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:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #31

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? – Lorrie Moore (1994) 148 pages

The final post of Novella a Day in May 2020! Despite my optimism about completing every day earlier in the week, it was a close-run thing. I’ve just finished reading Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore and came straight to writing this post, so I beg your indulgence of typos and wandering sentence structure (which you’re probably used to given the number of hurriedly written posts I’ve cobbled together this month 😀 )

I chose this novella thanks to Paula’s always brilliant Winding Up the Week post halfway through May, which directed me to this article on contemporary novellas. The wonderfully titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was included, and I had it in my TBR pile, which I’m really trying to reduce during lockdown (and failing dismally, of course…)

It starts with a brief portrait of Berie (Benoite-Marie) on a working holiday in Paris with her husband. Their marriage is not in a good place but they are trying:

“The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the way I feel his lack of love for me.”

We are then taken back to 1972 in upstate New York, where adolescent Berie is working in Storyland with her friend Sils. Sils is beautiful, employed to play Cinderella in the park while Berie works the ticket counter.

“Little girls would stand in line to clamber in and tour around the park with her – it was one of the rides – then be dropped back off next to a big polka-dot mushroom. In between, Sils would come fetch me for a cigarette break.”

Moore captures perfectly that feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, of desperately wanting everything to happen but being unsure as to whether you are ready for it, of being uncomfortable in your own skin and not quite knowing who you are.

Berie is skinny and underdeveloped, she doesn’t have Sils’ body or the sexual interest from others that it attracts. When Sils gets a motorbike-riding boyfriend named Mike, Berie is left somewhat out in the cold.

“Everything would turn out fine. Or else – hell – it would burn. I only wanted my body to bloom and bleed and be loved. I was raw with want, one made for easy satisfaction, easy story, quick drama, deep life: I wanted to go places and do things with Sils. So what if the house burned down.”

This naivete coupled with recklessness leads to trouble for both girls, in very different and yet ordinary ways. There are significant events in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, but nothing hugely dramatic.

“My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air; waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was like liquid, like a song – nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.”

What Moore demonstrates is how little we can know those closest to us, even alongside the intensity of adolescent feelings. Berie is close to her brother Claude, but they drift apart. She grows up with her adopted sister LaRoue, but never really takes time to connect with her. Her parents are absent a lot of the time. All her feelings are focussed on Sils, but Sils is moving into adulthood faster than Berie and there are things they cannot share. This distance between people who know each other intimately is continued into adulthood as her marriage comes close to collapse.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is the first of Lorrie Moore’s work I’ve read and I really enjoyed her humour and wit. Overall though, I found this a melancholy book. It portrayed the singular aloneness of human beings and how this underpins ordinary everyday lives. But maybe that’s what I took away because I’ve been self-isolating for eleven weeks now!

Lorrie Moore writes in a beautifully precise way that never feels laboured. She’s insightful, funny and sad, and I’ll look forward to reading more by her.

You can hear Lorrie Moore talk about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? here.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (1935-7 trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1956) 121 pages

My brother doesn’t often lend me books, in fact I can’t remember the last time he did. So when he lent me Snow Country with the warning ‘I want it back’, I thought it must be exceptionally good. Turns out my brother and the Nobel Prize committee are in agreement on this, as Snow Country was cited when Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

It begins with Shimamura, an overprivileged wastrel who doesn’t have to work, leaving Tokyo to travel to a hot spring town in the north of Japan. He is captivated by Komako, a young geisha who works there.

“The more he tried to call up a clear picture of her, the more his memory failed him, the farther she faded away, leaving him nothing to catch hold. In the midst of this uncertainty only the one hand, and in particular one forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”

Shimamura has a wife and children back in Tokyo so the relationship with Komako is a commercial one, but still one in which both seem emotionally invested. I say seem, because nothing is ever spelled out in Snow Country. This is not the novella to read if you want fully rounded characterisation or plot development. What Kawabata creates is series of impressions, moments and images that layer on top of each other.

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of the kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

That’s not to say that Snow Country is an unsatisfying read. Kawabata is a beautiful, precise writer and he crafts an atmosphere expertly. The natural surroundings are stunningly described, and the people are believable and idiosyncratic, even though we know very little about them.

“there was something sad about the full flesh under that white powder. It suggested woollen cloth, and again it suggested the pelt of some animal.”

It’s also a deeply melancholy read. The two main characters will never be together and both seem trapped. Shimamura by his inability to find a meaningful way to spend his time, Komako by debt and circumstance. The sadness of it all crept up on me due to the writing style I’ve described, and it seemed all the more poignant for doing so, rather than explicitly announcing itself.

My memory is terrible, so as a reader I find what tends to stay with me is not plot or character, but more the atmosphere of a novel and the feelings it evoked. Snow Country is one of those that will stay with me a long time.

