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imageShortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Danish by Misha Hoekstra

As a veteran of the hapless driving lesson (I almost put the car in a ditch within 5 minutes of sitting behind the wheel for the first time, then drove my driving instructor to bang his head against a brick wall – of his own volition – 10 minutes before my driving test, passed first time incidentally!), I was looking forward to the misadventures of Dorthe Nors’s heroine.  Could they possibly live up to mine?

Well, yes, but in an entirely different way.  Sonja’s technical battles with the motor car are not helped by a driving instructor, who wants only to talk about herself whilst driving the car by proxy.   The mysteries of the gear box are solved only when Sonja – after much soul-searching – requests a change of instructor, but Folke brings with him a whole new set of issues ….

The shifting of gears is, of course, a metaphor for Sonja’s life.  Now 40,  she has been living in Copenhagen for 20 years, but it has yet to become home.  She’s a fish out of water, really, unable to adapt like her friend, Molly, who has become quite the city girl.  A shy, introverted soul, struggling to cope with the brash people surrounding her, establish new friendships, and to reconcile with her estranged sister, Kate, it comes as a surprise that Sonja fills her days translating the violent crime novels of the fictional Swedish author, Gösta Svensson. The content of these is such a dizzying contrast to the Sonja’s inner narrative, it’s small wonder she is afflicted with positional vertigo.

She needs a moment of illumination.  Which, because this is a gentle, comical novel about contemporary loneliness, must arrive in a gentle, comical way to be fitting.  It is a moment so well judged, it will become one of my favourites of the reading year.  All I’m saying is that it involves a traffic light!

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is easy reading. I suspect the enjoyment factor will be determined by the reader’s reaction to Sonja.  I was initially exasperated by her passivity, but found myself empathising more than I expected towards the end.  She’s a poor, wee soul, needing to find her way home. I’m glad that Nors made it possible.


This post is stage 9 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again With Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: USA

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Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

Let me say this in advance.  Only one thing would have increased my pleasure while reading this novel of Norwegian island life – and that would have been foul weather in Scotland!  I’m not complaining, but there was a real disconnect while the protagonists were battling the elements and I was sitting under glorious blue skies in Lanarkshire during late May/early June.  Absolutely no reflection on the novel.  I just have to mark the what was perhaps the most wonderful spell of weather since I arrived in Scotland 28 years ago.

Diversions and typically British obsessions aside, let’s get back to the novel.

The island in question is Barroy, inhabited by 3 generations of one family, scratching their living from fishing as best they can.  And yet, the family head, Hans, has ambitions.  He wants to build a quay to connect them to the mainland, to increase their prosperity by connecting them to the milk run.

It’s the early 20th century, and that timeframe is the key to unlock all the underlying themes:  isolation, loneliness, disappointment , ambition, the price of progress, and the meaning of home and motherhood.

It’s a hard life for the Barroys (yes, the island is named after them, or is it vice versa?).  A dangerous life too.  The summers may be lovely (if short) but the winters are brutal.  Money is short and Hans must work on the deep sea fishing boats for months at a time to bring in the cash needed to advance his plans.  Life is precarious.  His elderly father (Martin), his wife (Maria), his daughter (Ingrid) and his backward sister (Barbaro), never know whether Hans will return …. the sea isn’t always a friend.

Hans spends his months at home gradually improving the facilities.  Building the quay takes years. There’s the question of money and the debt incurred to fund the dream; the question of the weather which continually tears down what is built; the question of the outsiders, enlisted to help the building project, and the changes that follow as a result of their presence.  Also the compromises that must made for the sake of commercial gain.

Reversals of fate play their part too.  Maria doesn’t have the marriage or life she wants.  As for Ingrid, the child we see sent away from her family to school, sent away from her family to earn money, the child we would expect to escape the harshness and poverty of her environment (one in which having one’s own chair is the height of luxury), she returns – admittedly, in circumstances not of her own choosing – and stays to complete her father’s vision.  Home is home, after all is said and done.

The matter-of-factness and stoicism of these ordinary folk – the unseen of history – is not only to be admired, it is an object lesson for the molly-coddled of the 21st century (myself included). Whatever fate threw at them, they just got on with it (with one notable exception). As characters, I came to love them and Ingrid’s final act of generosity just astounded me.  I marvelled too at Jacobsen’s writing, particularly his evocation of the natural environment.  Given the first paragraph of this review, I’m tempted to quote a storm, but shall settle instead for an aspect of the environment that took me by surprise.

… the warm land wind that has blown over the island for many days now, but then it suddenly drops …

There are no longer any bird screams either.There is no rustling in the grass and no insects are buzzing.  The sea is smooth, the gurgling of water between the rocks on the beach has gone quiet, there isn’t a sound between all the horizons, they are indoors.

A silence like this is very rare ….

On an island there is so little silence … It is mystical, it borders on the thrilling, it is a faceless stranger in a black cloak wandering across the island with inaudible footsteps.  The duration depends on the time of year, silence can last longer in the winter, with ice on the ground, while in summer there is always a slight pause between one wind and the next, between high and low tide or the miracles that takes place in humans as they change from breathing in to breathing out.

The translation of the novel is a co-operation between Don Barlett and Don Shaw.  There’s no identifying who translated which sections either.  It’s completely seamless. I particularly enjoyed the direct speech that has been rendered in a Yorkshiresque dialect (at least that’s how I read it) to denote the original dialect I assume is used in the original. This is not only creative, it’s effective in strengthening the sense of time and place.

