Protest- Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page, Comma Press

I came across this collection of short stories and essays via a couple of fantastic online events put on by the publishers, Manchester based indie Comma Press, together with Housmans, the radical London bookshop. What fab events they were: Christopher Eccleston reading Martyn Bedford’s short story Withen, based around the Battle of Orgreave, and Maxine Peake reading Maggie Gee’s story May Hobbs, about the Night Cleaners’ Strike 1971-1972. Their readings, performances really, were absolutely mesmerising and followed in each case by a discussion with Professor David Waddington and Professor Sally Alexander respectively reflecting on the protests themselves, their representation in fiction and their impact on today’s political landscape. I was all fired up and eager to get reading as soon as I could get my hands on the book, which I promptly did, as it arrived literally between the two events as an extra in the ticket price.

The book is a collection of short stories and essays on twenty protest movements in the UK from The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the Anti-Iraq War demo in 2003. Comma Press editor Ra Page has matched fiction writers with academics and specialist non-fiction writers to produce two pieces of writing on each movement. The pieces are complementary, the short stories drawing us into the situation, appealing to our emotion and imagination, while the nonfiction account gives useful background and context, as well as often referring to the short story as illustration. The book evidences a really thoughtful and fruitful collaboration between writers, as well as enormous care in the selection of contributors.

I turned first to stories about more recent protest movements, those that I’ve been aware of and have affected my life in a more tangible way. Withen by Martyn Bedford flips between the funeral of Matt’s father, a former miner, in 2014, and 1984 when the Battle of Orgreave, a key moment in the Miner’s Strike, took place. Matt himself wasn’t even in the UK at that time, never mind suffering police brutality at Orgreave like his father: he was travelling and teaching in Hong Kong. Matt is surprised to see his estranged Uncle Peter turn up on the margins at the funeral and we gradually learn what happened between the two brothers during the Miner’s Strike as well as being reminded of the terrible hardship suffered by miners and their families during that time. As Martyn Bedford said in the discussion, fiction can convey complexity and ambiguity, and our sympathies shift during the story

Next I turned to The Stars are in the Sky, by Joanna Quin, with an Afterword by Lyn Barlow. It’s about the women’s camp at Greenham Common, set up in 1983 in protest at the siting of US cruise missiles at the camp. In this story the protagonist, Ann, goes to Greenham at the suggestion of her woman friend, Nic, for the Embrace the Base event and then stays on, leaving her husband, Stephen, to look after the kids. Daily life at the camp is well described, together with the protest actions the women undertake and the reactions of police and the military at the base. But just as interesting are the relationships between the women there and how they are changed by their experience of the camp: Ann, like many in the nightly queue for the telephone, misses her children and feels conflicted between her former self as a mum and her new identity as a peace protester.  

I was really pleased to find Francesca Rhydderch’s story The Opposite of Drowning about the Welsh Language Protests with an Afterword by Ned Thomas. The story starts with the highly contentious drowning of the valley of Tryweryn and the village of Capel Celyn in North Wales in 1965 to create a reservoir for the city of Liverpool. Seen through the eyes of the narrator as a small child, she remembers her Mam-Gu and grandfather piling up their household belongings to take to their brand new house. Shortly afterwards her mother Kate is frequently absent, climbing television transmitters, in court in Camarthen for criminal damage. I really appreciated Ned Thomas’ essay here, detailing the protests for a Welsh Language TV channel, which included switching off TV transmitters in England and Wales with many young women prominent in the campaign. The campaign began in the early 1970s and went on till 1982 when Sianel Pedwar Cymru ( S4C) finally started broadcasting. Ned Thomas followed this closely as a reporter on Welsh Affairs for the London press, a Welsh speaker and later an activist in the campaign.

The final story I’d like to highlight is Never Going Underground by Juliet Jacques, which deals with the protests around Section 28. Dr. Em Temple-Malt explains that this legislation was introduced by Margaret Thatcher out of fear that the model of the traditional heterosexual family was being undermined by the equalities agendas of some progressive councils, who were supporting same sex and alternative family arrangements. The legislation made it an offence to promote homosexuality by teaching or publishing material which deemed it to be an acceptable family relationship and became law in 1988. Like Withen, the story has two time frames, the first 2000 when two old friends, Johnny and Marina, run into one another at a demonstration in Manchester. The story goes back to 1988 when they met after Marina, then Martin, arrived in Manchester to start his university course. At that time Martin was not out as gay or trans, though he knew he liked to wear women’s clothes. His awkward relationship with his father is well described as well as his feelings of alienation from the laddishness of the other young man in his uni halls. Through the two friends meeting again we learn what Marina has gone through on her journey—including her parents disowning her. I found this story poignant indeed, though the story ends on a positive note as Marina says goodbye to Johnny and his partner Stuart, with more hope than she’s felt in a while.

This is just a snapshot of the contributions on four of the twenty protest movements. I also read on the Suffragettes, the Aldermaston Marches and the Anti-Iraq demo and there are many more on 20th as well as pre- 20th century protests. If like me you love fiction, particularly the short story, and want to refresh your memory or learn anew about the history of protest in this country, then this is the book for you. I can’ t recommend it highly enough or thank Comma Press enough for bringing this to us.

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Nordic Fauna by Andrea Lundgren translated by John Litell

This superb collection of short stories by Swedish writer Andrea Lundgren is the work of a true craftsperson of the genre. Set in the far north of Sweden, with its vast forests and animal life close by, the stories are unsettling in their depiction of human behaviour and relationships. Even more so when dreams, fantasy and magical realism take the real into a different place altogether—Peirene Press have brought the collection out under their Metamorphoses series after all.

The first story, The Bird that Cries in the Night, doesn’t focus on a change of shape but rather invites us to ponder the significance of that bird call. The story starts with the narrator standing on a slope in his father’s garden, looking over at his Dad down below, struggling with a strimmer in a thicket of raspberry, bird cherry and rowan sapling. The Dad notices him, straightens his back and wipes the sweat from his brow with a gardening glove—an observation at a distance, with just a hint of concern. We learn that the narrator’s parents live separately, the Dad alone, disturbed at night by the call of an unknown bird, perhaps a sea eagle. The Mum is quite different: warm, lively and sociable, she’s just broken up with Roger because he doesn’t want to do stuff, like tango dancing, which is her passion.

So this is a young man, visiting his parents, just touching base with them, making sure they’re ok. But as the narrative progresses and we see him talking with colleagues, with friends at a club, on a coffee date, we find out he has nothing on at the weekend and our view of him shifts a little, he too appears a little vulnerable. That vulnerability deepens and takes shape when we see his thoughts drift back to his father’s spiral ice augur and the black holes it drills in the ice, to a frightening incident on a family rowing trip when his father dropped the oars overboard and the emergency services were called. The story ends with the narrator again at his Dad’s place, only this time they’re standing close together, as a line of geese pass by overhead and Dad says he still hears the strange bird cry at night.

Separated parents appear elsewhere in the collection, and, with this, men and women inhabiting separate spheres. In The Cat the family find a cat by the roadside run over and dying. The mother puts the cat out of its misery, tenderly wraps the body up and brings it home to bury it, to the impatient protestations of the father. After the burial she removes herself from the family and goes to live in the attic while the father makes jibes that this is just one of her hippie fads. But it’s not. She stays there, while the narrator, her young daughter, is left in her father’s male sphere, in an atmosphere that seems increasingly unsafe as her father’s lewd friends come round to drink. She’s viscerally revolted by her older teenage brother, his hands had grown so big and clumsy, two limp flippers, and his face was as rough as a hog’s, and the magic she’s teaching herself is struggling to keep the growing menace at bay.

