“They let you dream/Just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step/On the boss-man’s ladder” (Dolly Parton, 9 to 5)

I’ve not done too badly with contributing to November’s plethora of reading events, despite my snail-like reading speed. Unfortunately I’m not going to manage a #MARM post, but I did find a short novel by an Australian author to squeeze in, so here on the final day of the month is my hastily written contribution to AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. At 204 pages it is just a teeny bit too long to count for #NovNov though…

I went into Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett (1958) with quite low expectations, set by the author herself 😀 In her introduction to my 1985 VMC edition, she explains “looking back on the 36-year-old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up, I am embarrassed by at her proselytising, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealised working class.”

However, she also acknowledges: “Sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic, sometimes clumsy and overwritten Bobbin Up was the work of a still young writer struggling to find her own style and voice. Its form, which was criticised at the time as too episodic, seems to me to suit the subject perfectly”

As a middle-class woman who chose to work in a factory and then write about it, I was put in mind of Nell Dunn.  While both authors are open to accusations of class tourism and exploitation, I think they wrote with the best of intentions, attempting to shine a light on ignored and marginalised female workers. The novels are sixty or so years old, and these days we understand allyship differently.

These disclaimers out the way, I really enjoyed Bobbin Up. I thought it was stronger than Hewett suggested and was a compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney. Although she sets in the fictional Jumbuck Woollen Mills, the frequent references to songs playing on the radio and the sputnik gliding overhead root it firmly in a specific time.

Hewett captures the work environment in broad strokes before focussing in on particular workers:

“Women came in from everywhere, laughing and chiacking down the long, slippery aisles between the rovers, spinners, and winders. Relief healed their aching backs, relief loosened their tongues, they ran and pushed and scurried, jamming into the washroom, five minutes to change and scrub up and catch the bus to Redfern, Marrickville, Paddo, Woollahra and all points north, south, east and west.”

Their lives are hard and the women’s bodies are broken by tough, unrelenting work.

“Violet McHendry, forty-five, sharped tongued, hard as nails, was always fighting a losing battle with life in the grey, warped, weatherboard semi in Maddox Lane. But she still kept, until the day she died over her washtubs, ten years later, that peculiar girlishness, that grace of face and voice, that has nothing to do with time.”

The best time they can hope for is when they are young, still fit and might have some energy to enjoy the times when they’re not at work.

“[Beth] passed proudly and yet compassionately, conscious of her youth and motherhood. The old men stared after her, jealous of the radiance they could never share again, loafing on borrowed time, unwanted, under the dapple of poplar trees.”

There is domestic violence, self-medicating with alcohol, sixteen-year-olds being told they’ll be raped if they ‘lead men on’. But also some tender relationships, resilience and hope.

“Upstairs Lil had a view. Across the crooked slate and corrugated iron roofs of Waterloo and Redfern the Housing Commission flats stood out like a dream of luxury amidst green lawns. The sunlight slanted golden against their solid brick walls, a rainbow of mist from their water sprinklers circled them with enchantment.”

For Nell, the committed communist (presumably based on Hewitt, and she does seem to make her the most self-critical character), the hope is for a better society:

“Everything fell into place like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the best part of it was she knew she had always been right. There was something more than the narrow, bitter, cranky world she’d been reared in. There was another world to be built, here on earth, based on the kind of brotherhood and selflessness and energy she’d seen displayed long ago in the strike in the textile mills.”

I do agree with Hewett that Bobbin Up is somewhat overwritten and clunky in places, but it wasn’t particularly torturous. Amidst the bleak subject matter, it balanced the story somewhat, without obscuring the difficulties the women face.

“You could never be lonely in Waterloo, always conscious of the myriad lives woven and interwoven with your own, breathing, battling, loving, fighting, suffering in the stifling summer dusk.”

To end, a song about the charms of women who work in factories:

“A tree’s wood is also its memoir.” (Hope Jahren)

This week I’m joining in with Nonfiction November hosted by What’s Nonfiction. Despite not being a big non-fiction reader, I’ve been inspired by the month long event and also by Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and BookishBeck. So I’m reading some short nonfiction to take part in both at once 😊

I’ve really enjoyed the novels by Deborah Levy that I’ve read: Swimming Home and Hot Milk. The first two volumes of her ‘living autobiography’ have been languishing in the TBR, so I’m grateful these two reading events prompted me to pick them up.

The first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013, 163 pages) is a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, using the same headings (political purpose/historical impulse/sheer egoism/aesthetic enthusiasm). However, I think it’s also very much in conversation with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, as Levy considers what it means to be a professional writer for women in the twenty-first century.

“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.”

Yet the ‘living autobiography’ is written in the midst of events, without the distance of hindsight. This means the writing has an immediacy and is highly engaging, but there is also the discipline and consideration that comes from Levy being such a highly skilled writer.

The two sections that bookend the essay see Levy in Majorca at a time when she is deeply unhappy, finding herself crying on escalators. She escapes to Palma to think about her life, and also her art and the influence of other female artists. With Zofia Kalinska she observes:

“Content should be bigger than form – yes, but that was a subversive note to a writer like myself, who had always experimented with form, but it is the wrong note for a writer who has never experimented with form.”

While Things I Don’t Want to Know doesn’t follow a usual form for essay or memoir – it’s non-linear, never sets out a clearly-stated argument and hops between memories and broader observations – the content does remain bigger than form, because Levy’s observations are so sharp and her memories clear-sighted and unsentimental.

If I’m making this sound very heavy then I’m doing Levy a disservice, because she is humorous and has a wonderfully light touch. For example, she repeatedly returns to Duras in her artistic considerations, but wonders:

“Was Marguerite Duras suggesting that women are not so much a dark continent as a well-lit suburb?”

There is a strong feminist sensibility that runs throughout Things I Don’t Want to Know. In responding to Orwell, Levy highlights the very different experience of trying to work alongside the particular expectations and responsibilities faced by many women.

“We were to be Strong Modern Women while be subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.”

In the Historical Impulse section, Levy reflects on her childhood in South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for being part of the African National Congress. As a child much of what is happening goes over her head though she also picks up on plenty; I found her portrait of her godmother’s daughter (who has to hide her relationship with her Indian boyfriend) very affecting:

“Melissa was the first person in my life who had encouraged me to speak up. With her blue painted-on eyes and blonde beehive that was nearly as tall as I was, she was spirited and brave and making the best of her lot. I couldn’t hear her but I knew her words were to do with saying things out loud, owning up to the things I wished for, being in the world and not being defeated by it.”

In the Sheer Egoism section, Levy moves to England with her family, and starts scribbling on paper napkins in cafes, not sure what she is doing but certain she has to write.

