Novella a Day in May 2020 #15

Often I am Happy – Jens Christian Grondahl (2016 trans. the author 2017) 167 pages

I really enjoyed the female narrator’s voice in Often I Am Happy. She is an ordinary, decent person who can also be quite cranky and sarcastic. It’s a woman’s voice that we don’t hear in fiction very often.

Ellinor is grieving her husband Georg, who was married first to her best friend Anna. Anna has been dead forty years and in her grief for Georg, Ellinor talks to Anna.

“You were my country, first one and then the other, and now I am stateless.”

She tells Anna about her life with Georg and raising Anna’s children. She is clear-sighted but also compassionate:

“He was so considerate, and I think he had come to be really fond of me. The years passed, mind you, and in the end we belonged together, simply because we lived side by side. We underestimate the power of habit while we’re young, and we underestimate the grace of it, Strange word, but there it is.”

Ellinor is seventy years old, and is a woman who has lived long enough to know who she is and to accept herself and the world without sentimentality. This means she sometimes loses the social niceties that her suburban step-children and their partners wish she had kept. Ellinor was raised by a single mother with little money, and never really felt she fitted in with the bourgeois surroundings she found herself in as an adult:

“since you died, the women of the commercial upper middle classes have found a post-colonial solution to the difficult arithmetic problem of career multiplied with self-realisation plus motherhood. You get yourself a third-world servant and call it cultural exchange, but nine out of ten live in the basement where they can Skype with the children they’ve had to leave behind”

Ellinor decides to leave the suburbs and move back to the multi-cultural, urban area she was raised in. Her family do not understand this choice, and she begins to withdraw from them, uncertain that she ever really fitted in with them anyway:

“There is nothing like a conflict to do the difficult work for you. It is an underrated remedy, cowardly as we are, but it makes everything so much easier. Free at last, I thought, and stepped out onto my bike.”

Ellinor is not bitter, and she’s not bitchy. She’s actually content, and as the title tells us, although deeply sad in her grief, she’s doing ok. But she has reached a point where she no longer compromises her view or actions, because why should she need to?

“Apparently, nothing is more purifying for people’s self-esteem than to place themselves at the very edge of someone else’s grief and show that they are not at all dizzy.”

Often I Am Happy is a wonderful character study of an older woman, and a portrait of deep grief experienced within a life that still needs to be led on the individual’s own terms.

“his absence felt like a lump growing inside me, making me suffocate. I never felt so alone. One is used to reality responding or just resounding with whatever one thinks or feels. Death shuts up the living; the real is our enemy in the long run.”

Novella a Day in May #31

The final post of Novella a Day in May! It’s time for dancing Brad:

No-one is more surprised than me to be here. I never thought I’d manage to post every day for a month. Massive thanks to everyone who has read, liked, commented and shared these posts, you are all fab! I never expected people to read this blog on such a regular basis.

I’ve really enjoyed my month of novellas and I hope I’ve managed to spread some novella love along the way.

I’ve never done a summary post before but then I’ve never posted every day for 31 days before, so here’s an attempt to squeeze all those novellas into a few stats before I go on to my final choice for the month.

The gender split in authors was fairly even: 15 female authors and 16 male. Pointless pie chart time:

The novellas ranged across 3 centuries, from 1860 to 2017.

The shortest novella was Journey into the Past at 84 pages and the longest was After Claude at 206, because I cheated my own criteria by 6 pages. The average number of pages of the novellas was 142. None of them were actually this long, which goes to show there’s no such thing as average 🙂

It was a good opportunity to read some of my favourite publishers: I read 9 by Virago, 5 by Pushkin Press, and 2 by Peirene, as well as novellas published by AndOtherStories, and New York Review of Books.

I visited 13 countries including France 3 times (4 times if I count Jean Rhys) and Denmark twice. Two countries were new stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit: Libya and Kyrgystan. Thirteen novellas were in translation and the rest were by English, Irish and American authors. The southern hemisphere was sadly neglected, but this does give me a reason to justify even more novella reading 😉

And now the bit I found hardest: trying to pick out favourites. I planned to try and pick out a top 5 but it’s proved impossible. However, special mention has to go to William Maxwell, who I wrote about yesterday. I thought They Came Like Swallows was a work of restrained beauty. He had a perfect understanding of the novella and used sparse words to convey a story at its absolute essence. Not a word was wasted and no further words were needed. It’s made me keen to hunt down the rest of his work.