In The Father Hole we see the mother just briefly at the beginning and in the middle of the story as she packs her daughter Kore off for a holiday stay at her Dad’s. She’s all encouragement and sensible advice, while Kore feels a little sad: it’s past midsummer now and she’s thinking about the abundant spring flowers she and Mum used to decorate the maypole. At her Dad’s she thinks how she’d be getting her craft box out now if she were at Mum’s, that they’d be snuggling up to watch Disney Hour and then Fort Boyard with fizzy drinks. We’re left in no doubt that Dad’s world is completely different from the very first sentence of the story where his eyelids drop like a guillotine. This imagery of violence continues: at his party the garden is lit by metallic torches impaling everything that struggles to live, thrust into tree trunks and down into the soil, and they’re putting small flayed carcasses onto the barbecue. We have the same revulsion here towards the adult male body as in The Cat: she’s aware after he’s been drinking of his damp lips, that his heavy breathing is mechanical… his mouth wet with saliva. Kore’s fear is graphically expressed through her body: her voice has crept deep inside her, hidden away like a dried pea, she has a black clump in her stomach, …… a heavy wet sheet closes around her ribs. And as the father’s behaviour and demands escalate, the narrative slides into the surreal as Kore enters her father’s body, descending right down to his gigantic and muscular heart.

The story How Things Come to Seem has a different dynamic: the sense of unease comes not from people but initially from the narrator’s fear of the forest. She’s returning by train from the village of Hamptjärnmoran in the north of Sweden where her boyfriend has just bought a villa, to Uppsala, the city where she lives, further south. She’s reflecting on how different they are: he’s quite at ease in the vast space of the forest whereas she feels under surveillance in the forest there from all manner of creatures, from elks to ants. She sees the forest as a living, threatening force about to invade their world, as the roots of a giant tree spread themselves under Martin’s retaining wall, and is fearful of any child of theirs wandering off into the forest. During the journey home she falls asleep and wakes up to a slightly altered world—and we look back to what we were told, just fleetingly, just hinted at, earlier, to try to make sense of this changed state.

A changed state, a metamorphosis, features in both of the last stories, The Girlfriend and On the Nature of Angels and we see here the consummate skill of both writer and translator in leading us through these narratives. The Girlfriend depicts a young woman working by day in her boyfriend’s flat while he, an academic, is at work. She’s totally in love with this man, utterly devoted, and develops rituals from mid-afternoon to prepare for his return each evening. On the Nature of Angels is a more complex narrative, featuring a middle-aged male academic called Jakob, who specialises in angelology, a minor specialty—very minor—of the university theology department. He’s a lonely sort, rather disconnected from people, a little like the Dad in the first story, and longs to actually see an angel. We the readers are there with him doing a double-take when the lively crowd of youngsters in the lecture hall are described as the horde and one particular student is described cherub-like with her round face, like an overgrown baby….a little chubby with pale porcelain skin.

This is an outstanding collection of short stories which will delight all fans of the genre. I enjoyed the concision and light touch with which some human relationships were explored and revealed, while the intensity of others were written onto the body. The translation is superb: John Litell conveys brilliantly the unease and menace both explicit and implicit in the stories as well as really getting inside the heads and the hearts of the narrators to give us the emotional timbre of the stories too. The sections where reality transitions to the world of dreams, fantasy, the surreal and magical are expertly handled and this skill is even more noteworthy when we know that John Litell, a Peirene Stevns Prize winner, was working on the translation at the same time as working as a doctor during the pandemic. I am in total awe of his ability to render these stories into English with such sensitivity whilst working in such challenging circumstances. Many thanks to all involved in bringing us this wonderful collection.

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Porcelain- Poem on the Downfall of my City by Durs Gruenbein, translated by Karen Leeder

February seems like a good time to be thinking again about the bombing of Dresden. On the night of 13-15 February 1945, shortly before the end of World War Two, RAF and US bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, killing around 25,000 people and destroying the city. The attack has always been controversial, the allies claiming they were destroying a major rail transport and communication centre, their critics disputing the strategic significance of the attacks, claiming the attacks were indiscriminate and aimed rather at undermining the morale of the German people by destroying the cultural jewel that was Dresden.

The bombing of Dresden and its long legacy have been brought to us now in the form of the book-length poem Porcelain by the German poet Durs Grünbein, translated by Karen Leeder. It’s a poem consisting of 49 10-line verses and was written between 1992 and 2005. The poet sat down each year on the anniversary of the bombing to write a poem in the same form and then expanded the collection for publication in Germany in 2005. As a Germanist I’ve always been aware of the bombing of Dresden and this past was very much in my mind when I visited the now reconstructed city in 2008. Durs Grünbein himself was born there in 1962, 17 years after the attack, and I often wonder what it’s like to grow up in a place that has been the site of such trauma before you were born. (Verena Kessler explores this in her novel die Gespenster von Demmin). Porcelain can be read as the poet’s response to this.

The poems take many different approaches to the central theme: the horror of the attack itself, the past beauty of the Baroque city cradled in the Elbe valley, the wonder of its art works, monuments and iconic Meissen porcelain. The experience of growing up in the ruined city as it was slowly rebuilt, and reinterpreted, under communism. The complexity of the poet’s own feelings and his legitimacy to write as someone born after the event. The question of responsibility. These ideas and approaches have been rendered by Karen Leeder into poetry which is immensely powerful in its use of imagery, rhythm, and a range of register: each time I go back to it, I am struck more, and again, by the horror of those fire storms, the exquisite delicacy of that porcelain.

The poems narrating the night itself depict the suddenness of the attack by juxtaposing the banality of the moments before with the Armageddon of the conflagration:

Imagine this: in the time it takes

to nip out of the opera for a pack of fags

the streets were death traps, bubbling with tar.

The intensity of the fire storms and the speed with which they spread:

The sea of houses was raked by desert winds.

Stiff as pharaohs in their winter coats they burned.

The unpreparedness of the civilian population, after tinfoil strips had been released by the British to disrupt the German radar devices: there’s a hint of unease as they fell like steel dust, a metallic glint and make the sky seem too full, too bright… on a day of cheerful balloons and kites, of children all strapped up, ready for a walk. We have too the experience of the poet’s own mother. A four- year old, she saw her room go up in smoke that night,

The child, helpless, in the storm,

 a little buoy at sea, buffeted by death at every turn.

The city of Dresden is feminised: she was a blousy woman, a provincial beauty,…. garrulous, full-bodied, and sexualised as seen by the bombers from the air, with her  river’s slender S, beckoning the bombers on. She was once the city in the valley, in her beauty sleep, content. But this was as in a myth, a legend, long run out. The poet speaks of her treasures and iconic monuments, but sees them anew in light of the bombing and destruction: the Dresden cherry stone’s 185 carved heads,

 eyes wide with terror, on every tiny screaming face

inferno on a needle tip;

He tells a little sparrow perched on the famous equestrian statue of Augustus the Strong to shit on his shoulder and enjoy the bird’s-eye view of Dresden: a different, aerial perspective on the city, and a mocking of the mighty Saxon Elector.

