Streulicht- Sky Glow- by Deniz Ohde

Most years I try to read a book from the German Book Prize Shortlist. I was drawn to Streulicht, shortlisted in 2020, as it’s a coming-of-age novel about a girl from a working-class milieu who moves away from her family background. I’m interested in stories from people who cross class barriers, in those who leave and those who stay, and my interest in Streulicht was piqued further by Miriam Zeh’s comparison with Didier Eribon and Annie Ernaux on the back cover. (I’d also add Edouard Louis, Elena Ferrante and Kerry Hudson to a list of writers on this theme).

The novel begins with the protagonist returning to the town she grew up in for the wedding of two school friends. As soon as she arrives she’s hit by the acidic smell and the feel of the air thickening like cotton wool in the mouth: the town is dominated by a vast industrial chemical plant, and the smell and light from the plant, glowing like a huge stranded saucer in the night sky, is present throughout the book. We know straightaway this is no easy return: she’s aware of her face changing, resuming that blank expression her father taught her, so as not to draw attention to herself. She finds nothing’s changed in her father’s flat, where she’s staying: the reek of cigarette smoke, the groceries piled high on the kitchen surfaces, the mucky table cloth, the thermos flask, its inside encrusted with cold coffee, the plastic bag for recycling hanging from the kitchen door handle, spilling over.

The first person narrator—whose name we never know—then tells the story of her childhood, moving between a range of episodes and anecdotes of intensely felt experience from the child’s perspective, and occasional interventions or commentary from her older self. This is not initially an unhappy childhood: with her good friends from the neighbourhood, Sophia and Pikka, she roams about the area, making up stories about ghosts in the abandoned hut, playing imaginative games around the Silberfarm. But she’s always aware that her friends’ families are better off than hers, and also—well, also that their households are run in a more organised fashion. When she visits Sophia’s house she’s in awe not just of her mother’s glamour but also of the meticulous order in her bathroom, the numerous creams, cosmetics and tooth brushes all sorted neatly into the correctly sized compartment in the drawers beneath the wash basin.

This is in stark contrast to the narrator’s own home life. Amongst his many other problems, her father is a hoarder and a compulsive shopper. There’s a lot of detail about this, and the resulting piles of stuff, dirt and smell in the flat—so viscerally described that it may have you, like me, flying around your home putting all unwanted items in a pile for the nearest charity shop. He’s an unusual loner, who’s worked at the chemical plant for 40 years, lived always with, or next to, his own parents, and has no ambition or curiosity about the world beyond his own circumscribed daily life. The narrator comments that the only time he had a desire that he acted on was when he met her mother at a local music gig and asked her out. Her mother is Turkish, joined her sister in Germany for work, and then got together with the father. She does her best to deal with his problems—as well as dutifully caring for her elderly father-in-law in the flat downstairs—but their relationship deteriorates, and by the time the narrator is at secondary school she’s hearing their rows, shouting and worse, more and more frequently, often cowering in her grandfather’s flat downstairs. And he’s useless at offering any support when she tries to talk to him about what’s happening.

So it’s with this family background that the narrator starts secondary school at the age of 10. Like Sophia and Pikka, she’s been selected for the Gymnasium or grammar school. (For those unfamiliar with the German school system, it’s selective, and pupils are recommended for the more academic school, the Gymnasium, or the vocational Realschule or Hauptschule, on a combination of their class marks and teacher recommendation). It’s here that she really feels she doesn’t fit in, the other girls with their filigree hair tied back, her with her wiry hair worn loose over her hoodie, its seams yellowed from the cigarette smoke that penetrates every fibre in the flat. She responds to this, and to the difficulties at home, by retreating into silence in class and finding her schoolwork increasingly hard. The teachers’ attitude to this, and to the bullying from other pupils, is that it’s all her fault. There’s a heart breaking scene where she’s pushed to the ground by a boy at school and injured. The teacher calls this an accident, all part of life’s rough and tumble, says she’s too sensitive and needs to develop a thicker skin. She recites this advice to herself often, as if that’ll somehow help her grow this thicker skin, which will then be tough enough to deflect any blows that may rain down upon her ribs.

The result of this really difficult time is that she’s not recommended to proceed to the next stage of the Gymnasium education—and has to leave school. I became a little worried about the novel’s haziness on timings and chronology at this point as I was anxious about this girl in her mid-teens seemingly falling through the net, and spending months hanging about at home doing nothing. Eventually she does go back to education, through the Abendschule, the night school route, and there’s an excellent account of this facility which enables many adults to go back to education to get the Hauptschul- or Realschulabschluss, the equivalent of 5 GCSEs in the UK system, which provide an entry to training or the job market for young people. The narrator achieves this with ease, but by this time she knows what she really wants is to go to university, for which she needs the Abitur– the equivalent of A levels in Germany. She’s given a place at an Oberstufengymnasium– an Upper School, by a head teacher who’s impressed by her determination, and studies there for her A levels, by now considerably older than the other pupils, glad to be rather small and slight, so it’s not too obvious. She’s now flying, passes her Abitur, and achieves her dream of going to university. And in doing so, she leaves her home and her family behind.

This is a really moving and compelling story of a bright girl from a disadvantaged background who falls through the net and yet makes it in the end. Deniz Ohde’s powerful and detailed description of place draws us in to that squalid flat, and yet her parents are presented as complex people, struggling with their own problems, negotiating everyday casual racism as well as trying to shield her from the knowledge of the serious arson attacks against Turkish households, (Mölln and Solingen aren’t mentioned by name but these attacks immediately come to mind). They are people who don’t understand the codes of the middle-class selective grammar school world, and though they try to help her at times, they’re also intimidated by the teachers—her father guiltily recollects a parents’ evening with nasty Herr Kaiser when he realises that Herr K is talking about a different pupil. Yet he doesn’t dare intervene to put the teacher right.

The novel is also an indictment in my view of the selective school system and its perpetuation of class inequalities. The sense of the Gymnasium as a school for the elite comes through and permits the condescending and racist attitudes of teachers like Herr Kaiser to flourish. Later, at the Abendschule and Obergymnasium, the narrator meets individual teachers who are interested in her and support her—often so crucial in narratives of achieving academically against all the odds—yet this cannot compensate for the missed experience of learning alongside her peers, of achieving milestones alongside the kids she started out with. Now towards the end, I felt the novel ran out of steam a little—and indeed the narrator has finished university and is unsure what she’s going to do next. But the ending takes us back to that wedding visit, where the narrator sees Sophia and Pikka marry, in the hometown where they will settle, just like their parents. She hugs them, says a swift goodbye to her father and leaves, before she’d planned to. She’s not yet sure what her future looks like, but she’s certain she needs to leave for good to make it happen.

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Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

Lean, Fall, Stand tells the story of a middle-aged man, Robert Wright, who suffers a serious stroke while working in the remote ice-fields of Antarctica. It’s the story of his long and painful journey to some sort of rehabilitation and recovery and the consequences of this for his wife and family. It’s an exploration of aphasia, the language and speech disorder that often results from a stroke, and which Robert is left with. But as the plot unfolds, and the characters reveal more of themselves, it becomes clear that the novel is touching on communication—and its breakdown—in a far broader sense.