And finally, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize will be announced this evening.  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m willing the victory to Roy Jacobsen.

5stars

 

 

 

 

 

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Both novels are shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and both focus almost entirely on the experiences of their  main protagonist as well as paying homage to literary history. Apart from that, they are as different as different can be.

Jo Baker’s second novel, A Country Road, A Tree, follows the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland to France, where he chose to stay during the Nazi Occupation, forced eventually to flee Paris and go underground when he became involved with the French Resistance.  Not for Beckett the easy option – he could have sat the war out in neutral Ireland in safety, had he so chosen.  But he returned to France to his partner, Suzanne and remained there until the end of the war. It is commonly accepted that these are the years that formed the writer. Although Beckett published prior to the war, his works thereafter are those which Earned his reputation as a modernist master.

Baker has chosen to chart these formative experiences in third-person present tense.  Thus the reader walks, runs, flees with Beckett through his trials. I’ll admit this didn’t work for me in the early pages, the Irish pages, if you will, which I found slow and stultifying – much as Beckett found his Irish village in real life!  (Mission accomplished then, writer!)  Following the outbreak of war, life becomes much more intense as Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee the Gestapo to seek sanctuary in the Zone Libre.  The hardships, deprivations and dangers on the road accumulate into a pulse-raising read and, at one point, survival depends on finding a meeting point on a country road, by a tree.  (Just thinking about the chances of waiting by the wrong tree, makes my blood run cold.) When they do find a safe-ish haven, Beckett jeopardises it through his incapacity to resist more resistance work.

Suzanne’s frustrations are entirely understandable – by this time they have been through hell.  She is worn out with stress and grief.  Beckett is able to detach/distract himself from everyday realities (fatigue, hunger, cold, distress at the ever-increasing loss of friends) through his writing, Suzanne has no such luxury.  Their relationship becomes strained, and it appears that another choice of Beckett’s at the end of the war might just be the end of them.

The novel ends, however in January 1946, with the words This is where it begins. Beckett is sitting down to distill his experiences into his first post-war work. His writing is about to free itself from its pre-war influences, including that of James Joyce.  Just like the winter coat that Joyce gave Beckett, and which kept him alive during his time of tribulation, Joyce’s exuberance and linguistic excesses have had their day.  Now that he is wearing a coat of his own, Beckett is about to become his own writer.

The cover of Francis Spufford’s debut, Golden Hill, gives a good indication of what is to follow.  Gentleman in 18th century garb fleeing over the rooftops, with a larger than life female overseeing the action. And indeed that is the era to which Spufford transports us; his plot a homage to the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding, albeit with Fielding’s wordiness pared down – somewhat – for 21st century readership.

There’s only one word to describe this novel – it is a riot!

It’s 1746 and Mr Smith arrives in New York with a promissory note for 1000 dollars.  But his arrival is unexpected and the merchant who is to cash the note is suspicious, particularly as Smith refuses to give any details regarding the nature of his business. He agrees to wait for six weeks for his money – it’s not a hardship, he has 4 golden guineas to tide him over.

The novel follows the course of those six weeks, which become a time that Smith is unlikely ever to want to repeat.  Firstly he is robbed, forcing him to live on his wits, although they are not the sharpest a fictional hero ever possessed.  Secondly, thirdly and fourthly – suffice, he suffers an extraordinary conspiracy of circumstance, adventure and tragedy, and his life is endangered more than once.

He also falls in love with Tabitha, the Dutch merchant’s daughter, a spirited girl though entirely jaundiced by the limited options available to her.  This manifests itself in her cruelty to others, her biting tongue and her bad temper.  And yet this world is not without its opportunities.  Smith understands that she is not the proverbial bird in a cage.  She is the bird and the cage. Will she find the courge to fly from the cage of her own making?

There’s honestly never a quiet moment as Smith negotiates his way through post-colonial New York, never able to make a move (good or ill-advised) without the whole village (for New York was still that small at the time) knowing of it, and celebrating or shunning him in the morning.  I’m making a huge assumption here in that I believe Smith’s tale to be entirely fictional, the historical detail of Spufford’s novel consisting of his almost Hogarthian portrait of the society of that time.  It’s meticulous and unflinching.  But never dull.  How can it be when Spufford uses card games for high stakes, steamy encounters with buxom actresses and duels to advance the plot?

There is a more serious nature to Smith’s business, but he keeps his secret – secrets, actually – until the very end, thereby obtaining the last laugh. And Tabitha? Well the girl, who wants more than anything else to control the plot,  also plays a hidden role in all of this.  It’s a brilliant twist and that’s all I’m saying.


Time now for a tough decision as these are both very fine novels.

I loved the immediacy and the humanity of A Country Road, A Tree, the present tense finally winning though and I felt all the anxieties of Beckett and Suzanne as they sought to survive in a hostile world.  I was in that world with them.  The novel also taught me things I didn’t know, About Beckett, in particular, and I may now consider reading him.

I never felt that emotional connection to Golden Hill.  Whether that was because I was reading an e-book, I can’t say, but I was always an observer.  And yet, writing this review, looking beneath the surface of the entertaining plot, I begin to see other literary merits adding to the cleverness of an already clever novel.

So, on the basis that my head almost always rules over my heart, Spufford advances to the next round of my tournament.

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hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

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This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).

 

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sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.


This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

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