Category Archives: Authors from….

The View from Here: Recommended Romanian authors

viewfromhere

We’re off to Romania for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  Our guide is Georgina who blogs at Readers’ High Tea.

Let’s meet Georgina

Hello! My name is Georgiana and I live in Bucharest, Romania. My academic background is a blend of computer science and business studies, and at the moment I work as a management consultant. As hobbies, I enjoy travelling to places I’ve never been before and doing sports (snowboarding and squash). I’ve been interested in books since childhood, and recently this interest has materialized in a blog –  Readers’ High Tea. I created it as a cosy place where readers share thoughts about the books they read, find what book to read next, and also read about other bookish stuff like discovering nice bookstores around the world.

I am currently experimenting a lot with my reading, so I do not have particular authors I like and read a lot. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the exception here, as his gothic style made me fall in love with his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I read both classics and modern authors, mostly foreign ones. The most recent book I’ve read and enjoyed (a lot!) is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Tell us about the traditions of literature in your country. Are there any particular styles or characteristics for literature from your region? Any themes or issues that you see reflected frequently?

The most common themes reflected in the Romanian literature are rural life (inspiration from nature, folklore, the daily lives of peasants), social and political conditions, and the effects of the war on people’s lives (including the struggles of intellectuals during the war). Modern writers also tackle subjects as spirituality, religion, and self discovery.

What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Romanian literature? 

Romanian literature is studied in-depth during high school years, ranging from from poetry to drama and novels. When it comes to the ones considered classics, I would mention Moromeţii (The Moromete Family) by Marin Preda and Ion by Liviu Rebreanu – two novels that portrait the ordinary peasants’ life. Another one is Enigma Otiliei (Otilia’s Enigma) by George Călinescu, a novel that presents the life of people in Bucharest at the beginning of the 20th century. Maitreyi (Bengal Nights) by Mircea Eliade, one of my favourite books I’ve studies in school, depicts the writer’s love story with the Indian girl Maitreyi Devi.

Regarding poetry, Mihai Eminescu is for sure considered one of the greatest Romanian poets. Tudor Arghezi, Nichita Stanescu (he was inventing words called unwords), and Lucian Blaga are also classics studied at school.

What books and authors are very popular right now in Romania? 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are very popular at the moment. Also the recent Harry Potter related books (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) are quite trendy. In general, young adult books are popular, and also many self-development books (some examples: time management – Musai List by Octavian Pantis, life style – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo)

What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Romania ? 

Unfortunately many Romanian authors are not translated in English. From the authors that are translated, I recommend Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, he was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. Nostalgia and Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu are also worth checking out, as Cartarescu he is an awarded contemporary writer. Another recommendation is Book of Mirrors by Eugen Chirovici, which is said to be global publishing phenomenon.

Views from Around the World

There are 16 other countries featured in the View From series with guest bloggers from Japan, France, Canada and South Africa for example. Do take a look via the View From page.

 

Interested in doing a View From guest post?

If you’d like to represent your country of birth or the place you live or the literature of a country you feel passionate about, do please get in touch.  Either send a direct message via Twitter to @BookerTalk or via the contact me form below

Classics Club spin lands on Grossmith

Diary_of_a_Nobody

Cover of first edition of The Diary of a Nobody. Creative Commons License, Wikipedia

The latest Classic Club roulette wheel has spun and landed on number 12 which for me is The Diary of a Nobody  by George Grossmith. It had to happen sometime – this poor book has been on the list for five previous spins and missed out every time. 

But now its day in the spotlight has arrived, what kind of book will I be reading?

First thing I can tell you is that it’s a comic novel, the sole output of  two brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text. 

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. They are a fairly ordinary family of lower middle-class status but have significant social aspirations. A lot of the humour apparently comes from Charles’ deluded sense of his own importance which is undercut by his propensity to make mistakes, many of which prove socially embarrassing.

Initially Charles’ exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine in between 1888 and 89. It was intended as a spoof that mocked the proliferation of diaries and memoirs at the time; the brothers taking the view that if Anybody could publish a diary then why couldn’t a Nobody? It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics with The Athenaeum, declaring that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”. Its tone and format have been emulated in many subsequent ‘diary’ novels from Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

Why is the Diary of a Nobody  on my Classics Club list you might wonder? It’s certainly an unusual choice since I don’t tend to enjoy comic novels. But I happened to come across a copy, at the back of the bookcase, that seems to have been purchased sometime in the early 1990s and thought maybe it was time it got read….

 

 

 

 

The Tree of Life by Maryse Condé #WITMonth

Tree of Life_miniI’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.

Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story.  She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.

Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis,  a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.

..on that day, Albert Louis,  … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:

It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.

And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his  native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty  whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book  tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.

This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.

Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter  sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.

Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.

Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family,  make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and

…  his mother …  on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.

Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.

Footnotes

Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé

Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers

Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.

Length: 368 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

 

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her unfulfilled dreams

mrsdallowayChances lost; dreams unfulfilled; expectations diminished: virtually all the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway seemed to me to be failures in many ways.

It’s evident in even the minor characters. Rebellious natures like those of Sally Seton have been suppressed by  marriage to a bald manufacturer with £10,000 a year and “myriad of servants, miles of conservatories”. Intellect has turned into a form of religious fanaticism and resentment for all the things that Doris Kilman, a tutor employed by the Dalloway family, could not have or could not be. And Hugh Whitbread, a friend of the Dalloways has opted for a life of little consequence as a minor court official, merely touching the surface of life and attracting sniggers from acquaintances.

He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once. The malicious asserted that he now kept guard at Buckingham Palace, over what nobody knew. But he did it extremely efficiency… And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood this credit…

Of course Woolf reserves her deepest analysis of a life unfulfilled for the woman whose search for her true self lies at the heart of the novel, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway. This is the portrait of a woman uncertain  about her life and her identity. Walking in London early in the novel, she experiences a feeling that her life is defined by her marital status; that she herself has disappeared.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen, unknown; …. this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs.Richard Dalloway.

The outside world sees her very differently. To them she is a successful hostess and wife of an important man. Chic and financially secure she moves in a world of fine fashion, parties and high society. But it’s a world Clarissa herself has come to realise is frivolous and her life superficial and passionless. Years previously she’d been offered a different life with Peter Walsh, one with lower social status and comfort levels but full of emotion and excitement. She turned down his offer of marriage, settling for the safer option of life with Richard Dalloway, a man who seemed destined for high political office. Richard never fulfilled that early promise however. Though a good man, capable of thoughtfulness and good deeds, he never did become a Cabinet member or Minister of State.

On the day in 1923 on which Mrs Dalloway takes place,  Clarissa discovers that Peter Walsh has returned from India after many years. Throughout the day as she prepares for the party she will give that evening, she thinks about the past, about what might have been and whether life is now all over for her. Woolf apparently intended Mrs Dalloway to end with Clarissa’s death, potentially at her own hand. In the event it’s another death that Clarissa hears about during the party. Although she has no knowledge of the dead man, nor even his name she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. By the end of the novel she has come, if only for a fleeting moment, to accept the past is past and to prepare for the next stage of her life.

There is no such moment of peace for her former adorer. Peter has his own reasons to regret the passing years. All his ambitions for a glittering literary career came to nothing. Neither has he found happiness in love. Having married simply to fill the void left by Clarissa’s rejection of his proposal he is now a widower planning to marry the woman half his age with whom he’s been having an affair. He doesn’t recognise his own failings but is quick to see them in others, including the Dalloways whose English bourgeois lifestyle he detests.While Clarissa comes to terms with her own mortality, Peter becomes frantic at the thought of death, following a young woman through the London streets to smother his thoughts of death with a fantasy of life and adventure.

I know I’m making it sound as if Mrs Dalloway is a linear narrative but of course that’s far from being the case. It’s a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it’s a collection of scenes which reveal information about the characters, how they relate to each other and how they think and feel. It jumps without warning from one character to another, and from outside to inside the character’s head. At times the narrative seems to use a cinematic technique, pinpointing a character the midst of a crowd, tracking them as they progressed along a street and then zooming in on them for a close up. This is how she introduces us to Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome whose death will so affect Clarissa. We spot him outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys her flowers for the party, watch him and his wife begin to walk arm and arm to St James Park and then to settled on a park bench watching the trail of a plane through the sky. And at that moment Woolf delivers an example of what she once described as “moments of being” a time where just for a moment the individual isn’t only aware of himself but gets a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. For Septimus the moment begins with the leaves in the trees.

…leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; … All taken together meant the birth of a new religion…

Woolf isn’t someone whose writing can be skimmed or read at speed. It requires full concentration and an alertness to the fact that even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas, multiple voices, multiple tones. Complex indeed but so rich and incredibly rewarding even if you only feel you’re understanding a tenth of it.

Late Harvest Havoc – murder among the vineyards

late-harvest-havocI’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine (or two even). Even more appealing if I can do this while looking out onto some splendid French vista.  Wine + France is a near perfect combination (now if only someone would create a chocolate flavoured wine I’d be in heaven….) Add a touch of mystery to that combination and you have the set up for The Winemakers Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balan. This highly successful series delves into the darker world of the wine industry with the aid of two amateur detectives: master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his aide-de-camp Virgile Lanssien.

In Late Harvest Havoc, the latest episode to be translated into English,  the duo are in the Alsace region. It’s winter time and in the countryside dark clouds are gathering.  Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another a few miles away. Is this vengeance for a personal grievance? Is there a connection to the days of German occupation? Cooker and  Lanssien put their collective brains to work to try and bring peace.

Detective work is demanding so of course the duo need plenty of sustenance. This is a novel which it’s probably not wise to read if you’re hungry or thirsty. Every day comes with details of something rather scummy sounding from foie gras de canard; caisson de porcelet rôti aux épices douces, and duck and sour cherry terrine to baba au rum. Cooker is a man who likes to eat well and whose palette is as sensitive to food as to wine:

He loved it perfectly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm and he rind had gone from soft to creamy. As with wine, Benjamin Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife in to reveal the centre of this cheese from the Vosges plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.

The plot may be rather on the skimpy side and the writing plodding at times but by the end your knowledge of the finer points of  viticulture will have increased markedly. The novel is peppered with gems of info with which to impress your friends. Did you know the best wines in Alsace come from the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, that the Rosacker vineyard takes its name from the wild roses growing nearby or that Riesling needs “exposure to southern sun and a steep incline in slate-rich soil that furrowed in stormy weather.”

All this focus on eating and drinking seems fitting given that the idea for the Winemakers’ Detective Series originated over a meal and a bottle of Château de Gaudou 1996 which is apparently a red wine from Cahors.  I’ve no doubt the detailed descriptions of the wines are accurate but I did wonder whether someone who makes a living from his tastebuds would really smoke as many cigars as Cooker. Wouldn’t that affect the palette so much it would be difficult to pick out the subtler notes of each wine?  Maybe I’m quibbling too much and the finer points don’t matter to the fans of this series or the millions of viewers who watch the TV adaptation.

End notes
Late Harvest Havoc has been available in France since 2005 but only became available in English in 2015. Translated by Sally Pane it is published in the UK by Le French Book, Inc. My copy is courtesy of  the publishers. For details of the book tour organised by France Book Tours. For full tour dates click here.

Win a copy of Late Harvest Havoc 

5 copies of Late Harvest Havoc are available in a giveaway. To enter click on this link.

I’ve tried updating this after some readers alerted me to the problem. If this new link still doesn’t work, go to this book tour page at Words and Peace blog site where Emma has the giveaway open until January 23

Winners will get a choice of print or digital if they live in US residents. In other countries, winners will receive digital copies.

 

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Blacklands

Blacklands is an award-winning debut work by Belinda Bauer, the first title in a trilogy of crime novels set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. Told mainly from the perspective of twelve year old Steven Lamb, it’s a psychological suspense tale rather than a whodunnit. We know almost from the start who committed the crime. We know also that he was caught and brought to justice. But given the opportunity is he ready to kill again? And will Steven be the unwitting trigger?

Clearly this is not your typical crime novel. It was never in fact designed to be a crime novel since Bauer’s original intention was for the story to be simply about a boy and his grandmother.  But she became fascinated by the idea that something dreadful had happened to Steven’s family that was still affecting them twenty years later.  The ‘something dreadful’ turns out to be the disappearance of Steven’s uncle Billy. Everyone in his village believed the young boy was killed by serial murderer Arnold Avery and buried on the desolate moor like the six other children he abducted.  But Billy’s body was never found and Avery has never disclosed where he buried the body.  Billy’s mother (Steven’s gran) is so convinced he is still alive she stands in the window of her home every day, watching for him to walk up the street.

Steven’s family life is not a happy one even without the shadow cast by the unresolved crime.  His father abandoned him and his younger brother many years earlier. Steven yearns for a real dad  but few of the “uncles’ who make their appearance have stuck around for very long. His home is a mess with mildew on the walls and mushrooms growing on the bathroom floor. Money is scarce. The hoodies lie in wait to beat up Steven whenever they can. His one and only friend betrays him.

If only Steven can find Billy’s body he believes his suffering and that of his family will be at an end. Every weekend he goes out in secret to dig on the moorland in search of the hidden body. Without any clues he can’t hope to make much progress.  His solution is to contact the man who knows the location of Billy’s grave. His letters to Arnold Avery turn into a dangerous cat and mouse game in which Steven’s own life is imperiled.

It seems a little incredulous that a twelve year old would be able to engage in correspondence with a man serving life without questions being raised by prison authorities. But Bauer cleverly gets around this by making Steven’s identity part of a riddle Avery must solve. Equally deft is her characterisation of Steven. She makes him convincingly naive but with a high level of natural intelligence; a boy who just wants to do the right thing in the only way he knows how. A boy that you want to succeed.

The result is a novel that is disturbingly good. It doesn’t rely on intricate plotting or the skills of a super sleuth; just a good story and some believable characters. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Belinda Bauer but it won’t be the last.

Endnotes

Belinda Bauer was born in England and grew up there and in South Africa. She currently lives in Wales (not too far from my home in fact). She worked as a journalist and then as a screenwriter, winning the Carl Foreman Bafta for her first screenplay, ‘The Locker Room’.  Blacklands, her first novel, was published  in January 2010 and went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2010.

Her most recent novel, published earlier this year is The Shut Eye

Discover more about Belinda Bauer at her website 

Man Booker 2015 … and the winner is

No, not the title that’s been the bookie’s favoThe Man Booker Prize 2015 Logourite and had oodles of critical acclaim with one or two notable exceptions (I talk of course of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara). Nope. The winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize announced tonight is the Jamaican writer Marlon James with A Brief History of Seven Killings. He becomes the first writer from Jamaica to win the award, thus demonstrating despite fears that the Booker was selling out to the Americans, that it is still carrying the torch for Commonwealth writers.

A brief historyJames was apparently the unanimous choice of the judges who reached their decision in just two hours. They called the novel “the most exciting” book on the shortlist and “full of surprises”. Inevitably the choice will not be welcomed universally – some readers will be disconcerted by the fact it has more than 70 characters, makes liberal use of Jamaican slang and profanities and a stop-start structure.  I’ve not read it – yet – and I suspect I’ll find it tough going just to keep up with all those characters and three decades of the turbulent world of Jamaican gangster life and politics. But I’m delighted the Booker didn’t settle for a safe option as the best novel of the year.

I should learn from this experience two things however : 1. don’t embark on reading the shortlist thinking that by doing so there’s a fair chance I might be reading the winner 2. don’t rely on me to pick the winner. I fail every time.

2 disappointments and 1 soaring success

sundaysalonI’ve now read two of the 2015 Booker longlist titles; neither of which I think will be declared the winner.  Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was a far better novel than Anne Enright’s The Green Road in the sense it actually had a message but both were rather straight-forward stories. No real experimentation with form such as we’ve seen from recent winners like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Maybe the judges are not looking for that especially but I would expect them hone in on a novel that has a unique quality, one that stands out from the crowd in one respect or another. Neither O’Hagan or Enright did that for me. Maybe my next Booker longlist contender A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will be more remarkable. It’s the early favourite for this year’s award but the judges have not always followed the popular vote so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the betting odds.

thesnowkimonoFortunately the disappointing experience with those two titles is overshadowed by the book I’m currently reading: The Snow Kimono by the Australian author Mark Henshaw. It’s his first novel in 25 years and was apparently  rejected 32 times before Text Publishing stepped forward. It was a smart move since Henshaw’s novel went on to win the Premier’s award.

From the first page I was enthralled.  The novel begins in Paris in 1989 when a retired police inspector receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter.  Two days later a stranger knocks on his apartment door. Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan, begins his story of his best friend, a brilliant but arrogant writer and the lives of three Japanese women. That summary doesn’t however do any justice to this wonderfully mesmerising tale that unfolds like a puzzle. What a shame the judges didn’t longlist this novel.

The Green Road by Anne Enright [2015 Man Booker Longlist]

The Green RoadBy the end of the first chapter of Anne Enright’s story of strife within an the Madigan family, I had the sense it wasn’t the Green Road I was following, but an all too familiar path. Some of the tropes of Irish fiction had already made their appearance:

Child destined for the convent (or in this case the priesthood). The romance of the land. Churchgoing. Conflict between branches of the same family (they ‘don’t get on with each other’ for reasons that may or may not be revealed); Small community setting with old fashioned shops. More churchgoing.

I steeled myself for more. But then thought maybe I was being unfair. It’s not possible to write a serious novel set in west coast Eire and not mention the church is it? And while the Celtic Tiger did transform the Irish economy for a few years, in 1980 which is when the novel begins, much of Southern Ireland  was (actually still is) comprised of small, very tightly knit villages and towns that look pretty much as they did in the 1950s.

And then, with Chapter 2, Anne Enright sprung a surprise. Her narrative leapt 11 years, out of conservative Irish town where birth control is not easily obtained, and into the free-wheeling world of New York with its gay sub culture.  This was the first, and by the far the most rivetting, of four sections each devoted to the five living members of the Madigan clan: the demanding, infuriating matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna.

Dan Madigan never got ordained (for reasons which are never explained in the novel) but has morphed into Irish Dan. He cuts a handsome figure as he manoeuvres deftly, though cruelly, through the charged atmosphere of the Aids epidemic.  Forward another six years and we catch up with his sister Constance, driving along the green road to a secret hospital appointment, hoping her mammogram will prove all-clear. She’s the only child to remain in her home town, growing fat and resentful when her mother dismisses her gestures of kindness. Youngest son Emmet has put the greatest distance possible between him and Ireland, drifting through Africa on a mission to help starving children in Africa but struggling to reconcile this with his personal relationships. And then there is Hanna, the lively 12 year old child from Chapter 1 whose life disintegrates as her ambitions of an acting career collapses and she takes refuge in booze.

These sections, which take us up to 2005, are in essence a series of loosely connected short stories, each having a distinctly different atmosphere and voice. The parts dealing with Dan in New York are the most powerful, superbly conjuring up the way different groups responded to Aids; some distancing themselves immediately they saw anyone on the subway with tell-tale purple bruises; others reaching out to those they knew were dying. But the victims themselves had different needs, as the narrator explains:

We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

Enright brings the family back together with a device which has parallels with King Lear’s division of his kingdom (and we all know how that went). Rosalyn summons the children for Christmas, telling them it will be the last in their family home since she intends selling and moving in with Constance (much to her daughter’s surprise and alarm). The declaration has the family members embark on mega supermarket shopping expeditions (Constance), a long flight (Dan) or a lot minute attempt at packing by throwing stuff into bags (Emmet) before settling around the dinner table, each in the same place they had occupied as children. Though they have changed, one thing remains the same; Rosalyn’s ability to cause an upset. Tears arrive well before bedtime. Enright brings the reunion to a climax with an action which forces the children to reconsider their attitudes towards their mother.  By the end they are a little wiser, but it didn’t feel they were substantially different people or that their lives had altered in any material way.

Were my fears about this book realised? To some extent yes. The  family scenes in Ireland were never as interesting as those where each child, battered by life and directionless, is allowed to tell their own story. And I do wish Enright hadn’t tried to bring the novel to resolution by the unnecessary device of making one character disappear. But I did enjoy her characterisation of Rosaleen, a woman much given to bewailing her fate, succumbing to imaginary illnesses and seeing the world ranged against her. Enright  enables us to laugh at this woman who takes zero interest in world affairs but loves  good local gossip. “Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road.” She’s manipulative and waspish but she loves her children. She just doesn’t know how to show it.

A reasonably good read in short but nothing remarkable. I had  very similar feeling by the end that Rosaleen expresses about her life:

Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.

The Green Road wouldn’t make it to the Booker shortlist if I were one of the judges.

Two foodie novels in review

The Dinner Herman KochHerman Koch’s The Dinner was one of the publishing hits of 2012, garnering wildly differing views on whether it was an extremely well executed novel about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring or a nasty book about some very dislikable people.  I enjoyed it on the whole though wasn’t convinced by the narrator Paul, a failed teacher who despises his more successful politician and celebrity brother Serge.

The two men and their wives meet in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. Amid the They are there to discuss an act of unprovoked violence committed by their teenage sons. Koch reveals the nature of the boys’ attack in between scenes where a servile waiter describes the provenance of each item of food in infinite detail. It’s an evident swipe at overly pretentious restaurants.  The lamb’s-neck sweetbread might have been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and the sun-dried tomatoes raised in Bulgaria but there still isn’t very much to eat.

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You wouldn’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.

Paul is clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder. He despises everything his brother and sister in law represent.

They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’: from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films.”

But the reason for this deep resentment towards his brother was never fully explained. Is it purely a case of envy at the celebrity status his brother has acquired as the front runner in the upcoming national elections? Or is this another example of how Koch has structured his novel around secrets and the necessity of keeping them just that: secret.

the presidents hat

Surprisingly for a novel about a hat with supposed magical properties, the plot of The President’s Hat  by Antoine Laurain similarly turns on a meal.

Middle-ranking officer worker Daniel Mercier decides to take advantage of his wife’s absence one evening to treat himself to dinner in an elegant Parisienne brasserie. While savouring a seafood platter and crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, (and trying to ignore the price), he is astounded when the banquette alongside him is occupied by President Mitterand. Mercier lingers over his meal, eavesdropping on Mitterand’s conversation with his cohorts. When the President leaves, he has forgotten his hat. It ends up gracing the head of the starry-eyed Mercier.

He quickly discovers that the hat confers authority and confidence. His superiors discover his full potential and give him promotion. But Mercier loses the hat. The next person to find it similarly realises that its possession emboldens her to make a big change in her life.  The hat passes through a succession of hands, acquiring talismanic qualities as the fortunes of each of its new owners are transformed.

This was an impulse buy and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the brasserie and Daniel’s repast, overall I found it far too light and frothy. I suppose it was meant to be a fable of a time that no longer exists – one where no-one goes out for dinner and spends all their time texting ‘friends’ or drinks a full bottle of wine and then drives home.

End Notes

The Dinner by Herman Koch is published in the UK by Atlantic Books. Koch is a Dutch author who has also worked as a television actor and newspaper columnist.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. Laurain was born in Paris where he has worked as a journalist and indulged his passion for collecting antiques. His next novel is due to be published later in 2015.

 

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