 The first section, Lean, starts dramatically in Antarctica with a sudden storm which brought Thomas Myers to his knees. The air darkened in the distance. There was a roar and everything went white against him. It had a kind of violence he wasn’t prepared for. Thomas and his colleague Luke are young post-doc researchers sent to update the mapping of this particular part of Antarctica by Geographic Information Services. They’re staying at Station K, a field hut outpost of the Main Base where Robert Wright, also known as Doc, works as the General Technical Assistant. They’ve completed their mapping task early and have a free afternoon, so they set off to take photographs, this being Thomas’ passion. Doc has climbed up onto Priestley Head to give Thomas’ photo some perspective, while Luke stays with the skidoo, when they’re all blindsided by a sudden and savage storm: it’s a complete whiteout and all three men, now in different places, are knocked off their feet.

Scenes of chaos and confusion  follow as the young men attempt to maintain radio contact, becoming weak, dizzy and disorientated as they battle the ferocious and unrelenting weather. They’re up against human error too : they quickly find their training instructions are contradictory—keep moving, conserve energy—we’ve been told already that Doc has run the satellite phones flat, and what were they doing anyway going out for a photo shoot in these conditions, a step Doc knows to be pushing at the bounds of correct procedure? Doc manages to get down to the skidoo but then something sharp struck him on the back of the neck and he went down fast. He struggles back to the field hut where he notices a problem with his whole right leg, but it’s when muddled phrases start appearing in his inner monologue—he numbed at the rubness of his face—that we readers start realising there’s something seriously wrong. Those muddled phrases take up more and more space in his narrative, giving way eventually to mere fragments of speech, a series of monosyllables paragraphed, with large gaps in between, down the page. And this, set against Thomas getting ever colder on the ice and the vast indifference of this extreme landscape, its icebergs sitting stately on the water.

It was something of a relief to get on to the second section, Fall, narrated from the point of view of Robert’s wife Anna, even though it starts with her getting The Phone Call: It’s Robert. It’s your husband. I’m sorry to wake you. We need you to come. A relief to be back in the less daunting topography of Cambridge, UK, and to switch from the panic of the previous section to the composed and quietly efficient account of Anna leaving for Santiago de Chile as instructed, where Robert is in hospital. We learn here more about their relationship. Meeting as students at Cambridge, they married, though Anna was really not bothered about marriage, and had two children together, now young adults. Anna has had a prestigious career as a research scientist and in many ways it’s suited her that Robert ditched his PhD and, preferring the wide open spaces lifestyle, has worked for 6 months at least of every year at in Antarctica, leaving her to raise their children largely alone, never mind look after the house and the DIY-which actually she enjoys and is rather good at. When Anna arrives in Santiago it’s clear that Robert has suffered a catastrophic stroke and has lost his speech. Her days are spent visiting him in hospital and observing the interventions by physiotherapists and speech therapists. At the same time she’s dealing with emails from work about that paper for the conference, about the REF, concerned enquiries from friends, family and colleagues. And then there are those visits from the Geographic Information Services asking if Robert is well enough to tell them what actually happened in the storm that day?

Pressure on Anna intensifies when they return to Cambridge and Robert is discharged from hospital to their home. Patients do better in the community, she’s told. But there’s only me at home, I’m not a community she thinks and confesses to her friend Bridget that she’s not sure she wants him to come home, I don’t want to be a carer; I never even really wanted to be a wife. There follows a heart-rending account of the next few months as Anna takes on the carer role, putting up with Robert’s grumpiness and depression while her academic career slides gently into the background. She’s kept going by her longstanding friendship with Bridget, who throughout this section is the person she talks to in her head, just as many people do with a life partner. And it’s in her interactions with Bridget that we start to wonder whether Anna herself isn’t wired differently.

The third section, Stand, is a rather amazing account of group therapy for people with aphasia, which Robert is persuaded to attend. This section is narrated mainly from the point of view of Amira, the speech therapist leading the group, and the novel opens out here from the confined space of Anna and Robert’s home, with all its frustrations, to the bigger picture of a community of people living with aphasia. The section starts with some vivid portraits of the other participants : Wikor who developed the Polish accent of his parents after his stroke, Peter whose fluent aphasia explains his cheerful tumble of words, Sean whose aphasia involves incessant swearing. The aim of the group is not speech therapy but to help the participants compensate for their loss of language by developing communication strategies. The group is joined by some dance therapists, their movements… sprung and light and their body language a kind of purr. Their interventions are fascinating, and their work with the participants culminates in a show where the participants act out in movement some event important to them. For Robert, it’s a re-enactment of the day of that terrible storm. So the novel ends not with some final denouement but rather with a gradual moving forward in finding some way beyond words to communicate those events and what they meant to Robert.

Now some might think there’s rather a lot in this novel of 280 pages and I wouldn’t disagree. We have here a drama in the Antarctic, an account of the slow and painful struggle to relearn communication after a stroke, the highlighting of the demands of the carer role, and a critique of the expectations of the wife. But Jon McGregor is a master of less is more, which is to say his succinct prose, careful and precise plotting, and control of the voices here allows him to convey all this with consummate economy. And his subtle characterisation suggests that it’s not just a dramatic event like a stroke that hinders communication: for Anna, interpreting the world as others see it is part of her everyday experience.

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The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

It’s late December, and with the sea now quiet, boatman Jory is taking the relief keeper out to the Maiden lighthouse, fifteen miles off the coast of Land’s End. He has on board supplies for the next two months, as well as the young relief, and motors confidently across the sea. As they approach the lighthouse, Jory’s surprised not to see the keepers: he’d expected to see at least one of them waving him in, but there’s no-one waiting on the set-off, the platform encircling the base of the tower. He gazes upwards at sixty feet of sheer granite. The entrance door is made of gunmetal and defiantly closed.

Later, the dozen men in the search and rescue party find the entrance door locked from the inside and have to break it down to get inside. Once inside, there’s no sign of Arthur, Bill and Vince, Principal Keeper, Assistant Keeper and Supernumerary Assistant Keeper respectively. Searching through the nine floors of the lighthouse, they find everything in its place, except in the kitchen there’s the table laid just for two, with one chair positioned askew as if the person sitting on it had risen quickly. Two clocks have stopped with the hands at a quarter to nine. The three men have simply vanished.

So begins The Lamplighters, a novel loosely inspired by a real event, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote rock light in the Outer Hebrides in December 1900. This event, together with a lifelong fascination with lighthouses, led Emma Stonex to create her own fiction: a narrative which defies strict genre classification, being part who dunnit, part ghost story, part psychological thriller-and with all the tension, pace and careful plotting that those genres demand.

The narrative takes place over two time frames, the last days of 1972 leading up to Jory’s discovery, and twenty years later, in 1992, when the three wives and partners of the disappeared keepers respond to the approach of novelist Dan Sharp, intending to write a book about the events. In both time frames the narrative is progressed through separate chapters relating the viewpoints of the individual characters, and we readers find ourselves putting on our detective hats as we try to make sense of what happened from the different, and sometimes contradictory, stories we’re told—the three men have never been found dead or alive.

