Tag Archives: Jenny Erpenbeck

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2018

Cover imageI’ve read all but one of August’s paperbacks, or at least the ones that have caught my eye, which means a nice cheap month for me. I’ll begin with Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come which explores modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one rather infuriating woman. Hard to encapsulate this episodic novel in a neat synopsis but de Kretser executes it with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour underpinned with compassion.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is also notable for its compassion, examining the plight of refugees through the lens of a recently retired, widowed academic. Richard finds himself faced with a blank future until his interest is piqued by a hunger strike staged by a group of African refugees which leads to his involvement with the occupation of Oranienplatz. Erpenbeck humanises the occupiers through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s a much more conventional narrative than either The End of Days or Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck, but there’s the same consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it.

The past is very much present in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark in which two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays. Krauss alternates Jules Epstein’s relatively straightforward story with Nicole’s discursive, highly literary narrative, building an expectation that they will meet at some point which – a little frustratingly – is unfulfilled. Rich in ideas and beautifully expressed, Forest Dark is far from an easy read but it’s Cover imagea rewarding one.

Studded with a multitude of literary allusions – even the cops read Modiano – C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne who lives in a state of comfortably amicable estrangement from his wife. Max conceives an unexpected passion for a junior colleague, then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, charming him with both her flattery and eccentricity. While his wife is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix. Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Continuing the literary allusion theme, Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a diverse set of characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Melrose shifts smoothly from one character to another offering her readers a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, Cover imageall gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour.

My last August paperback is Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight which I’ve yet to read. Comprising ‘elegant, unsparing and intimate stories’, Sharma’s collection combines ‘the minimalism of Chekhov and Carver with a flair for dark comedy’ say the publishers setting the bar rather high although having read the Folio Prize-winning Family Life I’d say they may well be right.

If you’d like to know more, a click on any of the first six titles above will take you to a full review here or to a more detailed synopsis for A Life of Adventure and Delight, and if you’d like to catch up with August’s new books they’re here, and here.

Books to Look Out for in September 2017

Cover imageSeptember’s preview starts with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, a book I’ve been hoping to see in translation since MarinaSofia over at Finding Time to Write mentioned it earlier in the year. In it Erpenbeck explores the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees and the effects of their arrival on German society through Richard, an academic who lives in Berlin. The novel is ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality and a beautifully written examination of an ageing man’s quest to find meaning in his life’ according to the publishers. I very much enjoyed Erpenbeck’s The End of Days which told the story of the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.

Not so very far away, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-glass Window begins in 1989 when a soprano at the Lviv opera is shot dead while leading her fellow citizens in a protest against Soviet power. She leaves an eleven-year-old daughter who tells the story of their family both before and after the shooting. ‘Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening’ say the publishers. This is such an interesting period in that part of the world, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Since its longlisting for this year’s Man Booker the publication of my next choice has been brought forward to August but I can’t bring myself to let it go unmentioned. In Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a young woman realises her dream of studying in America but can’t stop worrying about her twin siblings: the headstrong Aneeka in London, and Parvaiz who seems intent on following the same path as his jihadist father. Then the son of a powerful British Muslim politician enters the sisters’ lives: ‘Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this Cover imagesearing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love? A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide’ say the publishers a little melodramatically. It’s been quite some time since Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, and I’m sure that the Man Booker longlisting will only have added to the anticipation for this one, published tomorrow.

Which can also be said about Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. There was a bit of a literary stir back in 2013, the year Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was published in the UK, when an interviewer asked her why her narrator was so unlikeable. Messud gave a somewhat waspish response – and who can blame her? How tedious fiction would be if every character was nice. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m not so sure about Estep Nagy’s We Shall Not Sleep, a debut set in the summer of 1964. The Quicks and the Hillsingers have shared a small Maine island for generations but despite two intermarriages the families have little to do with each other. This year things look set to change. ‘We Shall Not All Sleep is a richly told story of American class, family, and manipulation–a compelling portrait of a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution’ according to the publishers. I like the sound of that but not so much the mention of violent games and sadistic older brothers which appears further on in the very detailed blurb.

Cover imageMy last choice for September is set in a bleak, hungry and frozen London in January 1947. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress tells the story of Joan whose actor husband, the great Charlie Grice, has died. Persuaded against her will to attend a benefit performance of Charlie’s last play, Joan is shocked to see her husband’s eyes staring back at her from his understudy’s face. Grief-stricken, she seeks comfort with the young actor but discovers a dreadful secret. Anyone who’s read McGrath’s previous fiction will be expecting more than a touch of the gothic and it sounds as if they won’t be disappointed.

That’s it for September titles. A little thin this year, given that it’s the beginning of the run up to Christmas in the publishing year but I’m sure October will be jam-packed with goodies. Paperbacks soon…

Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert (transl. by Anthea Bell): A romp through twentieth-century misery

Cover imagePerhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.

Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.

Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.

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.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. Susan Bernofsky): The twentieth century through Eastern European eyes

The End of DaysI suspect The End of Days is a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Jenny Erpenbeck deftly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout this complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track. Just as Jane Smiley sets out to tell the story of an American century through the lives of one family in Some Luck, so Erpenbeck views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.

The novel begins in Galicia in 1902 with the death of an infant, barely eight months old then follows her Jewish mother and her goy father as they try to cope with this horrible event. She takes one route, he another leading him to emigration to the US. Then it’s all change as the baby survives, moving with her family to Vienna. At seventeen, just after the war and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the daughter is alienated from her family, falling in love with her best friend’s fiancé who she hopes to claim as her own when the friend dies of Spanish influenza. Things end badly but onward we go to Moscow where our heroine is writing an account of her life, the third in a bid for Soviet citizenship. She’s married but her husband is in prison, and she’s caught up in the factions surrounding Stalin. Onward again and her teenage son is attending her funeral in East Berlin where she has been garlanded with praise and honours for her work as a writer. And finally, in 1992, she’s in a nursing home on the eve of her ninetieth birthday,  her son bringing her a souvenir from Vienna as a present. She has a name, at last: Frau Hoffman

You have to have your wits about you when reading this novel. Hats off to Susan Bernofsky for her translating skills – it can’t have been easy following the many different threads or keeping track of the nameless characters. It’s divided into five books, each with a different version of events, with short ‘intermezzos’ laying the foundations for that change. By reinventing her central character, Erpenbeck explores different aspects of the century – the immigrant’s arrival at Ellis Island with its attendant humiliations, the appalling privations of the First World War and its aftermath, the factions surrounding Stalin fighting like rats in a sack, life in the GDR and the fall of the Wall. There are recurrent motifs running through the novel helping to hold it all together: an offered lemon glimpsed in a painting; a fall downstairs; a lie about a father’s disappearance and a set of Goethe’s works. Whether you appreciate The End of Days or not depends on how you feel about non-linear narrative. For me, it’s a masterly piece of work although I found myself floundering trying to unravel the various political strands of the Stalinist era – a little too esoteric unless you’re familiar with the period – or perhaps that’s the point. So there we have it – it’s the kind of book that will either make you run screaming from the room or leave you amazed at its invention and breadth of vision.