Tag Archives: The Dark Circle

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (translated by Alison Watts): More than just a simple confection

Cover imageI seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.

Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.

Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant: The dawn of a new, healthier age

Cover imageLinda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party was one of my favourite books of 2014. It was something of a nostalgic read for me, set around the time I was a student with a cast of all too recognisable characters – excruciatingly so in some cases. The Dark Circle is entirely different. Opening in 1949, it follows a handful of tuberculosis patients in a palatial sanatorium at the dawn of the NHS, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them.

En route to an Army medical, eighteen-year-old Lenny Lynskey chucks his chopped fish on rye sandwich at a rabble-rousing anti-Semite. Hearing police sirens, his twin sister Miriam, dashes out of the florists’ where she works and recognises her brother, about to be punched on the nose. Niftily, she knocks his attacker off his feet with a bouquet. When we next meet these two, they’re in an ambulance heading for the Gwendo, a rather posh sanatorium in Kent, both diagnosed with TB. Miriam is sent off for bed rest, lying alongside Valerie, freshly graduated from Oxford, outside on the veranda where they stay – quite literally – for months come rain or snow. Lenny is allowed more freedom, even taking himself off into the woods for an ill-advised walk in his Italian shoes and Teddy Boy drape. Both are fed on a rich diet, cautioned against excitement and subjected to a constant regime of temperature taking. Like everyone else in the Gwendo, they succumb to a mind-numbing boredom. Into this stultifying world strides Arthur Persky, with his rock and roll records and his cockiness. When the longed for streptomycin treatment arrives, which only seven patients will receive, Lenny and Arthur take things into their own hands with shocking results. During the year that Lenny and Miriam have spent at the Gwendo, both their lives have changed irrevocably.

A richly satisfying piece of storytelling peopled with vivid, sharply observed characters, The Dark Circle is also a paean of praise to the NHS. Without the newly introduced health service neither Lenny nor Miriam would have had access either to the dubious therapies of the Gwendo, or to the streptomycin which proved to be the cure that virtually stamped out TB in Britain. Grant effectively explores a more subtle subversion of the status quo through Gwendo’s patients, many of whom are in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. Lenny’s mind is broadened by his discussions with Valerie about books, quizzing Hannah about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis reads in the original German. In turn Valerie finds herself reassessing her attitude to this ‘hairy Jewish ape’ who turns out to be far more intelligent than her Edgbaston prejudices might have led her to believe. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel – Persky’s womanising with his ‘special skills’, passed on to future lovers; Miriam and Valerie’s attempts to find common ground – which lifts it out of its sober context. A thoroughly successful novel, then, the basis for which came from a story told to Grant by a TB survivor. Astonishing as it seems, it turns out that being confined to a bed on a veranda for months, despite freezing conditions, really was considered to be beneficial. Who knows, maybe future generations will look back on chemotherapy with the same level of amazement.

Books to Look Out for In November 2016

Swing TimeA new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Time will turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.Cover image

Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.

Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love is set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

Cover imageMy last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.

That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…