Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cambodia, Fiction, Peter Fröberg Idling, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, TBR40

‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Fröberg Idling

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 336 pages; 2015. Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm is set in Cambodia in the summer of 1955. It tells the story of a complicated love triangle between two political rivals and a beauty queen, but it’s also a powerful evocation of a country at a pivotal point in its history: its first ever democratic elections following independence.

First, some (brief) history to put the story in context. The Kingdom of Cambodia was granted independence (from France) in 1954 following the Geneva Conference, which was designed to settle issues resulting from the Korean War and the First Indochina War. The following year, in early 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated, in favour of his father, so that he could found the Popular Socialist Community Party (commonly known as the Sangkum). This would ensure Cambodia remained a constitutional monarchy (modelled on the UK system) and would rival the left-leaning Democratic Party, which was pro-independence and sought to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic.

The election campaign, which preceded the country’s first democratic election after independence in September 1955, was marred by violence and bloodshed as rival parties fought to be elected to a 91-member National Assembly. The prince’s party won all 91 seats.

Three characters, three narratives

When Song for an Approaching Storm opens there’s just one month remaining in the election campaign. The novel, which spans the 30 or so days leading up to the actual poll, is divided into three parts and each part is told from the point-of-view of a different character.

In part one, Sar is leading a double life as a well-respected school teacher who is officially campaigning for the opposition, but behind the scenes he’s helping an armed Communist network that seeks to take over the Government. He’s engaged to Somaly, a striking young woman who won the Miss Cambodia beauty contest, but their relationship is unravelling and he’s not sure what to do about it. Some 20 years later he will reinvent himself as Pol Pot, the leader of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

In part two, we meet Sary, the ruthless deputy prime minister who is a close ally of the prince and is hell-bent on ensuring that his party stays in power at whatever cost necessary. He’s married with children, but that doesn’t stop him pursuing Somaly who becomes his lover.

And in the final part, we hear from Somaly herself and discover her affection for both men and her deep desire to be independent in a restrictive society that imposes strict rules on a woman’s behaviour and lifestyle.

Love story wrapped up in a riveting political thriller 

As a love story, Song for an Approaching Storm is a fascinating read, but as a political thriller — complete with betrayals, bitter rivalries, house arrests and murder — it is absolutely gripping. Told in rich, languid language, albeit in short, fragmentary sentences (all beautifully translated by Peter Graves), it almost reads like poetry.

Admittedly the first part, told entirely in the second person, is a challenging read and there were a couple of times that I considered abandoning the book because I couldn’t get a handle on it. But by part two, which is told in the more comprehensible third person, the story really came alive for me and I ate up the remainder  in two (longish) sittings because I was anxious to discover what would happen next.

It’s perfectly paced and totally assured. Fröberg Idling is fully in charge of his subject matter. By contrasting the lavish cocktail parties of the elite with the poverty-stricken lives of the peasant underclass, he’s able to paint a richly atmospheric tale based on real people and real events. As a compelling fictionalised account of Pol Pot’s lives and loves, it’s a story I won’t forget in a hurry…

This is my 4th book for #TBR40. I purchased it late last year in preparation for a week-long trip to Cambodia (I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap between 20-27 January 2019) because I always love to read books set in the places I’m about to visit / have visited. It certainly helped my comprehension of this story by knowing a brief history of Cambodia, which I learned during my travels, and of seeing some of the places mentioned in this book.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

Five-fast-reviews-300pix


‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Carl-Johan Vallgren, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Setting, Sweden

‘The Merman’ by Carl-Johan Vallgren

The-merman

Fiction – paperback; Hesperus Press; 288 pages; 2013. Translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman wins the award for the most unusual book I’ve read all year. It’s a mesmerising and slightly surreal tale involving two misfit children and, as the title might suggest, a creature known as a “merman”.

A tough life

The story, which spans October 1983 to May 1984,  is set in a small town on the west coast of Sweden. Here, 14-year-old Petronella (known as Nella) and her 12-year-old brother, Robert, live a fairly difficult life. Their mother spends her days in an alcoholic stupor and their father, who has been in jail for the past year, is too caught up in his criminal life to do much to help his children. Often there is not enough money for food, so Nella and Robert must fend for themselves. Often Nella resorts to shoplifting to get by.

To make matters worse, Robert has learning difficulties and is bullied at school. Nella does her best to protect him, but finds herself caught up in a vicious cycle in which she must pay off his tormentors or be bullied herself.

But there are two good things in Nella’s life: her friendship with the Professor, a local man “who hobbled his way through life on crutches paid for by the health service and read everything he could read and collected everything he could collect” and with Tommy, a boy her own age whom she has known her whole life.

When she asks Tommy for help, she can’t help but notice strange events going on in his family’s dilapidated boat house and this leads to a startling discovery.

Keeping secrets

The blurb on the back of my uncorrected proof goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning what lies hidden in the boat house, but when you call a book The Merman I don’t think there’s much point trying to be coy. There’s a strange creature chained to the floor — half fish, half mammal — which Nella describes as a “sea ape”. It’s only later, with the help of the Professor’s research, that she believes it to be a merman.

It turns out that the merman is being subjected to terrible abuse, mirroring in some way Nella and Robert’s experiences in the hands of the school bullies and their own parents, and his existence is being kept secret from the authorities. Much of the story is about Nella’s endeavours to save the merman from further mistreatment — something she, too, must do in secret — while seemingly ignoring her own personal problems, which are worsening.

As well as being an excellent portrayal of what it is to be an outsider, the book is very good at describing life in a small town and the oppressive nature of life at secondary school.

It’s quite a lovely story, if violent and distressing in places, and has a strong moral message at its core about cruelty and compassion. But it’s a little clunky in places, with a little too much emphasis on explaining things and spelling them out, rather than letting the reader figure things out for themselves. And while the characters of Robert and Nella are richly drawn, many of the other characters, especially the school bully Gerard, are little more than caricatures.

The story, however, flows well and is easy to read — indeed, it slipped down a treat on Boxing Day when I was feeling poorly with a chest cold and was tucked up on the sofa — and it’s sufficiently poignant to provide a feel-good factor when you reach the final pages. In many ways it’s like reading a fairy story, but one that’s designed for adults — perfect, if you like that sort of thing.