“Writing made me feel wiser than I actually was. Wise and sad. That was what I thought writers should be. I was sad anyway, much sadder than the sentences I wrote. I was a sad girl impersonating a sad girl.”

The Cost of Living sees Levy leaving her marriage and moving into a flat with her daughters. We learn very little about her husband or her marriage – which I was quite happy about – and instead Levy takes us with her as she considers what she wants from life and how she wants to live.

“Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.”

The flat is not glamorous – visitors are creeped out by the communal areas Levy nicknames The Corridors of Love. She buys some plants, fixes her own plumbing, and works to her own hours.

“After all the heavy lifting, it was shock to be figuring out how to land the cadence of one single sentence”

Levy does not give the impression of being happy – she is grieving the breakdown of her marriage and she is very aware that she has not taken the easy choice – but she is living authentically. It is more sustainable and rewarding than fleeting happiness.

“To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”

The strong themes of feminism, womanhood and the life of a writer established in Things I Don’t Want to Know continue through this volume. Levy has left behind the roles of Wife and Homemaker. She remains a mother but her children are older and don’t need her quite as they did.

“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.”

Levy is a daughter and the section about her mother dying is very moving. She is also a friend and therefore not alone: her friend Celia helps her by providing the writing shed where her late husband (the poet Adrian Mitchell) used to work. Levy writes there trying to stay warm and listening to apples thud onto the roof.

At no point is The Cost of Living didactic. Levy doesn’t suggest for one moment that anyone should make the same choices she has. The title is literal and metaphorical: she has to work to earn money as this is a very real concern, but simultaneously to feel she is truly living there has been the cost of her marriage. All choices bring associated costs.

But with the right choices those costs are price worth paying. Levy is living her truth, has friends and fun, and she finds great meaning in her work:

“It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance.”

I really loved both these volumes. Levy is so wise, funny and readable. She is never boring or pedestrian. The interesting choices she has made in life are reflected in the engaging choices she makes with her writing. I’m looking forward to reading the third volume of these memoirs, Real Estate, which was published this year.

To end, a song about a woman assessing her life choices:

“Vienna is just the best place to be.” (Conchita Wurst)

It’s November, so ‘tis the season of many wonderful reading events. Margaret Atwood Reading Month is being hosted by Buried in Print; What’s Nonfiction is hosting Nonfiction November; AusReading Month is being hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. I’m hoping to join in with them all, but I doubt I’ll be able to because my reading and blog writing is still positively sloth-like.

However, with this post I’m managing to contribute to Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and BookishBeck; and German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy  Siddal, and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. And I’m only cheating slightly by counting the same book for both 😀

Week 1 for German Literature Month is focussed on writing from or set in Austria, so I’ve picked two novels by Austrian authors who have also set their stories in Austria.

Firstly, The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (2012, trans. Charlotte Collins 2016) which at 234 pages is a short novel but a wee bit long to count for #NovNov. Set in 1937, teenage Franz leaves his lakeside home for the hustle and bustle of Vienna:

“the noise – there was an incessant roaring in the air, an incomprehensible jumble of sounds, tones and rhythms that peeled away, flowed into each other, drowned each other out, shouted, bellowed over each other. And the light. Everywhere a flickering, a sparkling, flashing and shining: windows, mirrors, advertising signs, flagpoles, belt buckles, spectacle lenses.”

He has a job as an assistant to old friend of his mother’s, working in the tobacconist’s shop. His boss Otto is non-smoker with a rather unique approach to his job:

“Reading newspapers was the only important, the only meaningful and relevant part of being a tobacconist; furthermore if you didn’t read newspapers it meant the you weren’t a tobacconist”

Despite this unpromising start, Franz’s horizons begin to widen. The newspapers give him a burgeoning political awareness, and the vibrant city offers opportunities for romance. Even the shop stock suggests vistas unknown:

“Each brand had its own particular smell, yet they all had this in common: they bore within them the aroma of a world beyond the tobacconist’s, Währingerstrasse, the city of Vienna, beyond even this country and the whole wide continent.”

Franz is a sweet and endearing character, but not sentimentalised or idealised. His earnestness and energy can be somewhat tiresome, if entirely believable. He even tests the patience of his most famous customer:

“Freud sighed. For a fraction of a second he considered yielding to the sense of anger that was welling up deep inside, and stubbing out his Hoyo on the brow of this impertinent country lad. He decided against it and puffed smoke rings into the air instead.”

I’m not usually a fan of fictionalised real people, but the friendship between the eminent psychoanalyst and the young Franz is subtly evoked and not remotely heavy-handed. Seethaler doesn’t try and shoehorn in loads of Freudian references to demonstrate how much research he’s done; Freud is shown as an aging man and very vulnerable as a Jewish person amongst the escalating political situation in Austria.

“the colossal difference between their ages automatically established the distance Freud found agreeable and which was, indeed, the thing that made close contact with the majority of his fellow humans tolerable”

The focus is primarily on Franz as he ricochets around the city, falling in and out of love, writing to his mother and growing up, all while Nazism tightens its hold. The insidious nature of this is brilliantly done through incidental details:

“In front of the town hall, children and youths were gathering in small groups. They were hanging around on corners, standing arm in arm, blocking the pavements or running across the square, laughing and shouting, waving hats and swastika flags.”

Until suddenly it’s not incidental anymore. Violence explodes, Franz has to deal with the Gestapo, people disappear, and Freud is persuaded to leave his home forever…

The Tobacconist is a tragedy that never portrays itself as such. It tells a deeply ordinary story – despite the famous person in its midst – and uses the reader’s knowledge of history to fill in the gaps. It’s a brilliant technique, because it takes a protagonist we all recognise, having all been teenagers discovering a wider world at some point, and places him inescapably within the brutality of a genocide, making historical events resonate on a personal level.

There is an ambiguity to the ending of The Tobacconist which rather than being frustrating I thought entirely apt. Under a brutal regime, so often people have to live with not knowing.

“For it was well known that waiting and seeing was always the best, perhaps even the only way to let various troubles of the times flow past and leave you unscathed.

Secondly, I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, (1933, trans. Ignat Avsey 2013) which in my Pushkin Press edition is 203 pages but they are not standard size, and when it was published in a Pushkin Vertigo edition it was 160 pages, so counts for Novellas in November – hooray!

A disclaimer to start, because although I enjoyed I Was Jack Mortimer a great deal, I thought the fundamental premise was completely silly.

Spooner is a young cab driver who at the start of the novel is stalking a young woman – so far, so yuck. Then a man gets into his cab, but by the end of the journey the passenger has been shot dead, without Spooner hearing or seeing a single thing.

“Spooner stood in the middle of the room, and the events of the past minutes raced through his mind, like short, randomly edited film clips; the dead man, the speeding cars, the news stand, the dead man, the carriageway, the blood, the dead man, the streets, the dead man.”