This switching of viewpoints not only focuses our attention on the whodunit aspect of the story, but it enhances and deepens the characterisation that lies beneath that whodunit question, as we gradually build up a picture of the personalities and their backstory. So it’s Arthur who relates the constant bickering between Bill and Vince on the lighthouse, Bill himself who tells us of his loveless upbringing and comfort in his early marriage to Jenny. But we have then quite different accounts from Bill and neighbour Helen about how the later frustrations in his marriage played out.  We know from Vince that he’s spent time in prison and is keen to keep on the straight and narrow now that he’s met his girlfriend, Michelle. But there’s that crime for which he was last banged up playing on his mind which he’s not yet told her about, but we readers wonder how bad it can really be if Trident, the company that run the lighthouses, have given him a job and Michelle loves him? As the narrative develops it becomes clear that each man has his own past to deal with, as well as ongoing tensions with his fellow keepers, which become more strained as the days pass in that confined space, the numbers marked out in each chapter heading.

The women’s stories from 1992 work in a similar way, dropping clues for us to follow up as they recount their memories of what happened in 1972 to Dan Sharp and indeed to themselves. We learn of the different explanations they’ve found and cling onto, in order to live with the uncertainty of never knowing what actually happened to their men– were they taken away by some extraterrestrial force, or washed away in a huge December storm? But, just as importantly the 1992 narratives also paint a picture of their different ways of dealing with loss and the challenges of moving on from tragic events: Jenny finds some solace in busying herself with her daughter and grandchildren, Michelle is married with two young children and her husband just doesn’t want to hear any more about that accident on the lighthouse. I found Helen’s story particularly moving in her account of living with loss: She dreamed again that she was following him in a crowd-the back of his head, only when the head turned it wasn’t the right person after all. His eyes came to her in drifts of sleep, looking up from underwater or otherwise in broad daylight.

I’m saying nothing about how this novel ends—other than it will certainly make you think—because the thing I enjoyed most about it was the psychological element, the characterisation both of the keepers and the women, enhanced by a great feel for the 70s. We have the men chain smoking, Vince’s Supertramp moustache, the couple smooch dancing to Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale and that glorious moment when Michelle decides to go the party where she meets Vince, but has nothing to wear, so she goes through her laundry basket and found a pair of flares which she’d doused in her mum’s Rive Gauche. But we’re also shown a time of authoritarian parenting, young marriages, few opportunities for working class youngsters and a lack of language with which to discuss feelings in intimate relationships. As well as the paternalistic presence of the Trident company who both controlled and obfuscated the narrative around the time of the 1972 investigations. Yet it’s with a light touch that this evocation of the 70s is woven into the stories of those characters, as lightly but as unmistakably as the cigarette smoke which permeated our clothes in those days.

This same feel for a time now past is brilliantly evoked in the detailed accounts of the keepers’ daily lives in that confined space, sitting alongside the awareness that this way of life was indeed consigned to history by automation shortly after the tragedy at the Maiden lighthouse. Emma Stonex has written here not only a compelling psychological thriller but also a thoughtful, sensitive and evocative tribute to that way of life, with all the stresses and tensions endured by the lighthouse keepers and their families. It’s a great novel. Do read it.

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The German Room by Carla Maliandi translated by Frances Riddle.

Published by Charco Press and translated by Frances Riddle, whom I greatly admire ( Elena knows, Our Windowless Home), this short novel by Argentinian writer Carla Maliandi has been a kind of appetizer for me in this Women in Translation Month. It tells the story of an Argentinian woman in her thirties who flees a crisis point in her life—relationships and work falling apart—to return to Heidelberg in Germany. She was born there, and spent the first five years of her life in Heidelberg with her Argentinian parents, who then returned to Buenos Aires. She finds accommodation in a student hall of residence, which puts her in touch with a broad range of young people, the two most important being fellow Argentinian Miguel Javier and Japanese student Chanice. Our narrator has no plan, neither for work nor study, and  discovers shortly after arriving that she’s pregnant, the father being either her longstanding boyfriend that she’s just broken up with, or an acquaintance with whom she had a one-night stand on the rebound. The other significant event that happens early on is the unexpected suicide of Chanice and the arrival of her mother, Mrs. Takahashi, to identify the body, and to spend time in the place her daughter was living before her tragic death.

As a reader interested in both Latin America and Germany I was intrigued by the idea of a fiction embracing these two cultures, but was maybe a little unrealistic in my expectations of how much culture this rather slight novel could hold. We do see a little of Heidelberg through the eyes of our Argentinian narrator: it’s an unreal, fairytale place, almost suspended outside history with its old streets and squares that miraculously escaped bombing in the war, its Philosophers Walk that inspired great Europeans such as Goethe, Hegel and Schumann.

The connection with Argentina’s past is alluded to obliquely at first as the narrator recalls her early life in Heidelberg, and her parents’ return to Buenos Aires. Their reasons for being in Germany become clearer when the narrator, by a miracle of coincidence, comes across her father’s former student, Mario, now a middle-aged lecturer at the university. They pick up their friendship from way back and Mario tells her he could never return to Buenos Aires because of what happened to his male lover there: he disappeared in 1979 and Mario can’t bear to imagine what they did to him. We assume then that the narrator’s parents were also fleeing political repression, but this isn’t developed and I’d like to have had more of this.

What’s done better are one or two themes from Argentina’s present. First, there’s the narrator’s friendship with Miguel Javier, which illustrates the huge range and clash of cultures within Argentina. He’s a young man from Tucuman in the north of Argentina with traditional attitudes. He marches the narrator to the doctor’s for a first check-up and fusses about her in an annoyingly controlling and paternalistic manner. But her attitude to him is out of order too: she calls him condescendingly the Tucamano, the guy from Tucuman, to distinguish him from her own kind, the more sophisticated Buenos Aires porteños—a bit like a Londoner calling her friend from Birmingham the Brummie perhaps.

It’s through Miguel Javier too that the element of superstition creeps into the novel. The narrator has been gifted Chanice’s belongings after her death and sends a pair of her shoes to Marta Paula, Miguel’s sister in Argentina. Unfortunately, Marta Paula is consulting a local witch called Feli who is horrified on seeing the shoes and predicts all sorts of bad stuff happening, some through the medium of Mrs. Takahashi, Chanice’s mother, who is still drifting around Heidelberg making increasingly wraith-like and surreal appearances. Miguel Javier is beside himself when he discovers his sister is consulting Feli, calling her a freaky old lady with her family of junkies. In this area he’s the more modern, progressive guy with his scholarship to Europe and his determination to pull himself out of his family’s straitened circumstances. I have to say I was intrigued at this element too, being of a rational bent myself, though I know from other Argentinian writers ( Selva Almada, Dead Girls) that consulting a psychic is indeed a thing. And the narrator too, that Buenos Aires sophisticate, becomes pulled in to the superstition when Feli starts making predictions about her baby.

Now towards the end of the novel images of the Japanese film Ring kept coming to my mind—a film I haven’t thought about for years—doubtless provoked by the increasingly surreal appearances of Mrs.Takahashi. But I think this speaks to a more general issue with the novel: I found it to be more the work of a visual artist, a film-maker or producer, a story teller more adept at working with image than words. There’s another moment in the novel when the narrator is sitting in a cafe watching the early morning comings and goings outside her lover’s flat, which is just so filmic it could almost be a passage from a treatment. These are the novel’s strengths, rather than any language which makes the heart sing. It’s no surprise to read that Carla Meliandi is a playwright and director and that the rights to a film adaptation of the novel have been sold.  

