Tag Archives: Herman Koch

Books of the Year 2017: Part Three

Cover imageSummer’s favourites wander around the world a little taking in novels from Scandinavia, South Africa and the USA, beginning in June with Monte Carlo, a book by a Belgian author. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Peter Terrin’s novella tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves when she’s caught in a conflagration. He’s badly burnt, but she’s unscathed. Jack arrives home a hero but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, his obsession with her deepens. From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. I’m hoping that more of Terrin’s fiction will be translated soon.

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a piece of autofiction that also deals with trauma, this time the death of his partner a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom finds himself caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in which he must prove himself to be Livia’s father. The novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter. I’m not entirely taken with the idea of autofiction but this is an intensely immersive, heart-wrenching book which I hope proved cathartic for its author.

June ended with Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which explores the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of the Bredin family. Lottie – furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him – finds a dilapidated house in Devon and takes the entire, thoroughly metropolitan family off there, renting out their London house in the hope of raising enough money so that both she and Quentin can buy separate homes. What she hasn’t bargained for is something nasty in the woodshed. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment of her loosely linked state-of-the-nation novels.Cover image

Just one book from July but it’s a particularly lovely one. In Victoria Redel’s Before Everything five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Death and friendship are also themes in the first of August’s two favourites: Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy. Ellinor stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Georg and Ellinor were married for decades but she has always felt she was leading Anna’s life. She’s a stepmother who has never felt the children were hers; accepted by the family but standing at its edge. Now that Georg has died there is no one that she wishes to talk to except Anna. Ellinor’s grief is such a private, painful thing, not a rending of garments or tearing of hair but a constant ache of absence as much for Anna as it is for Georg. This loving, forgiving friendship is at the heart of Grøndahl’s quietly powerful novella.

Cover imageSummer’s last book is Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

That’s it for summer, a season I cling on to for as long as I can. Autumn gets off to a darker start although not as Gothic as I was expecting…

All links are to my reviews on this blog. If you’d like to catch up with the first two instalments of my 2017 books of the year they’re here and here. And for those of you who’re flagging, it’s the home straight on Monday.

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.