What would you do? I think almost entirely everyone would go to the police. But this wouldn’t make much of a thriller, as the police would take the story out of your hands and you’d have to go back to smoking with the other cabbies, boring them with the story, and being creepy towards women.

So instead, for reasons best known to himself, Spooner disposes of the body and starts to inveigle himself into the man’s life.

“he was pretty sure that as soon as the crime was discovered it’d be put at his door, so that in the end he began to feel as though he had in fact perpetrated it himself. And had he really been the murderer, in all probability he wouldn’t have been behaving any differently from the way he was now.”

I Was Jack Mortimer is a really enjoyable thriller, if you can get past the unbelievable set-up of Spooner’s decision-making. I just put that element to one side and allowed the pacy writing to carry me along as Spooner gets increasingly out of his depth. The 1930s and the city of Vienna are beautifully evoked with a wonderful sense of time and place.

The trouble with writing about thrillers is that you can say practically nothing for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that towards the end Spooner has the following epiphany:

“All I needed to do was go to the police and report I had a dead person in the car and didn’t know who shot him, and in the end they’d have had to believe me and I’d have been released. Instead, I’ve done just the opposite and have landed myself in no end of a mess.”

Well, quite.

“One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.”

To end, I tried to find a trailer for one of the film adaptations of I Was Jack Mortimer, but failed. So instead a chance for me to totally indulge myself with the trailer for my most favouritest-ever film, which is set in post-war Vienna:  

“All is vanity, nothing is fair.” (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Despite the fact that Fiction Fan announced today’s Vanity Fair review-a-long back in June, I have of course ended up writing this right up to the wire. Ah well, ‘twas ever such. Or certainly has been for the last few years on my faltering blog…

It’s probably a good thing though, as my usual verbose, stream-of-barely-conscious style is likely to have been even worse as I try to work out what on earth I could say about this enormous tome, such a well-known classic novel that despite having not read it before or seen any adaptations, I already knew the plot and lead characters.

So I’ve decided to focus just on one element of the novel: satire. Although published in 1847-8, Thackeray set Vanity Fair earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars, enabling him to point out to society how appalling and self-serving everyone is, without alienating his readers. Clever Thackeray.

Thackeray proclaims that Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, and by the end of the novel, he has so thoroughly painted a picture of a materialist, corrupt, self-serving and shallow society, that heroism seems nigh on impossible. What we do have is the main protagonist of Becky Sharp:

“Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.”

But if all this is sounding pretty grim, it really isn’t. I enjoy satire, particularly that of the century preceding Vanity Fair, but it can often leave rather a bitter taste. Thackeray largely avoids this because firstly, he seems to quite enjoy his characters, and secondly, he doesn’t aim for the moralistic teaching of some satirists. He never suggests there is a way for this world to be other than it is. Which is bleak, but also stops the tone being too heavy.

He also doesn’t make the reader feel too implicated. Regency England is even further removed from us than the original readers, and in setting it amongst the upper classes, he skewers a stratum of society very few inhabit.

“The whole baronetage, peerage, commonage of England, did not contain a more cunning, mean, selfish, foolish, disreputable old man. That blood-red hand of Sir Pitt Crawley’s would be in anybody’s pocket except his own; and it is with grief and pain, that, as admirers of the British aristocracy, we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of so many ill qualities in a person whose name is in Debrett.”

So while amoral Becky climbs from very humble origins, as the daughter of an opera singer and a artist, by any means necessary with no concern for anyone other than herself, we can sit back feeling pretty smug, yes? Well, no. Thackeray positions the reader very cleverly by making Becky the most entertaining and compelling character. I certainly felt the novel was pointing out very clearly what it meant that I would rather hear about Becky and all her conniving, that about simple, kind Amelia (Emmy) or upright Captain Dobbin.

I didn’t like Becky, but I enjoyed her. While she could be spiteful and a bully to Amelia:

Women only know how to wound so. There is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon. Our poor Emmy, who had never hated, never sneered all her life, was powerless in the hands of her remorseless little enemy.

She also used all the vanities and weaknesses of not very pleasant people against them, was clever and entertaining, and was out to ensure her position and security in a world where everything was stacked against her. I would far rather hear about Becky than Emmy, who spent her time simpering over her repulsive husband, spoiling her revolting child, and crying whenever she wasn’t otherwise engaged.

“In two days he has adopted a slightly imperious air and patronizing manner. He was born to command, his mother thinks, as his father was before him.”

I’m not sure we’re supposed to think Emmy particularly misguided here. Thackeray is pretty scathing about those in charge. Those with privilege are those who lead, and there is nothing in their personal qualities to suggest this is wise. Sadly this has not dated.

Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?

Thackeray exposes how these weaknesses of the ruling classes are indulged in a way that poorer members of society are not:

When we read that a noble nobleman has left for the Continent, or that another noble nobleman has an execution in his house—and that one or other owes six or seven millions, the defeat seems glorious even, and we respect the victim in the vastness of his ruin. But who pities a poor barber who can’t get his money for powdering the footmen’s heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner; or the poor devil of a tailor whom the steward patronizes, and who has pledged all he is worth, and more, to get the liveries ready, which my lord has done him the honour to bespeak? When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed.”

Certainly along with the bullying, it was the financial exploitation of her staff that made Becky most problematic and unlikeable for me. However,  it’s very clear that Becky’s options, and Amelia’s, are limited and I thought Thackeray was surprisingly sympathetic to the position of women in society.

Although frequently compared to War and Peace, the writer Vanity Fair most put me in mind of was Jean Rhys. I think both she and Thackeray agree that morals are a privilege of the comfortably off, and those with choices (mainly men).

“And who knows but Rebecca was right in her speculations—and that it was only a question of money and fortune which made the difference between her and an honest woman? If you take temptations into account, who is to say that he is better than his neighbour? A comfortable career of prosperity, if it does not make people honest, at least keeps them so.”

I really enjoyed the humour and social commentary of Vanity Fair and I’m so glad today’s reviewathon prompted me to finally take it off the shelf. For those of you thinking about giving it a go, I should warn you that there are racist portrayals of some characters and countries primarily at the beginning, but these are thankfully short-lived and Thackeray doesn’t seem to be asserting that whites hold any kind of moral authority.

Frankness and kindness like Amelia’s were likely to touch even such a hardened little reprobate as Becky. She returned Emmy’s caresses and kind speeches with something very like gratitude, and an emotion which, if it was not lasting, for a moment was almost genuine. 

