Tag Archives: Emmanuelle Pagano

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (transl. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis): Interconnected lives

Cover imageI’m sure I’ve already made this observation here but I’ve yet to read a dud from Peirene Press. Their books are always thought-provoking and often beautifully expressed, a tribute to both writer and translator, or in this case translators. Clearly, Meike Ziervogel has a very discerning editorial eye and her own writing is quite remarkable, too: Flotsam is one of this year’s favourite books for me. Emmanuelle Pagano’s interconnected set of brief short stories, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, is the last in Peirene’s Here Be Monsters series, exploring the lives of those who live a little outside society.

We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try to see more clearly inside ourselves

The inhabitants of a French village, high up in the mountains, are no different from anyone else in that they have memories, families, friends, lives marked by the usual sadnesses and occasional outbreaks of joy, but some have suffered more than others. Every afternoon, a man stands on the bend of the road where his family was killed, as if to turn back time, then the road is diverted leaving him truly lost. A man is shamed by the childhood joke whose cruelty still lingers in the lives of the two women who were its victims. A hitchhiker finds himself picked up by a taciturn woman whose driving is so dangerous she seems intent on killing them both. A woman remembers the cousin she so closely resembled they were often mistaken for each other, convinced that her cousin committed suicide, while another thinks of the therapist obsessed with the fox she put out of its misery as a child shortly after her parents separated. These stories and many more are bookended with the childhood memories of a woman happy to read alone while listening to her cousins play and the reflections of another who discovers there’s much to learn about her fellow readers from her library loans.

When I borrow books, I take with me glimpses of their daily goings-on, all the little doings that fill our own stories and mingle with those in the books, sometimes to the extent of leaving their marks on the pages, the inside things and the outside things.

Pagano’s stories offer snapshots of the villagers’ lives through their memories and anecdotes. Many of her characters are alone or on the fringes of society. Their stories are often sad – suicide, grief and loss are frequent – but there’s also tolerance, gentle humour and small kindnesses. Each is told in the character’s own, distinct voice, unfolding their lives in simple yet striking descriptions:

This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock.

Small details accrue, each one carefully stitched in until a vivid picture of a community emerges. Beautifully executed, it’s another Peirene triumph.

Peirene Press: London 2019 9781908670540 124 pages Paperback