So this slim novel was an enjoyable read, touching on intercultural themes and intergenerational legacy, which I’d like to have seen develop further. And  I did keep wondering what kind of visa our Argentinian narrator had that gave her leave to remain in Germany seemingly indefinitely and without money worries, never mind pay for her antenatal treatment. Call me prosaic, but in these times I can’t imagine a young person travelling without the practicalities of crossing borders being part of the story.

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir translated by Lauren Elkin

I first heard about this novel, unpublished in de Beauvoir’s lifetime, in an interview with the translator, Lauren Elkin, on my favourite podcast Literary Friction. It tells the story of the close friendship between Sylvie and Andrée who first meet at their Catholic private school in Paris when Sylvie is just 9 years old. It’s generally accepted that the novel is a reworking of the relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and her friend Zaza, related in the first volume of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. That memoir, together with The Second Sex, were revelatory texts for women of my age, and going through a phase of reflecting on women’s friendships again right now, I  felt drawn to this novel.

The opening scenes paint a vivid picture of the world into which the two girls are born: it’s the First World War and Sylvie’s childish tantrums are tamed by the twin forces of war and religion. She stomps on her German doll and accepts that God will only protect France if she is obedient and pious: there was no escaping it. She begins to pray frequently and develops a real taste for it: at school the classroom is solemn as a Mass. On returning after the long summer holidays Sylvie is attracted by the new girl sitting beside her, and intrigued when the girl tells her she looks younger than her age because she was burnt alive in a fire: she didn’t grow much after that, missed school and could she please borrow Sylvie’s notebooks to catch up?

From that moment the girls are inseparable and known as such by their classmates. Sylvie is fascinated by this daring, clever and talented girl who can make her laugh by mimicking the teachers, who excels at composition and plays both piano and violin, who can cook and sew, though she doesn’t much care for it, and do the splits and turn a cartwheel despite being delicate. And who somehow manages to talk back to the teachers in a way they don’t quite know how to deal with. Sylvie is aware that Andrée’s home life is different too. She’s allowed to walk home from school alone through Paris and her mother, Madame Gallard, is surprisingly indulgent with the numerous brothers, sisters and cousins rampaging through the house and leaping over the furniture in play. Yet Sylvie never quite takes to Madame Gallard, that mixture of condescension and flattery towards her own mother, not to mention the black velvet collar on her coat that she never liked.

In puberty Sylvie develops a growing awareness of Andrée’ s deep love for her mother and becomes aware too of the inequality in their friendship—that Andrée simply doesn’t reciprocate Sylvie’s feelings to the same extent. There’s an excruciatingly painful scene where Sylvie has written Andrée a long, lyrical, descriptive letter, which Andrée believes to be a school composition sent in error—who on earth would send such a letter to a friend? She becomes aware too of the politics of this conservative Catholic family and Madame Gallard’s role in reinforcing those politics. In a discussion about women’s suffrage over dinner, M. Gallard expresses the view that as women were more radical than men, giving them the vote might well open doors to enemies of the church. When Madame Gallard smiles in response it suddenly dawns on Sylvie that her smile is a trap, that this large house was a carefully guarded prison for the offspring of this enormous family.

We see how Madame Gallard as prison warder plays out in the rest of the novel. While both girls go on to study after the baccalaureate, Andrée is not allowed to proceed to the next stage –the aggregation, the demanding and competitive exam qualifying graduates to teach in the lycée—because she has to get married. We know from Madame Gallard’s dealings with Malou, Andrée’s older sister,that the options are marriage or the convent, and the choice of husband will lie with Madame Gallard. Earning one’s own living, remaining single, doesn’t come into it. In the last section of the novel, a long summer at the Gallard’s country home, the tension is built up as we see Andrée run ragged in a ceaseless whirl of social events and familial expectations, desperate for a bit of time to herself, to play her violin, to spend time with Sylvie. There’s a scene earlier in the book where Sylvie lists the huge range of utensils hanging in the vast kitchen: cooking pots, frying pans, saucepans, skillets, cauldrons, casseroles, soup bowls, serving platters etc. etc., the list goes on.  It’s as if this manifestation of the Gallards’ social standing combines with a sort of oppressive domesticity to make the weight that will finally drag Andrée down. No wonder she goes recklessly high on that swing and rushes away from company to dive into the river and feel the cold stream of the waterfall on her back.

I was taken aback at the pervasiveness and grip of Catholicism on the lives of young women at that time—though shouldn’t have been, after reading Annie Ermaux’s Les Années and La Honte—the ritual of First Communion always referred to, as here, where Sylvie is dressed all in tulle, with a bonnet made of Irish lace. Sylvie loses her faith growing up, while Andrée remains deeply pious, making the conflict between complying with or defying her parents’ wishes in her choice of husband all the more difficult. When Andrée meets Pascal she sees that a different sort of Catholicism is possible: He believed in heaven and he loved life; he was joyful and irreproachable; so all men were not bad then, nor all virtues false; and paradise could be attained without renouncing life on earth. Yet even Pascal does not understand Andrée’s nature when he agrees with her mother that she should go to England for two years—not least because both Pascal and Andrée are aware of the temptations of the flesh and not sure they could resist them in a long engagement.

In some ways this novel is almost a social history in its exploration of the choices open to young women at that time: conforming to the values of a conservative Catholic world where women were primarily wives and mothers, or to those of a more progressive world where women used their education and had a place in the world. Though truth be told the focus is much more on the former as it’s Andrée’s life rather than Sylvie’s which is explored as Sylvie narrates the constraints on her friend’s life tightening their hold. And at the end of the day it’s the emotional intensity of the friendship between the two which is most powerfully and memorably evoked: the shared mischief and giggles as girls, the languor and rebelliousness as teenagers, the frank and painful exchanges as young adults caught up in a mesh of values not their own. It’s no surprise to me that Simone de Beauvoir revisited Zaza/ Andrée’s life several times: such a wild spirit could not be laid to rest.

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The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Hughes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

This powerful novel, which has just won the EBRD Literature Prize 2022, is set in Eastern Ukraine some time after the outbreak of war in 2014. It takes place over three days, and tells the story of Pasha, a teacher of Ukrainian language, crossing a city in the conflict zone. He’s making for the orphanage where his nephew, Sasha, is living, in order to bring him home, to a safer place. The city, which is unnamed, has just changed hands. Different soldiers are controlling the checkpoints, familiar routes are now impassable, and Pasha finds himself teaming up with other people on the move, fleeing the city, terrified by the noise of continuous bombardment and flashing explosives lighting up the sky. And this in freezing January, where deep snow and ice impedes movement, penetrates thin footwear, and compounds misery.

The story is told almost entirely from Pasha’s point of view, and the identity of the different groups of soldiers he comes across, and remembers in flashback, is never explicit. To some extent, they’re all alien beings, and described in similar terms regardless of which side they’re on, these with their clay-smeared combat boots, others with dirty uniforms, smoke-stained faces, heavy, crusty deposits of earth on their shoes. It’s as if they belong to a different universe from the quiet, unassuming Pasha, fiddling with his specs, working out where they come from, and therefore their allegiance, from the quality of the Russian they speak, their accents, any sprinkling of Ukrainian, and the tattered flag they have flying from their tank.