I’m not sure who else is taking part but I’ll add links to the other bloggers posting today as I find them 😊

Fiction Fan’s review

Rose Reads Novels

Jane at Just Reading a Book

LouLouReads

Sandra at A Corner of Cornwall

To end, for some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about Stevie Nicks lately. So I’ve decided to shoehorn her into this post by claiming that at the start of Vanity Fair, Becky and Amelia are almost definitely – ahem – on the edge of seventeen… (#sorrynotsorry)

“I got a brand new combine harvester.” (The Wurzels, 1976)

My blogging is still decidedly patchy but I really enjoy Kaggsy and Simon’s Club weeks, so I was determined to take part in this week’s 1976 Club. So far it’s shaping up to be another excellent selection so do head over to their blogs to see all links to reviews 😊

I decided to go with two authors I’m very fond of, but who perhaps don’t provide the sharpest contrast… these are two short, spiky novels, darkly humorous and incisive in their portrayals of ordinary lives.

Firstly, A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge. The cover of my edition has a quote from Hilary Mantel calling it ‘one of the funniest books I have ever read’, which tells me that Hilary Mantel and I have very different senses of humour. There are definitely funny moments in A Quiet Life but, like a lot of Bainbridge’s writing, I found it pretty bleak too.

Set just after the end of the Second World War, it tells the story of a family from the point of view of the eldest son Alan. Living in a coastal town near Liverpool (probably Formby, where Beryl grew up), his parents are very much unhappily married.

Once well-off, they now live in straightened circumstances. His mother expected more, going to a finishing school abroad and marrying a self-made man, who now unfortunately, has lost all he made. Theirs is a house of loaded silences, resentments, bickering, secrets and frustration.

“The marble statue of Adam and Eve, recently brought down from the landing, was shaky on its pedestal. Even the row of decorative plates, painted with roses and hunting scenes, might roll on their shelf above the door and bounce upon the red carpet. Madge said it was like walking through a minefield.”

Bainbridge captures perfectly the constant repressed tensions of living in such a situation. There is no honesty here, just lives of quiet desperation as his mother reads romantic fiction and his father struggles in isolation.

“Though the war was over, Father was still caught in a cross-fire, harassed by battles, by phantom cities tumbling about his ears. This moment – as then – he could be slumped over the driving wheel, hands raised in an abject gesture of surrender.”

Meanwhile their two children muddle through. Depressingly, Alan sees his future playing out just like his parents. This doesn’t particularly bother him, despite the fact that:

“He always did as he was told and he resented that no-one noticed.”

Meanwhile, Madge his sister runs wild, doing exactly what she likes and knowing how to manipulate her way out of any repercussions. She isn’t remotely vicious, she just knows what will enable her to do what she wants.

“She didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past marshalling the reasons for his parents behaviour […] All he wanted was for Madge to stay indoors at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.”

The dejection and anxiety of all their lives – except possibly Madge, who seems determined to carve out something more – is brilliantly captured by Bainbridge in small, telling details. In a world where no-one says very much and very little happens, she manages to build the tension to breaking point, to an ordinary, sadly predictable tragedy.

‘We had a garden when your father and I were first married, big enough for a game of tennis. We had a maid called Matty. We had so much space…You have no idea what it was like.’ She stood by the hearth, one foot resting on the cracked tiles.

‘We’ve got space now,’ said Madge from the floor. ‘You won’t let us use it.’

Alan thought suddenly it was why Madge went out so much, why he did himself. There wasn’t room for them. If he had his way he’d light a fire every day in the lounge and lie full-length upon the good-as-new sofa.”

Secondly, Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden. The titular woman is Penelope, ironically named as she herself observes, as she is not a faithful wife but plans to leave her husband Eddie and her two daughters for her lover, after she has finished her afternoon’s work as a Justice of the Peace.

“Will they blame me? I hope not. I have taught them to be tolerant as I have taught them regular habits and sound ethical principles. The only thing I have failed to teach them, I sometimes think guiltily, is how not to be boring.”

The afternoon she spends in court sees her reflect on her life so far, her choices and attitudes. It is not only her major life-altering decision that is prompting this introspection:

“Someone has sent me twenty aspirins in a brown envelope, and that anonymous accusation rumbles on in the depths of my mind like a monotonous menacing drum, sharpening my sympathies with all accused persons, alerting my memory, forcing me to examine my own failures, seek out my own guilt.”

This unnerving situation adds a sense of foreboding, or even slight menace, to the day. Yet there is insidious violence throughout Penelope’s experiences, which gradually emerge.

Penelope sees herself at the more liberal end of society’s views:

“ ‘Do you think old, respectable aunts should not be listened to?’ The Judge smiles politely. He knows about compassionate lady magistrates, that smile says; all their soft-hearted arguments.

I am stung. Does he think I am not worth listening to?”

Yet some of her views expressed in this novel are deeply disturbing: “Some women invite [flashers] behaviour”; “Girls often pretend to be more upset than they are. It’s expected of them.”

As well as her internalised misogyny, Penelope has to manage the daily sexism of a 1970s workplace, a mix of being patronised and/or lusted after. The condescending Judge invites her to a lunch that is clearly more than a meal…

As she reflects on her relationship with her step-brother Steve, step-sister April’s violent marriage, and her step-mother Eve’s mental ill health, I think Penelope is supposed to be callow and unthinking, certainly in terms of how she viewed April’s violent marriage when she was younger. However, Penelope is not wholly unlikable, mainly because she doesn’t cut herself much slack and she does try to help people, however misguidedly. She doesn’t justify what she’s doing or try to make it better than it is. She simply explains how she reached that point:

“My life, my active, happy, purposeful life suddenly seemed empty to me, dreary and useless. The speed with which this had happened was terrifying. One minute I was walking calmly along, feet on firm ground, the next I had tumbled into this frightening black chasm. How had it happened? Why did I feel like this? It was more than unhappiness.”

Afternoon of a Good Woman feels like a snapshot in time, not only of Penelope’s life but also of 1970s attitudes to women, violence, crime, sexual behaviour (Eddie’s preferences are detailed and Penelope’s affair is a somewhat contentious relationship, even without the betrayal), sexual assault, work and family, public versus private personas. For a short novel it covers a lot of ground, and manages to do so with ease. I’m really glad I read it for the 1976 Club as it felt very much of it’s time.

“And indeed, to be fair to myself (and if I can’t be fair to myself, how can I be trusted to be fair to others?), in the magistrates court, where I sit almost weekly, the margin of error that puts me on the side of the judges and not of the judged sometimes seems very narrow.”

To end, of course the 1970s give me an opportunity to indulge my love of David Bowie. In 1976 he starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth:

“I am always late on principle.” (Oscar Wilde)

After getting off to a pretty good start with my Women in Translation Month reading, I stalled badly with my final post. Although I read these two novels during August, writing about them in time for WIT Month 2021 (hosted by Meytal at Biblio) proved an insurmountable task. I still hope one day to get my blogging back on track but clearly August 2021 was not where this miracle was going to occur!

