6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation 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. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2021

[UNDERSTATEMENT WARNING] 2021 has been strange and absurd and crazy and stressful and happy and sad and all kinds of things, hasn’t it?

But the one consistency in this rollercoaster of a year has been all the books I have been able to buy, borrow, read and review. I have read so many excellent novels I have been putting off choosing the best 10 because it’s just so difficult to pick which ones to include and which to leave out. So this year, I’m making an exception — and choosing a Baker’s Dozen instead.

I read a total of 89 books, just a few more than last year, and most were published in 2021, but the books I am going to select here aren’t all new, they’re simply ones I chose to read between 1 January and 31 December regardless of the year they were published.

In fact, I made a concerted effort to read older books by embarking on a plan to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May in a project I dubbed #TBR21. I actually managed to complete this but never did a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fifth time and managed to successfully read 20 books from my TBR — all listed here.

Other projects I did this year included running Southern Cross Crime Month in March and #BIPOC2021, which was my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the year (I read 12 in total). Once again, I attempted to read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist but only managed three out of five. (It didn’t help that I was in the throes of purchasing a new apartment at the time.)

I also participated in various other challenges and blogger events across the year, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 (a wrap-up post will follow tomorrow), Bellezza’s Japanese Literature ChallengeGerman Literature Month, Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and non-fiction November.

Phew! That’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito (2021)

A wickedly fun story about a narcissistic, paranoid, upper-class woman who believes her writer husband has used her as inspiration for one of his unsavoury characters in his latest best-selling novel.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021)

Tracing the downfall of a white Afrikaans family over the space of 40 years, this year’s Booker Prize-winner is framed around four funerals, each about a decade apart, and uses a style and structure inspired by filmmakers to create a dazzling novel that feels fresh and new.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy (1981)

Set in tropical Darwin in 1967, this masterful coming-of-age story is about a teenage boy who takes piano lessons from a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past.

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

A brilliant gem of a novel set in the 1990s, it recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan (2020)

A haunting tale of a long-distance lorry driver trying to come to terms with the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

A deeply affecting dystopian novel set on an island in which residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects — including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars — by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police which round-up and  “disappear” anyone who disobeys.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jock Serong (2017)

A hugely entertaining tale of two brothers, one good and one bad, who rise to become successful cricketers on the world stage.

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff (1931)

An utter delight to read, this heartwarming tale perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside.

‘Here we are’ by Graham Swift (2020)

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, this is a truly immersive story about three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

I hope you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2021, I’d love to know.

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2021 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Bass Rock’ to ‘Breath’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI honestly can’t believe it is June already. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but where does the time go?

Anyway, it’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month, the starting book is…

The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld (2020)
I haven’t read this novel, which won this year’s Stella Prize, though it has been lingering in my digital TBR for quite some time. I know that an element of it is historical fiction set in Scotland, which brings to mind another book with a similar background…

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin (2016)
In this richly evocative novel by Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin, we meet Meggie Tulloch, a woman born in the late 19th century to a traditional fishing family on the north-east coast of Scotland. Spanning 1891 to 1932, Maggie shares her life story, including her time as a “herring girl” and her later marriage and emigration to the other side of the world. This brings to mind…

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop (2015)
This is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It tells the story of an English woman who, together with her Anglo-Indian husband and two young children, becomes a “£10 POM” and emigrates in the early 1960s to begin a new life in Western Australia. But things don’t go according to plan and Charlotte struggles with the homesickness and dislocation that every emigrant feels. This brings to mind…

Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín (2009)
One of my favourite novels, Brooklyn captures the emigrant’s sense of dislocation so beautifully it made me cry. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irishwoman from Co. Wexford, who leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. This brings to mind…

‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson (2014)
Set in Canada in the 1960s, this book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. There are three different threads to the tale, but the most evocative one (in my opinion) is that of Megan Cartwright, who moves to London and finds her dream job (after many ups and downs) running a small boutique hotel. This brings to mind…

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011)
In this strangely beautiful Japanese novel, we meet 17-year-old Mari, who helps run a hotel on the coast with her overbearing mother. Late one evening two hotel guests, a screaming woman and her male companion, are ejected from the premises. Later, Mari, who is alarmingly young and naive, strikes up a friendship with the man — more than 50 years her senior — that morphs into a rather deviant sexual affair. This brings to mind…

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton (2009)
This gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story is about a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, better known as “Pikelet”, is a bit of an outsider, but he develops a bond with “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, and everything changes. The pair fall in with an older surfer, Sando, who challenges them to try surfing in often dangerous and remote locations, but it’s the clandestine (and deviant sexual) relationship that Pikelet has with the Sando’s American girlfriend that takes him into deadly territory…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about three generations of women in Scotland to a tale of teenage boys growing up in Western Australia, via four stories about emigration and a Japanese novel focused on a strange romance between an older man and a teenage girl.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 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.

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.


‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.


‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.


‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.


‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

5 books, Book lists

5 books for Women in Translation month

5-books-200pixAugust is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation.

Why? Mainly to redress the balance: figures suggest that just 30 per cent of literature in translation is written by women. According to blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, the situation has changed little over the past three years — and now it’s time to change it. (This post gives you all the stats you need to know.)

It’s great to see that this year’s #WITMonth seems to have really caught the imagination of readers, publishers and booksellers everywhere. All the major bookshops here in London — Waterstones, Folyes, the LRB et al — have got behind it. So, too, has the Reading Agency.

I’m a keen reader of translated fiction (you can see everything I’ve reviewed here), so thought I would highlight some of my favourites by women writers. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

This is an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which is supposedly based on the author’s own life. Set in Indochina in 1929, it is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, and the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge to it. It’s not a story that is easily forgotten…

Bad intentions

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Three young men go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake, but only two of them return to shore. It’s not so much what happens, but why that makes this novella such a terrifically good read, one that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. It’s the ninth volume of Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, but it works as a stand-alone book. I’ve read quite a few of Fossum’s crime novels — and I’ve yet to come across a bad one.

This-place-holds-no-fear

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten

One of my favourite reads from 2015, this extraordinarily beautiful novel is both a touching portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over. How do such people damaged by the unfathomable horror and trauma of the Nazi death camps get on with their lives? Based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling.

Hotel Iris

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This is another haunting tale about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. But Ogawa’s story is more dark and twisted than Duras’ (above). The affair puts the woman in danger because the man is a sexual deviant and prone to unexpected rages and no one knows that the pair have hooked up. This tension-filled story is written in such a quietly understated and restrained style it’s not until you finish it that you realise how strange and disturbing it really is…

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

This profoundly moving novella looks at what happens when a mother feels she can’t cope with her children. She takes them on a holiday to the seaside but doesn’t have the money to do much other than pay for the squalid accommodation that she’s arranged for them. The kind of story that could have been lifted from the news headlines, this has an earth-shattering ending that will make you think twice about judging women who commit infanticide.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa

The-housekeeper-and-the-professor

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 180 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

After working my way through a slew of dark novels, how wonderful to pick up Yoko Ogawa‘s The Housekeeper and the Professor — published under the title The Gift of Numbers in some territories — which proved to be a rather charming read.

A housekeeper and her client

First published in Japan in 2003 but set in the early 1990s, the book traces the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes. This means that every morning when she arrives on his doorstep to begin her shift, she must introduce herself, because he cannot remember who she is.

“What’s your shoe size?”
This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.
“Twenty-four centimetres.”
“There’s a sturdy number,” he said. “It’s the factorial of four.”
He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.
“What’s a factorial?” I asked at last. I felt I should try to find out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.
“The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,” he said, without opening his eyes. “What’s your telephone number?”
He nodded, as if deeply impressed. “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off: he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number, and that I was somehow special for having it.

Initially, the housekeeper is slightly wary of the Professor — she is the ninth housekeeper he has had in a very short space of time — but it doesn’t take long for them to develop a good working relationship. Their conversations mainly turn around numbers, because they “were his way of reaching out to the world”.

Later she is  given permission for her 10-year-old son to come to the Professor’s house after school. The Professor dubs him Root after the square root sign — “a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers” — and helps him with his homework.

A love of mathematics

The narrator’s quiet, understated voice draws you in as she begins to understand that the Professor sees numbers as a source of comfort. Over time, she, too, develops a love of numbers.

In school, I had hated math so much that the mere sight of the textbook made me feel ill. But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain — not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher.

Not a great deal happens — this isn’t an action-packed book with a fast-moving plot — but it’s such an endearing story that it’s difficult not to be moved by its simplicity and its quiet little moments of triumph, joy and sadness. Its tinged with nostalgia and melancholia, but is never depressing or “heavy”.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel about finding order in a world of chaos. It’s a wonderfully refreshing look at making connections with people in a way that defies the usual societal conventions and is written in eloquent prose dotted with theorems and equations, which read like poetry.

Despite the fact the trio — an uneducated single mother, a young boy and a learned man with a head injury — seem to have nothing in common, a shared love of baseball brings them together (thanks to all the statistics related to batting averages, home runs and so on). Without them even realising, they form a kind of family based on mutual respect, trust and friendship. And I loved spending time with them.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Yoko Ogawa

‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, a strangely beguiling and disturbing novel about an unhealthy relationship between a young woman and an older man.

Her latest book, Revenge, is just as beguiling and just as disturbing. It is published in the UK tomorrow (January 31), but it was first published in her native Japan in 1998 — I’m glad I wasn’t holding my breath for the English translation! I do, however, think it was worth the wait.

Eleven dark tales

But first, let’s get one thing clear. Revenge is not a novel but a series of interlinked short stories. The tag line on the frontispiece of my proof edition describes them as “Eleven dark tales” — and that’s exactly what they are.

I should probably point out that I am not a massive fan of short stories, in the sense that I don’t tend
to seek them out, yet whenever I read a short story collection — and I’ve read several over the past few years — I tend to enjoy them very much. I don’t quite understand my own prejudice, especially when I pick up a collection as exquisite as this one and revel in each and every story. I then wonder why I don’t read more of the genre.

But Revenge is not your average collection of disparate stories sandwiched together under the same binding. There are recurring motifs and images throughout, and characters move from one tale to another, which gives some semblance of a narrative thread, but mostly these tales work by what they do inside your head. I’m not sure I can explain it very well, but reading this book is a bit like experiencing a rather lucid dream punctuated by a recurring sense of déjà vu.

For instance, in one story there is mention of an abandoned post office filled with kiwi fruit. In another story you come to find out how those kiwi fruit came to be stored in the building and who put them there. In a later story someone eats a kiwi fruit.

It’s the same with strawberry shortcake. In the opening story a woman enters a bakery to buy a strawberry shortcake to mark her late son’s birthday, something she’s been doing ever since his death more than a decade earlier. In another story, a character eats a strawberry shortcake. Further into the book, the bakery is mentioned several times.

A book filled with lightbulb moments

The effect of reading this book is this: you end up holding a million images in your head and when you recognise the links — between characters, settings and themes — it’s like a lightbulb going off. I had to stop myself from saying “a-ha!” every 10 or so pages as various aspects slotted into place.

It’s not gimmicky though. In fact, Ogawa writes in such a lovely, poetic, mesmerising (and entirely understated) way I found myself being lulled into an almost hypnotic state as I read this.

That said, there are some gruesome images in this book and many of the characters behave in cruel and often inexplicable ways. There’s even a macabre murder, something that caught me completely by surprise and was all the more effective for having shocked me so unexpectedly.

Loss and alienation

As ever with contemporary Japanese fiction, the text is pervaded by an aching sense of loss and alienation. People behave oddly towards one another and there are huge gaps in understanding between the old and young, men and women. (I have to note that many of the stories are written in the first person and the gender of the narrator is not always clear — I was often surprised to discover that midway through the story someone I thought was male was female, and vice versa.)

I suspect fans of Japanese fiction, and Yoko Ogawa in particular, will enjoy this collection very much, but anyone fascinated by writing — the act of doing it, the creative aspects of it, the nuts and bolts of it — will love the way Revenge constantly exposes the illusion of fiction. More please.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa

Hotel-Iris

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 164 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to Japanese fiction the number of authors I have read could be counted on just one hand. I know my sample is not statistically significant, but I’ve found Japanese fiction hugely enjoyable. I have particularly appreciated the simple but elegant prose style and the sometimes dark and eerie subject matter. I’m not sure if that’s a distinctively Japanese trademark, but it seems like every Japanese novel I’ve read has married the beautiful with the terrifying.

Enter Yoko Ogawa‘s latest novel Hotel Iris. This slim book is both strange and lovely. I ate it up on a lovely sunny afternoon, sitting by a pond in Richmond Park. The pleasant and pretty location in which I read it was such a contrast to the occasionally ugly content of the novel.

In the story we meet 17-year-old Mari, who is under the thumb of her overbearing mother. Together they run a hotel on the Japanese coast, although Mari mainly works the front desk and runs errands.

Late one evening there’s a scene in the hotel. A screaming woman is thrown out of Room 202 and lies on the floor hurling abuse at a man who is still inside the room.

Her insults stopped for a moment, but then a pillow flew out of the room, hitting her square in the face, and the screaming started all over again. The pillow lay on the landing, smeared with lipstick. Roused by the noise, a few guests had now gathered in the hall in their pajamas. My mother appeared from our apartment in the back.

“You pervert! Creep! You’re not fit for a cat in heat.” The prostitute’s voice, ragged and hoarse with tears, dissolved into coughs and sobs as one object after another came flying out of the room: a hanger, a crumpled bra, the missing high heel, a handbag.

Both the woman, and her male companion, are ejected from the hotel. But a few days later, when Mari spies the man buying toothpaste at a housewares shop, she inexplicably decides to follow him. He knows he is being followed and confronts her. Then, in a weird twist, the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s unlikely, because the man is 50 years her senior and he’s not exactly normal. Not only is he prone to unexpected rages, he has a few sexual quirks that seem almost psychopathic.

But it’s that very danger which attracts Mari. She’s so young, inexperienced and naive, she seems blissfully unaware of the jeopardy awaiting her. As the relationship becomes more and more dependent, and Mari enters a darker and more twisted world, you wish her mother, usually so controlling, would step in and sort things out. But her mother seems blind to Mari’s cover — that her time spent with the man is spent caring for an elderly woman.

And yet, despite the illicit and sexually deviant nature of their affair, there’s something almost tender and touching about it too. That Ogawa manages to convey that without going into extravagant detail is an achievement in itself.

Ogawa is very good at scene setting, too, conveying the noise, clamour and heat of a Japanese seaside resort in just a few short sentences.

The tide was out, and the seawall was half exposed, a jagged edge against the calm surface of the sea. Some children had scrambled up to the highest point and were jumping into the water one after the other. White spray billowed up each time one of them hit the surface, but I was too far away to hear the splash. The shorebirds, as if imitating the children, plunged into the sea in search of fish.

But what I like most about Hotel Iris is the restrained style of the narrative. Everything is held perfectly in check. And yet it brims with tension. Will Mari be okay? Will her boyfriend turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

This is the kind of novel that left me with a strange after taste, but it’s also one that makes me want to explore more of this fascinating author’s work.