A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

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(image: dauntbookspublishing.co.uk)

I came upon this book entirely by chance in Waterstone’s – it was the cover that made me pick it up, and I am so, so glad I did. A Broken Mirror is described on the inside cover as “A haunting classic of modern Catalan literature from one of Spain’s most prestigious writers”, but honestly I had never heard of Mercé Rodoreda before I picked up this book, for whatever reason. But I am so happy I have discovered her work, because, put simply, this book is sublime.

A Broken Mirror is a family saga, stretching over three generations of the Valldaura family in Barcelona. We begin with Teresa, the matriarch, during her first marriage. She is beautiful and in some ways this is what carries her, what keeps her going through so much of her life. Men seem to fall in love with her all the time. After her first husband dies (he is quite a bit older than her) she marries Salvador Valldaura, and the saga of the family begins. They have a daughter, Sofia, who in turn marries Eladi Farriols – they have two boys, Ramon and Jaume; there is also Maria, who happens to be Eladi’s daughter from an affair with a dancer. This complicated family live in a villa, thrown together with several generations of servants, and watched over by Armanda, the one maid who never leaves them. Her life is intertwined with theirs, as well as with that of the house.

The book is divided into three parts, with several chapters in each. The chapters are each told from the third person perspective of one of the characters, whether a family member or one of the many people in their orbit. In the introduction to the book the translator Josep Miquel Sobrer writes that,

“… each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of writes such as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.”

I remember learning about free indirect speech in Jane Austen at school, and I think this assessment is correct. Throughout A Broken Mirror you are given time to understand each of the characters’ mentality, and their own experience of the shared narrative. For a book with so many characters, free indirect is the perfect way to visit all of them without feeling overwhelmed by all the information. Through this technique, Rodoreda also perfectly illustrates the way in which we live both in the past and the present, as the characters constantly relate what is happening to what has happened before, how things used to be, the things they remember. Things change all the time, but they also stay the same.

Josep Miquel Sobrer writes in his introduction that A Broken Mirror is pessimistic, and in some ways it is – time ravages everything, people never love as they should, and in the end everything comes to nothing… but I think it does celebrate the joys of family life, the pleasures of love, and the thoughtlessness of childhood. It celebrates moments in time. At several points there is a stark contrast between the dramatic, troubled family, and the joyous abandon of the maids stripping off in the summer and chasing each other with the garden hose. Armanda watches them all and sees the beauty and fragility of life and happiness.

I think that is the crux of this book, and the reason it is so beguiling. A Broken Mirror reminds us that life is always messy, and complicated, but that it is still worth living. There is a scene, late in the book, where Armanda drops a mirror and sees in all the broken pieces all the pieces of her long life with the Valldaura family – all the people, all the heartache and grief, the joy and happiness as well as the sadness. Life is made up of so many pieces, good and bad, and sometimes it is impossible to fit them all together. Some of the best passages come when characters are looking back on their lives and remembering their lost loves, their stolen moments, and their youth. They realise that it was pointless to think that life would be a certain way, because it always happens just as it will. Even if the pieces do not fit together, they are each worth something.

A Broken Mirror is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. The language is beautiful, even in translation, and each character is full realised, no matter who they are. There is sheer poetry and romance in this novel, and it is full of the most wonderful imagery. Each scene feels three-dimensional, and you can almost feel the Spanish summer heat and hear the laurel bush rustling in the wind. I was totally immersed in the story of the Valldauras and was sorry to come to the end of the novel, and I will certainly seek out more of Rodoreda’s work. Especially if Daunt do more of these beautiful editions!

*

Originally published in 1962. I read the 2017 Daunt Books edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

In Praise Of: True Crime

Many years ago I worked as a bookseller for Borders and I have to admit that the true crime section was not one that I thought of as full of ‘literature’. All the books had sensational covers with big red letters and bad photographs. They were small fat books that didn’t get many visitors, and while I thought some of the topics looked sort of interesting, their terrible covers and titles put me off. So I turned my nose up at true crime. It seemed almost as bad as the trend for Misery Memoirs a few years ago –  books that implied you were entertained by the suffering of others and that you fell for the sensationalised titles and covers. They were the book equivalent of the trashiest tabloid newspaper.

But as time has passed I’ve realised that I have an interest not in suffering or sensationalism, but in crime. I like crime novels, detective TV shows, mysteries and thrillers. And surely the best stories are always the ones that are true? These days it seems to me that love true crime is as popular as ever, but there are more socially acceptable ways of receiving it – podcasts are the prime example. People went mad for Serial, and now In the Dark is making a splash, as well as Criminal. There’s also the success of the Netflix series Making a Murderer, which I thought was brilliant. I’m pleased to hear there will be a second series.

I enjoyed Making a Murderer so much because it delved right into not only what may or may not have happened in terms of the murder itself, but also the events following it – the search for Teresa Halbach, the police investigation, and the ways in which Steven Avery was identified as a suspect. The investigative and legal processes are fascinating to me, and I was glued to the scenes featuring Avery’s lawyers as they worked on their case, and especially when they were arguing in court.

I think my interest in this area is linked to my interest in psychology and unusual people. People who are in some way different from others, people who are strange or unusual, are inherently interesting to me. I like weird stories and unexplained mysteries – the ‘other’ side of life. People who commit serious crimes are on that other side.

Which leads me to serial killers. They are some of the most extreme and troubled of people, and some of the most interesting. There are a handful of topics that regularly lead me down Wiki-holes, and serial killers is one of them. When J. P. March had a bunch of them over for dinner in the Halloween episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, I knew their stories already.

Listening to the podcasts mentioned above, and my Reading Lists project, lead me to consider The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This was a book I’d been aware of for quite a while, but worrying that it was too trashy stopped me from getting hold of a copy. But my new attitude to reading what I really want made me click ‘order’ on Wordery.com.

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Like the trashiest true crime books, it is small and fat and has a very questionable cover design; but The Stranger Beside Me proved to be an engaging and fascinating book. It is as much about Ann Rule and her experience as it is about her subject, Ted Bundy, and it was a rich and immersive reading experience. Rule was a journalist before she wrote books, and this was her first one, so the style is quite journalistic, which I think worked well. She is methodical in detailing what happened, or what might have happened, and manages to mix the ‘cold hard facts’ of Bundy’s crimes with the emotional aftermath.

Ann Rule was in a unique position when it came to Ted Bundy – she knew him in real life purely by chance, and she was assigned to write about his crimes before anyone knew that he was the one committing them. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are when Rule tries to reconcile the man she knew in the early seventies – young, polite, caring, intelligent – with the man who committed these crimes. He was someone entirely different. In this vein the later updates to the book are fascinating as Rule looks back on the period with hindsight. She states that she was wrong to think Bundy was insane, and that at the time she had a limited understanding of what that meant. The passing of the years has allowed her to learn more about people like him, and for her view of him to expand and develop. She comes to understand that he was not insane, but was a true psychopath.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Stranger Beside Me if you are home alone and it’s dark outside, particularly if you are female. Bundy kidnapped many women in broad daylight, but the most frightening tales of him are those in which he crept into houses late at night and murdered girls in their beds – such as his ‘visit’ to the Chi Omega sorority house in Florida in 1978. These episodes, along with the kidnapping and killing of twelve-year-old Kimberley Leach, really show the most frightening sides of his personality.

Ann Rule writes a certain type of true crime book. Her heyday was the eighties and nineties, so the covers of her books look quite dated, and they do have slightly melodramatic titles – they do not have the reserved and ‘sophisticated’ look of titles such as The Monster of Florence or Columbine. She does not spare details, and she readily includes the emotional side of the story. The fact is she was not an investigative journalist, and they are the people that usually present true crime stories to us these days. Her style is a little dated, but she is a brilliant storyteller and an engaging writer. I am considering reading one or two of her others books (she wrote a lot of them), and I’m glad to have discovered a new genre of writing that I find interesting. True crime isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of it.

*

The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980 by Norton; I read the 2008 edition from Pocket Books (pictured above).

Puchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole

I have read relatively little on feminism and gender since I left university, and so to that end I ordered myself a copy of Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole after seeing positive things about it on Twitter and various other blogs. It’s a very appealing book – written by an academic but not an ‘academic book’, accessible and likeable, and with a sense of humour.