So here we are in September and I’m revisting two authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. When I decided to write on them initially I didn’t consider any connected themes, but there are some: ideas of home, otherness, what it means to live among a community, unlikely friendships, coming to terms with aging.

Firstly, Miracle on Cherry Hill by Sun-Mi Hwang (2019, trans. Chi-Young Kim 2019).  I enjoyed the simplicity of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly and found it very moving, so I was looking forward to this. I also thought – rightly – that it shouldn’t be too traumatic, given I’m a delicate flower at the moment.  Like The Hen… this is a quick read with no great surprises, but that’s not a criticism, as it still offers a rich story with fully realised characters.

Miracle on Cherry Hill sees successful business leader Kang Dae-su move back to his childhood home town having been diagnosed with a brain tumour (named Sir Lump). He plans to hole up in a huge, fenced-off house, away from any company to see out his days.

“Cherry Hill was an outdated name. New apartment buildings had uprooted nearly every last cherry tree around it, like insects gnawing through greenery. Only one old original house remained in this neighbourhood, near the bus stop, because the woods surrounded it and the owner was stubborn. He also owned all the land surrounding the house, At least, that’s what they said – nobody had ever laid eyes on the owner.”

Things don’t go quite according to Kang’s plan. For a start, the townspeople have used his property while he has been absent. The children play hide-and-seek in the grounds, an elderly woman with dementia grows vegetables, her granddaughter Yuri exercises her puppy and collects hens eggs.

“How dare Sir Lump pity him? He heard something coasting along with the wind, something like humming. Kang remained on his back. If he concerned himself with every singing animal or person who was evidently trespassing on his property the tumour would swell and burst from sheer irritation.”

Despite Kang’s irritation, a series of comic events demonstrate it’s better to share his garden for continued use by the town. What’s more, he even invites people in, recognising troubled youngster Sanghun would benefit from being employed to mow his lawns.

As Kang begrudgingly becomes involved in the life of the town and the people who live there, he becomes reconciled to his past, and the pain from childhood he has been holding onto begins to heal.

“Each of these new discoveries left him with a refreshing sensation, as if a cold drop of water was falling into the depths of his heart. These feelings had to be carefully swallowed down.”

Miracle on Cherry Hill is a sweet tale, but not sentimental as it tackles some difficult issues. It’s fabulistic but also recognisably real. It’s poignant and playful, and as someone who loves a redemption story I found it charming.

Secondly, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009 trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones 2018) which was a highly anticipated read for me, having loved Flights. For some reason I didn’t count that read on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, so Drive Your Plow… has formed my Poland visit.

This is a very different reading experience to Flights, which was fragmentary and mixed different genres. In contrast, Drive Your Plow… is more linear and plot-driven. However, it is still a complex novel that resists easy categorisation. I really loved it.

Janina Duszejko is a middle-aged woman with mysterious ailments, who hates her name and lives alone in a remote part of Poland:

“All you can see on the map is a road and a few houses. It’s always windy here, as waves of air come pouring across the mountains from west to east from the Czech Republic. In winter the wind becomes violent and shrill, howling in the chimneys. In summer it scatters amongst the leaves and rustles – it’s never quiet here.”

This harsh and isolated landscape suits Janina, as she is viewed as eccentric and regards people warily. When she engages in company, it is in her own way:

“What a lack of imagination it is to have official first names and surnames. No one ever remembers them, they’re so divorced from the Person, and so banal they don’t remind us of them at all…That’s why I try my best never to use first names or surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see the Person.”

Janina is a fan of Blake and this is reflected not only in the title of he novel and the epigraphs, but also her Fondness for Capitalising for Emphasis, which I thought a nice touch and added to the sense of her unique voice.

At the start of the novel, Janina is disturbed by her neighbour Oddball, who asks her to come with him to check on another neighbour, Big Foot. He is dead, having choked on a bone. Janina doesn’t grieve for him as he was part of the local hunting club, and she much prefers animals to humans. Sadly her “Little Girls” – her two dogs – have disappeared.

As other members of the hunting club die – all local powerful men, all seemingly pretty unpleasant – Janina shares her theory with the police that animals are taking their revenge for the cruelties enacted upon them. This theory is supported by her astrological studies, and is completely ignored by the authorities:

“Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us.”

The mystery of the deaths of the men isn’t the heart of the novel though. Although the blurb on mine describes it as ‘an existential thriller’ I wouldn’t even go that far.  For me the driving force of the story is the character of Janina and how she exposes attitudes to women, to aging; the power of the patriarchy, of money; and the disregard of anyone who is inconvenient to conventional society. She does this simply by existing and narrating how people respond to her.

I should warn readers here that the novel does describe cruelty to animals. Because Janina is appalled by it, the scenes are never dwelt on, but they are important to the story. This can make it a tough read but that is precisely the point – to question the horrors of how animals are treated. Drive Your Plow… was adapted into a film called Spoor in 2017 and I was going to end with the trailer, but even then there are some pretty grim scenes so I opted not to.

Drive Your Plow… raises important, complex themes through the voice of a truly memorable narrator. There is a dry humour running through the novel, but it also doesn’t pull its punches. The landscape is beautifully evoked and the characterisation compassionate. It will stay with me for a long time.

“As I gazed at the black and white landscape of the Plateau, I realised that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.”

To end, a song about a town community:

Two @PushkinPress reads for #WITMonth

After a somewhat harrowing start to my WITMonth reading, this week I have two novels from Pushkin Press which I found much easier-going. That’s not to say they are the lightest of reads though, as they deal with serious themes: trying to carve a space as a female artist in a patriarchal society, and bereavement.

Firstly, Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018, trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2019). Set in the 1960s, Hekla is young woman named after a volcano, who leaves her remote town to move to Reykjavík in the hope of realising her dream of becoming a writer.

The story begins with her coach journey to the city as she attempts to read Ulysses in its original language (quite an undertaking even when it’s written in your first language):

“How many pages would it take to overtake the tractor if James Joyce were a passenger on the road to Reykjavík?”

This witty and serious woman also has to fend off the attentions of an older man who says he can get a place in the Miss Iceland contest:

“We’re looking for unattached maidens, sublimely endowed with both clean-limbedness and comeliness”

Bleugh. Hekla is not remotely interested. She goes to stay with her schoolfriend Ísey who is married and has started a family, a situation about which she seems conflicted:

“I didn’t know it would be so wonderful to be a mother. Having a baby has been the best experience of my life. I’m so happy. There’s nothing missing in my life. Your letters have kept me alive. I’m so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother.”

