Tag Archives: Hubert Mingarelli

Books to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageOctober’s the month in which the big literary guns are rolled out in the battle for our Christmas present lists although the publicity campaign for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth has already been in full swing for months. Helen Franklin is hiding from an unforgivable act she committed twenty years ago. Her sheltered life is threatened by the discovery of a manuscript telling a story in which the mythic figure of Melmoth frequently appears, complete with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet. The novel’s described by the publishers as ‘a profound, ambitiously realised work of fiction which asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness, moral reckoning and how we come to terms with our actions in a conflicted world’ and having read it, I’d say they’re right. The Essex Serpent is a hard act to follow but Perry’s more than met expectations with this one.

I finally got around to reading Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. He’s a writer who knows how to spin a good yarn which raises hopes for The House on Vesper Sands. Set in a snowy London in 1893, its sounds like a second pleasing slice of Gothic involving a man whose one-time love is found stretched out in front of an altar, a seamstress with a message stitched into her skin and her employer who disappears into the night, all under the watchful eye of a society columnist keen for a real story.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue sounds as if it may also have a foot in Gothic territory or perhaps that’s just the slightly opaque blurb. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Season Butler’s Cygnet sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Something that could also be said Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered which intertwines the stories of Willa Knox who is grappling with a host of domestic problems in 2016, and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood whose ambitions to teach Darwinism in 1871 are met with obdurate opposition in the town. ‘A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves’ say the publishers, rather ambitiously comparing it with George Eliot’s work. I prefer Kingsolver’s earlier fiction to her more recent novels.

I’m much more confident about Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘a small miracle’. The titular soldiers set up camp in a forest close to the Romanian frontline of the Russian Civil War in the winter of 1919. They fill a lull in the fighting, trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen, enjoying a brief freedom and the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Tightly focused and simply told, this is a story of friendship and the fragments of happiness that can illuminate the darkness of war’ say the publishers. The spare prose of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter made a lasting impression on me when I read it five years ago

Cover image Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sounds wacky enough to please even the most ardent fan. A portrait painter discovers a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Can’t wait.

That’s it for October’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

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?