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O’Toole is indeed a very likeable writer and her chatty style engages you straight away. She uses humour and lots of her own personal stories to explain what she is talking about, and most importantly to apply feminist and gender theory to real life. I loved that she wrote about discovering the importance of feminism and the reality of gender inequality as a teenager, and how this made her rethink her own attitudes and actions. She charts the progression of her Halloween costumes as a way to demonstrate how she chose to present herself when given the chance to dress up and be different; after all this is a book about performance. The subtitle is Dressing Up, Playing Parts, and Daring to Act Differently. O’Toole’s choice to do these things, partly through her own life and also through her theatre studies, greatly affected her views on gender and its performativity. And this is the focus of the book: the performative nature of gender, something theorised by Judith Butler.

Emer O’Toole goes into a great discussion about the difference between biological gender and psychological and performative gender. Butler does not deny biological gender but argues that almost everything else about it is performative. While I agree with this to some degree, O’Toole unpacks this a bit more and explains the details of what performative gender really is. This is undoubtedly fascinating, and makes us think a bit more about why we are the way we are. She also discusses Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and a handful of other philosophers and experts on gender and sexuality.

This is all great, but there were times when I wondered if I was really the target audience for this book. It is explicitly aimed at women but I think perhaps it is aimed at a woman who is younger than me (though I’m only 28), less sure of her own opinion on gender and feminism, and who doesn’t know as much of the theory. I’m no expert in gender theory, but the material examined here is base-covering rather than exploratory, and a good deal of it was familiar.

There is also the question of how to apply the theory here. Early in the book I wondered if we were just overloaded with theory and we needed more action in our lives to try and resolve these problems with gender and sexism; but as I progressed through the book O’Toole offered more and more advice about how women can change the way they choose to be women. She discussed choice in great detail and whether we really choose to act and dress as we do or whether this is just ‘conditioned’ throughout our lives. For me, I kept wanting to point out that there is also a question of taste – I realise that liking pink is a thing that little girls are taught, but what if you just happen to like pink? So what? My only problem was my thought that you don’t have to perform gender equality blatantly – surely the most important thing is that you believe in it. In my experience the most effective way of demonstrating that gender inequality exists and is bullshit is to call people out on it in discussions, and enter into a debate. If people are not challenged then they will just carry on as they are.

But the point here for O’Toole is that she personally needed to try on new costumes to figure out her own position, and to explore those of others. I have always been taught that men and women are equal, but Emer O’Toole came from a traditional Catholic household in the Republic of Ireland – she had more to fight against. This coupled with her interest and studies in performance meant that it was very natural for her to experiment with gender performativity. This book is really about Emer O’Toole’s own relationship with her gender and her own adventures in breaking down barriers and fighting sexism, rather than a new manual for feminism.

As I said above I think the ideal reader for Girls Will Be Girls is a young woman, under 25, who perhaps is not so sure about how to deal with the gender inequality and sexism that she encounters. Perhaps she is not so sure of her own self. I would have loved to read this book when I was in my late teens, so I think I would recommend it to that age group. Nonetheless Girls Will Be Girls is a great book that deserves lots of praise and attention, and I would recommend it not only to teenage girls but to boys as well, and anyone particularly interested in experimenting with gender performativity.

*

Published by Orion in 2015.

Purchase from Foyles and Wordery.

In Which I Am So, So Glad I Finally Read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In brief, this is the story of a man who was once a Nazi officer, a story of his war; it is a fictional autobiography of an intellectual thrown into the horror of the Second World War. It is the War from ‘the other side’. But it is so, so much more than that.

Dr Max Aue is an intellectual, a successful businessman; and he used to be a Nazi officer. In his introduction he states that he intends to ‘set the record straight’ and that is why he decides to tell his story, but there may be other reasons in play. At times he is brutally frank about what he saw, or did, or was involved with, and one cannot deny the catharsis of a confession.

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The detail of the historical research in The Kindly Ones is astounding. Jonathan Littell spent five years researching and a year writing, and it shows. The real characters, that we know from history, are well rounded and chime with historical accounts (particularly Himmler and Eichmann). The depth of detail displays the bureaucracy, internal politics, and conflicts within the Nazi party that affect so much of what happens during the War. Once you have read about the grim reality of the victims, it is fascinating to gain this perspective into the Nazi regime. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we learn of the inner workings and day-to-day events that make the Party seem almost like a business or a manufacturer. As Max rises within the Party and is privy to more and more of its inner workings, we see that the suffering of the victims is often viewed as a byproduct of the industry the Nazis create.