“All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #29

The Birds on the Trees – Nina Bawden (1970) 196 pages

The Birds on the Trees was sent to me a long while ago now, by the lovely Ali at heavanali. Ali’s a great advocate for Bawden’s writing and it was her enthusiasm that got me picking up one of my favourite childhood authors again as an adult. I’ve really enjoyed the Bawden I’ve read so far and The Birds on the Trees was no exception.

The story concerns the very ordinary middle-class Flowers family and what happens when the eldest son Toby experiences mental health problems.

He is kicked out of school for smoking drugs and returns home refusing to follow his parents wishes to attend a crammer in order to sit his Oxford entrance exam. His hair needs a cut and he’s not washing. He’s spending a lot of time dressed in a burnouse. His parents Maggie and Charles are at a complete loss as to what to do.

“Now, for the first time (their first, real crisis?) he saw what drove her was something more like fear: she raced through life as over marshy ground, fearing to stand still in case she sank in quagmire.”

This all sounds pretty mild but we never really find out what’s going on with Toby. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia but this is questioned by a family friend and doctor, who thinks Toby has drug-induced psychosis. In a prologue we see Toby as a small child telling neighbours he’s been abandoned by his parents at Christmas, that they don’t feed him, and then later that his parents are dead. Clearly something’s wrong, but Bawden never offers trite answers as to what that might be – was Toby always unwell? Was he neglected in some way?

Very little of Toby’s speech – and never his thoughts – are provided to the reader. The Birds on the Trees is a study of a family under immense strain, but the family member who’s instigated the crisis remains remote. This is a masterstroke as it keeps us in a similar position to his family: at a loss as to why things are unravelling so considerably.

One of the rare times we hear from Toby is when he’s trying to impress potential girlfriend Hermia, and the fantasy, arrogance and pretension of what he says just brought home his youth to me:

“‘I have left school. But I haven’t made up my mind. Eventually, I expect, I shall go into something interesting and creative, like publishing or films. Or perhaps the theatre, though the standard’s so terrifying low at the moment, one would have to be careful. I mean, it would be so easy to write a play just for commercial success, one would have to watch out that one wasn’t corrupted.”

The family are distant from each other, but in a very ordinary way. Maggie and Charles take their frustrations out on each other, middle child Lucy starts stealing and youngest Greg is convinced he’s adopted. At one point Lucy attacks her aunt with grape scissors, which I again thought hinted at something deeper troubling this family, but it’s not clear. Maggie’s mother can’t see what all the fuss is about:

“ ‘I never heard of such a thing,’ Sara Evans said. ‘Taking a boy to a psychiatrist because he refuses to have his haircut!’”

I really enjoyed the portraits of the rest of the Flowers family, which were so well-observed, both psychologically – as I would expect from Bawden – and physically:

“The skin on his face was loose and baggy: he was always folding and pleating it as if it was an ill-fitting garment he happened to be wearing.”

 Toby deteriorates and although fears about heroin addiction prove ill-founded, he cannot get out of bed. He is hospitalised and treated with ECT, which would be practically unheard of now. Although the treatment of Toby has dated, and to some extent the attitudes of the family, I thought this novel hadn’t dated nearly as badly as it could have done. This is because Bawden is so good at characterisation and so psychologically astute that the examination of these people under pressure, both individually and as a family, remains fresh.

I read a review from when The Birds on the Trees was nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize that criticised the novel for being too optimistic in its ending. Maybe I’m just a miserable so-and-so but I didn’t think it was that optimistic. I thought it was one character allowing a brief moment of hope, when the reader knows things are unlikely to get any easier…

“How could you ever really understand why people behaved as they did? Oh, you could guess…but it was like trying to find your way through some intricate underworld of caverns and passages by the light of one flickering match!

Novella a Day in May 2020 #28

A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman (2014, trans. Jessica Cohen 2016) 198 pages

A Horse Walks Into a Bar is a novel about a comedian, but the fact that it won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (there’s an interesting interview with translator Jessica Cohen on the Asymptote blog) is an indication that it has serious things to say. Its takes place in Israel and so it also forms my last stop this novella month on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. 

Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comic known as Dovaleh G, and the novel follows his set in a Netanya comedy club over two hours, from the point of view of his childhood friend Avishai Lazar, now a retired district court judge in his late 50s who barely remembers Dovaleh.

“From the minute he got on stage he’s been seeking my eyes. But I can’t look straight at him. I dislike the air in here. I dislike the air he breathes.”

Dovaleh G is not a pleasant man. He berates the audience, he insults their town, he has the style of stand-up that mixes old-fashioned jokes with barely concealed aggression.

“I swear to God, standing before you tonight is the first man in history to get post-partum depression. Five times! Actually four, ‘cause two of them were twins. Actually five, if you count the bout of depression after my birth.”