Ísey wanted to write too and her sections have a lovely phrasing and style. There’s no doubt she has talent but her choices have been made and at this moment in time they preclude writing. Hekla is much more single-minded, but she may struggle to get her voice heard as much as Ísey, because their society does not favour independent-minded female writers.

To pay the bills Hekla takes a job as a waitress at the Hotel Borg. The more experienced staff tell her tales of female staff getting fired because of the attention of male customers, and which stores have backdoor exits she can use to escape if she is followed.

Ólafsdóttir effectively demonstrates how the patriarchy supresses men too. Hekla’s best friend is Jón John, who is gay and sees his prospects for a happy life as being fairly hopeless. He is used by men for sex before they return home to their wives, and while he wants to be a costume designer the lack of opportunity means he fishes on trawlers:

“The most handsome boy in Dalir told me he that he loved boys.

We kept each other’s secrets.

We were equals.”

Miss Iceland isn’t a bleak tale because Hekla is so resilient, and I’ve probably made it sound much sadder than it is. Jón John is a very forlorn character who really moved me, but Hekla is pragmatic to the point of detachment. She is entirely honest with her boyfriend, failed poet Starkadur (a reference to Cold Comfort Farm?) that her interest in him is purely physical. In this way she reminded me of another fictional artist, Margery Sharp’s Martha.

Despite Miss Iceland being told from Hekla’s point of view, in some ways I finished it in a similar position to Starkadur, feeling quite distant from her as a character. Ísey and Jón John are much more engaging. However, I think that is clever writing on the part of Ólafsdóttir rather than a flaw in the novel. Hekla is a writer, she has that slight detachment when she is with people of only wanting to get back to her typewriter.

“In my dream world the most important things would be: a sheet of paper, fountain pen and a male body. When we’ve finished making love, he’s welcome to ask if he can refill the fountain pen with ink for me.”

Miss Iceland ends with a two major pragmatic decisions about how to navigate a society which will not allow free expression of who you are. It’s not optimistic but nor is it defeatist. It is frustrating though, which I think was exactly the point.

Secondly, Learning to Talk to Plants by Catalan writer Marta Orriols (2018, trans. Mara Faye Lethem 2020). I spend a lot of my working life talking about and dealing with grief, and I thought this was an excellent exploration of one woman’s first year grieving for her partner.

Paula Cid is a neonatologist who loves her job. Her partner Mauro has been killed in road traffic collision.

“I often think and speak of Mauro using the adverbs before and after, to avoid past tense.”

What no-one knows is that Paula and Mauro had been going through a tough time in their relationship, and the day he died he had told her he was leaving her for a younger woman.

“You liked to buy me shoes. I never told you but I wasn’t crazy about the ones you chose for me….They were shoes for a woman who didn’t have my feet, or my style that wasn’t really a style. They were shoes for a woman who wasn’t me.”

Paula was such a well-realised character, I really liked her and I really liked the fact that she didn’t always behave well, even though she was a fundamentally decent person. She throws herself into her work, which is not entirely commendable despite how vital her work is. She is a bit of a pain to her colleagues. She is not always easy with her father and her friends. She resents any suggestion that her grief is similar to anyone else’s:

“My pain is mine and the only possible unit for measuring or calibrating it is the intimacy of everything that compromised the how. How I loved him, how he loved me. How we were, uniquely, no longer us and, therefore, how I could uniquely grieve him.”

Reasonable, I think.

What I also liked is how Learning to Talk to Plants didn’t skirt round the issue of sex. Paula is in early middle-age, she is not ready to renounce her sex life, even though society thinks it an unseemly way for a grieving woman to behave:

“Pleasure that appears just four weeks after losing your partner forever feels too bold”

However, Learning to Talk to Plants is not about Paula’s relationship with men, or even with Mauro. It is about her relationship with herself, about taking the time to nuture herself, and rediscovering hope, however abstract:

“You said talking to plants was a private, transformative act, an act of faith for those who don’t believe in miracles. I get up, take a breath, and add to my list: Learn to talk to plants.”

Learning to Talk to Plants skilfully avoids cliché, mawkishness or sentimentality. I did feel sorry for those plants though…

To end, one of the younger members of my family has been channelling Axl Rose in her attire this week, despite having no idea who he is (probably for the best). Here is the Postmodern Jukebox version of Sweet Child O’Mine:

Starting #WITMonth with short stories & a novella

August is Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal at Biblio. I’m hoping to post a few times this month but given my current blogging pace that may be a hope in vain! Anyway, I’m really pleased with the start I’ve made as it’s two authors I’ve not read before as well as two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.

Trigger warnings for pretty much everything: mentions of violence, genocide, rape, incest, and animal cruelty although I don’t go into detail for any of these.

Firstly, Our Lady of the Nile by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga (2012, trans. Melanie Mauthner 2014). Scholastique Mukasonga fled Rwanda for Burundi and has lived in France since 1992. 27 members of her family were killed in the Tutsi genocide in 1994. She set Our Lady of the Nile in 1979 and the future massacre haunts the story.

The titular school is in a remote region on a ridge of the Nile:

“There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred metres, the white teachers proudly proclaim […] ‘We’re so close to heaven,’ whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.

The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycée is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peaks through and you can see as far as the big lake, the shiny blue puddle down the valley.”

This opening immediately put me in mind of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, and like Godden’s story there is a creeping oppression and tension amongst a group of women living together within an institution. Unlike Godden’s nuns though, the tension arises primarily from the wider political situation. Early in the story we meet class leader Gloriosa, who is wholly influenced by her father’s views on how to treat Tutsis.

“’The chiefs’ photos have suffered the social revolution,’ said Gloriosa, laughing. ‘A dash of ink, a slash of machete, that’s all it takes…and no more Tutsi.’”

That flippant mention of a machete is completely chilling. The girls are at that stage of adolescence where they are simultaneously naïve and aware of wider ramifications as they navigate one another, the attentions of men and the political situation.

As we follow the girls over the school year, the story is episodic and not told from one point of view, successfully building a picture of the remote community and the threats that exist within and without.

Two Tutsi girls, Veronica and Virginia have to manage Monsieur de Fontenaille, a coffee grower who idealises and objectifies their beauty; there is Father Herménégilde who is a paedophile in a position of power in the school; Gloriosa’s polemic about school quotas and Tutsis taking the place of Hutus is deeply disturbing and divisive.

The education of the girls also demonstrates the legacy of colonialism and how its brutality continues, how the genocide has its roots firmly in the past:

“History meant Europe, and Geography Africa […] it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history.”

“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who had discovered it.”

The story builds towards a denouement that is horribly predictable, terrifying and shocking. As part of these events, Gloriosa encourages a truly despicable violent act on a classmate that I’ve decided not to detail here. It’s not remotely sensationalist but it demonstrates the total horror that human beings can enact on each other.