Max himself is a Freudian nightmare; self-obsessed, filled with self-loathing, fixated on bodily functions and the intricacies of his family relationships. He relates his dreams, analysing them a little and leaving the rest to us. He in an intellectual dragged into a bloody war between what might be good and what might be evil, and he hates both himself and everyone else around him. He is repulsed by human suffering, but also by his own actions. It is unsurprising when he gets ill or has a mental breakdown (both happen more than once).

I could spend a lot of time and words analysing Max and his own unique brand of crazy. He is a deeply real character, a terrible and brilliant person, and you both hate him and love him, mostly out of pity. I greatly admire Littell for his commitment to his creation.

The Kindly Ones is heavy going, not only for its subject matter and the intensity of Max’s narrative, but also because it is over 900 pages long. But, if you have the interest in the history, as well as the philosophy and psychology (there is a lot of both) then it is well worth the time and effort. Like Max, it is terrible and brilliant, and crazy in its own way. My only real criticism is that it was obviously translated by an American and so there is some American phrasing, which is a bit jarring because Max is European, and I, the reader, am English. But really this is insignificant.

I can’t tell you how wonderful this book is. It is not something to be taken lightly, but it is its own kind of masterpiece.

*

Originally published as Les Bienveillantes in France in 2006 by Editions Gallimard; then in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2010 paperback published by Vintage (pictured above).

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

After you’ve read it I would recommend getting some background on the Wikipedia page (lots of excellent Greek mythology).

 

In Praise Of: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

To me, at least, the psychology of reading for pleasure is interesting – why do we do it? What do we get out of it? Why is pleasurable? Why do we like what we like? Different people will have different answers to these questions.

Generally I know what I like, and I can judge relatively easily whether or not I will like a book before I read it. This mean that I look out for – and avoid – certain things. I’ve never thought of myself as a reader committed to a genre, but I know that I like certain types of books, and I dislike others. There are some types of books I know I’ll never read (chick lit, romance, YA, Martin Amis) and some that I’ve never read but I’m not sure why not (I literally can’t think of any examples except Anna Karenina). And there are some that are on my radar, that I like the look of, but that I’m a bit nervous of reading. The main type/genre that fits this description is sci fi.

I like a lot of sci fi TV shows and movies, I know several people who love sci fi and I love hearing about it from them. So why didn’t I read it for myself? Mostly because I get very easily stuck in a niche when it comes to reading. As I say, I know what I like, and this makes it way too easy to read the same type of book all the time. It’s interesting and stimulating, and often still challenging, but it doesn’t push me outside of my comfort zone.

And so we come to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. This book came to me through social media, and I instantly liked the look of it and the premise. The narrator is essentially an AI who was once a ship and a host of ancillaries (human bodies with the AI implanted in them, all part of the same consciousness), but who is now only one human body, and is on a mission to exact revenge (justice, hence the title) on those that destroyed her.

2014 Orbit paperback edition (image: goodread.com)
2014 Orbit paperback edition (image: goodread.com)

That’s the basic plot, but there are a lot of other factors at play here. Firstly the whole gender thing, which some of you might have read about. The narrator, Breq, is/was part of a people called the Radchaai, who do not differentiate between the genders. As a reader you can see that there are men and women, as we have, but the Radchaai themselves don’t really make this distinction. As an ancillary/ship, Breq is completely unable to identify the gender of other people. Breq uses ‘she’ as the default pronoun in much the same way we use ‘he’ (‘mankind’, for example). The way that Ann Leckie uses this is quite interesting, as it means that we sometimes don’t know the gender of a character until they or someone else mentions it – to Breq they are all ‘she’. I found myself assuming that Breq has a female body at the point when she has only one, and that her ancillaries were female too – but of course there is no way to tell. This ambiguity sets you off on a path of uncertainty and opaqueness that was part of the reason Ancillary Justice was not an easy read for me.