He’s offensive and at various points audience members walk out. They complain he is not giving them what they paid for – a night of laughs. Instead, Dovaleh recounts his childhood memories: living with his mother who was traumatised from the camps, and his father who beat him. He walked on his hands to escape neighbourhood bullies.

Onstage, he verges on being a bully himself. Someone else is in the audience who remembers him as a child: Azulai, a small woman and spirit medium, to whom he is absolutely brutal. Yet his most vehement aggression is reserved for himself:

“Somehow, on the phone, there was something attractive about his offer, and I can’t deny that he does have his moments on stage, too. When he hit himself, there was something there, I’m not sure what, some sort of alluring abyss that opened up. And the guy is no idiot. He never was”

Grossman captures brilliantly that tension that can exist in stand-up where the audience don’t feel entirely safe, and don’t exactly know where their laughter is coming from. He also exploits fully that a lot of comedy is born out of pain. Dovaleh G is not likable, but throughout the course of the novella he does become understandable, and it is possible to feel compassion for him.

The audience (and readers) become witnesses for Dovaleh G; to his life, his trauma and his anger. What humour there is, is very, very dark. There was a riff on Dr Mengele that actually made me wince – I’m not sure I’ve winced at a book before.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a devastating read but not a destructive one. At the end I felt there was some hope, which given Grossman is a highly political writer has wider significance than the life of Dovaleh G and Avishai Lazar. I’ve not discussed the politics of the novella because I felt I didn’t know enough about Israel and Palestine to do it justice, but if you know about this in more depth then I’m sure A Horse Walks Into a Bar will have an extra resonance for you.

“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul?

Novella a Day in May 2020 #27

The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant (1863) 153 pages

Halfway through the final week of NADIM 2020 and for the first time this month it’s feeling do-able! I don’t want to tempt fate (especially as I’m changing broadband providers this week) but I’m hopeful I might actually complete a novella for every day…

After the brutality of First Love yesterday, I thought I’d take refuge in Victorian gentility. Also, I thought it would make a change from my resolutely twentieth and twenty-first century choices this month. The Doctor’s Family takes place in the fictional town of Carlingford, a setting Margaret Oliphant revisited in four subsequent novels as well as the short story The Rector, which was included in my Virago edition.

Dr Edward Rider has come to Carlingford after his wastrel brother Fred caused him to lose his practice elsewhere. He lives:

“in the new quarter of Carlingford; had he aimed at a reputation in society he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive. The young man, being but young, aimed at practice.”

Unfortunately Fred has followed him to Carlingford where he does very little except smoke pungent pipes and go out to waste money. However, Oliphant doesn’t paint Fred as evil (to my twenty-first century eyes he sounded depressed) and she doesn’t paint Dr Rider as wholly virtuous. He can be short-tempered and dismissive to his patients, more than once he takes out his anger on his horse (thankfully not dwelt on in detail but still repulsive), and he doesn’t have high ideals about his vocation, though he is a reasonable doctor. In other words, the brothers are flawed human beings each muddling through, and bound by a “strange interlacement of loathing and affection”.

His family suddenly enlarges in a way Dr Rider did not expect, when Fred’s wife, children and sister-in-law all – never alluded to by Fred – arrive from Australia. They rent a house on the outskirts of town and Dr Rider visits initially out of a sense of duty more than any affection, as Susan, Fred’s wife is petty and spiteful, and his children are feral. His sister-in-law Nettie, on the other hand, is capable and practical, and essentially runs their entire lives for them.

Again, the characterisation here is subtle. Nettie isn’t one of Dickens’ holier-than-thou self-sacrificing virgins. Rather she is a determined, independent young woman who sees what needs to be done and does it. Oliphant makes it clear that Nettie gains from the situation, that it suits her.

“Those brilliant, resolute, obstinate eyes, always with the smile of youth, incredulous of evil, lurking in them, upon her bewildered advisor. ‘I am living as I like to live.’”

Short-tempered Dr Rider develops feelings for Nettie and can’t understand how she puts up with her selfish, demanding, draining family. She is less judgemental than he is:

“She knew their faults without loving them less, or feeling it possible that faults could make any difference to those bonds of nature.”

But while the family seem settled in their slightly unconventional ways, events will conspire to change things irrevocably.

This is the first time I’ve read Margaret Oliphant and I enjoyed her immensely. I liked her flawed characters and her resistance to showing situations as morally black-and-white, which can sometimes be the case in Victorian fiction (and I’m a big fan of the period and the women writers). I read The Rector as well (but I’ve not discussed it here as it’s not a novella) and found that story lighter and wittier than The Doctor’s Family. Both together mean I’d be interested to see how Oliphant developed the inhabitants of Carlingford in later novels.

If you like Victorian social realism but can’t face the hefty tomes that genre often involves, if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, or if you sometimes wish George Eliot wasn’t so heavily intellectual, then a trip to Carlingford will be just perfect for you.

There are no great surprises for the reader in The Doctor’s Family; things work out exactly as you’d expect. But that is no criticism and especially in these uncertain times, it’s a perfect example of the solace to be found in reading.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #26

First Love – Gwendoline Riley (2017) 167 pages

Trigger warning: discussions of an abusive marriage and strong language

First Love is told from the point of view of Neve, a youngish writer married to the significantly older Edwyn. Their marriage is horrific; a battleground of manipulations, gaslighting, verbal abuse, withholding, blaming and bitterness. The blurb quotes on my paperback edition mention tenderness, humour and bittersweet truth. I can’t say I really saw these elements in the story…

“When we cuddle in bed at night, he says ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one [….]

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.”

Yes, Edwyn is an outright misogynist who clearly despises women, blames them for his own extensive inadequacies, and seems to take his insults from the early seventeenth century.

Even when he’s not explicitly abusive, he’s monumentally detached, such as when Neve’s father dies:

“ ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘You’re an intelligent woman. Did you imagine he was going to live for ever?’

‘No.’

‘We all feel guilt honey. Guilt is just what you feel when this happens.’

‘OK. Fine.’

‘He’s dead, you’re alive, you’re guilty, it’s desolate,’ Edwyn said. ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to get over this.’

We then go back in time as Neve considers her upbringing and romantic past. Her father was a horrible bully, her mother given to attachments to grim men with no real reflection to prevent her from repeatedly following the same pattern. Neve moves from place to place – Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London – and keeps her family at a distance. Eventually her mother visits after leaving her second husband:

“I stood by the door as she stepped into the flat, as she bared her teeth and crept forward. This was my home, and I was letting her into it. I’d never done that before. I haven’t since. It gave me a strange feeling. Revulsion, I suppose you’d have to call it.”

For all the emotional desperation in First Love, there is no self-pity or victimhood. Neve has a complex family, narcissistic ex-boyfriends and self-involved friends, but she never sees herself as any better than them, or any more put upon than they are.

“When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by? … My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling.”

First Love is definitely the strongest of Riley’s novels that I’ve read. She’s intelligent, uncompromising and incisive: 

“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”

I’ve probably given a very skewed impression of  First Love because I thought the central relationship so horrible and Edwyn so repulsive. It’s not relentlessly bleak or brutal; the sense I was left with after reading made me think that the ambiguous title isn’t scathing, more highly sceptical.

“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterise the forms they assume?”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #25

The Beautiful Summer – Cesare Pavese (1949, trans. WJ Strachan 1955) 101 pages

Thinking back to when I bought The Beautiful Summer seems so foreign now even though it was at Birmingham New Street station. It’s unusual for me to buy a new book, I usually go to charity shops. But I’d finished my book on the train journey in so I needed something for the journey back. That book was Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, and in WHSmith I could get it with The Beautiful Summer half price (it’s part of Penguin’s European Writers Series). The thought of being in such a huge public space with people milling around, and wandering into a shop to browse and purchase on a whim seems a lifetime ago…

The Beautiful Summer opens with sixteen year old shop assistant Ginia enjoying the feeling that “Life was a perpetual holiday” in 1930s Turin. On the cusp of adulthood, she is also frustrated at knowing there is more life to be had,  most likely away from her friends.

“Rosa was indispensable; with her easy, familiar ways and her high spirits she made Ginia’s superiority plain to the rest of the company.”

Ginia takes up with the older Amelia, an artist’s model, and her free-living friends. Ginia is both intrigued and intimidated:

“the excitement at the discovery that they were both made in the same mould and whoever had seen Amelia naked was really seeing her. She began to feel terribly ill at ease.”

Ginia falls for Guido, an artist who seems to do very little painting, if at all. Her naivete is almost painful to witness:

“He likes me a sweetheart; he loves me. He did not believe I was seventeen, but he kissed my eyes; I am a grown-up woman now”

As the summer progresses, so does their affair, and Ginia grows up. The story of The Beautiful Summer is a tale oft told, of lost innocence, heartache, and learning who you are as you forge your own path. What lifts it above cliché is the compassionate characterisation of Ginia, the non-judgemental portrayals of young people who do not always behave well, and the sense of sad survival rather than devastation.

“Ginia knew he would never marry her, however fond she was of him. She had known this from that evening when she first offered herself to him.”

To end, a Brummie band in honour of my copy’s origins (OK, a blatant excuse for a Duran Duran video as I don’t generally indulge my love of 80s pop during my NADIM posts.) Apparently Simon Le Bon nearly drowned filming this; they should have strapped John Taylor to the windmill instead, I’m sure the buoyancy of his hair would have kept him afloat:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien: