a spell over the reader. It’s hard to pinpoint how the author has achieved this without detracting from the storyline, but somehow the refrains add to the musicality of the prose, which is stripped back and very simple, the kind of style that particularly appeals to me.

It’s no secret that dark subjects in fiction appeal to me, too, and Martin John is about as dark as they get.

A man with a problem

The story is about a man — the Martin John of the title — who is, to be perfectly frank, a pervert or sexual molester.  He likes women and girls. He specifically likes “flashing” his you-know-what at them. He also likes rubbing up against women, touching their feet and sometimes putting a hand on their leg, in order to get even closer to them. He does this in public, usually in parks, alley ways or on public transport. He once did it in a dentist’s waiting room — to a 12-year-old girl.

He’s been caught, of course, and spent time behind bars. He’s been in a mental facility at a hospital on more than one occasion. He’s also received many, many warnings from police. But this has never deterred him from what he likes to do. It’s almost as if he can’t stop himself:

Because she was a woman in that room there’s bound to be a problem. Whenever he is alone in a room with a woman a problem follows. He waits for the problem to come and follow him. He waits for the knock.

Whose perspective?

The narrative is told in the third person, but it’s done so cleverly, you’re not quite sure if it’s been told from the perspective of Martin John himself or his hapless Irish mother, who hasn’t so much as disowned him but given up trying to help him. Although she’s always on the end of the telephone and will happily give him advice, she did make him leave Ireland for London, presumably to start afresh in a city where no one knew of his wicked ways — or maybe it was simply to rescue her own reputation? No one wants to be the mother of a sexual pervert, after all.

Occasionally, the narrative even appears to be told from the perspective of the victim. This quote from a 32-year-old mother of two children shows how she’s still grappling with the impact of the crime committed against her 20 years after the fact:

She never lets her children sleep the night at any house, apartment, bunk bed but hers. This is how she remembers. It is within those decisions she remembers. Every person she comes into contact with she must assess for danger. This is how she remembers it. Within the cracks of possibility she remembers.

If I’m making the book sound a bit oppressive, I don’t mean to. The serious nature of the crimes committed here (none of which, by the way, are ever trivialised) are lightened by humour. The prose is ripe with witty remarks and ridiculously funny, if absurd, situations, so much so that you can’t help but feel a little empathy for Martin John. Yes, he’s manipulative, yes, he’s a liar, yes, he harms others, but somewhere along the line you realise it could all be stopped if he received the right treatment, for Martin John is not normal.

At the risk of diagnosing a fictional character, I’d say he’s got some learning difficulties and is perhaps sociopathic. He doesn’t appear to learn from any bad situations he’s in — and while he can hold down a job (as a security guard) and look after himself, he doesn’t appear to be able to make friends or get along with others. He’s the perfect example of a social misfit.

He also has paranoid tendencies, which worsen as the story develops, and he firmly believes that his flatmate, whom he dubs “Baldy Conscience” is out to get him. Martin John’s solution to this “problem” is to try to oust his flatmate in a series of ludicrous of ways, none of which have a remote chance of success. (At times I was reminded of Matt, the completely delusional character in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, who justifies all manner of crimes, including murder, and of the nasty unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Trickswho carries out an affair right under his wife’s nose. Both books, I must point out, are black comedies.)

Perhaps the weakest point in the novel is the ending, but on the whole Martin John is a darkly comic story about a deeply troubled man, and Schofield’s dissection of his motivations and preoccupations helps to show us that we can’t fix things by simply labelling such characters as “monsters” and then forgetting about them. In posing the question, is it the mother’s job to stop such perverted behaviour, she also gets us to think about who should take responsibility for those people who can’t (or won’t) take responsibility for themselves.

This is an intelligent, deeply thought-provoking — and brave — novel. For what it’s worth, I think it would be a worthy winner of the Giller Prize, which will be announced next week (10 November).
UPDATE Sunday 8 November: The Shadow Giller Jury has named “Martin John” as our winner for 2015. You can read more about our decision on KevinfromCanada’s blog. The real Giller Prize winner will be named on Tuesday. 

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.