Our Lady of the Nile is a stunning piece of writing, managing to convey the immeasurable costs of political violence with great humanity.   

“It’s time we remembered who we are and where we are. We are at the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile, which trains Rwanda’s female elite. We’re the ones who’ve been chosen to spearhead women’s advancement. Let us be worthy of the trust placed in us by the majority people.”

My second choice doesn’t offer any reprieve from these brutal themes, as Cockfight by Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero (2018 trans. Frances Riddle 2021) is unflinching in its depiction of violence against women, animals, family members and of rape and incest.

I’m not going to go into too much detail from the stories as they are all such tough reads, but I’ll give an idea of a few of them. Ampuero is a compelling, precise writer and her stories pack a steely punch. If you feel able to read the stories I would urge you to do so, but they are definitely not for everyone and I certainly couldn’t have managed them last year when I was feeling a lot more fragile.

In the first story, Auction, a woman is kidnapped and offered up with others to the highest bidder. The situation reminds her of the cockfights she witnessed as a girl, having to clean up the remnants of the brutal sport.

“All these people, men and women alike, have been punched in the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the cockerels. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and cockerels. Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just cockfighters, dammit.”

The mutually reinforcing processes of patriarchy, misogyny, violence and commodification are drawn with ease, and played out in this situation in a visceral and degrading display.

Passion differs from the other stories in the collection, telling the story of (possibly) Mary Magdalen through a second-person narrative.

“You know, the only thing you know, is that you’re not going to be able to live without him. What you don’t know, and what you will never know, is that he loved you. That is something that can only be known by someone who has been loved before. You are not one of those people.”

In this story, Mary is the miracle-worker, abandoned by a man when she is no longer useful. Within the context of the collection, the story shows the long history of women being used and disregarded by those more powerful than they are.

Mourning was one of the most difficult reads, detailing the repulsive violence – physical and sexual – meted out by a brother on his sister. The brother dies and the two sisters rejoice:

“Marta said that at times like this – only at times like this – you need a man in the house, and Maria, who was standing on a chair with her skirts pulled up around her waist, started to laugh like a person possessed, and said no, that she preferred cockroaches, all the cockroaches in the world, over a man in the house.”

Ali and Coro are two linked stories that are incisive in detailing the hypocrisy and corruption that lies behind the moneyed façade of the rich.

“They grow up right there in the kitchen: eating with you until they get big, and then it seems weird to them that they love you so much, even though deep down they know you were their mother, and they see you one day in the future, once you’ve left, and they don’t know whether to cry or run into your arms like when they were little and fell down, or just nod their heads at you because now they’re little ladies and little gentleman of society who know you don’t greet the help with hugs and kisses.”

The collection ends with Other, which was probably the only story I read without flinching. The contents of a woman’s shopping basket distil the choices she has made, meaning she and her children constantly deny their own needs to meet those of an entirely selfish husband and father.

“He likes expensive fillets even though he won’t let go of one red cent for the rest of the month after buying them. So you grabbed three boxes of off-brand cereal instead, one for each child, and the worst brand of pads, the scratchy ones, the ones that come apart right away and cover your panties in little balls of fluff.”

Cockfight is fiercely feminist, urgent and unrelenting. Ampuero doesn’t waste a single word as she evokes everyday violence and degradation in non-sensationalist writing.

These are two brilliant works, stunning and important, but after I’d finished them I had to recover with a Golden Age mystery. I needed something where there was a guarantee that I wasn’t going to have to read graphic depictions of any sort of brutality. Having spent some time with Inspector Alleyn, I now feel ready to re-enter the fray!

As respite from my descriptions of two such harrowing works, here is a cheery number from an Ecuador-based band for you:

“Life is a very bad novelist. It is chaotic and ludicrous.” (Javier Marías)

Trigger warnings for suicide and rape

In a move that will shock no-one who’s read this blog in the past year, I totally failed to post as planned for Stu’s Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month in July. I did however read some Spanish and Portuguese language lit, and Stu has extended the month to include August so away we go!

I decided to use S&PLM as an incentive to dust off Javier Marías, who has been languishing in my TBR forever. I read A Heart So White (1992, trans. Margaret Jull Costa 1995) and The Infatuations (2011, trans. Margaret Jull Costa 2013).

What struck me reading both is that I’ve not really read anyone else with a style like Marías. He interweaves philosophical musing within a basic plot and manages this without any loss of pace. The plots are essentially a study of how people relate to one another, rather than event-driven and it works seamlessly.

For the sake of brevity (ha!) I’ll just look at A Heart So White here, in which newly-married Juan muses on the nature of romantic love and his relationship with his father Ranz.

“Ever since I contracted matrimony (the verb has fallen into disuse, but is both highly graphic and useful) I’ve been filled by all kinds of presentiments of disaster […] when they contract matrimony, the contracting parties are, in fact, demanding of each other an act of mutual suppression or obliteration”

This occurs near the start of the novel and I was really taken aback by the matter-of-fact tone regarding a subject that society generally sentimentalises. Marias builds the story using vignettes as Juan observes two arguing lovers on his honeymoon, returns to work as a translator, and stays with a friend in New York who has humiliating experiences through the personal ads. I wondered if AHSW was going to be a cynical and bitter tale of people behaving appallingly towards each other. However, despite observations such as:

“Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions.”

Overall I found the tone resolutely clear-sighted and pragmatic, rather than bitter.

Ranz is a complex, slippery character. His first wife died and his second wife killed herself. Juan is the son of his third marriage. They are not close – Juan finds his father distant and self-focussed:

“He spoke slowly, as he usually did, choosing his words with great care (Lothario, alliances, shadows), more for effect and to ensure that he had your attention than for the sake of precision.”

[…]

“This was the whispered advice that Ranz gave me: ‘I’ll just say one thing,’ he said. ‘If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.’ And smiling again, he added: ‘Good luck.’”

Juan does find out the mysteries of his father’s past, largely with the help of his new wife Luisa. However, this does not create a sense of resolution, because I don’t think that’s what the novel is about. It’s not about neat endings, but rather the messy business of human relationships and how these are never neatly tied up, whether through legal institutions like marriage or even the finality of death.

Secondly, a Portuguese-language novel, The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (1991 trans. Sheila Faria Glaser2004), which despite its mammoth title was only novella length. It was also an opportunity for me to visit another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, as Almeida is a Cape Verdean writer.

This was my first experience of Almeida’s writing and I really enjoyed his chatty, slightly irreverent tone. The titular 387-page document belongs to a successful importer-exporter, and the novella opens with its reading. Much to everyone’s surprise, the business is bequeathed not to Carlos, Senhor da Silva Araújo’s nephew, but rather his illegitimate daughter, unacknowledged in his lifetime.

“Still, it might have struck one as strange, or might have set the neighbours talking when, rather extraordinarily, on hearing over the radio the news of the passing of the esteemed merchant from this our very own marketplace, one of the most vibrant pillars of our city – Sr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo- Dona Chica began to run around the house screaming and crying out, My protector, my god, What will become of me etc., a display different in every way from the measured grief she had shown on the death of her Silvério who, may he rest in peace, though no model of virtue was no scoundrel either.”

(The only thing that jarred for me in this novella was that Senhor da Silva Araújo rapes Dona Chica, his cleaner, before the two go on to have a mutually satisfying sexual arrangement. Patriarchal  fantasy I would say.)

The story moves back and forth across time with ease, building a portrait of a man who rose from shoeless poverty to leading businessman. He remains contradictory and somewhat unknown despite telling his life story in his own words. Although this could make for an unsatisfying read, for me this was the novella’s strength. It captured how complex people are, and how we can remain a mystery even to ourselves.

Senhor da Silva Araújo is not particularly likable. There are possibly some shady deals in his background. Despite being in love at certain points (much to the surprise of those who knew him), he is ignorant regarding women. He treats his nephew Carlos unfairly:

“Carlos has turned out to be an ungrateful relation and as the good man I am and always have been, I have the moral obligation never to forgive him.”

Yet Carlos is not perfect either, and Senhor da Silva Araújo is not wholly despicable:

“But the truth is, it began to be noted that Sr. Napumoceno sent for quicklime from Boa Vista at his own expense and donated to the City Council for construction projects for the poor. When he was questioned directly, he neither confirmed nor denied this”

There is one scene of awful misunderstanding with his daughter that is truly upsetting in its pathos. Overall, this is a portrait of a life lived, successfully in some ways, pitiably in others; a man weak and oblivious to others; who knew some happiness and some heartbreak. Hard to achieve in a novella length but Almeida manages it with skill.

To end, Seu Jorge singing one of my favourite Bowie songs in Portuguese:

Traplines (1996) by Eden Robinson

Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, drug use, swearing

This is my contribution to Lisa’s wonderful annual event, ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I’m writing this hurriedly last minute to get it done in time, but do head over to Lisa’s blog to see all the great posts this week and from previous years too!

My reading and blogging has been so poor since the pandemic that I originally planned to post on this short story collection for ILW last year – oh dear. I’ve decided to take it as win that I’ve eventually managed to do so rather than focus on how long it took 😃

Eden Robinson is an Indigenous Canadian, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations. Waaaaaaay back in 2000 I read her first novel Monkey Beach and I thought it was one of the best things I read that year. Then inexplicably I have totally failed to read anything she published since. I’m really pleased that ILW prompted me to pick up her short story collection, Traplines (1996).

I’m a bit of a delicate flower at the moment but I think even if I was feeling super-robust, I still would have found Traplines a tough read. The stories are unflinching in their portrayal of human struggles; determinedly unsentimental, beautifully written and non-sensational. There are four in total so I’m going to focus on two and just give a brief flavour of the others.

The collection begins with the titular story, which I persevered with past the opening hunting scene (I can’t say the title didn’t warn me), only to have my heart torn into a million pieces. Will Bolton is a young man, sensitive, bright and observant:

“Tucca is still as we drive into it. The snow drugs it, makes it lazy. Houses puff cedar smoke and sweet, sharp smell gets in everyone’s clothes. At school in town, I can close my eyes and tell who’s from the village and who isn’t just by smelling them.”

He also has a chaotic home life, bullied and attacked by his older brother, who in turn is bullied and attacked by their father. Will constantly lives on a knife-edge, ready to duck at the next surprise blow.

“I back into the kitchen. He follows. I wait until he is near before I bend over and ram him. He’s slow because of the pot and slips to the floor […] Eric stands on the porch and laughs. I can’t wait until I’m bigger. I’d like to smear him against a wall. Let him see what it feels like. I’d like to smear him so bad.”

Mrs Smythe is Will’s English teacher and she sees his potential. She and her husband offer Will a place to stay away from the violence, the escalating drug use he is surrounded by, the self-destructiveness of everyone he knows. Robinson builds the portrait of Will’s life expertly, showing how he is at a crossroads he only vaguely recognises, and how the choice he’ll make is so fragile and yet so irreversible.

“If I could, I’d follow her.”

Absolutely devastating.

The next story Dogs in Winter had a slightly lighter tone but this is comparative. It was still very, very dark. “He smelled of Old Spice and I felt like I was in a commercial. Everything would be perfect, I thought, if only Canada had the death penalty.”

Contact Sports was the longest in the collection and at 109 pages is really a novella. Robinson wrote about the characters further in her novel Blood Sports (2006). This story was an absolute masterclass in how to create a pervading sense of unease and menace. It really got under my skin.

Tom lives with his mother and her successive boyfriends. Money is stretched to breaking point. Then his cousin Jeremy shows up and stays with them. Jeremy has been thrown out of the army, although Tom doesn’t know why. He has loads of money, Tom doesn’t know where from. He is amenable at first, but entirely untrustworthy.

Gradually Jeremy calls in the favours he has done Tom, to exert a deeply bullying and abusive hold over him, dictating his behaviour and humiliating him at every opportunity.

“‘Look, it’s really very simple. I’ll pay off your bills, one bill a week, and I’ll help with rent and food, and all you have to do is one itty bitty little thing.’

Tom said cautiously, ‘What?’

‘Oh it’s simple. All I want you to do is be good.’”

So insidious, so terrifying. It’s a bleak story, with humour that is raw to the bone:

“Tom stood on the corner watching Jeremy’s car squeal down the street. Just my luck. The only person who really gives a shit if I live or die is a whacked-out drug addict who likes playing God.”

The final story Queen of North sees a woman reclaim power over the person who abused her as a child in a breathtakingly visceral way. I won’t give more details on that but I’ll give a sample of the opening paragraphs which demonstrate the brilliance of Eden Robinson’s observations of the natural world:  

“In my memory, the sun is setting and the frogs begin to sing. As the light shifts from yellow to orange to red, I walk down the path to the beach. The wind blows in from the channel, making the grass hiss and shiver around my legs. The tide is low and there’s a strong rotting smell from the beach. Tree stumps that have been washed down the channel from the logged areas loom ahead – black, twisted silhouettes against the darkening sky.”

Although I won’t be rushing to a re-read of Traplines right now, I’m so glad I read it and remembered what a stunning writer Eden Robinson is. She is precisely descriptive, compassionate but unwaveringly realistic in her characterisation. I’ll definitely be hunting down her Trickster trilogy, the first of which has been adapted for television: