Tag Archives: Charlotte Collins

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in November 2019

A mere handful of November paperbacks after a very satisfying two-part new title preview, but all four look pretty enticing to me beginning with Walter Kempowski’s Homeland which opens in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A journalist living in West Berlin is commissioned to write a piece about the former East Prussia where he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers.

Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room is about a woman whose fate was also decided by the Second World War. Hedy Lamarr, as she came to be known, fled the Hitler regime and landed up in Hollywood where her beauty secured her future. A scientist by training, Lamarr had learnt secrets about the Nazis at the side of her Austrian arms dealer husband and had devised an idea to help defeat them. ‘A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionised modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece’ according to the publishers. It sounds a little improbable but intriguing nevertheless.

Poverty is the enemy in Alessandro D’Avenia’s What Hell is Not, set in Sicily where seventeen-year-old Federico is asked to help at a youth club in a destitute neighbourhood controlled by the Mafia. While the children of Brancaccio lack Federico’s privilege, their spirit and will change his life forever, apparently. ‘Written in intensely passionate and lyrical prose, What Hell Is Not is the phenomenal Italian bestseller about a man who brought light to one of the darkest corners of Sicily, and who refused to give up on the future of its children’ says the blurb which sounds distinctly cheering.

One man looks set to make a difference in a negative way in Jeffrey Lewis’ Bealport which sees a financier buying the New England factory where his favourite shoes are made. The sale will have a profound effect on the people of Bealport for whom the factory provides both livelihood and community. ‘Bealport is a portrait of a place, at once sympathetic, mordant, unsparing, comic, tragic and universal, and of a way of life that is passing. It is a novel of a town, and to no small degree of every town in America and beyond’ according to the blurb which sounds right up my street.

That’s it for November’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy, and if you’d like to catch up with new titles, they’re here and here. If past performance is anything to go by there will be very few books to look out for in December, but you never know…

The Club by Takis Würger (transl. Charlotte Collins): All too believable

Cover imageI had my eye on this one as soon as I saw that it was translated by the excellent Charlotte Collins, although I think I would have read it anyway. Set against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement, Takis Würger’s The Club follows Hans, a young German orphan whose estranged aunt has spotted a way in which her nephew’s boxing prowess can help her in her quest for retribution.

Lonely and bereft, Hans had hoped that Alex might take him home with her to Cambridge but instead he’s left at a Bavarian boarding school, taking up boxing to counter his schoolmates’ bullying. When he receives a letter from her asking him to infiltrate a Cambridge University boxing club in return for a scholarship, Hans accepts only for lack of anything else to do with his life. Alex’s PhD student, Charlotte, sets him up with the entrée he needs, introducing Hans to her father, Angus, who sponsors him, and providing him with the clothing that will mark him out as ‘one of us’. Hans’ boxing flair soon gets him noticed by Josh Hartley, the self-obsessed star of the club who thinks himself principled because he cares about the provenance of his meat. Through diligent training and assiduous lying, Hans works his way onto the university boxing team, winning his bout against Oxford for which he’s to be admitted into the inner sanctum. As with any exclusive club, there’s an initiation rite to complete – one so repugnant that Hans risks blowing his cover to avoid it. By the time, he becomes a Butterfly, Hans has come both to understand the reason Alex has enlisted his help and to overcome the loneliness that has haunted him since he was a child.

Würger explores themes of power, privilege, misogyny and homophobia in this far from comfortable read, telling his story through the voices of its principal players. Many of the details of Josh’s behaviour are so familiar from the well-documented antics of the Bullingdon Club that it’s all too easy to imagine them taken several steps further. Würger manages to nail the mind-bogglingly ghastly sense of entitlement displayed by Josh and co. with a careful but light hand. There are occasional flashes of dark humour while Angus’s lack of understanding of his own crime and concern for Charlotte in the face of the unsporting behavior of the young Butterflies is well done as is Josh’s total lack of self-knowledge, locking himself firmly in a closet of his own determined straightness. I see from Würger’s biographical notes that he, too, was a member of the Pitt Club as a Cambridge undergraduate making me squirm even more. That said, the detail may be peculiar to my own country but I suspect the generality is sadly universal. Not that I take any comfort from that observation.