The most famous treasure of all is of course the eponymous porcelain, and Durs Grünbein tells us about its co-inventor, Johann Friedrich Böttger, the alchemist and chemist employed at the Dresden court to produce the hard-paste porcelain. There’s a wonderful contrast in this poem, 28, of vulgarity—the crude vowels of shat ducats, poor sod and finesse—the sibilance of biscuit porcelain for Brussels lace, edelweiss made solid. The porcelain features in many poems. Particularly famous pieces are mentioned such as those decorated with scenes from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, but also more generally the white-gold porcelain brought out at family gatherings in bourgeois circles, plates and cups turned endlessly that way and this, just as the poet takes the history of Dresden, holding it to the light, looking at it from different viewpoints. In poem 4, the porcelain is ground to dust in the bombing, but this was just the faintest tinkling-further off across the crime scene thunder rolled and the scene links to Kristallnacht, the pogrom of 9 November 1948, when the windows of Jewish shopkeepers right across the German Reich were smashed in, synagogues burned and hundreds of Jews murdered and arrested.

The poet’s awareness of Nazi atrocities and the support of Germans for the regime is present in many poems and is the source of his shame, felt when the first bars of Mozart’s Magic Flute reminds him of that February night, when the ravaged city of his childhood fills his soul with shame. He exhorts the German people to go back down into that air-raid shelter, now metaphorically, to look again at their own responsibility for the destruction of Dresden in their support of Hitler, their mass hysteria…… when the Führer passed by, a Messiah in his Merc. Yet he loves his city, it’s his birthplace, the Old Town on the riverbank, my dearest quarter. He talks of the hold of childhood attachments, those early paths from childhood inscribed into the cortex. And his attachments, his memories are partly those of his family, his mother’s mother reminiscing about the city in the valley when she was sad, later images of the ruins burnt into your retina, even after forty years. And his own childhood memories of growing up under communism in this provincial dump, soviet triste, grey concrete. He asks so how come, even in a rage, she touches me like this?

And then through the poems threads the voice questioning the poet’s right to speak, to comment, to feel what he does, given that he was born 17 years later. He’s addressed directly, often in a scoffing vernacular,

Cool it greenhorn. When that glory passed away,

You weren’t even there.

It’s suggested he’s making too much of it, that he should forget it and move on, why complain, Johnny-come-lately… why brood? There’s even a threat in the warning Now watch your step! and the sexual overtones of you’ve gone too far take us on to the image of the Baroque voyeur peeking under the lacy skirt, asking to see the rosebuds of some Meissen figurine, as if the poet’s concern, his attachment to Dresden and its tragic history is somehow unhealthy, indecent.

This is an intensely moving collection, and Karen Leeder’s introduction and footnotes provide a really helpful guide to its creation, its literary antecedents and to the historical references mentioned in the poems. She invites us to think of the collection as a kind of kintsugi, a Japanese method of restoring cracked and damaged porcelain with gold lacquer which makes the mend visible and so preserves its history of fracture. This collection gives us a vivid picture of the devastation of that night in February. But it also tells us what went before and what came later. I shall go back to it again and again.

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Loop by Brenda Lozano, translated by Annie McDermott, Charco Press

This fresh, witty, and irreverent voice has given me such a lift in hard times, and even seen me laugh out loud. Loop’s narrator is a young woman writer and office worker living in an apartment in Mexico City with her boyfriend, Jonás. His mother has recently died and he leaves for Europe with his father and sister to visit her family. The narrator is left behind, and the novel is an account of her life and thoughts while he’s away. She goes to work, reads, observes, and jots her ideas down in her notebooks. She misses Jonás and longs for his return, but also sees her friends and family and goes off now and then on a book-related trip.

This is all related in a fragmentary, often aphoristic style, with themes and ideas surfacing and then resurfacing in a different form, and while fragmentary writing sometimes tests my patience, I was drawn in and swept along here by the pace, originality and verve of the writing, so excellently rendered by translator Annie McDermott. And also by an emotional depth to the personal story that’s just glimpsed at first and then slowly emerges from behind the quirkiness: not just located in the narrator’s love for Jonás, though that’s touching too, but in the fact she’s survived a serious accident, details of which we’re never told, but which imbues some of the writing with an awareness of blessed second chances.

The novel is called Cuaderno Ideal-Ideal Notebook– in the original Spanish, and we learn from the start that the narrator is most particular about the brand of notebook she uses: it’s Ideal for fiction and Scribe for her diary, brand names which will resonate and reverberate through the novel. She describes the notebook as physical object, its lines resembling the waves of the sea, recalling the journeying of Odysseus, a narrative strand in which she plays Penelope to Jonas’ Odysseus. She speculates on the size of handwriting which will fit between the lines. She comments on the usefulness of a notebook as a coaster for your coffee cup, or as an elongation of your arm as you stretch out of your armchair to turn off the light switch.

Size and scale are important themes. At the beginning the narrator refers to a dwarf she sees regularly in her neighbourhood and her many literary/cultural references include Snow White and the seven dwarves and Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant. She feels at odds with society which values big things: The big picture, big sales figures, success. She herself prefers Dwarf things. Small things. Little things in relation to the norm. Insignificant things. Things with different dimensions. She explores the idea that in changing size, things change their characteristics and their shape: the term misshapen appears frequently. And it’s as if there are different scales : Isn’t literature somewhat misshapen compared to the news? Isn’t a novel a kind of dwarf compared to a newspaper? A question of height, a novel next to a printed newspaper: one small, the other big. Then don’t reading and writing mean living on another scale….And she asks What would have happened if Odysseus had been a dwarf? Would it have changed The Odyssey, the course of the West? Does our height determine our destiny? Do scales determine history?

This preoccupation with scaling up and down in terms of physical size and shape is mirrored by a similar narrative that juxtaposes the ideal with the banal, the heroic with the everyday, in culture and language. So our narrator is a highly educated reader and Proust, Beckett, Homer and Ovid loom large in her consciousness and thoughts, at the same time as she loves Shakira and David Bowie’s Wild is the Wind. After a day in the office she dreams up an opera called Bureaucracy in three acts in which the main character delivers a soliloquy in front of the photocopier. She follows up the explanation that she discovered Proust, reggae and hip-hop at the age of 17 with It’s time to say it: I love my slippers. Especially on a Friday night. She’s interested in all kinds of language: the sign on a cargo lorry Don’t like how I’m handling this vehicle? Complaints to 5286 8738, a floor-cleaner called Poet, as well as the word of the day in the online Oxford Dictionary—it’s Hikikimori, incidentally, a Japanese word meaning the avoidance of social contact. It’s as if she’s a democratiser of language, a debunker of pedestals and hierarchies: the map of the language is spacious and has room for infomercials, the latest literary releases and the day’s terrible news. Words live together as equals on that map.

The day’s terrible news is a recurrent theme: the narrator weaves references to the violence in Mexico, the unresolved murders, and the indifference of politicians, through the narrative. Sometimes these are just casually dropped in, as when she asks how tall should the statue be of the president who’s left this country with such a horrific death toll? Or overhears from her neighbours’ T.V. that 95% of all cases involving murdered journalists are unresolved. At other times the references are more substantial. The narrator attends a conference for Mexican writers and notices a hotel sign asking guests not to bring balloons inside. She’s told if a balloon bursts in here, we all fall to the floor thinking there’s a shootout. She witnesses a taxi driver swearing and shouting abuse at a woman driver who blocked him trying to turn where he wasn’t allowed to. The whole of Chapter 29 is a radio broadcast from a woman called Rosa María Hernández to the President, demanding to know when he will find the murderers of her 15 year old daughter Renate, when will he bring them to justice and peace to the country?

