20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little Brown Book Group; 353 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray.

Keigo Higashino is a Japanese crime writer who likes to spin his tales in a completely different way to most crime writers. He basically takes the rules of the genre, rips them up and throws them away — and then does things completely on his own terms.

Whodunnit with an unusual structure

Newcomer, which is set in Tokyo, is a whodunnit but the narrative is structured in an unusual way: each phase of the police investigation into the homicide of a 40-something woman is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer.

The investigation is led by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman who has just been transferred to the Tokyo Police Department and who was first introduced to readers in Higashino’s previous novel Malice. (Newcomer is billed as book 2 in the Kyochiro Kaga series but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this one.)

As his investigation into the murder of divorcee Mineko Mitsui proceeds, more and more potential suspects enter the fray to the point where you wonder whether he is ever going to be able to weed out the real culprit.

The evocative setting — the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, which is dominated by family-run shops and all-night bars, and is, I believe, one of the original areas of the city — lends an olde-worlde charm to the tale as Kaga slowly but surely traces a series of items found in the dead woman’s home back to the shops in which they were purchased.

His logical and methodical inquiry eventually allows him to rule out several suspects, and the denouement comes in the form of a final chapter that reveals who did it, how they did it and why.

A bit of a plod

Regretfully, I didn’t find this book as exciting as previous Higashino novels I have read, and for the most part, I found it a little dull and plodding. I kept wondering how he was going to tie up all the loose ends, and by the time he did so, I’d become bored by the storyline. It definitely lacks tension.

But it’s an intriguing read in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting. Higashino wields his pen carefully, giving us a rather charming, calm and sensible hero, who uses his brain and his wits to put all the clues together without fuss or agenda. In many ways, Kaga might be a little too nice to be a police detective!

Newcomer — the title refers to Kaga being the new man in the police department — is an unconventional mix of cosy crime and modern-day police procedural. It’s an unconventional mystery full of red herrings, subtle reveals and a suspect list so long the book comes with a dramatis personae right upfront. It might be for you if you’re a crime reader looking for something a little on the unusual side.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 7 February 2021.

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, Fiction, Marta Orriols, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR 21

‘Learning to Talk to Plants’ by Marta Orriols

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 251 pages; 2020. Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Marta Orriols’ Learning to Talk to Plants is an age-old story about a woman grieving the untimely death of her long-time partner, only there’s a crucial twist — just hours before he dies in a cycling accident, he announces that he is leaving her for someone else.

Paula, the central character, is a neonatologist, a doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies, particularly those who are ill or born prematurely. She works in a busy hospital in Barcelona and spends more time with her colleagues than her partner, Mauro, who works in book publishing.

She is unaware that Mauro is pursuing an affair, so his admission, at a carefully arranged dinner, is a shock. That shock is only superseded when he is killed cycling home just a few hours later. Her grief is compounded by the fact that she keeps Mauro’s desertion to herself; to tell family that he had left her would only tarnish their well-held opinion of him — and she refuses to do that.

The novel charts the ways in which 40-something Paula tries to make sense of her new reality. She throws herself into work, pursues a love affair with a beguiling stranger she met in Amsterdam, and grows closer to her beloved father who raised her singlehandedly after the untimely death of her mother.

But as she navigates this new existence, she is plagued by thoughts of Mauro. Why did he find it necessary to seek love elsewhere? And who was the woman that captured his heart?

Prize-winning novel

This intelligent and introspective novel won the Omnium Cultural Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2018 and was translated into English last year.

I found it a little uneven in terms of pacing, and the style is similarly patchy, with some elements written in eloquent, deeply thoughtful prose and others reading like a (high-brow) romance novel.

But the story is a good twist on the “grief novel” — one largely focused on a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one — and explores all kinds of issues, including love, trust, betrayal and loyalty. It’s also a story about family and how we are shaped by our childhood experiences.

And it’s full of metaphors — the babies that Paula saves at work, for instance, not only add meaning to her life, they represent all the children she, herself, never got to have with Mauro. Similarly, when all the plants that Mauro grew begin to die, she does her utmost to rescue them, because they are the last living link with the man she never really knew.

Learning to Talk to Plants is an honest portrayal of grief and charts some dark moments. But it’s also blackly humorous in places and never suffocates under its own melancholic sense of sadness. There’s plenty of rage here too — at the injustice of being “widowed” when all you want to do is kill the man who’s left you!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan: A fast-paced novel written from the perspective of the other woman whose lover dies after a three-year illicit relationship.

This is my 14th book 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 shop when it was published last year mainly because I am interested in reading more Catalan fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. 

Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

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, Basque Country, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gabriela Ybarra, Harvill Secker, New York, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 140 pages; 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

The story goes that in my family there is an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present. The first to vanish was my grandfather.

So begins Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, an intriguing story 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.

Billed as fiction, it’s really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as Gabriela attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born.

But it’s also a deeply personal look at what it is like to care for a terminally ill parent after Gabriela’s mother is diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and moves to New York for treatment.

The book works by linking these two deaths — one very public and sudden, the other private and dragged out — as a creative writing exercise in which Gabriela explores art, politics, family and grief.

It feels seamless and hypnotic to read, a bit like a long-form essay, and includes snippets of newspaper articles and letters, along with a handful of black and white photographs.

Kidnapped by terrorists

The book’s starting point is the kidnapping of Javier Ybarra, a prominent politician in Biblao, on Spain’s northern coast, by masked gunmen — members of the Basque separatist group ETA — who broke into his house and bound and gagged his family, including Gabriela’s then 28-year-old father. The intruders took Javier away and warned his children not to call the police until midday. A massive ransom was issued.

Some 20 days later, when that ransom was not paid, the terrorists sent a map showing where the body could be found. It was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped in a wooded area. (You can read more about the case via this Wikipedia entry.)

Gabriela did not know that her grandfather had been murdered until children at school told her of the rumours surrounding his death. It was not something her family talked about. She was largely unaware that it was her father who played a key role as the family spokesman during the traumatic days when Javier’s whereabouts were unknown. Such trauma, such personal history remained unspoken.

Then, when Gabriela’s mother died in 2013, she decided she needed to learn about her family’s past, almost as a form of remembrance. It was also a way to connect with her father, who had become a stranger to her.

The private made public

The Dinner Guest is a strange but beguiling book. It makes public so many things which would normally remain private, but the story of Gabriela’s family has always been news, at least for people of the Basque Country.

Perhaps the act of fictionalising elements and putting family history down on paper helped Gabriela to make sense out of what, on the face of it, seems to make no sense at all.

The Dinner Guest was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize in 2016. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga: This story follows 24 hours in the life of a woman who boards an overnight bus to Bilbao carrying a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes. A former terrorist, she has just been released from prison as part of an amnesty. 
20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020