Austria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jill Alexander Essbaum, literary fiction, Mantle Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Hausfrau’ by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau

Fiction – hardcover; Mantle; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel, Hausfrau, seems to be everywhere at the moment. I don’t normally succumb to hype, but there was so much “buzz” about this book I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I now wish I hadn’t bothered. This is a horrid, grubby story written in a plodding, pedestrian style. I truly don’t understand the appeal.

A bored housewife

The book focuses on Anna, the hausfrau (housewife) of the title, who is an expat American married to a Swiss banker. The couple lives in a suburb of Zurich and have three children: two young sons and a baby girl.

Outwardly, they look like the ideal family, but Anna is desperately unhappy, suffers from insomnia and rarely feels at ease in her own skin. She has lived in Austria for nine years but has never bothered to learn the language so hasn’t made any real friends. She’s also struggling with the idea of motherhood.

Anna hadn’t longed to be a mother. She didn’t yearn for it the way other women do. It terrified her. I’m to be responsible for another person? A tiny, helpless, needy person?

She’s not even sure she’s married the right man, because her relationship with Bruno is one-sided: they rarely speak (he hides away in his office when he’s at home) and together they don’t do much socially. Anna can’t drive and doesn’t have a bank account of her own, so her independence is limited. Yet Anna’s passivity has merit:

It was useful. It made for relative peace in the house on Rosenweg. Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She simply followed.

When she finally decides to go back to school to learn German, she sets off a chain of events that have long-lasting repercussions. Here, she meets Archie, an expat Scotsman, with whom she has a rather sordid affair. But as the story unfolds, we learn that this is not the first time Anna has been adulterous. Extramarital sex, it seems, is one way of making her feel alive.

Pedestrian prose

I think my problem with this book was not so much the content — yes, there’s quite a bit of sex in it, but it’s written so coldly that it’s not exactly titillating — but the way in which the narrative plods along in pedestrian-like prose. I’ve read reviews describing the writing as “haunting”, “elegant” and “exquisite”, others say it’s written in a “cool European tone” but I think we must have been reading different novels. Essbaum is a poet, but her novel-writing style is far from lyrical: for most of the time it’s perfunctory, mechanical and wooden. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:

Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the last day of the month, Anna, Bruno, Ursula, and the children boarded a 10.00 a.m. train. They were on their way to Mumpf, a town in Kanton Aargau near Switzerland’s north border, where Daniela, Bruno’s sister, and her partner David lived. It was Daniela’s fortieth birthday. Taking a train often made more sense than driving. Today the choice was made by circumstance: with Ursula joining them they couldn’t all fit inside the car. The only inconvenience of the plan was two changes. David would meet them at Bahnhof Mumpf when they arrived.

On top of this, the author treats her readers as if they can’t think for themselves by spelling out every single thing, including all the metaphors:

‘There are two basic groups of German verbs,’ Roland said, ‘strong and weak. Weak verbs are regular verbs that follow typical rules. Strong verbs are irregular. They don’t follow patterns. You deal with strong verbs on their own terms.’ Like people, Anna thought. The strong ones stand out. The weak ones are all the same.

Even the bits of the story that focus on Anna’s sessions with a therapist are nothing more than too-obvious vehicles for getting certain messages across to the reader. Indeed, they’re about as subtle as a garbage truck roaring down a quiet residential street at 5 in the morning.

‘A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.’ Doktor Messerli spoke with grave sincerity. ‘A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.’

Aaaaargghhh! Can you hear me screaming from here?

There’s a couple of shocking revelations midway through the story that do add a frisson of excitement — let’s face it, the sex scenes don’t achieve that — but I find it hard to say anything particularly positive about Hausfrau. It just didn’t appeal on any level. Perhaps the best thing was the ending — and I’m not just talking about the final two sentences, which pack a real punch of the oh-my-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety, it was the fact I could put the book down knowing I’d never have to pick it up again!

Clearly there’s an audience for these kinds of novels judging by all the five-star reviews on Amazon and all the buzz about it on Twitter, but I’m not it. If I wanted to read a book about a depressed (and repressed) married woman I’d simply reread Madame Bovary