Tag Archives: Tim Parks

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. by Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…

Cover imageFleur Jaeggy’s novella is part of And Other Stories’ response to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ back in 2015, calling for a year in which only books written by women should be published. For me it’s not so much the gender ratio of authors published that’s the problem, more the level of serious coverage books by women are given. I imagine Shamsie wasn’t expecting much of a take up but And Other Stories responded with alacrity. Written in 1989 and set in post-war Switzerland, Sweet Days of Discipline explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity.

Our unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. She’s boarded at a variety of schools since she was eight, spending holidays alone with her taciturn father. Her mother lives in Brazil, sending instructions about her daughter’s education but having little else to do with her. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends. Our narrator has nothing but contempt for her German roommate with her pink cheeks and frilly dresses, only cool admiration for the girl who tells her all about her Andalusian adventures and talks to her of philosophy. Then Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Frédérique fades into the background but our unnamed narrator will not forget her, meeting her later in life and coming to a deeper understanding of her friend.

Written in austere, pinpoint sharp prose, Jaeggy’s novella takes a scalpel to teenage boarding school relationships. Our narrator’s determination to win Frédérique’s devotion seems, at first, more about the challenge it presents than a sincere interest and yet Frédérique is the person she continues to look for, even in adult life. The cruelty of boarding school life is painfully vivid – our narrator’s apparent regret at the hurt caused by rejecting a younger girl’s overtures turns out to be something else entirely: I had lost a slave, without getting any pleasure out of it. The school’s cloistered claustrophobia is smartly skewered: We saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks. The effects of this life stripped of parental affection are clear: The pleasure of disappointment. it wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it since I was eight years old. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere to be found in Jaeggy’s elegantly expressed, forensically observed novella. A deeply unsettling piece of fiction.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

The BallroomTop of the list of my second batch of February books to look out for has to be Anna Hope’s The Ballroom. Her debut, Wake, was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction that dealt with the First World War and its aftermath back in 2014. I liked it very much and have hopes for this one which is set in the summer of 1911 in an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors where men and women meet briefly once a week to dance. ‘A tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which’, according to the publishers. I suspect this one will be hyped to the skies but it may well live up to it, or close at least. Lovely jacket too – almost a match for the gorgeous Wake cover.

I’ve long been a fan of Julie Myerson’s fiction all the way back to Sleepwalking  but the last one or two novels seemed a little formulaic to me. The synopsis of The Stopped Heart sounds as if it may well be in the same vein. A good deed to a stranger, a century ago, seems to have left its mark on the apparently idyllic cottage where a couple are trying to make a fresh start after the loss of their child. ‘The perfect place to forget. To move on. But in The Stopped Heart, the past never dies.’ say the publishers. Hmm… Not at all sure about that but once more for old time’s sake, I think.

At one stage I was convinced that Tim Parks had a huge alimony bill, either that or a Cover imagesubstance abuse problem, so great was his output. It turned out to be neither as the happily married, sober Parks revealed in his moving memoir on his driven nature and inability to stop working, Teach Us to Sit Still. His new novel, Thomas and Mary, is about a long-married couple who are facing the prospect of separating. Billed as ‘a love story in reverse’ Parks’ novel chronicles Thomas and Mary’s marriage from its first heady days in what the publishers have described as ‘a fiercely intimate chronicle of a marriage’. Sounds quite appealing to me.

Entirely different, Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organzation protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title.

Cover imageI’ve seen Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans talked about on Twitter – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.

That’s it for February. Lots of reasons to wrap up warm and stay inside. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis and If you’d like to catch up with the first set of February titles they’re here. First batch of paperbacks next week.