Tag Archives: Craving

Books to Look Out For in December 2015

Cover image Slim publishing pickings in December – a bit of famine after the autumn feast. Not a great month if you’re looking for anything cheerful, either, but an excellent one for fans of fiction in translation beginning with Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years. Cecilia and Claudio share lunch most days in the hospital where they work. Both are embroiled in difficult domestic situations: she’s a single parent, newly separated – he lives in the same apartment building as his senile mother, ex-wife and her new family. Despite their powerful attraction both are wary of their friendship becoming something more until a chance meeting changes everything. Canobbio’s novel comes from Maclehose Press who have quite an eye for fiction in translation.

As do World Editions, a new publisher on the UK block who have published several interesting titles this year including Esther Gerritsen’s Craving. December sees the publication of You Have Me to Love the first adult title from Dutch children’s writer Jaap Robben. Mikael lives on an island between Scotland and Norway. When his father disappears into the sea one day Mikael refuses to talk about it and his mother becomes mad with grief. Not exactly cheery, I know, but given World Editions’ track record it seems worth a look.

The next title is by Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Ōe, reported to have been working on a novel featuring a character based on his father by the New York Times a little while ago, apparently. Death by Water sees an ageing Nobel Prize-winning writer – struck by writer’s block and struggling to find the words to write about his drowned father – returning to his village in search of a cache of documents which may offer the solution to his predicament.Cover image

Serpent’s Tail is reissuing another Nobel Prize-winning author’s novel, Herta Müller’s The Passport, this month. I’ve read just one novel by Müller which I enjoyed immensely but have somehow not got around to reading more. This one interweaves stories from the present and past, centring on a village in Ceaucescu’s Romania whose miller wants to migrate to West Germany. Beautiful writing, apparently, which I remember from The Land of Green Plums.

That’s it for December. I’m hoping for some cheerier novels in January. In the meantime a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s embarrassment of riches they’re here, here and here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in June 2015

The Paying GuestsI’ve reviewed all but two of the June paperbacks that have caught my eye so forgive me if I cram the lot into a single post and let the reviews speak for themselves. I’ll start with one that I haven’t got around to reading although I’ve had a copy for some time: Sarah Waters’ Baileys shortlisted The Paying Guests. I’m a big fan of Waters’ earlier novels but not so much her last two. In this one, she’s shifted her gaze from the 1940s to the ‘20s, setting her book in Camberwell where Frances and her widowed mother have fallen on hard times and are taking in lodgers. The arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, neither as genteel as the Wrays, shakes up the household in what Waters has called a love story ‘in which the love is forbidden, in all sorts of ways; it’s a story in which the love is dangerous’.

My second unreviewed title is Peter Buwalda’s much lauded Bonita Avenue, described as ‘a darkly hilarious tale’ in which a vulnerable young man finds himself embraced by his girlfriend’s family headed by the multi-talented Professor Sigerius. Things go horribly wrong, apparently, with all sorts of shenanigans from an explosion in a firework factory to a forgotten murderer turning up. Translated from the Dutch, it sounds as if it’s from the same school as Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Esther Gerritsen’s Craving.

There are two other translated titles on this month’s list, both by German authors, each very different from the other. Hard to choose which is my favourite but if pushed I’d plump for Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, although it’s a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Erpenbeck adroitly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout her complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track as she views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly re-imagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. I thought it was excellent, but I’m a Marmite fan.

Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections crisscrossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that Daniel Kehlmann’s F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully, following Arthur Friedland and his two sons whose visit to a hypnotist when they boys are children has unforeseen consequences that will reverberate through all their lives.

Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is the first of two novels I enjoyed so much that I included Cover imagethem on my Baileys Prize wish list although the judges disagreed. Impoverished and homeless, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret spent the first year of the First World War on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Freud tells their story from the point of view of Thomas Maggs, the thirteen-year-old son of a local publican with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship. Such a shame to see that the beautiful hardback jacket has been swapped for a rather prosaic image.

Set on the Norfolk coast, not so very far from Walberswick, Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood was another surprising omission from the Baileys longlist. Its premise is enticing enough and it’s beautifully written, too. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heatwave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name.

The last two are by American authors, the first of which has a title that I’m sure has been mangled constantly up and down the land: Judy Chicurel’s If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. It’s the title of the final chapter of the book whose meaning becomes clear towards its end. Set in the summer of 1972, If I Knew… is narrated by Katie, the adopted daughter of a white-collar family who spends her time in Elephant Beach’s rundown Comanche Street, a district frequented by drunks and druggies. It’s an episodic novel which draws you in nicely.

Lucky UsFinally, Amy Bloom’s much more manageably titled Lucky Us follows Eva whose mother dumps her unceremoniously on her father’s doorstep. Beginning in 1939, it’s a story of tangled relationships stretching over a decade. Lucky Us has an empathetic quality which makes its many flawed characters both attractive and believable.

That’s it for June paperbacks, a rather longer post than I’d intended but too short to spread over two. A click on first two titles will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis; the rest are reviewed on this blog. If you want to see which June hardbacks I’m eagerly anticipating, they’re here and here.

Craving by Esther Gerritsen (transl. by Michele Hutchison): Only connect

Cover imageEsther Gerritsen’s Craving is one of the first titles to be published by World Editions set up with the aim of bringing world literature to a wider audience, starting off with a fistful, of Dutch novels. Up to now I suspect most of us, me included, have had little or no contact with Dutch writing beyond Herman Koch’s much lauded The Dinner. Craving comes with a glowing endorsement from Mr Koch on its jacket, a handy indicator as to who might enjoy this darkly comic novel about death and family life.

Elisabeth is dying: we know that from the start. As she walks to the pharmacy to pick up her morphine she spots her daughter Coco across the street. Elisabeth wonders whether to tell Coco her news. They haven’t seen each other for a while and it may be a little awkward – not quite the moment – but heeding her doctor’s exhortations she hails Coco and after a desultory exchange blurts it out. Coco is only a little nonplussed, cycling off strangely pleased with the drama of her news and how important it makes her feel. Elisabeth carries on. This exchange sets the tone for Gerritsen’s unsettling, powerful novel. Coco spills the beans to her stepmother and father, Wilbert, with whom she spent most of her childhood; uses her news to manipulate her middle-aged boyfriend; then decides she should move in to look after her mother, more as an act of defiance aimed at Wilbert than from a desire to care for Elisabeth. As her mother deteriorates, so Coco becomes increasingly chaotic.

Gerritsen threads Elisabeth’s memories in and out of Coco’s unravelling and her own decline: her decision to lock the eighteen-month-old Coco in her room as means of protecting the furniture; Coco’s plunge through a glass screen door, aged five, and her own odd reaction to it; her detached ability to scan the rhythms of Wilbert’s remarks during sex. It’s never quite clear whether Elisabeth has Asperger’s but neither social skills nor empathy are amongst her strong points. While she’s always been at ease with her picture-framing colleagues, family life and marriage have proved to be something of an emotional minefield. Meanwhile Coco tries to fill her own gaping void with food, rough sex with strangers and the self-importance gained from the emotional drama playing out at home. No one manages to connect with anyone else in this fractured family – Elisabeth’s most satisfying relationship is with her boss. Not an easy read, then, but certainly a striking one handled with great skill. I’ll be interested to see what World Editions comes up with next.