Books of the Year 2018: Part Two

Cover imageSpring, which seems so far away now, was a particularly good reading time for me hence this bumper post. March began with Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness explores similar themes through the story of three siblings. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, unable to settle at anything. Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating. You might think that sounds somewhat gloomy but it’s not: the clue’s in the title. Another excellent translation by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learnt to look out for.

Death pops up again in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists which had my hype antennae twitching before I read it. It’s a novel with a very clever hook: what would you do with your life if you knew the date of your death? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? This is the conundrum for the Gold siblings whose stories unfold as they move inexorably towards the dates appointed to each of them at their childhood visit to a fortune-teller. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking it’s a compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

April brought probably the longest title of a contemporary novel I’ve ever come across:Cover image renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking – beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch.

Michael Andreassen’s weird and wonderful The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is probably the oddest book to appear in my books of any year, but you never know. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy. From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. That should give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection. You’ll either hate it or love it; I loved it.

Amy Bloom took me back to more conventional literary territory in May. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, White Houses tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair.  Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons.

Cover image’Elegantly spare’ is a description that could also be applied to Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, my other favourite May read. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain. It tells the story of two brothers – one committed to saving the family olive farm, the other looking for a way out – against the backdrop of a searing autumnal drought. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

The next instalment covers four months of what turned out to be one of the most glorious summers we’ve known for some time here in the UK.

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part One

Cover imageNovember’s packed to the gills with goodies, not all of them obvious Christmas presents although I’d be surprised if Jonathan Coe’s Middle England doesn’t appear on one or two wish lists. Set in the Midlands and London, it follows the last eight years through the lives of a set of characters including a political commentator and a Tory MP. Dubbed ‘a story of nostalgia and irony; of friendship and rage, humour and intense bewilderment’ by the publishers, it sounds like the kind of novel at which Coe excels. It feels a very long time since Number 11 and the return of the Winshaws so expectations are high.

A close contender for top of my own wish list is Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living which is set partly in India during the Second World War from which Charlie has returned, marrying, settling on a farm and hoping to turn his back on what happened in the remote mountains of Nagaland. ‘A beautifully conceived, deftly controlled and delicately wrought meditation on the isolating impact of war, the troubling legacies of colonialism and the inescapable reach of the past, Georgina Harding’s haunting, lyrical novel questions the very nature of survival, and what it is that the living owe the dead’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Harding, including her last novel, The Gun Room, which also tackled the theme of war.

Walter Kempowski’s Homeland examines the legacy of the Second World War from a different perspective. In 1988, a journalist is commissioned to report on a car rally, an assignment which will take him back to the place he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers promisingly. And it’s translated by one of my favourites: Charlotte Collins

Gerard Reve’s Childhood comprises two novellas: one set in wartime Amsterdam as a young boy watches the German occupation of his city, the other about a children’s secret society and its treatment of a newcomer. ‘In these two haunting novellas from the acclaimed author of The Evenings, the world of childhood, in all its magic and strangeness, darkness and cruelty, is evoked with piercing wit and dreamlike intensity. Here, the things seen through a child’s eyes are far from innocent’ say the publishers no doubt hoping for the same success that met Reve’s bleak but darkly funny The Evenings.Cover image

I’m polishing off this first selection on a more cheerful note with Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter, set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while sharply observing their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great.

That’s it for the first batch of November’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s taken your fancy. Second instalment to follow soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageBack from the blustery North Norfolk coast – more of which in a few days – with a look ahead at a few October paperbacks that have caught my eye, two of which I’ve yet to read beginning with Ali Smith’s Winter. I still haven’t got around to Autumn although it’s on my horizon, sitting patiently on a shelf waiting to be read. The second in Smith’s quartet casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ according to the publishers. I’m sure we could all do with something ‘merry’ to help us along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

The second unread title in this batch is a new edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s final collection of short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, which has its feet firmly planted in the fantastical. ‘Warner explores the morals, domestic practices, politics and passions of the Kingdoms of Elfin by following their affairs with mortals, and their daring flights across the North Sea’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed Warner’s novels in the distant past but I’m not entirely sure this is for me.