There’s a different tone here of course, with the broadcast voice that of the bereft mother. But there’s a change of tone in one or two other places in the book too, where the narrator waters down her witty upbeat aphoristic style in favour of a quieter, more reflective tone. This tone comes through when the narrator thinks back to her time recovering from the accident. She remembers the look of relief on her mother’s face when she sees that she’s going to be alright. But it’s also evident when her mother recounts her experiences of growing up in the 60s and 70s. Like Zoe’s mother in Brujas her mother was at odds with her family, they couldn’t stand so many of the things I liked, you see. It was a different time, sweet heart, all those Catholic exiles struggling to uphold the morals of their large families. Her mother turned instead to The Beatles, to music and her friends for comfort, companionship and support—this historical and generational perspective really spoke to me.

Now this novel is very much a love story. There’s a wonderfully joyous feel to the narrator’s account of her love for Jonás and her longing for his return. There’s the parallel drawn throughout with Odysseus crossing the seas while Penelope waits for him. But it’s also a book about waiting in a wider sense. There’s waiting in departure lounges, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in hospital, and even the notebook itself is a sort of waiting room. And the recurrent refrain of references to violence suggests a whole country in a state of waiting: waiting for peace, justice, responsible governance and an end to Mexico’s endemic violence. This book made me think, laugh, shed a tear and gasp—and recalibrate my relationship with my own notebooks. Thank you Brenda Lozano and Annie McDermott and thanks to Charco Press for the review copy.

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Brujas- Witches- by Brenda Lozano

BrujasWitches- is the latest novel by Mexican writer Brenda Lozano. It explores the lives and relationships of women in the south- western state of Oaxaca, through the alternating voices of  Feliciana, a famous curandera, or healer, and Zoë, a journalist. Coming from very different places—rural and urban, traditional and modern—they show us a huge range of women’s experience and gender identity. But they also give voice to the experiences we have in common.

The novel starts with the startling image of Paloma’s murdered body. We learn that she was a cousin of Feliciana, that she’d inherited the gift of healing from their grandfather and, recognising the gift in Feliciana, had initiated her into the rituals of the healing ceremonies. We also learn that Paloma was a muxe—the name for an indigenous transgender woman in this part of Mexico. When Zoë hears about the murder she’s outraged, as she is every time she hears about femicides, abuse and violence towards women—or indeed has to put up with the sexist jokes circulating in the newspaper office. A colleague tells her that Paloma was related to the world famous healer Feliciana, and, though Zoë has no interest in the supernatural, she remembers a couple of times her mother’s intuition played a crucial role in their family life. Her interest is piqued, she takes on the story and makes arrangements to go down to San Felipe to interview Feliciana.

What then follows is not an interview, but alternating chapters in the voices of Feliciana and Zoë, telling the story of their lives, and in Feliciana’s case, the story of Paloma and events leading up to her death. Feliciana’s story is told in long, looping sentences, reminding me of the oral storytelling style of Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns, but also reflecting the repetitive, incantatory language of the healing ceremonies. The language is lyrical but at the same time unsentimental in its telling of this rural childhood. Feliciana loses her father as a child and the family move back to live under the strict authority of her maternal grandfather, Cosmo. Under his aegis the children are put to work as soon as they can walk, shepherding the livestock, nurturing the silkworms for their business clothing the priest and local bigwigs. Playing doesn’t feature and there’s a heartrending scene where Cosmo takes from them the little rag doll they’ve made, throwing her shawl on the fire. It’s Cosmo who decides on Feliciana’s future husband: at 14 she’s married to Nicanor, whom she’s never met, and swiftly has 3 children one after the other.

Zoë’s account is in a more accessible linear narrative style, reflecting her journalist persona. She’s brought up in the city in a small family with supportive parents and a modern, progressive mother who works in university administration and encourages her daughters to study and fight hard to achieve their goals. One of Zoë’s key relationships is with her sister Leandra, who is highly intelligent and a rebel, cutting her hair short, dressing with her own individual, convention-defying flair, and questioning authority to the extent that she’s expelled from school. The relationship between the two sisters is closely observed as well as their differing interests: Leandra, interested in shape and form, becomes a talented photographer, whereas Zoë is a wordsmith, curious about the stories behind the image. As they reach adolescence, they’re able to choose their sexual partners, and Leandra leans towards women. Despite the freedom and autonomy they enjoy, so different from the world of Feliciana, male sexual predators also feature: Leandra has her drink spiked and is abused, saved from worse by her mother following up a hunch that her daughter is in danger.

The character of Paloma emerges slowly through the narrative of Feliciana. As a lad, she was called Gaspar, and descended from a long line of curanderos. We learn a little about her powers in the scene where she heals Grandma Paz, using magic mushrooms amongst other things and singing in El Lenguaje, a language Feliciana doesn’t understand. As she grows up, Paloma chooses to dress as a woman, more and more flamboyantly, wearing beautiful colours, often the traditional dress of the indigenous peoples, and there’s a wonderful parallel between her and Leandra in their love of clothes. Paloma’s role in the story comes more to the fore as Feliciana grows up, realises she also has visionary and healing powers, and Paloma teaches her how to find the right herbs and mushrooms and how to conduct the ceremonies. Feliciana becomes so successful that she attracts visitors wishing to be healed from all over the world—she and Paloma have broken down the traditional barrier excluding women from this profession. Of course, we’re wondering all along who killed Paloma, especially as it becomes clear that her identity as a muxe is tolerated in this community. You have to wait right to the end to find this out.

I enjoyed this book for its account of these different communities and the range of Mexican women’s voices we hear. Despite the beautiful lyricism of the curandera’s language, in the end I preferred Zoë’s narrative, maybe because the language was more accessible, and I felt it gave me a young woman’s take on an urban, modern Mexico, where women have autonomy and agency. Like Zoë, I’m not really one for the supernatural and reading her sections I sometimes felt relieved to be back in a world I could relate to. But it still feels like an amazing achievement to have created this dual narrative, each with its different style, reflecting the similarities and differences of women’s lives in Mexico. And I’m now curious to see how a translator will rise to the challenge of rendering these voices into English!

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Summerwater, Sarah Moss’ most recent novel, is set in a holiday park in Scotland one recent summer. Park may be overstating it- it’s a small group of log cabins on the shore of a loch somewhere north of Glasgow, but still with a feel of the remote, its only access being a 10 mile long single track road. This combination of cosy home comforts and the wilds of nature,  will be familiar with those of us who’ve endured the British family caravan holiday. Another familiar feature will be the incessant rain, which pours down through each of the twelve linked narratives, though it’s not really normal rain, even for Scotland, it’s raining stair rods…more tropical.

The novel takes place over a 24 hour period and is narrated by a range of characters from different generations holidaying at the park: there’s Justine and Steve with their two small children, David the retired G.P., and his wife, Mary, Milly and Josh, the engaged couple, Alex and Becky, the anxious and angry teenagers, little Izzie and her mum Claire. Their inner monologues give us a picture of contemporary British society, of the preoccupations and concerns of people today. For the young families, there are worries about money, about how much this rain-sodden holiday is costing them, about how to keep the other members of the family happy. But this skilled writer is excellent at letting us know their deeper concerns, hovering at the edges, in a brief or delayed reveal. So Josh’s cheerful post coital mood is sown with a worry about how Milly will take to island life once they’re married, David’s adjustment to Mary’s reduced mobility is shaken by her memory lapses, and Justine’s awareness of the fragility of the skin, that thin membrane protecting her from the rain, is not just this writer’s preoccupation with the workings of the body.

One preoccupation which flickers through the narratives is an awareness of Brexit, of Britain leaving Europe, and this takes different forms. Justine muses on different paths she could have taken before settling for marriage with Steve. She wishes she’d visited Paris or Vienna and admits it’s hard to imagine now how she’ll ever see vineyards terraced above a sparkling sea, olives silver-leaved or a sunlit orange grove.  David, while negotiating an EU funded spot of road improvement, rails more prosaically at the stupidity of the English in voting to leave (he’s Scottish). At the same time we become aware, through the narratives, of a log cabin on the site occupied by an Eastern European family. Tellingly, no one is quite sure of their nationality—they’re referred to variously as Romanians, Bulgarians, or Ukrainians. They feature in all the narratives though, because they’re playing loud music at night, keeping everyone awake and thereby adding exhaustion and irritability to the misery caused by the rain. Tellingly again, they are not granted the power and importance of the British holiday makers: theirs is the one family whose narrative voice we don’t hear.

 While we hear a range of individual voices, this is also a novel about family-explored by Sarah Moss in both The Tidal Zone and Ghost Wall. The limited space of the log cabin and the dreadful weather amplify the constraint and confinement inherent in family life. This is brilliantly drawn in the teenage characters and I could see my younger self in Alex’s revulsion at the soup in his father’s beard, at grumbles about the thin partition walls making audible every toilet noise. Alex and his sister Becky deal with this by flight, Alex taking off in his kayak, worryingly in the wind and lashing rain, Becky simply climbing out  of the window to visit the ex-soldier she’s met wild camping near the park. We see other characters dealing with the constraints of family life in other ways: Justine’s early morning run is not exactly flight, more carving out time for herself, and Lola’s Dad has gone to the pub to use the wi-fi for work. And what of those who’ve made it through to retirement? David says there are moments that are the opposite of dancing, a daily game of hide and seek in which the unspeakable objective is to avoid the beloved. Yet in both Claire and Justine’s stories we see their love for their children in the midst of the messy, exhausting chaos of daily family life. Justine can scent their morning breath, feel on her fingers the roughness of their uncombed hair and Claire’s account of taking her baby and toddler swimming in the pool, the woman who once wore dry-clean only clothes and put together presentations, is one of my favourite passages in the book.

Issues of confinement and constraint extend to sexual relationships too: the physical limitations of the log cabin, together with young children, make sex an unlikely option for the couples with young children. Then there’s Millie and Josh spending all day in the cabin, working rather hilariously at achieving simultaneous orgasm—Millie finds it hard to concentrate, her mind wandering all over the place, including to the bacon baps they’ve got in for breakfast. She’s also helped by a little fantasy featuring Don Draper from Mad Men and I was pleased to read in this novel that it’s the women who are given to the occasional fantasy. Justine too is observed by husband Steve absorbed in her box-set with—what… could it be that Don Draper again? It certainly involves a woman in a puffy red dress….

Now, though this concise and brilliant characterisation shows us a spectrum of British society today, it’s also a vehicle for the thread of worry, anxiety and perceived threat which permeates the novel. It starts with Justine worrying whether she should lock the cabin behind her when going on her run: family trapped in burning cabin versus family attacked by crazy intruder? Alex goes kayaking in terrible weather: will his fragile craft withstand the storm? There’s the ex soldier wild camping in the woods, observed peripherally by several characters, often standing, watching the camp. There’s a rope swing poised dangerously on the edge of rocks, which could swing out and leave you dangling right over the loch. Violetta from the Eastern European cabin is encouraged to try it by nasty little Lola, who’s just mocked her name and asked why she’s still here. Several characters complain that they’re a long way from the pub and the wi-fi and all the while we’re aware of their exhaustion and worry about whether the partying will again stop them sleeping tonight. So tensions are running high when the music starts up again and Lola’s Dad decides he’s going to go over and sort it.

Suffice to say here things end badly, but the reactions of the characters are interesting and various. It did make me rethink the theme of community running through the book and see the structure of the separate but consecutive narratives as an ambiguous device: is it an expression of isolated individualism or of group effort, a sort of handing on of the conch or the baton? We see a spectrum of behaviours  here, this section narrated with breathy urgency by the child Jack, an ingenuous if not unreliable narrator.

There’s another element at play in the novel which I haven’t mentioned because it seemed at first glance lovely writing, but something of a sideshow— those short pieces interleaved between the narratives, describing different aspects of the natural world, the grand scale of geological change, the alert watchfulness of the badger and the deer, the minute intricacy of the anthill. The cumulative effect of these pieces act as a kind of counterpoint to the antics of the humans: they allow the reader a little room to breathe somehow, after the confinement of the goings on in the log cabins. And in a broader way they give us some perspective, suggesting that perhaps it’s we humans who are the sideshow in relation to the vastness of geological time and the natural world.

This last thought I found somehow comforting given the tragic events at the end of the novel and will certainly hold on to it while I trudge around the countryside mitigating my own confinement—the novel was published in 2020 so I guess written before the pandemic necessitated the lockdown and confinement in the spring of this year. In this way too Sarah Moss has touched the nerve of our times in this brilliant novel. Do read it.

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Peak Reads for 2020

Like many people I found myself with more reading time than I’d expected this year. I read many excellent books and these are my top ten:

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel– readers will already know a lot about this final book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. I approached the beginning with some trepidation having felt sickened by the brutality and ruthlessness of Tudor politicking at the end of Bring Up the Bodies. This third novel takes us back to the execution of Anne Boleyn and the subsequent political fallout, combining an amazing panoramic grasp of power politics with an intimate rendering of the mind, plotting and dreams of Thomas Cromwell. We learn more about his upbringing and the increasing precariousness of his position drips quietly through the narrative. I had to take a break half way through to read something short, light and modern, and then felt fortified to return. It’s the work of a genius.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman translated by Robert Chandler- another long read, this is a Russian novel set in the Soviet Union in 1942/1943 at the time of the Battle of Stalingrad. Tolstoyan in its reach, it follows the lives of a range of characters (listed at the back thank goodness) through that period, mostly Russian but some Germans too. One of the main characters is Viktor Shtrum and through him we see how the Stalinist regime regarded its scientists and its Jewish population. The descriptions of the ruins of Stalingrad and the conditions of the fighting there take you into another world, almost a different dimension, which brought home to me the capacity of the Russian people for endurance like nothing else. The characterisation is excellent too, as are the inner monologues exploring the constant anxiety of living in a totalitarian state.

Canciones para el Incendio, Songs for the Flames by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. This is the latest collection of short stories by this brilliant Colombian author, reviewed in detail at Peak Reads, and now available in translation by Anne Mclean. The first story is set in the conflict  of Colombia’s recent past and violence touches several stories here, but there are other fascinating themes which run through them, like the influence of film and media on our ideas of fiction and reality and the creation of simulacra. I personally love writing which has its finger on the pulse of our contemporary world and yet has an awareness of recent history also snapping at its heels.

That combination can be found too in Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone, also reviewed here. This book describes how a family deals with their teenage daughter collapsing after a cardiac event and learning to live with the uncertainty that this might happen again at any time. The novel is narrated by the house husband Dad whose part time job is designing an app for tourists visiting Coventry’s new cathedral, built after the bombing in the Second World War destroyed the original cathedral. So post war Britain is evoked in the debates about the rebuilding of the cathedral and inevitably the values and self-image of British society at that time.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann was short-listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 and reviewed here. This novel is set at the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and fast forwards the 14th century German character, Tyll Uelenspiegel, a showman, court jester and performer, into this period. We meet Tyll in a range of disparate situations, which in itself reflects the random chaos of this never ending war, and the hardship and suffering inflicted on the population is starkly shown. Yet there is a playfulness in his character and a theme of performance in the novel, brought out particularly in the sections concerning Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, who fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays after seeing them performed at her father’s court, and takes Tyll into her life as a mixture of jester and Shakespearean fool. This is an original and engaging approach to a little-known period in European history and is now available in English translation by Ross Benjamin.

The second German novel in my top ten is by Christa Wolf, Nachdenken über Christa T.  (Reflections on Christa T. is my preferred translation of the title though the existing translation has the title as Quest for Christa T.) Written in the 1960s by this writer from the former GDR, it’s an account of the life of her friend, Christa, or Krischan, who sadly died in her thirties of leukaemia. It’s about growing up in the post war former East Germany and the difficulty her dreamy and non conformist friend had in fitting in with the ethos of the communist state. But it’s not a narrative driven account—it’s also about the difficulty of piecing together a life from diaries, scraps of writing, Christa Wolf’s own memories, conversations with others and imagined scenarios.  Christa T. is elusive, somehow escaping being pinned down—and the writing is sometimes oblique and elusive too. Reviewed here.

The second of my Spanish language favourites is The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian writer Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. This gem of a book was also shortlisted for the Booker International Prize 2020 and reviewed here. It’s a reworking of the Argentinian national myth of the gaucho Martín Fierro in that in this version it’s his wife, China Iron, who takes off on an adventure across the pampas with her friend Scottish Liz. The journey involves cross dressing, learning English, the legacy of colonialism, falling in love, discovering sex, against achingly beautiful descriptions of the vast Argentinian landscape. Playful in tone, it’s rich in allusions and mischievous in its taking apart of gender expectations and the national myth.

The Irish writer Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite writers in English at present and I reread his Days without End this year in readiness for its sequel, A Thousand Moons. Days without End, tells the story of Thomas McNulty who goes to America as a young lad in the mid 19th when his family die in the Irish famine. He befriends there handsome John Cole and the two of them make their lives together as dancers and then soldiers, fighting first native Americans and then in the Civil War. They become guardians to a native American girl, Winona, and live with her in a loving, unconventional family. I loved the lyrical descriptions of the natural world, and the account of male relationships, both the tenderness of intimate relationships and the comradeship in war.

My final book written in English ( and it’s not in the photo as I returned it to the owner) is When I Hit You : Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy, reviewed here. This is an account of domestic abuse in Southern India and starts off unexpectedly, with the author’s mother telling her friends what a terrible state her feet were in when she finally fled the marital home and her husband’s abuse. The survivor of abuse is a writer and the abuse begins with her husband taking over her emails and cutting off her access to the outside world. His control escalates and culminates in serious physical violence. The writer tells her parents what’s happening but the shame of leaving a marriage is such that her mother in particular counsels her to stay, to be patient, many women have to put up with this. The originality of this book for me was both the Indian context but also the way the writer uses writerly techniques to both shield her from the violence and to survive.

My final book in translation, and last but certainly not least, is The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway. This short but powerful novel reviewed here is set in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children—except many of the children are not intellectually disabled but simply abandoned by their families. The main character is eighteen old Lela, who’s due to leave the school shortly, and acts as an older sister to several of the younger ones, especially Irakli who in the course of the book is chosen for adoption by an American couple. The strength of this book is the heart rending stories of the children living in this crumbling, unlovely and at times abusive institution in a creaking post Soviet society. But it’s also a story of the friendships and relationships which protect them and help them survive.

I’m beginning to see some themes here—history revisited, reworked and interrogated, sometimes playfully. Power and the abuse of power. Survival. The stuff of stories. These, and others, are the books and stories that have helped me through this dreadful year.

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Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott

This book is an account of the author’s investigation into three femicides in Argentina in the 1980s and will be of interest to anyone concerned with the issue of gender based violence. Selma Almada is an acclaimed writer of fiction in Argentina—her novel The Wind that Lays Waste is also published by Charco Press—and this is her first sortie into non- fiction. It’s a project which stems from a very formative experience she had at the age of 13. It was a boiling hot Sunday morning, November 16th 1986, in the town of Villa Elisa in the central eastern part of Entre Ríos province where Selva Almada was raised. She was with her father, grilling in the yard under the mulberry tree, when a news item on the radio caught her attention. A teenager, Andrea Danne, had been murdered in her bed as she slept, in the local town of San José some twelve miles away. The shock for Selma was not only the similar age and proximity of the victim, but also the fact that she was murdered in her own home. Up till then Selma and her contemporaries had been warned to be wary of men and male violence on the street, on the way back at night: it was something that happened outside the home. But with this it was clear that even in the intimate sanctuary of their own homes, even in their own beds, women were not safe.

Selva Almada carried this story with her for a long time, determined that she would someday write the story of Andrea Danne. Twenty years later, twenty years through which reports of femicides regularly appeared in the news, she came across the cases of Maria Luisa Quevedo and Sarita Mundín. Fifteen year old Maria Luisa had just started work as a maid in the city of Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña. She went to work one Thursday, didn’t return, and her body was found three days later, the following Sunday. Sarita Mundin went off one day on an outing with her older lover and never returned. Her remains were found on the banks of a river several months later. In all three cases, despite police investigations, the perpetrator was never found. No one was tried and sentenced for the murders.

Selva Almada spent three years investigating these femicides, not so much with the forensic goal of reopening the cases to find the murderers, but more simply to tell the women’s stories.  She returned to the small towns in the interior of Argentina where they took place, interviewed the surviving family and friends of the victim—several had of course passed away in the intervening thirty years—and looked at police files and newspaper reports. This book is an account of her investigation, but it’s more than that. With the skill of the fiction writer she re imagines certain scenes experienced by the victims, evokes the stifling hot, small towns where they lived and their social milieux, describes in detail the surviving relatives she interviews, as well as her own feelings of unease and discomfort experienced there thirty years later.

There’s the town of St. José, where Andrea lived, a town dominated by the sight and stench of its meat processing plant, the town’s biggest employer. It was thought to be a violent place in the 80s, its men carried knives, its citizens involved in black magic and the occult and it was seen as different from the towns settled by farmers of European descent. Her own feeling of unease and alienation in these towns is palpable 30 years later when she goes to Sáenz Peña to interview Yogui Quevedo, Maria Luisa’s brother. The first time she’s stranded at the bus station in the sweltering heat, as he doesn’t turn up. The next time she has time to kill and sets off in search of a cold drink along the main street which has just one bar filled with middle aged men, drinking, smoking and talking loudly. There’s nowhere for young people to go and Selma learns that they drink on the pavement until it’s time to go to the nightclub. These towns are hundreds of miles from Buenos Aires and the writer comments that in the 80s they were little atomised islands, cut off from other worlds, with no Internet, no cable TV and barely any telephone, focused only on what went on nearby. This explains the impact of the murders in the communities and the theorising which went on as to perpetrators and motives, picked up again by the writer in her investigations. The newspaper Norte reported on the case of Maria Luisa as if it were a telenovela—though Selva Almada does say the case initially competed for media attention with the excesses of the military dictatorship, which in late 1983/ 1984 were coming to light.

The writer raises the question of young girls working and being therefore vulnerable to abuse and attack. She says it was quite normal in the 80s for girls to have jobs cleaning or looking after children alongside attending school. In fact her best friend had done this with no ill-effects, though Selva’s mother had not allowed her to work like this. With regard to the dead girls, Maria Luisa had just started work as a maid and Sarita, from a very poor family and responsible for other family members, had worked as a prostitute and was at the time of her murder the mistress of an older man. In the interview she gave at the Edinburgh Book Festival Selva Almada says that the sexual exploitation of girls during their work was somehow tolerated and regarded differently from girls who were working as prostitutes on the street. Andrea, however, came from a slightly better off family. She was studying psychology and had arguably a brighter future ahead of her. But this did not prevent her from being murdered in her bed.

Selva Almada’s investigation can be read as an attempt to exorcise these murders from her consciousness, to finally lay the dead girls to rest and this can be seen in her final meeting with La Señora, the psychic she’d started consulting to help her. She reflects in her author’s note that she feels lucky: that she and her friends could equally well have been the dead girls. Now, at times while reading this book I wanted more analysis, a clearer comparison between femicides thirty years ago and now. I would like to have known exactly what the problems was with finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice, but this is just not that kind of book. It’s a more personal reflection on the murders of Andrea, Maria Luisa and Sarita thirty years ago and the social context in which they happened. But it has made me think more deeply about violence against women at that time and of course the narrative going back and forth between the events and the investigation thirty years later begs the question: what, if anything, has changed, in Argentina and elsewhere? So this book contributes to an ongoing discussion around misogyny and its role in crimes against women- see Joan Smith, for example, in her book Misogynies and in her examination of police prejudice and their mishandling of investigations into Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, ( The Guardian 16/12/2020) Thanks to Selva Almada, her translator Annie McDermott, and Charco Press for bringing this to us.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

This title conjured up images for me of ghostly Roman soldiers standing guard at Housesteads Fort high above Hadrian’s Wall. That image isn’t far off the mark—the events in this powerful short novel take place in nearby Northumberland and concern a group of people engaged in a historical re-enactment. A university professor and three of his students taking a course in ‘experiential archaeology’ have constructed a replica Iron Age Camp and mean to live as Iron Age people for a period of days. They’re accompanied by 17 year old Sylvie and her parents from Rochdale. They’re not academics, but the Dad is a keen hobby historian and, we learn, has taken annual leave to participate in the project.

The set up is described from Sylvie’s resigned teenage point of view: the cramped tent she has to share with her parents, the ceaseless trials of keeping the fire going, the indigestible gruel they have to eat for breakfast, the moccasins on their feet which give no protection from sharp stones on the moorland paths. Still, her Dad’s insistence on authenticity is no surprise to her: we learn that he’s passionately interested in the Iron Age, with all its rituals, and as a dogmatic authoritarian will brook nothing less than the strictest adherence to his interpretation of how they lived back in the day.

Some relief from the miseries of the camp comes her way when she’s assigned to a foraging party with the students. This gives her a chance to listen in on their lives and she’s awed by their carefree banter, their air of freedom, their tales of travel—to Berlin if you please, a city she couldn’t imagine her Dad letting her visit in a million years. She’s particularly drawn to Molly, her insouciance as she strips off for a skinny dip in the sea, her self-confident rejection of authority when she takes herself off to the local Spar for an ice-cream and a packet of crisps. It’s as if the students are from a different, superior world and yet Sylvie’s knowledge of the natural world quite outstrips theirs. She knows where you can find bilberries, how to uproot burdock plants to fill out a stew. And her sensitivity to nature provides some of the most beautiful and lyrical language in the novel: that first night there was moss under foot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dark, as if glowing.

Sylvie’s Dad is not the only authority figure in the camp: the project is the Professor’s idea and the relationship between these two middle-aged men from quite different class backgrounds is interestingly drawn. In a conversation about Hadrian’s Wall and the relative strengths of the invading Romans and the indigenous Britons we learn that her Dad is a keen believer in some kind of essential Britishness. Jim, the Prof, puts him right, ever so politely, telling him the idea of Britishness is a modern idea, that at that time, people’s loyalties were predominantly tribal, and that Hadrian’s Wall was more a symbol of power than a military necessity. Jim’s superior knowledge and privilege is indisputable here, yet as the narrative progresses the men’s shared excitement for hunting and fishing, their interest in warfare and killing only grows.

We start to get some insight into Sylvie’s mostly compliant attitude to her Dad when she returns from a foraging trip and notices a new bruise on her Mum’s arm. Her poor Mum who’s not in the least bit interested in the Iron Age, but whose main aim in life is not to upset her Dad. When Sylvie returns from foraging with the students, she’s dreamily thinking of Molly’s naked body, wanders upstream and strips off. Her Dad happens to come by and, disgusted by her nudity, takes his Iron Age belt off and whips her. The beating is severe, she’s in pain for some days and the weals on her back and legs are noticed by Molly, though Sylvie tries to hide them. Snatched memories of previous assaults, recollected comments from other adults seep into the narrative to let us know that this man is a regular abuser of his wife and child.

There’s another thread going through the novel and, as the abuse becomes obvious, this other thread hovers worryingly in the mind of the reader. It’s the theme of ritual sacrifice. Now the proximity of death in the Iron Age world is referred to in many ways in the novel: from camp fire chats about childbirth and disease to the very visceral account of dismembering the rabbits they’ve hunted. Then there are the skulls of rabbits, cows and sheep used by the men in the party when they excitedly recreate a ghost wall: a wall constructed from willow with skulls of dead animals hung in the branches, used by Iron Age people to frighten their enemies. But there are also those bodies found in peat bogs, bodies of people who’ve suffered  cuts and blows before death, suggestive of a ritual sacrifice. Sylvie’s learned a lot about this from her Dad, who’s taken her to museums, shown her photographs, discussed with her the whys and wherefores of blindfolding the victim. The ghost wall is finished, but the atmosphere of tense excitement remains, heightened by the ritualistic drumming of the male students, while Dad and Jim look about them for the next scene in their re-enactment.

So this is a novel about male violence and abuse. Sylvie’s Dad is the obvious perpetrator but the sophisticated, middle-class Professor is fascinated by warfare and killing too. It’s as if their interest in the Iron Age World is a sublimation of some deep-seated instinctual tendency to violence, and the re-enactment a chance to release that drive. The experience is meant to show a yawning gulf between our daily lives and that of the Iron Age people, and yet the behaviour of the men is such that we’re constantly asking ourselves: are they really that different? And so by the end the title Ghost Wall conjured up for me not only the ghosts of the past but, more significantly, the evanescence and insubstantiality of a ghostly covering only just concealing the hard stone wall behind. As if just a thin veneer of civilisation separates the men of today’s world from Iron Age Man.

This book is a rich text, the narrative carefully paced and structured, the voices varied and authentic. The language is suggestive and evocative, lyrical and sensual in its depiction of nature, deft and economic when depicting character and social class. As in The Tidal Zone, Sarah Moss describes a contemporary world, intricately bound up with the past, in a way which is both compelling and deeply unsettling.

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Verwirrnis- Confusion- by Christoph Hein.