This is a novel of displacement and Zhadan excels at describing both the collective fear and response of crowds, as well as the intimate details of individuals who’ve fled their homes at short notice with whatever scant possessions they could grab. So Pasha arrives at the train station en route to the orphanage and realises he’s being watched through the windows by dozens of eyes…They vigilantly track his every movement, his every step, watching through the unwashed station windows, transfixed and mistrustful. Pasha realises these are women seeking refuge in the station, like it’s a church in a besieged city.  He feels he’s just stepped into a women’s prison…somebody shrieks wildly in the corner and everyone looks over; the room freezes for just a second. Yet he’s equally good at the small details that bring individuals to life: there’s the mother hanging onto the arm of her daughter Annushka like an old winter coat. There’s Hoof Lady, her worn-down heels like two hooves stomping through the puddles, she’s fused to her fur coat, the only thing she has with her, no suitcases, no bags, no bundles. There’s the self-assured young blonde woman, one hand clenching a pack of cigarettes, the other loose on the handle of a wheeled suitcase. Later, when she tires, Pasha helps her by taking the suitcase and realises its empty.

It’s a novel of abandonment. There are many descriptions of buildings abandoned after bombardment in a war torn landscape. In the city Pasha and the group he’s led from the station hide out in derelict buildings to avoid random soldiers. In the countryside there’s the abandoned farmstead just off the route where Pasha takes Sasha to dry out. A direct hit means that half the wall has come away and the intimacies of the owners’ lives are exposed: above the table, last year’s calendar……faded wallpaper dangling loosely. The description of the black courthouse, the savings bank with boarded-up windows, and the pharmacy: the cold apertures of windows, the twisted bars……an empty school, a destroyed newsstand speaks to the destruction and obliteration of the community as a whole-and then its abandonment.

The theme of abandonment is also explored in the central motif of the orphanage. One of the most haunting scenes is when three girls appear in the hallway of the concrete basement they’re using as a kind of bomb shelter: the oldest girl, around twelve…that mistrustful glare…and more fear too. She’s standing there in her faded pink down jacket, hiding her hands in her pockets. Knitted socks and warm slippers. The slippers are too big-they probably belong to someone else. The second girl is mistrustful, too, and frightened: fair hair gathered in a ponytail, several boys’ sweaters one on top of the other, dull jeans, worn sneakers. And they all have this heavy look in their eyes, and the shadows under them are so black, so deep. It slowly dawns on Pasha that the girls are wearing thick make up—that these painted children have whiled away the hours putting on make-up, make up to disguise the fear they’ve felt all their lives, surrounded by adults, like their parents, who abandoned them like rabbits locked up in cages.

Along the way we learn that Sasha was handed over to the orphanage by his mother, Pasha’s sister, a single parent and train stewardess. (Clearly the orphanage here is a home not just for orphans but also for those whose parents are struggling to cope). Pasha feels partly responsible for this decision as he and his father did not agree with it, but were not quick enough off the mark to intervene. This slowness to react is typical of Pasha: it’s put to him that if he’d read the present situation better he’d have collected Sasha sooner and avoided the perilous situation they’re now in with the city in enemy hands. But it’s also part of a more general unwillingness to get involved, to take responsibility, which emerges as one of the central themes in the novel. In Pasha’s case it’s his insistence in the first part of the novel that the fighting is nothing to do with him. However a couple of scenes suggest that Pasha’s reluctance to take sides may be part of a more general malaise: when Nina objected to the soldiers taking down the flag at the orphanage, we’re told that a crowd looked on, but didn’t support her. And Pasha remembers looking on in the school yard while some older children attacked vulnerable Dimka with a spade. I should step in he thinks but doesn’t. And at the ensuing parent-teacher conference the teaching staff blamed everyone but themselves.

This novel is a tough read in many ways: the lack of place names, the disorientation of Pasha struggling through the city, his uncertainty as to which side the several groups of soldiers are on can make the reader feel similarly disorientated. But the language is beautiful: Pasha recalls his joy as a 15 year old at New Year, after several days of snowfall, you instantly feel the entirety of winter, just how much of it there is. Then the sky looks like a mountain of sheets piled outside the train stewardess’s compartment by passengers in the morning-heavy clusters of clouds all the way to the horizon, scattered and twisted inside out. And the experience of war is vividly evoked by the rich descriptive language, particularly potent when evoking the unique smells and noise of war: the burnt smell of people from the south, like they’ve been sitting by a campfire; the odd smell accompanying the soldiers-dirt and metal, tobacco and gunpowder; the terrible din of the deafened soldiers who’ve survived an artillery attack-the inflamed eyes, parched mouths and the screams-abrasive, loud, discontented.

Credit must be given to the translators-overall for this superb translation and its consistency of voice, but in particular for their inventiveness and panache when rendering the imagery. (There’s some playful imagery too: the telly in Pasha’s shabby but much-loved home, switched on day and night, like their very own eternal flame, the sofa whose springs protrude like twigs from a Boy Scout’s campfire—this made me laugh.) Not to mention their translation of Pasha’s nicknames for the people he teams up with—Arctic Fox, Hoof Lady, who becomes of course Vira, when he gets to know her better. I would have loved a translator’s note as in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of Yevgenia Belorusets’ Lucky Breaks to explain how they dealt with the mixture of Ukrainian and Russian which appears in the original—and often observed by Pasha—and also how they found equivalent metaphors that worked in English. But the main thing is that they do work—brilliantly—and the translators well deserve their share of the EBRD prize.

This is a great, many-layered novel, which now should take its place in the canon of world literature on war. It both deepens our understanding of what people in Eastern Ukraine have been going through since 2014, but also what Ukrainians in other parts of the country are now enduring. And in its exploration of responsibility, and what that means in war, its reach is surely universal.

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The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines

It seemed fitting to be reading The Gamekeeper in the days leading up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. It’s a story of privilege and inequality, focusing on the life of George Purse, gamekeeper for the Duke, the owner of vast swathes of land near Sheffield and elsewhere. This is not the only theme that’s remained topical since its first publication in 1975: it’s also about our relationship with the natural world, with animals and the environment, and indeed masculinity. So it was a book really asking to be reissued which is exactly what the innovative Sheffield- based indie publishers And Other Stories have done with this splendid edition.

The novel spans a year in the life of George Purse, gamekeeper responsible for a particular area of a vast lowland estate not far from the city. His job overall is to rear pheasants for the shooting season in November, and the novel starts with him catching up the pheasants in February to get them laying. Over the first part of the book there’s considerable detail about this process, the different approaches to incubating the eggs, to rearing and then releasing the poults—this is hard, painstaking, work and there’s no doubt that George carries it out with due care and attention.

His job is also to maintain the estate and its riches and we see George striding about, checking the boundaries, seeing off children picking bluebells, young lads raiding nests and, worst of all, dealing with the constant threat of poachers. It’s not only human threats he has to deal with. He’s also on the look-out for corvids, who are the enemy of game; there’s a brutal moment when he kills four baby jackdaws by banging their heads against a tree. Yet this is a man who every year delights in the hatching of the first pheasant chick: He made a nest with his hands. The chicken sat in it, cheeping all the time. He wriggled his little finger. The chick pecked at it. He stroked the fluff on its head then carefully replaced it on the tray.

George lives in a tied cottage on the estate with his wife Mary and two sons, John and Ian. They’ve been there ten years  and we learn that George was desperate to leave the Brightside steel works (yes, it’s Sheffield)  a world of working shifts, of lifting boxes, of strained backs, of fierce heat, of dust, of metal burns. There’s a massive contrast with that world and the sense of freedom and autonomy enjoyed by George in the first part of the book: he’s outdoors, master of his own time, earning a little on the side with his own poaching. Yet it’s an unsatisfactory deal for Mary. We meet her almost entirely at home engaged in domestic tasks and in a series of tense exchanges learn that she feels isolated, insecure financially—will they be thrown out of the cottage when George retires?—and concerned that her lads, living away from the housing estate, with a Dad who’s always onto their fathers for poaching, have no friends.

Now in the first half of the book we see George as a man with set views—just as he rears his poults to the letter, he’s quite clear poachers have no rights, and seems untouched by Mary’s worries himself. As the book goes on, however, we see him increasingly interacting with other estate workers and a more complex personality emerges. There’s his meeting with the tractor-driver, where he grumbles about the estate owners’ privilege and the fact that there’s still too much forelock-tugging around here for my liking. It’s as if he has an underlying resentment about the daily inequality he experiences, which comes out now and then, and this is explored in all its ambiguity and nuance in the magnificent scenes of the grouse shooting in August and the November pheasant shoot. Here, the camera goes wide lens, and we’re introduced to the many characters involved in the shoot. First, there’s the nobility who turn up in their land rovers, and much detail about preparing their guns. George is loading for Lord Dronfield, whose gun case bears a brass plate with the inscription To Lord Dronfield from his Tenants to Celebrate his 21st Birthday June 1st 1936.1936, interjects the narrator/ Barry Hines, the year of the Jarrow marches, when one and a half million men were unemployed, the agricultural workers clubbed together and bought their master a pair of best London double-barrelled shotguns. There’s a kind of noblesse oblige good-natured banter between the nobility and their loaders during the day, but Hines carefully details the yawning gap between them: their different lunches, the scented Lady Hale the same age as Mary Purse, yet looking 10 years younger, the ghastly paternalism of the Duke choosing the material for the keepers’ suits, a new one doled out each year, like a school uniform.

Then there’s the beaters, men and women paid a modest daily rate for trudging through wood and marsh, freezing cold, wet through and exhausted by the end of the miserable November day. There’s an interesting scene before the pheasant shoot when they threaten strike action to get a pay increase—to the horror of the Head Keeper, Henry Clay, a loyal servant to the Duke, man and boy, but supported by George and Charlie Taylor, who’d experienced the organisation of workers by the unions in the steel works and the pit. But then there’s the scene in the butts where George is loading for Lord Dronfield, bristling with cartridges, rapidly loading, then passing him the gun, Lord Dronfield taking it, aiming and pulling the trigger: They handled the guns smoothly, there was no fumbling between them….In the confined space of that hot little fortress, George Purse served his Gun expertly. It’s as if, in those moments of handling the gun, the two men are coming together in some sort of symbiotic celebration of masculinity which outweighs the huge class difference between them.

The shooting scenes are not only remarkable in their exploration of class, but also in their description of the killing and resulting carnage. Hines uses this term so often associated with the battle field, and the description of the pheasants being forced out of the wood onto open ground reminded me of nothing less than going over the top at the Battle of the Somme. And his description of the fate of individual birds will reduce some readers to tears: the poor wounded pheasant just sat there, blinking and listening, tucking up and comfortable-looking, as though it was on a nest. It died like that early next morning, as the grey sky turned blue, and the moon became thin and transparent. The killing of the pheasants seems, of course, all the more pointless and dreadful because we, the readers, have been with George Purse since February, when he began raising them.

The impact of the novel and its message is surely amplified by Barry Hines’ acute observation and fabulous use of language to describe the natural world. Who knew that corvids built their nests in different parts of the tree, the magpies’ nests sitting up in the branches as bulky as hampers? I loved the description of his dogs, eagerly waiting for him in the mornings, their tails brushing the concrete, and the blackbird chattering and scolding, it skimmed back across the terrace and dropped a mute into a star of purple crocuses. I loved, too, the muscular rhythm in his account of the approach of autumn: the slabs of turned earth gleamed like armour in the fields and the strings of woody nightshade berries which hung along the hedges like discarded swag.

Now, almost fifty years later, many of the themes explored in this novel are still with us. The crisis of global heating, and the urgent necessity of developing sustainable land management systems, must make us question even more the rationale and morality of maintaining large estates in the hands of a privileged few. This is a book which offers much for advocates of social change as well as for those who love the natural world. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Many thanks to Any Other Stories for reprinting this fabulous novel.  

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Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets translated by Eugene Ostashevsky

This collection of stories about displaced women in Ukraine couldn’t be more topical: set in the last few years since the start of the ‘covert war’ in the Donbas in 2014, these are stories of displacement, disappearance, trauma and loss. The writer, Yevgenia Belorusets, is also a photographer, and running alongside the stories in the collection are photos from two of her series: But I insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday Yet and War in the Park. There’s an illuminating Translator’s Afterword by her translator, Eugene Ostashevsky, which contextualises this collection, and I found myself flipping between all three elements of this rich text while reading—it’s not necessarily a book to be read in a linear fashion.

These protagonists are mostly ordinary women, in ordinary jobs—cleaners, a manicurist, a beautician, a florist—though some are now working in different jobs due to displacement. Some are living in the war zone in the Donbas, some in the separatist areas. Some have fled their hometowns to live elsewhere within the region, many have joined the growing number of refugees in the capital, Kyiv. Most are alone, often achingly lonely—the woman in the holiday crush in Maidan Square who becomes rooted to the stone bench, or Sveta Orletz from Donetsk who doesn’t know what to do in Kyiv…there’s not even a branch to catch on to or a stair to put your foot on.

One result of displacement and loss is an obsessive attachment to objects from the past: the umbrella forgotten by the protagonist at a bus stop, lying there like a black stain, like a crushed tube of paint, like a nebulous ink spill. She rushes to retrieve it, remembering the things that umbrella had seen over the past year, what hadn’t it lived through, and marches off with it, scolding it like an overburdened carer to a relative neglectful of their health. It’s not only small objects either. In Neighbour Histories the protagonist, newly arrived in Kyiv, names everything in her old flat—walls, lamps, the mouse—as a way of keeping the memory of that spacious, fairly recently renovated and refurnished home alive. But the memories of the apartment block and its inhabitants, her wonderings about where they’ve all ended up, pervade her mind to such an extent that she’s uttering questions and answers aloud while wielding the mop and bucket at her new and underpaid cleaning job.

Disappearances and transformations feature in several stories. The florist from Donetsk with her daisy of a face who just disappeared—it was said she’d gone to join the partisans, though no-one knew which side they were fighting on. The house where she lived was destroyed and her store refitted into a warehouse of propaganda materials. The manicurist from Anthracite, the Soviet mining town, who disappeared, her salon replaced with a stores warehouse. The woman who’d always dreamed of going to Paris, who left the taxi at Kyiv airport, walked into the woods, and was never seen again.

Some of the transformations spring from the magical/ absurd: Olga Petrovna has magical powers and changes a beloved teapot brought to Kyiv from their home at Happy Mountain into a fan. Only it didn’t entirely work and the fan ended up with a teapot’s handle. Other transformations spring from economic and political change. Elena, in one of my favourite stories, travels from her home town of Manganese to Dnipropetrovsk twice a week to work in an upscale restaurant. Manganese had been famous throughout Europe for the ribbons produced in its narrow-fabric weaving factory and Elena’s mother knew all there was to know about binding and moiré ribbons, about colour nuances and which ribbon was… used for what. But the factory had closed and was now turned into gorgeous ruins. So Elena would never be able to continue her mother’s work. She even had to change the way she spoke, forgoing her mother’s soft Ukrainian g, almost a kh, for the hard g of Dnipro.

Trauma is evident in many stories, perhaps most obviously in A Woman at the Cosmetologist’s (note the pun), where the narrator likens the work of the cosmetologist to that of a psychologist. It is this treatment that the protagonist, a refugee in Kyiv for three years, feels compelled to seek out. The only language the cosmetologist/ psychologist knows is that of the skin, and the treatment that follows is described in battle terms, each touch of the cosmetologist’s hand felt like a blow or a gunshot… her skin was under bombardment. And the effect?Though you couldn’t call the smile on her face ‘happy’, at least she was halting to admire the flowers.

Alongside the sadness of displacement and loss there’s humour at times too: I laughed out loud at the narrator’s original title for the book A History of Taxation and also at the image of the woman who delivered babies by catching them in an enormous mitt: it was sewn from red and white cloth and made quite an impression. The presence of the narrator in many stories—as interlocutor with the protagonist, or discussing their story with others—adds a chatty, intimate, often folksy tone, as she relates events which no-one understands, sometimes absurd, more often sinister.

Now I did find the two prefaces to the collection a little opaque, so I went next to the Translator’s Afterword, where Eugene Ostashevsky helpfully sets out what Yevgenia Belarusets is trying to do: she’s reflecting the testimony of subjective, traumatic experience, which is often marked by self-contradiction, ambivalence and other rhetorical features that provide logical ground to dismiss it as unreliable, unverifiable, or simply untrue. The Afterword is also fascinating on Yevgenia Belaruset’s literary antecedents and the consequences of writing in Ukrainian or Russian. His account of the relationship between the two languages, and how that’s played out in the recent political context, is the most detailed and nuanced I’ve come across yet. But it’s the stories themselves, where we hear from the women, that are so moving: ordinary women, displaced, far from home and alone, their lives disrupted by the complex war started in the Donbas in 2014, and now, sadly, engulfing the whole of Ukraine. Their voices are still in my head and will stay with me for some time. Many thanks to Pushkin for my review copy.

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Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I’d been rather avoiding this 2020 Booker Prize winner, feeling I just couldn’t face this story of an alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow. Then, something shifted, and I read it over a few days, the often harrowing subject matter made bearable by some superb writing. Pace, narrative structure, succinct and inventive imagery and characterisation, all work together to make this, somehow, a pleasurable reading experience. In spite of the fact that the novel traces the heart breaking downward spiral of Shuggie’s alcoholic mother, Agnes, and the inevitable abuse and neglect suffered by her children.

The novel begins in 1992 with 15 year old Shuggie living alone and just managing in a bedsit in Glasgow’s Southside. It then spools back to 1981 when 5 year old Shuggie is living with his mother, Agnes, at her parents’ flat in Sighthill, together with her parents, Lizzie and Wullie, his older brother and sister, Leek and Catherine, and his father, Shug. Shug is often absent, a taxi driver working nights, or allegedly working—we see soon enough that he and other taxi drivers routinely use their night shifts to assault vulnerable female fares. And we see Agnes in a constant state of waiting: waiting for Shug to turn up, waiting for him to get her the council house he’s promised her. She’s entirely dependent on Shug, having left her first husband, the father of Leek and Catherine, for him. And she’s drinking.

The novel then moves forward through the next ten years, following Agnes and the children first to Pithead, a former mining community on the edge of Glasgow, and eventually back to Glasgow’s East End and a tenement flat. Now I sometimes don’t get on with novels that span a long time period, even when written by superb novelists. But Douglas Stuart avoids any longueurs that can sometimes arise by structuring the narrative episodically, through scenes which both hold our attention and paint the background social milieu to Agnes’ story. These often have the feel of a stage play: sometimes these are crowd scenes, such as the raucous Friday night card-playing scene at Lizzie’s flat. Sometimes they’re more intimate, such as when nasty manipulative neighbour Jinty goes round to Agnes’ for a wee drink, searching her cupboards for Special Brew while pretending to be her friend. The tension is often held by superb dialogue: that central scene when new friend Eugene can’t stop badgering Agnes to have just one glass of wine when she’s been dry for months. And shocking scenes of extreme behaviour are often brought down, ended, with a quiet moment—Agnes lending her own knickers to her distraught neighbour Colleen, now lying inert on the ground with no underwear, showing her, Agnes thought, more kindness than she deserved.

The story is moved along through a range of voices too, and the variety and juxtaposition gives us some light relief from the more harrowing episodes and shows the effect of Agnes’ drinking on the people around her. Early on, I couldn’t take any more of Shug, and almost gave up on the book, when Catherine’s narrative appeared. It was sheer relief to hear from this sensible young woman with her decent office job and determination to hang on to her virginity till marriage. Though she, too, is subject to the sexism of the times, with her creepily demanding boss and the pressure from Shug about her choice of date. Neither she nor Leek are in touch with their own father and as Agnes’ alcoholism progresses, the absence of any parental figure in Leek’s life in particular becomes more apparent. He moves as a teenager to Pithead with his mother and younger brother, involving a long journey into Glasgow for his YTS placement, and then carries the burdensome responsibility for his mother, desperately anxious about how young Shuggie will cope if he leaves. There are harrowing scenes when Leek returns home from work to a house with no food in it, and Agnes, on an absolute bender, screams abuse at the son she loves.

Of course there’s the narrative voice of young Shuggie too. We see him bullied mercilessly as a small boy at the school in Pithead, ridiculed for his favourite dolly Daphne, his odd way of walking and, later, his funny formal way of speaking. He’s a solitary and friendless little boy, increasingly kept off school by Agnes to collect her benefit money for drink and entertaining himself. At one time, when she’s on a bender, he spends a whole school-less week making a little den for himself on the peat marsh beyond the mine housing estate, flattening the grass and dragging old pieces of furniture there to make a home. When she’s sober there are moments of joy: that golden apple turnover she has ready for him after school, the wonderful scene when they dance together to Janet Jackson’s Control and routines from Cats. But it all falls apart again and as a 15 year old he comes home to a house with no food and a self-pitying and abusive mother. There’s not a single adult throughout the novel, not one friendly, concerned teacher for example, who takes an interest in this solitary child.