That said, those were my initial thoughts about Michael Andreasen’s collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, comprising twelve surreal stories beginning with a loving son remembering the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. What makes these somewhat bonkers stories work is Andreasen’s often darkly bizarre humour and his arresting writing. You’ll either hate it or love it – I loved it.

No such doubts about Joseph Cassara’s debut. Set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, The House of Impossible Beauties focusses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone.Cover image

Loss and grief also run through Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness which opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident. When their parents were killed in a car crash in 1984, he and his siblings dealt with their grief in very different ways. Wells tells their story in Jules’ voice through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Written with empathy and compassion, the novel is expertly translated by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learned to look out for.

That’s it for October’s paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for the first two and to my review for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with October’s new titles, they’re here.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover imageThis may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.

Books to Look Out for in March 2018

Cover imageTop of March’s list for me is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. I have no idea where I first heard about this novel but it’s been on my radar for quite some time. Opening in New York (there’s my hook), it’s about the Gold children whose fortunes are told by a psychic in 1969. Simon heads for San Francisco and love, Klara for Las Vegas and a career as a magician, Daniel becomes an army doctor after 9/11 while Varya seeks answers in science. Karen Joy Fowler thinks it’s amazing, apparently. I’m hoping this is the kind of sprawling book you can sink into.

New York is also the setting for one thread of Lisa Halliday’s debut in which a young editor begins an affair with a celebrated, much older writer. Across the Atlantic an Iraqi-American economist on his way to Kurdistan finds himself in detention. ‘Asymmetry is a novel which illuminates the power plays and imbalances of contemporary life – between young and old, West and Middle East, fairness and injustice, talent and luck, and the personal and the political. It introduces a major new literary talent, writing about the world today with astonishing versatility, acuity and daring’ say the publishers, promisingly.

In Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil a bright young man, raised in Washington DC by his conservative Nigerian parents, keeps his sexuality secret from all but his dearest friend. When Niru’s father discovers the truth, Meredith is too caught up in her own troubles to support him. ‘As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding towards a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine’ say the publishers which sounds harrowing but the premise is an interesting one.

I’m hoping that Katy Mahood’s Entanglement will offer a little light relief after that. One day in 2007, Charlie locks eyes with Stella across a Paddington platform, and thinks he may know her.Cover image Mahood’s novel turns back the clock to the ‘70s tracing the thread that links the lives of four characters, seemingly unknown to each other. ‘In rhythmic and captivating prose, Katy Mahood effortlessly interweaves the stories of these two families who increasingly come to define one another in the most vital and astounding ways. With this soaring debut, she explores the choices and encounters that make up a lifetime, reminding us just how closely we are all connected’ say the publishers putting me in mind of David Nicholl’s One Day and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

Donal Ryan’s last novel, All We Shall Know, finally made me see what all the fuss was about. Although I’d enjoyed his previous two, they’d not met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reception. I’m cautiously optimistic, then, about From a Low and Quiet Sea in which three men, all bearing the scars of experience, are looking for a home. One is a refugee, one has had his heart broken and the other is dying. ‘Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways’ say the publishers.

I like the sound of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness but what’s really persuaded me is its translation by Charlotte Collins who did such a beautiful job with both The Tobacconist and A Whole Life. Three children are sent to boarding school when their parents are killed in a car crash, each of them dealing with their shattering bereavement in different ways. ‘Years later, just as it seems that they can make amends for time wasted, the past catches up with them, and fate – or chance – will once again alter the course of a life’ say the publishers enticingly. This one sounds right up my alley.

Cover imageYou may already know James Wood’s name from his reviews in the New Yorker. In his second novel, Upstate, two sisters – one a philosopher, the other a record executive – are still coping with the emotional fallout of their parents’ bitter divorce. When Vanessa suffers a crisis, Helen and her father travel to upstate New York where over six days the family struggles with life’s big questions. ‘Why do some people find living so much harder than others? Is happiness a skill that can be learned, or a lucky accident of birth? Is reflection helpful to happiness or an obstacle to it? If, as a favourite philosopher of Vanessa’s puts it, “the only serious enterprise is living”, how should we live? Rich in subtle human insight, full of poignant and often funny portraits, and vivid with a sense of place, Upstate is a perceptive, intensely moving novel’ say the publishers of what sounds like a weighty piece of fiction.

That’s it for March’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks to follow shortly…

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.