And now, onto my final choice! A novella that the blogosphere told me was great last year and then I forgot about until Susan’s post reminded me of the paperback release, so off to the library I went…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016, trans. Misha Hoekstra 2017,188 pages)

Sonja is single, in her 40s, a translator of thrillers she finds gruesome and misogynistic. She is trying to build bridges with her distant sister, manage her massage therapist’s more esoteric suggestions, and learn to drive.

Sonja’s driving instructor Jytte screams instructions at her and won’t let her change gear, so she goes to see Folke, the head of the school,

“Sonja’s on the verge of tears. It happens unexpectedly; the sob sits in her throat and wants to come out. Folke’s hands move efficiently from side to side across the desk, and she longs to grasp one of them. Squeeze it, say ‘Thank you,’ from the heart. It doesn’t escape Sonja’s notice that she gets red in the face, because this sort of thing rarely happens. It almost never happens anymore – that someone wishes Sonja the best. She’s used to dealing with everything herself, and she’s reasonably good at it too.”

This captures much about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: Sonja is muddling through life and doing it more or less competently, but she feels awkward and displaced. She’s from Jutland (Folke observes “All the Jutlander’s I’ve met are a bit quirky” and a Danish friend tells me this is a common stereotype ) but has lived in Copenhagen for years, long enough to not feel at home in either the countryside or the city. She’s doing OK but she could be doing better, struggling with “the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.”

Sonja’s a strong character and immensely likeable with all her idiosyncrasies. She goes her own way and always has, but reflects that this may cause more harm than good:

“Mom did me a disservice believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom should know that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.”

There’s plenty of humour in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Not only at Sonja’s slightly blundering way through life, but also at the madness of Jytte screaming out her driving lessons; the awkwardness between Sonja and Folke; the flaky assertions of Ellen, the masseuse. But it’s not a whimsical novel and much of the humour is pretty sharp:

 “while Sonja does miss her sister, at the same time it ignites in her a yearning for fire”

I really enjoyed the short time I spent with Sonja. Nothing much happens, as in much of life, but there is a believable character arc for Sonja whereby things remain unresolved but improving – a happyish, unsentimental ending which made me smile.

To end, normal service will now be resumed on this blog: intermittent, unnecessarily verbose posts on two books linked by a theme, most likely with a cheesy late 20th century pop song shoehorned in. Here’s one such video to ease us in, chosen in honour of the fact that while Novella a Day in May is now over, I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m wondering if I’ve got it in me to do it again next year… what better way to express this than through song, while dressed in a flared satin and spangles jumpsuit twinset? Take it away, Gloria…

Novella a Day in May #20

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (2009, trans. Martin Aitken 2012, 189 pages)

This novella is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. The Murder of Halland is part of their Small Epic series.

The story opens with a domestic scene, Bess and her partner Halland watching a detective series before he goes to bed and she returns to her study to continue her work as a successful novelist. By the third page however, she is woken by a man at the door claiming he is arresting her for the murder of her husband: Halland has been shot dead in the town square outside their flat.

“The wet cobbles glistened in the morning light. Normally, the square would be deserted. Now it was filling with people. Roses bloomed against the yellow and whitewashed walls.”

While The Murder of Halland could be classed as a crime novel, I think this is misleading.  The focus is not on finding out who killed Halland but rather the grief of Bess as she ricochets around the small town in confusion, discovering Halland wasn’t quite who she thought he was and wondering if she is grieving in the right way.

“I could see why Halland had hung up the picture. It was our first year together and we were happy. Anyone could see that. At least I could, now. Halland’s hair had turned completely white during his illness, but here his long mane was dark and only just starting to turn in grey. I traced the sharp line of his nose with my finger, his full mouth. He was looking at me, saying something. What did we say to each other in those days? What did we ever say? I couldn’t remember us talking. Did we even say good morning? Yes, we said good morning.”

Bess’ detached narration makes The Murder of Halland an unsettling read. We know it was not a happy relationship, but we don’t know exactly why. We don’t know in what way Halland was ill. All Bess’ relationships seem to occur at a step removed: she has tense phone calls with her mother, a half-hearted reconciliation with her grandfather, an estranged daughter who arrives back in her life but they don’t explore what this means for either of them…

This strange detachment meant that I started to doubt Bess’ reliability as a narrator. When I read crime fiction it’s weirdly, for comfort, partly because I stick to Golden Age, and partly for all the ends to be tied up nice and neatly.  The Murder of Halland is not this type of novel. It leaves the reader with many more questions than answers, most of all through it’s “WHAT????” ending . Surprisingly, I didn’t think this made for an unsatisfactory read. The Murder of Halland is an intriguing character study at a moment of crisis, as complicated and unresolved as life itself.

“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

199676-penguin-in-the-snow

Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

Siglufjordur

Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)