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Archive for the ‘prizewinners’ Category

I’ve never had two 5-star reads in a row – never mind three!

1) Schottenfreude reviewed earlier this month.

2) The Boat – Nam Le  (2009)

A collection of short stories written by one of the Folio Prize judges, read on the way to and during the festival.   Looking at the awards it has garnered, I don’t think it hyperbolic to suggest that this book has won nearly every literary prize there is in Australia.   And rightly so.  I remember the buzz surrounding it on publication  and I bought the book only for it to wait for 5 years before picking it up again.  Kicking myself now of course.  One of the strongest collections of short stories I’ve ever read.  (And won’t it be interesting to compare it to the inaugural Folio Prize winning short story collection?)

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia.  Speaking at the Folio Festival he said that he wasn’t interested in being the spokesperson for the Vietnamese immigrant, he wanted to explore more realities than that.  So while the collection is bookended with Vietnamese experiences (the first, an autobiographical (?) story of a Vietnamese author at the Utah creative writing centre and the last, the harrowing experience of Vietnamese boat people), other pages are populated by an adolescent hitman in Columbia, an elderly man dying of bowel cancer, high-school kids coming to terms with the mortality of their mother and the perils of dating, evacuees from Hiroshima (before the bomb), and feminist resistance in Iran.  The protagonists are all facing profound challenges and struggling to maintain control of their lives.  The worlds they inhabit are skilfully drawn and the psychologies intense, given the background stresses and dilemmas.

Do I have a favourite story?  Not really although, oddly, my least favourite Tehran Calling is proving to be the most memorable.  Le admitted that this was the story in which place was the most sketchy.  That may be so but the mood, the prevailing atmosphere of terror, brutality and claustrophobia is overwhelmingly oppressive.  My breathing’s constricting just thinking about it.  That being the author’s intention, I cannot but declare it a success.

I can’t find anything Le has published since. Is this a case of a successful debut being an impossible act to follow?  I do hope not.

3) The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Another debut which has received mega praise in the blogosphere since its release.  I purposely avoided reading it until it became a book group choice.  Our discussion began with each group member summarising the book in an adjective.  Here are the results: enchanting, mystical, ethereal, magical, enigmatic, mysterious, whimsical, unputdownable.  Only 2 dissenting voices: putdownable and confusing.  You can’t please everyone but this pleased me.

There are oodles of positive blog reviews out there, so no need for me to repeat.  What I will say though, is that in contrast to Le (who to be fair didn’t live in Vietname for long), Ivey’s novel reads like a love-letter to Alaska and her familiy’s chosen way of life (growing their own food and hunting caribou, moose and bear for meat).  It was a revelatory read: Alaska not as harsh or as uninhabitable as I previously believed.  (Still in no rush to migrate.) And I was transported – not to the 1920′s but further back in time.  Life in these pages felt much less modern than the jazz age.  Engaging characters and a mystery – plenty to discuss at book group, particularly what happened to Faina.

The group guffawed when I said I thought she’d melted!  Perhaps I bought into the premise too much?

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For this year’s Triple Dog Dare (which I’ve signed up to for two months, because March has plans of its own), I decided to read as many titles from the 2014 IMPAC Longlist as I can make time for.  To fit Triple Dog Dare criteria, the books must have been in my TBR stacks on 31.12.2013.  When I did a quick tally, I found there were 15 stashed away, and I decided to concentrate in the first instance on translated fiction.

Léon and Louise – Alex Capus3stars.GIF

Longlisted for the German Book Prize 2011

Translated from German by John BrownJohn (2012)

If there’s any moral to this story, it has to be, love will find a way.  Léon and Louise meet as teens in 1918 but just as their romance begins, they are caught up in an incident of war and separated, both believing the other dead.  Léon marries Yvonne and settles down to family life (as far as his volatile wife will allow) while Louise becomes an independent mademoiselle.  A few years later, Léon spots her on the métro and phase two begins only for the Second World War to separate the lovers again.

We know it doesn’t end there because the opening scene, that of Léon’s funeral in Notre Dame, sees a mysterious and uninvited  woman in black pay respects to the dead man by ringing a bicycle bell.  Her identity is never in much doubt (the novel’s title gives it away) but the incident sets the prevailing mood.  While the characters live through the traumas and dof the 20th century, they do not despair.  They are survivors and there is always an undercurrent of humour and charm.  In fact, you could say that Léon’s existence is charmed.  He is threatened only by his naïvety during the Nazi occupation and its immediate aftermath (and those scenes are heart-thumpingly menacing).

This is an accessible novel with interesting historical background.  Its scope perhaps too ambitious for its page count (264) necessitating the peace-time decades to be glossed over and the chameleon-like qualities of the most complex character, Léon’s wife, to be summarised in a way that tells rather than shows.  That was a shame because she was, for me, more multi-dimensional than the two title characters.

 
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante4_stars.GIF

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldsmith (2012)

The two girls at the centre of Elena Ferrante’s novel are also survivors.  Theirs, however, is a tale of a poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence in the Naples of the 1950′s. This is a harsh and violent world in which education depends on the parents’ willingness to make tough financial sacrifices. This wasn’t that long ago and I actually found this quite shocking.  These girls are of my generation and of the working class yet with such a different experience to my own. Up to this point I found the novel entertaining but my attention was waning.  Thereafter the fuse was lit and I was fully engaged.

Elena Greco meets her friend, the brilliant Lila Cerullo, on the first day of school.  Lila, who can read despite coming from an illiterate family, is clever and charismatic from the start.  She would be precocious, too, were it not for her violent father, keeping her firmly in her place and that means at home, labouring for him, instead on progressing onto middle school.  Elena’s  parents, though just as poor, are railroaded by a teacher into letting their daughter progress but their begrudging largesse comes at a price.  While clever, Elena must work hard to succeed in her studies and maintain her friendship with Lila, to whom she remains devoted and in thrall. 

This divergence of educational paths sets up two entirely different life journeys where for Elena, a typical adolescent, the grass is always greener.  So, when Lila makes the most of her very limited options in the most advantageous match that she can, Elena is envious. She hasn’t understood the doors that remain open to her and the doors that are closing on Lila.  It is Lila who presses on her the absolute necessity of continuing in education, even offering to pay for it.

“Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

In a novel written entirely from Elena’s point-of-view, this is really the first time that we hear Lila’s thoughts and they turn the premise of the title on its head.  At this point the two girls are barely 16 and Lila realises the need to escape the constraints of her upbringing.  For all her hopes, there are worryinging indications that her marriage won’t have the desired outcome.  More hopefully, however, the scales fall from the severely myopic and bespectacled Elena as she comprehends the small-mindedness and boorishness of her family and her fellow villagers.

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she (the teacher) had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

I’m actually find myself fretting, hoping that this epiphany hasn’t come too late, following her ill-advised romance with Alfonso …. Don’t tell me if you’ve read the 2nd part of this trilogy.  I’ll find out for myself very soon!

The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of A Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson5stars.GIF

Winner of the Swedish Booksellers Award 2010 / German Pioneer Prize 2011 / Danish Audiobook Award 2011 / Prix Escapades 2012

Translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury (2012)

i’ve been blogging for just short of 7 years now and I’d never used the adjective before I awarded this the most preposterous 5-star read of 2013.  I can’t sum it up any better.  I mean whoever heard of a 100-year old man with enough flexibility in his limbs to climb out of a window?  Let’s just say that’s the least strenuous of his adventures which turn into a cat and mouse chase across Sweden after he steals a suitcase containing wads of cash.  A parallel narrative takes us back over his life and reveals that we are, in fact, dealing with a superman of sorts.  That explains the steely determination and resilience of the old fellow who flees his own birthday party.  It turns out that Allan Karlsson proved to be more influential to the course of 20th century history than Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco, and Chairman Mao put together!

Suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential.  So too the quelling of the conscience asking whether it is right to laugh.  In places this comedy is blacker than black and in others absolutely immoral.  Oh yes, people get away with murder – quite gruesome murders too.  There’s an inept gang and an even more inept police inspector chasing Allan and his ever-growing entourage which comes to include an abandoned elephant. The question is who will muck it up first? (Answer – I can’t resist this –  the elephant.)

A riot from beginning to end with hidden messages about the dangers of politics and politicians.  I think that’s the message, not that I can prove it.  I was too busy laughing to collect the evidence.  Roll on the film! 

————————

Of the 152 titles on the IMPAC longlist, 41 are translations. Of those, I have now featured 10.  Links to the others below.

The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch) / 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool - Viola di Grado (Italian) / The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul (Danish) / The Dinner - Hermann Koch (Dutch) / The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg (Finnish) / The Guard - Peter Terrin (Dutch) / The Method - Juli Zeh (German)

I hope to read more before the shortlist is announced.

 

 

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Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

My thanks to Tony, our host for January in Japan, for this choice of readalong title.  What a good un!

The Diving Pool contains contains 3 short stories; each with a female protagonist; each with, let’s just say, psychological issues.  I’m not going to say much about them here as they are too short and surprising to be ruined by any spoilers.  I do want to point out that Ogawa knows how to turn seemingly normal stories – a teenage crush, an expectant aunt, a woman seeking university digs for her younger cousin – into something macabre and twisted without hamming up the horror. Sometimes the shock is a sudden change in behaviour, seemingly incongruous, but later understood to be driven by personal resentment as in The Diving Pool.  Sometimes it is the accumulation of small detail that builds up a portrait of envy and jealousy as in the Akutagawa prize-winning Pregnancy.  If ever there was a demonstration of how to be kind to be cruel, this is it.   The third story, Dormitory, my favourite, only because it’s a bit of a puzzle.  It has the most surreal character I can recall, and the most emotionally detached.  We know something awful has happened or do we?  What were your expectations of the damp patch on the ceiling?  I know I was expecting it to be something much worse that it was and the way my imagination was led in that direction was masterful.

Anyway, I raced through these stories and enjoyed their creepiness and darkness so much that I immediately located the most recent collection of Ogawa’s stories, Revenge, in the TBR.  Methinks, second helpings are called for sooner rather than later.

35_stars.GIF

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Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize

Winner of the 2013 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award

Was I surprised that a crime novel won the Booker prize last year?  Not really.  Stuart Kelly, one of the judges, had revealed his penchant for literary crime at a Bloody Scotland event the year before.  I had an inkling …..

 Was I surprised that an historical novel took the prize for the second year running?  I was, although I realise that the judges weren’t having a The Luminaries vs Bring up the Bodies debate.  Although now that I have finished, I am.  Catton’s novel isn’t winning.

The crux of my problem is this.  I didn’t approach The Luminaries in the right way.  I had a copy and, after hearing Catton speak at last summer’s Edinburgh Book Festival about how a major concern was to make this novel an entertaining read, I was looking forward to reading it immensely.  Then I was offered a review copy of the audio book, which I accepted.

I began mid-October of last year.  It’s a massive undertaking particularly when I only listen to audiobooks when driving.   A 20 minute commute to work, 40 minutes per day, 5 days a week. I reckoned that it would take about 8 weeks to work my way through it.  Except that I never felt like listening the way home (concentration levels zilch after work) and then there were times when I didn’t feel like listening it at all ….. because in places it was just taking too long to get anywhere.  This book is not designed to be listened to in 20 minute snatches when concentrating on the roads; it is a book requiring long periods of attention, during which the reader or the listener can savour, even delight in the resurrection of the 19th century adverb and the author’s cleverness. 

How do I know?  Because I got home on the 30th of December and I still had about 10 hours listening time remaining.  At that rate, it would be time for the next Edinburgh Book Festival and I’d still be listening to it! So I decided to read to the end.  I was disheartened to realise that, after 2 months, I had only reached page 478.  Still 350 pages to go.  

3 reading sessions (about 4 hours) and I finished it on New Year’s Day!  This confirmed that a) I had approached it all wrong; b) if I’d read it, it would have probably taken me a week to 10 days to read cover to cover, and I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more.  This is taking nothing away from Mark Meadows’s reading, which is excellent, very listener-friendly, but ill-suited to the short bursts of attention I was giving his performance.

Much has been made of the structure.  I’m going to ignore the astrological references - of which there are many, some overt, others hidden, and which I find regrettable. I will, however, concentrate on the golden spiral; the rules of which dictate that each section must be half the length of the preceding.  In practice, the first section is 170,000 words (360 pages) long, and the 12th section only 96 words.  I admire the cleverness of this but it does mean that the beginning sections of the book do go on … and on … and on. If you love Dickens and Trollope, this is for you.   If not, you must persevere because there is a payback ….. eventually.  I haven’t seen this mentioned elsewhere but there comes a point (page 700) when the forward motion of the story stops and we begin to go backward in time.  That transition is seamless and from here on in, all the missing pieces of the jigsaw appear ; questions are answered, not always explicitly, it is true, but that is entirely in keeping with Catton’s ethos of a literary crime novel.

Anyway, I have reached the end to find myself in a state of ambivalence.  I enjoyed the modern take on the 19th century epic in which Catton throws away the decorum of the originals, exploring in detail themes that could only be mentionly obliquely in those days. I enjoyed too the packaging of the novel that is both reminiscent of its ancestors yet highly original.  At times though the packaging got in the way and I found myself thinking, is this a case of all style and no substance?  I don’t find myself quite believing that accusation though, even if not able to speak coherently for the defence.  And so I break my new reviewing rule (only to review 4-star reads or above) with my first “review” of 2014.  Heck, I worked hard to get to the end page.  For that reason alone the moment deserves to be recorded for posterity.

35_stars.GIF

Other opinions: Here’s a man who loved reading it.  Here’s a woman who loved listening to it.  And here’s someone who simply ran out of patience!

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Winner 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Translated by David Colmer

When his novel was announced the winner of the IMPAC award, Bakker spoke of the need to go lie down for a while. He’d recovered somewhat when I saw him at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival thanks to the prize-money allowing him to buy a isolated property (I think he said it was on an island) where he could enjoy the peace, quiet and the wonders of Mother Nature.

Those interests are very evident in The Twin.  Set on one of the few remaining farms near the IJsselmeer, the discipline and rigours of farm life set a undeviating pattern. The cows must be milked, the sheep cared for and the donkeys fed like clockwork. The landscape and the seasons are painstakingly depicted. The world turns and life continues on its predictable course …

… to death. In the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, an old man lies dying, Watched by a big black crow. His relationship with his son Helmer, the eponymous twin of the English title, is shall we say, complex. Henk, the other twin, the favoured son, is long dead and Helmer is still coming to terms with the loss. It has, without a shadow of a doubt marred his life. For starters, it meant that he had to abandon his plans for an academic career and return home to take over the farm. It never occurred to him to say no. So for years he has been consigned to this lonely existence and completely resentful of the father who ruined his life.

As the story slowly unfolds – Bakker does take his time with this – it becomes apparent that Helmer actually lost his brother when Henk fell in love with the beautiful Riet, who inadvertently caused his death. 30 years later and Riet reappears, wanting Helmer to take her own truculent teenage son, Henk (not the son of Henk by the way) under his wing and teach him some purpose. As you can imagine the undercurrents of this drama are quite strong and yet Bakker’s prose is so spare that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Helmer takes it all in his stride. It’s almost as if he’s in a state of suspended animation.

And yet the events here are an ideal opportunity for him to break out of his emotional paralysis and begin to live properly. As the psychological profile of the man deepens, it becomes more apparent that he’s not going o be able to do it. Small glimpses of happiness that are scattered throughout are evidence of what could have been (the delight and the antics of the neighbour’s small sons, the obvious tenderness Helmer feels towards his donkeys and his relationship with Jaap) actually emphasise the tragedy of a man trapped by circumstance and his own personality.

The cumulative effect of the story and the insertion of clever details (the neighbour spying on Helmer with binoculars, echoes of the past in the present, a frisson of homoeroticism) makes for a moving read, although the spare – actually the really spare prose – lessens the impact for me. Bakker says that his former career as a subtitle writer taught him what to leave out, and others praise his writing as subtle and restrained. In places though I found it rather frustrating, particularly when people did strange things with no accompanying explanation. This was true of The Detour also but the Emily Dickinson poem held that novel together wonderfully and it all came together in the end. While The Twin is undoubtedly sad and subtle, it remained a little mystifying.

Nowhere more so that in the subplot about the egg …. explanations in comments welcome.

stars3

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Time once more to focus in on Dutch literature as Iris kicks off Dutch Literature Fortnight. And I’m starting with a book that I fully expect to take my Best of 2013 Black Comedy award … although really I should not be laughing.

Winner Dutch Audience Award 2009
Translated by Sam Garrett (Interviewed here.)

4 adults meet for dinner in a swanky restaurant. Two brothers and their wives. The elder brother is a politician, well-known, used to calling the shots. His younger brother, the narrator, resentful of all that brings with it. It soon becomes clear that this is no recreational appointment – there is something unpleasant that the two families must confront ..

…. a deeply disturbing crime committed by their children. (And one based on a real case.)

The criminals thus far remain unidentified by the police, and, indeed, the narrator isn’t even sure if his wife knows. He is sure, however, that his brother, the politician, does know and has decided that the time is nigh for decisive action.

So, as they take their seats and procrastinate their way through the courses, continually interrupted by the maître d’hôtel and his high-faluting upselling of the dishes served,

These are Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary ….

undercurrents exert their drag, nerves begin to fray and barely concealed animosities surface. When the politician, supremo of the dramatic public gesture, reveals his intentions, all hell breaks loose.

Interwoven with the conversation at table is the history of what has been happening at home since the awful event – all from the viewpoint of the narrator. Turns out, in his preoccupation to protect his wife, he unwittingingly developed a blind spot and that the wives aren’t attending this dinner to simply provide polite conversation.

And in an another twist on people not being what they seem, the ever-increasing polarised views of the narrator give more than one pause for thought.

I started this review suggesting that its subject is no laughing matter. That’s certainly true but the narrative voice is so superbly jaundiced, outraged and entertaining that it’s impossible not to. Neither have I ever had my moral compass so thoroughly subverted. How far would you go to protect the ones you love? asks the front cover. Think you know? Read this and think again!

4stars

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Spies in the bedroom, spies on the roof,
Spies in the bathroom, we’ve got proof.
Spies on the lawn where the shadows harden,
Spies behind the gooseberries in the kitchen garden,
Spies at the front door, spies at the back,
And hiding in the coat-stand underneath a mac.
Spies in the cupboard under the stairs,
Spies in the cellar, they’ve been there for years.

(Ernst Toller translated by W H Auden)

The amazing thing about this poem is its comedic tone. Admittedly it formed part of Ernst Toller’s 1935 comedy No More Peace, but, by that time Toller was in exile in London, having fled Germany for his life along with other left-wing friends, declared enemies of the state by Nazi Germany. Can I assume that Toller wrote this comedy before the mysterious death of Dora Fabian, his lover and fellow exile and, therefore, before the hopelessness of their unequal fight against the Nazi state became undeniable? Dora’s death, the trigger of a downward spiral into depression that ended in Toller’s suicide in a hotel room in 1939. Not sure if that is a historical fact but it’s certainly portrayed that way in Anna Funder’s 2012 Miles Franklin Award winning novel, All that I am.

The novel recreates the life of the left-wing German exiles, people who were allowed to stay in Britain on the condition that they reneged on further political activity. The British government of the mid-1930′s wanted to keep the peace. It simply did not want any uncomfortable facts uncovering about Hitler’s regime. Even when that implacable regime sent its assassins to foreign lands to rid it of its opponents. The exiles were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. And so with extraordinary courage, they continued their attempts to bring the truth of Nazi Germany to light.

The spy song above is quoted at the start of Part II of Funder’s novel, by which time it is no longer comedic but claustrophobic. Who knew that the Gestapo spread is tentacles so far, so soon? I certainly didn’t. In fact I was completely unacquainted with this period of history and so this novel was a constant surprise to me and as the net tightened around the historical cast, I felt their fear, admired their courage and groaned at the inevitable betrayal(s).

Let me name some of the characters: Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans and Ruth Wesemann, Mathilde Wurm. Google searches ( I couldn’t resist) revealed the fates of those people but Funder’s re-imagining of their lives put me under their not always admirable skins …

… once I’d got to grips with the structure. What took me some time to work out was the timeline of the dual narratives which both focussed on the figure of Dora Fabian.  Ruth Wesemann is looking back from her death bed in Australia in 1991 while Ernst Toller, in the grip of a deep depression, does the same from the Mayflower Hotel in California in 1939. Once I’d got my bearings, I raced through the pages.

I’ve made a note to return to this one day to pay more attention to Ruth’s philosophising on her own mortality; a strand of the novel subsumed on first reading by the sensational events of the past.

4stars

I read this for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong.

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Winner of the 2010 Planeta Prize

Translated by Nick Caistor

The Planeta Prize is the richest prize for a single work of fiction in the world. The prize is worth EU 601,000!!! And I cheered mightily hard when Eduardo Mendoza won it 3 years ago. Mendoza was the first Spanish novelist to be added to my completist reading list and that was due to my guffawing my way through No Word from Gurb. So it’s no surprise that I dropped everything when this little beauty dropped through the letter box.

Anthony Whitelands is the eponymous Englishman, an art historian who is looking to make a name for himself. The discovery of a lost master would do it. So when he is invited to value a Spanish aristocrat’s private collection, he accepts the assignment with more hope than certainty. Actually that’s a bit unfair. Anthony loves Spain; the Prado is his second home; Velazquez, possibly the love of his life, and with Spain on the brink of Civil War, this may be his last chance to visit for some time.

A few weeks later: Anthony had come to Madrid to value a paintng, but without knowing how seemed to have become a collision point for all the forces in the history of Spain. He has unwittingly marked himself as a Falangist sympathiser, the Spanish authorities are keeping a close eye on his movements, as indeed is his own embassy. The Communists have, for some reason, marked him for assassination.

This would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. And it would be serious, if I cared about Whitelands as a character. But I’m afraid not. He is a libertine, an opportunist and a bit slow on the uptake. He’d love to be a player, but he is played, well and truly, by all and sundry.

It’s funny how a title can change the focus of a read. The English title, legitimate given the content, is obviously designed to appeal to the English readership. The Spanish title, Riña de gatos, is literally translated Cat Fight, and places the emphasis firmly on the political shenanigans of 1936. The book is populated by historical figures of the time amongst them Antonio Primer de Rivera, leader of the Falange and, of course, Francisco Franco. If the naive Anthony Whiteland thinks he can herd these cats, then more fool him.

The tone remains ironic and good-humoured throughout what may, on the surface, appear to be a rattling good adventure. Those seeking the darker seams of history will find them, albeit hidden in the analysis of the art works that are central to the plot. For instance, there is a recurring motif of Whitelands confronted with Titian’s Death of Acteon. Never a favourite of his but as time goes by, it unsettles him more and more.

20130526-203444.jpg

This is the moment when Diana, taking revenge on Actaeon for surprising her as she bathed naked in the woods, transforms him into a stag. Thereafter his own hounds attack and kill him. In the painting Actaeon is still visibly human but the transformation is in progress. It is the moment of no return. As a metaphor, this may apply to Whitelands, who may have observed something that is too dangerous for him to know. It also applies to Spain herself, depicted moments before she begins to rip herself to shreds. It’s just a question of which political dog is going to take the first bite.

3hstars

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Translated by Michael Reynolds

What are the chances of following a German novel set in Scarborough with an Italian novel set in Leeds? What is the fascination with Yorkshire? Certainly not the weather.

Welcome to Leeds, says Camelia, a purulent freckle …..where the sky is as grey as a chicken thigh. It’s always winter in Leeds, anything else is a warm-up band that screams itself hoarse for two minutes and dies. The story may or may not – actually it probably does – begin in December, psychologically speaking the month most attuned to Camelia’s mood.

She is in the grip of grief for her father, who has died in a car accident with his mistress. The shock has turned Camelia’s mother into a catatonic mute and Camelia has sacrificed her place at college to return to the slum called home to care for her. It’s an isolating sacrifice because her mother communicates only in the language of looks. No words are exchanged but entire conversations take place …. I suspect that at times Camelia is really talking to herself here … and we all know in that road madness lies.

Both women are eccentric at the start. Camelia’s mother expends her brief moments of activity taking photographs in the house – she never leaves it. Camelia rescues clothes from a bin and remodels them, into highly original, actually grotesque and ugly, creations. Ironically both habits lead to new relationships with the potential to thaw the metaphorical winter ….

Unfortunately lIfe has more disappointments in store. (A bit like many warm-up bands.) Camelia is ill-equipped to cope. There are times when she appears quite lucid. As a language student of Chinese and an Italian to English translator, she is intelligent but she is not rational. It doesn’t take much for other people to unhinge her and provoke an overreaction. Oh yes, she’s happy to judge others adversely without applying some moral framework to her own behaviour. The clues are there throughout and even though I knew it could not end well, I did not foresee that ending.  A bleak winter turns nuclear.

There is a preoccupation with language in these pages with symbolic undertones and foreshadowing in the Chinese lessons. This which works even those I know nothing about Chinese. For those who do, there are even greater depths to appreciate.

And all this from an author in her early twenties – a worthy winner of Italy’s Campiello First Novel Prize.

4stars

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From the moment Peirene announced the series of the small epic, I was worried. Not that I doubted the quality of the offerings for a moment. The nymph does have impeccable taste. My concern stemmed from the fact that my least favourite Peirene Press title is the novella-sized Stone in A Landslide. What did I write in that review: “Too short for its scope ….. so much to tell, so little space ….. I always felt like an observer looking in, never absorbed”. For this reader the 2012 series was fraught with danger and I held off and held off some more – despite rave reviews for all 3 in the blogosphere. Then I decided this read had to be done, particularly if I was to be up-to-date before the really promising 2013 Turning Point series hits the shelves. Deep breathe – here we go – in reverse order of publication, for reasons that will become clear …..

Peirene No 9 Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (Translated from the German by Jaimie Bulloch)

Winner of the Prix des Auditeurs de La Radio Suisse Romande

As an object, this is undoubtedly the most beautiful book that Peirene has produced. It tells of the life of the influential Chinese painter, Bada Shanren, and contains a number of his paintings. Bada Shanren began life as Zhu Da, a prince of the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Turbulent times and he had to flee for his life to a Buddhist monastery, leaving behind his wife and young son – without it appears a second thought as to their safety. 40 years later, when the Qing dynasty is no longer as insecure and having learned that his wife and son have died (no details are given) he leaves the monastery to take a second wife because he feels the need to preserve his line. The second marriage is not a happy one (scant detail is given) but it is at this time that he begins to live the life of an artist using the skills taught him in the monastery.

You can tell from the above that I wasn’t concentrating of the focus of Weihe’s work – i.e the development of Bada Shanren’s career and almost philosophical relationship with his brushes and ink. This story is told in beautiful lyrical prose, I admit, but I was more interested in his failed human relationships and his alleged madness. These gaps were bound to frustrate me. I accept that condensing the 80 year life of Bada Shanren into 107 pages requires a strict scoping exercise. Weihe, for instance, does not even mention Bada Shanren’s poetry. The result, however, is an episodic structure in 51 small chapters and a work that makes me want to repeat my review of Peirene No 2. stars3

Peirene No 8 The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

Winner of the 2009 Danske Banks Litteraturpris

Having established that I don’t like narrative gaps, Pia Juul’s book was bound to drive me demented, wasn’t it? And yet ….

Right at the start – page 3 to be exact – Halland’s corpse is found in the street. He has been shot and his partner of 10 years, Bess, is initially accused by a neighbour of the crime. The story is narrated by Bess, who behaves very strangely. But then she always has – leaving her husband for Halland, after a 5-minute meeting in a bookshop. Her relationship with Halland never seeming to be worth the price of the resulting estrangement from her teenage daughter. After Halland’s death Bess’s grief for her daughter blends seemlessly into her grief for Halland – or does it? People and details from Halland’s past begin to emerge which could lead to a revision of the 10 years she has spent with him.  Bess seems to be in denial. Then, people from her past reappear, seemingly out of nowhere, with motivations that appear flimsy – at least to me.

The question is how far can we believe Bess. She’s as unreliable as unreliable goes. She even tells us so and it’s a supreme irony that I believe her ….

Actually there’s a great deal that I haven’t mentioned. How could I possibly include everything? Nonetheless there is something that I haven’t mentioned that I must have left out on purpose.

The job of the reader is to work out what that something is and let’s say that because the gaps in Bess’s story are huge there’s plenty of room for manoeuver. This could be very frustrating, particularly if you wanted an answer to the whodunnit, which the author refuses to supply.  Despite this, I’m pretty clear about what I think happened, though not so clear about why I think that way.

I’d quite happily re-read this with my book group. I reckon the discussion would be never-ending.  3hstars

Peirene No 7 The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg (Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah)

Nothing like sibling rivalry to conjure up a good old-fashioned family feud. Cherchez la femme and even more originally, cherchez le cheval! Add the Swedish-Russian war during which the brothers fought on opposing sides to create a plethora of unresolved grievance, festering and lying in ambush of some future time.

That time appears to be 1809 when, following the war, both brothers return to the farmstead on which they were raised. It is winter. The landscape is frozen and the atmosphere is just as icy.

The war has been waged, but here we may yet have corpses, so speaks the first of 7 first-person narrators. 7 narrators in a 115 page novella – it could get confusing but it doesn’t. Firstly there are signifiers whenever the narrator changes and secondly, each narrator has a distinct voice and point of view. Revelation upon revelation follows until it is clear that the problems I outlined above are the least of this family’s problems. There are further secrets hidden in the past and even greater betrayals to come. The question is from which direction? I’ll be honest, it took me by surprise, even though as I skim through the text again, the clues are there.

The moody, dark, brooding, and sometimes earthy language brings the drama right off the page. Twists and turns aplenty and yet it never feels rushed. Sahlberg even has time to weave in some wonderful symbolism – the decrepit house, a visual representation of the state of the family for instance. The Brothers has been described as Shakespearian and I heartily agree. More importantly there are no narrative gaps, and that makes this the most absorbing and satisfying read of the series.  4stars

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