Now for me, the reach of this book goes beyond Shuggie’s own story and is a commentary on a whole community. It’s a community where alcohol and heavy drinking is a part of  life—which makes it so very hard for Agnes when she has to deal with her addiction by laying off the drink altogether. It’s a community with sectarian divisions, where sexist, abusive attitudes and violence towards women are the norm, where poverty makes it hard for people to see a way out and alcohol provides some escape. There are plenty of sections where these attitudes are reflected in the rough, crude and expletive-heavy language of characters like Shug in dialogue. While the narrative itself often stands in contrast to this f-ing and blinding, with a rhythmically elegant sentence structure and an inventive use of imagery. So we have the Pit watchie with his skull cracked open… his mind scattered like a pile of dropped playing cards. Colleen, off her head with rage, tears at her hair, making a sticky tugging sound, like old gummy linoleum being torn up. And there’s humour here too: when the Provident man came knocking at the door, the two women had spent whole afternoons hiding behind settees…..it was like an odd synchronised swimming, the way the Pithead women all sank to the carpet and crawled across the floor.

This novel is indeed achingly sad in its account of Agnes’ struggle with alcohol. But it’s also an account of a woman who for many years, despite everything, got up every day and put her best face on: Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. And though there were times when I had to quietly lay the book to one side to take a break, the vivid characterisation and pleasure of the language always brought me back—and will stay with me for some time to come.

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When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold by Alia Trabucco Zeran, translated by Sophie Hughes

Alia Trabucco Zerán first came to an English readership with her acclaimed début novel The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. She’s now ventured into non-fiction with her latest book, When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold, which tells the stories of four Chilean women convicted of murder at different points in the last century. The author is not just concerned with bringing these characters alive for us, which she certainly does in her vivid openings to each chapter, but also with the stories woven around these women at the time, in court and police reports and in the press. She’s interested too in how their stories captured the popular imagination and were told, and retold, in cultural productions for decades after, sometimes reflecting changing social attitudes, sometimes linking to events in Chile’s dark past.

Her analysis of these documents, often hard to find in a dusty archive, shows an establishment puzzling to understand women committing such crimes: these acts, after all, ran counter to prevailing ideas of femininity, and indeed often threatened not only gender roles, but the family itself. The court reports and judgements are often contradictory in their attempts to fit these perpetrators into some sort of female box, to normalise them. Corina Roja’s enlistment of a local witch to provide deadly potions put her firmly in the camp of the monster, while her attachment to the cinema was seen as evidence of a silly romanticism with dangerous consequences, like Madame Bovary devouring those novels. Rosa Faúndez, a news vendor with no children, earning her own money by walking the streets without a man, was always going to affront norms of conventional female behaviour. The world was then incredulous that she should not only kill her husband, but had the physical strength to dismember his body. The public prosecutor describes her as lacking remorse, as emotionless, after her arrest—not the behaviour of a normal woman. Yet the crime is later attributed to her being overpowered by jealousy and rage.

While Alia Trabucco Zerán is sharply analytical in her unpicking of these contradictions, she also retains a light touch, openly sharing when she herself is at a loss to understand the perpetrator, occasionally proffering her own interpretation of their actions. Caroline Geel, who shot her lover at point blank range, admitted the crime, but never explained her action. She was subjected to a barrage of psychiatric assessments and her crime found to be the result of an unsound mind, compounded by jealousy. Yet in prison she swiftly wrote and had published a book on the women’s prison where she was incarcerated—an unlikely action from a person suffering from a mental health disorder—and there was never any evidence of grounds for jealousy. In the case of Teresa Alfaro, employed by a family as a nanny/housekeeper, with all the ambiguity inherent in that role, her crime was seen as an affront to the modern early 60s family—both parents with good careers, a decent income, a nice house. Again, there is contradiction in the judge’s findings: the crime was found to be both motiveless and arising from jealousy. Yet the author picks up on Teresa admitting feelings of anger in one statement and suggests that she murdered out of anger. Anger at the lack of autonomy and control over her own life, anger at not being free to form relationships and have children of her own, anger at the class system that depended on her subordinate role and perpetuated the inequality she felt so deeply.

The retelling of these women’s stories in later cultural productions is as important an element of this book as the account of the murders and legal proceedings themselves. Corina Rojas’ crime was retold in chapbooks and a film—though the latter was banned from the capital, on the basis that the national identity would not be enhanced by this story of a female killer. A famous cueca or song called La Corina Rojas has been reimagined in recent versions called cueca chora where chora means ‘plucky’ or ‘gutsy’ and applies both to Corina Rojas and the contemporary female singers.  The case of Rosa Faúndez was the subject of a play produced in 1992, called La Historia de la Sangre (The History of Blood). The monologue given by the central character describing the dismemberment resonated with an audience emerging from 17 years of dictatorship in Chile, a time when disappearances and torture under the dictatorship was known, but not yet openly discussed. There’s an excellent discussion of a 2003 art installation too—helpfully aided by photographs in this edition—called El caso de las cajitas de agua (The Case of the Water Boxes) , also based on the story of Rosa Faúndez’ crime. I found it fascinating to read how the women killers and their crimes were revisited over many years in a range of cultural productions in Chile. One only has to think of the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger, about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, to see that the interpretation and re-evaluation of women and their crimes is a universal theme.

For one of the women, though, Teresa Alfaro, Alia Trabucco Zerán couldn’t find any films, books, plays, or art installations based on her crime. The introduction to her section is a compelling piece of short fiction, which goes beyond the vivid re-imaginings of the other introductions in its fictionality. It’s as if the writer is herself awarding Teresa Alfaro the status of a woman who inspired future creatives with this short story, in this book. For Alia Trabucco Zerán, the author, is very present: each section is interleaved with passages in italics, each titled differently, relating her search for information and her reactions to her findings. It is here that she tells us that by using different words to weave a different story about Teresa Alfaro she’s trying to go beyond the law’s limited repertoire…I want the law’s truth to come up against another language. I want my words and those of the law to meet on the page and touch, at first barely brushing, then rubbing up against each other slightly, and, by the end, as the story reaches its climax, for them to bash against each other, clashing fiercely, violently, until sparks fly.

Alia Trabucco Zerán tells us in the prologue that she herself trained as a lawyer, though never practised. Though she attributes her motivation for writing this book to interest, pigheadedness, morbid curiosity, desire and a rebellious streak, we can also see that the law and its language is a world she is both familiar with and confident to take on. In the epilogue she expands on her motivation: she says that while neither endorsing female criminality nor demanding impunity, the study of these four women killers demonstrates the laws that regulate womanhood in action: laws that dictate which spaces we can occupy and which we cannot; what we can say and what remains unspeakable; which emotions are acceptable and which unacceptable. And that these four women have transgressed twice over: they’ve murdered but also transgressed the norms of acceptable female behaviour.

I must confess I was in two minds about reading this book, not feeling up to facing gruesome details right now. In fact any necessary crime details are related here in a factual, non-sensationalist tone, and I could put these to one side to engage with the account and analysis of the women’s lives, the court proceedings and media presentation which followed. All of which are really enhanced by the use and positioning of photographs and illustrations in this edition from And Other Stories, and the superb translation by Sophie Hughes, who has skilfully rendered the range of registers and lexica in this text. I really recommend this book, both for its retelling of the four womens’ stories, but also more generally for its contribution to a debate on the law’s role in forming and reinforcing gender roles. Many thanks to Alia Trabucco Zeran, Sophie Hughes and publishers And Other Stories.

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