Tag Archives: A Meal in Winter

Books of the Year 2018: Part Four

Cover imageOctober and early November were spent reading for my shadow judging stint for the Young Writer of the Year Award, a thoroughly enjoyable experience not least because it meant I met several bloggers who’ve I’ve exchanged views with over the years. The judges plumped for Adam Weymouth’s proper piece of travel writing, Kings of the Yukon but we shadow judges chose Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which, ironically, I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as I did, not being a fan of historical fiction. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

Having proclaimed myself not a fan of historical fiction, I’m about to recommend another tale set round about the time of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. Perfect for curling up with on a winter evening.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, October’s last favourite, joins the many superb novellas I’ve read this year which comes as no surprise give the excellence of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter which I read way back in 2013. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Cover imageWritten in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion.

My first November book carries on the theme of war with Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living, which like her last novel, The Gun Room, explores its legacy. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence. Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Written with Harding’s characteristic quiet perceptiveness, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

Sulaiman Addonia explores the fallout of war from the perspective of those who flee it in Silence is My Mother Tongue. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love. Saba is a bright young girl who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. As she grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, she attracts unwanted male attention but never loses sight of her ambition and her devotion to her mute brother. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful.

My last 2018 favourite is a book which I was far from convinced that I would like let alone love. Cover imageRobbie Arnott’s Flames is quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Arnott’s novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing. It’s one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read this year, a very satisfying book to end on.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a toss-up between two or three titles but I can’t seem to narrow it down to that which is indicative of a very good reading year. I hope yours has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2018 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

Paperbacks to look out for in October 2014

This is going to be a short post, not that there aren’t lots of paperbacks published in October but few of them take my fancy, I’m afraid, which is probably best for my credit card. I’ve already read and reviewed three at length here so I’ll start with those.

Cover imageThe first is John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which has a much more eye-catching jacket than the hardback. Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of this novel which I enjoyed very much.

My second choice is Equilateral by Ken Kalfus, a tale of madness, folly and Martians. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. Sounds bonkers, I know, but Kalfus has a great deal of fun with the idea taking a few well-aimed kicks at colonial arrogance along the way.

My third already-reviewed choice is an entirely different kettle of fish. Hubert Mingarelli’s spare novella, A Meal in Winter, in which three hungry German soldiers striding through a frigid Polish forest flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. One soldier reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face Cover imagethe moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. A beautiful piece of writing.

My last choice for this month is James Scott’s The Kept, set in nineteenth century upstate New York where Elspeth Howell has returned to find that her family has been murdered – all apart from her twelve-year-old son. Together they set out to find the culprits. It sounds a bit like Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which I very much enjoyed and Ali’s review at Heavenali  has piqued my interest further.

That’s it for October paperbacks. If you want to see what I’ll be adding to my TBR in September, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageThree German soldiers – Bauer, Emmerich and an unnamed narrator – stride out into the frigid Polish winter, their minds on keeping warm and their empty stomachs. They’ve missed breakfast, determined to avoid the daily round of executions by volunteering to hunt down Jews and bring them back to the camp. Emmerich frets about his son, enlisting the help of the other two to try to get him to stop smoking. Bauer occasionally bellows out advice while our unnamed narrator muses on last night’s dream of the three of them riding on a tram. Despite the constant gnawing hunger, the dangerous numbing cold anything is better than serving another turn as executioner. When Emmerich spots signs of a hideout, the three flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. Bauer reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a Polish hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face the moral dilemma of what to do with their captive.

This short, spare novella will take you little more than two or three hours to read but it will remain in your thoughts for some time. Hubert Mingarelli’s prose, expertly translated by novelist Sam Taylor, is stark and bare: no words wasted on distracting descriptions. We learn that the soldiers no longer share their dreams so often filled with the horrors they’ve witnessed. Hunger and cold are viscerally described. Bauer and our narrator treat Emmerich’s anxiety with touching concern. The narrator hates the little maternal touches he finds in many of his quarry – an embroidered snowflake on a cap, a ribbon – bringing him face to face with their humanity. We humans long to see the world in black and white – it makes things so much easier – but the genius of Mingarelli’s compassionate novel is to show ordinary German soldiers, horrified by what they have seen and done, trying to find ways of coping while managing to retain their humanity. It’s a triumph for both the novelist and the translator.

Almost as soon as I started reading A Meal in Winter I thought of Richard Bausch’s Peace, Cover imageanother slim, understated novel that speaks of the horrors of war. This time three American soldiers pick their way down a mountainside in the freezing cold after their sergeant has murdered a young woman in the final days of the Second World War. We’re about to be deluged with novels about the First World War given next year’s commemorations but I wondered if anyone had any recommendations of novels that have already stood the test of time. Birdsong, The Ghost Road and All Quiet on the Western Front spring to mind. Anyone know of any others?