For my final German Literature Month read I decided to go for Christoph Hein’s book Verwirrnis- Confusion– which has been lingering on my shelves for a few months now. It’s an account of the life of Friedeward Ringeling, a gay man born in 1933 in Heiligenstadt, East Germany. It’s an account of his long love affair with Wolfgang Zernick, and how they survived in the former East Germany. It’s also a fascinating social history of the post-war period and in particular of life at the University of Leipzig where Friedeward ends up living and working.

Friedeward was born to parents who were zealous practising Catholics, his father being at the same time a teacher of German at the Heiligenstadt secondary school Friedeward attends. (I was surprised to learn that Catholicism was widely practised in this part of communist East Germany –apparently the shortage of teachers post war was such that the authorities allowed Catholics to take up teaching posts provided they didn’t indoctrinate their pupils). Friedeward’s home life was utter misery, as his father was a tyrannical disciplinarian and used a whip called a Siebenstriemer, a cat o’ nine tails, to beat his children. Friedeward’s brother and sister left home as soon as they could, leaving him, as the youngest child, at the mercy of this sadistic father and unsympathetic mother.

Friedeward is a sensitive, bookish sort of boy and when Wolfgang Zernick, a gifted musician and lover of poetry, joins the school he feels he’s found a soul mate. Their intense friendship stands out from the more usual contacts between girls and boys at that time and becomes physical when they go on a camping holiday to the Baltic coast at Heiligendamm-where they also get embroiled in a contre-temps between some FKK nudists and the local police. On their return journey the lads stay a couple of nights in Berlin, where a friend offers them accommodation she’s getting ready for the Weltfestspiele- the World Student Games—which took place in East Berlin in 1951. I really enjoyed the East German perspective of these two young men roaming around Berlin at that time- the Deutsche Sporthalle just built, the Stalinallee under construction, the grand houses on the Ku’damm still blackened with soot and fire damage, quite unlike their own town which had survived the war relatively unscathed.

The two young men are well aware that their relationship must remain concealed- at that time homosexual activity was a criminal offence carrying a prison sentence of 5 years. Wolfgang’s plan to deflect suspicion is to start a romantic liaison with an old family friend, Helga. He’s pretty relaxed and insouciant about this idea, though Friedeward feels bewildered and betrayed. However, they let their guard down and are caught in bed by Friedeward’s father. A storm of rage and violence is unleashed: the father insists that Wolfgang leave the school and town immediately—he accuses him of being the guilty party as he’s reached 18—and beats Friedeward mercilessly. The humiliation of this assault and Friedeward’s feelings of isolation afterwards are one of the more emotionally powerful sections of the book. His parents push the Catholic doctrine that homosexuality, or sodomy as they call it, is a sin leading to hell and eternal damnation. Friedeward is plagued with guilt, fear and suicidal feelings.

We next see Friedeward and Wolfgang together at the University of Leipzig, where Wolfgang is studying music and Friedeward German literature and this is presented as a kind of halcyon time for them.  I was interested to discover that in the early 50s Leipzig was relatively free from the yoke of communist ideology, which meant that charismatic teachers like the professor nicknamed by students Goethe-Höchstselbst, Goethe in person, were able to dazzle their students with their scholarship and were revered by the townsfolk too as princes of Leipzig. While they both flourish intellectually in this inspiring atmosphere, their personal lives develop too when they meet Jacqueline, a sophisticated young woman studying drama, who has noticed the close relationship between Friedeward and Wolfgang. With great reluctance Friedeward confesses to Jacqueline that Wolfgang is in fact his boyfriend. She tells him she’s having a relationship with an older woman, Herlinde, an academic, and the four of them then spend a lot of time together, out and about in the cafes and lecture rooms of Leipzig, using the foursome to conceal their real relationships.

The two young men have by now hit the difficulty of reaching the marrying age and dealing with family and societal expectations that they’ll ‘settle down’. Wolfgang has continued his relationship with Helga and gets engaged to her. When she meets Friedeward she senses the intensity of their relationship and tells Wolfgang she’d be jealous if he were a woman. Still, the three of them get on well, so well that Friedeward accompanies Wolfgang and Helga on a three week holiday to Bulgaria, where unsuspecting Helga has a separate bedroom while Friedeward shares with Wolfgang! Friedeward in the meantime has persuaded Jacqueline to pose as his girlfriend, and eventually his fiancé. Though she comes from quite a different world from the Catholic parents with her airy atheism, they are palpably relieved that their son has a girlfriend and is not vom anderen Uferfrom the other side. Friedeward and Jacqueline eventually marry, which helps both of them, and this particular charade endures for the rest of Friedeward’s life. Not so for poor Helga, who is summarily cast aside by Wolfgang later on.

Now by this stage in the story- we’re now in the 1950s- the life of a gay couple in East Germany seems no different from elsewhere. Unfortunately tyrannical fathers and a repressive Catholic church are to be found everywhere and homosexuality is criminalised in both East and West Germany until well into the 60s. However, the fact of being East Germans really begins to bite when Wolfgang receives a scholarship to study further at the Heinrich- Schütz Haus, a seminary in Spandau, West Berlin. (At this point, the Berlin Wall hasn’t yet been erected but Berlin is clearly divided into four zones). Wolfgang and Friedeward continue seeing each other, travelling between Leipzig and Berlin, but both are successful and busy in their professional lives and struggle to find time to meet. When Wolfgang is looking for jobs as a Kantor – a choirmaster/organist – some years later, he realises that employers prefer candidates who are taxpayers in West Germany. We learn suddenly that he’s applied for West German citizenship, which immediately makes him guilty of the offence of Republikflucht– fleeing from the GDR- and means he can never return to East Germany. He breaks off his engagement with Helga and burns his bridges with both his family and with Friedeward. Friedeward visits him one more time, but realises when the Berlin Wall goes up in 1961 that he’ll never see Wolfgang again.

The last section of the novel deals with Friedeward’s life in Leipzig against a picture of the ups and downs of university life in the East. Years later he has a relationship with a young man who reminds him of Wolfgang in his youth, and he and Jacqueline continue their marriage charade. Friends and colleagues guess that he’s gay, without this being articulated. But of course, because it’s a secret, he’s vulnerable, and so when he applies for a visa to attend an important event in Vienna, he’s blackmailed by the Stasi. And, after the reunification of Germany, this fact will come back to bite him. We also read an account of what happened in the university of Leipzig after reunification. The new rector, a friend of Friedeward, was obliged to make thousands of members of staff redundant and to sell off  land and buildings to the private sector-shocking developments for Friedeward’s circle given the relative autonomy enjoyed by the university under communism.

Now, this is an ambitious novel in its attempt to trace the whole life of a gay man against the background of developments in post war East Germany and I think it suffers at times in trying to do too much. For example, some of the plot developments seemed rushed and contrived, as if the writer was trying too hard to use the bad stuff that happened in East Germany to move the plot along. The cool tone of the third person narrative read at times like a report, which I didn’t mind when it related to things that actually happened, but there was little variation in voice or tone when more personal, emotional events and feelings were depicted and there were a couple of points of emotional intensity when I found the dialogue disappointing. I felt there were two books in here- one about coming out as gay in post war Germany and another almost a sort of Leipzig campus novel. I felt I learned a lot about university life in the former GDR but would have liked a more emotional and intimate account of the personal experience. Still, it’s really important that books are being written about men and women who had to conceal their identity and sexuality in former times and I applaud Christoph Hein for bringing this to us.

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