I am not used to reading sci fi, and so I cannot assume that this is a trait of the genre,  but I found Breq’s narration to be simultaneously engaging and cold and distant. She is not human, and does not feel emotions as we do (something highlighted by the emotions of human characters), which I understood, but it meant that her voice was at times a bit flat and monotonous. Sometimes it was a bit this happened, then this, then this. I also found the scenes and scenarios harder to imagine and much harder to connect with – it didn’t feel like a world filled with humans, even though it was. I persevered with this book because despite everything I was fond of Breq, in her many forms, and I wanted to see what happened. I have to admit I did a little skimming in the last third, but then who hasn’t done that, even with a book they liked? Ancillary Justice is very dense, and intense, and so I think that was a factor. Am I glad I read it, that I pushed myself to read something out of my comfort zone?

Yes, I am. I love sci fi in general so much that I have wanted to read something in the genre for a long time, and I’m very happy I did, even if it didn’t totally work out for me. To be honest I’m not sure if I will read the next book in the series, Ancillary Sword, but I do think I will read more sci fi now – I just have to find a book that’s right for me.

I also think that Ancillary Justice would be AMAZING as a movie. I would watch it.

Published by Orbit in October 2013.

Book Riot have also posted about reading outside of your comfort zone. Check it out here.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

These days I can’t help but worry that people won’t always appreciate literature as they should – that everyone will have a Kindle and no one will have any books – that children will only want to read if it’s on a screen – that people will forget the classics and anything that isn’t new or award winning. These are ‘topical’ fears but they aren’t new. Ever since literacy became widespread and part of the life of the everyday person, people have been worrying that literature is not as appreciated as it should be. And yet. Stories are an integral part of almost every society, in some way. Even if people don’t have paper to write on, they tell stories. Tribes in the jungle and in the Arctic, people who can’t even read – we all have stories.

Fairy and folk stories are a huge part of European cultural history (as they are for other parts of the world too). In the same way that the stories of Homer were passed down through oral storytelling, told from memory, folk tales were passed along the generations in Europe, and still are. In the early 1800s two of the Grimm children (there were five in total) decided they wanted to preserve the folk tales of Europe and copy them down into a proper book, and get it published. Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm gathered stories from friends, neighbours, grandparents, anyone that knew some old traditional tales. Their aim, as stated in The Wild Girl, was to preserve their cultural history and pass on the lessons found in these stories. Napoleon was rampaging through Europe at the time, trying to make everyone French whether they liked it or not, and this only furthered the Grimms’ desire to preserve something of their culture.

Allison & Busby 2014 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
Allison & Busby 2014 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The path of Napoleon’s army, its successes and failures, and the exploits of his relatives that he installs as monarchs, are charted throughout The Wild Girl alongside the stories of the characters. The war directly effects them as Napoleon’s brother takes over as king in their part of Germany and promptly reduces the people to paupers as he throws lavish parties and spends the soldiers’ wages on new chandeliers. We see the effects of this behaviour, as well as those of the war in general, on the people through the two families at the centre of the novel: the Grimms and their neighbours the Wilds. Dortchen Wild, one of five children, is the ‘Wild Girl’ of the title. We see everything through her eyes throughout the book, and learn of her love for Wilhelm Grimm and her fear of her increasingly tyrannical and abusive father. She is small and brave, a modern Disney heroine with terrible parents, a benevolent, maternal housekeeper, and an illicit love for a forbidden suitor.

For Wilhelm Grimm has no money, and few prospects. His only income is his and Jakob’s book of stories, which goes through several incarnations as they try to improve it and get someone to publish it. The two families’ struggle seems to get increasingly hard, and there are some rather bleak sections of the book when everything seems to be going wrong. Collecting the fairy and folk tales keeps them going however, and it is fascinating to hear older versions of tales very familiar to us all, as well as the possible ways in which they were shaped and developed. Dortchen and Wilhelm’s relationship develops as she tells him stories, and we get a real sense of how they lead their lives, and how they deal with life’s difficulties. My only real criticism of The Wild Girl is that it occasionally gets too caught up in the fraught nature of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s romantic relationship, and the fact that they cannot be together. In the last third of the book there are chapters and chapters of romantic drama and back-and-forth between the two characters; really it drags on a bit! And then of course this makes the ending and conclusion feel a little too neat and quick after such prolonged romantic anguish.

Other than that I loved The Wild Girl – I loved the concept, the idea, the characters, and the vivid world they live in. Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful job in demonstrating how the stories we know and love came to be in the public consciousness, and how important storytelling is to so many different cultures. As historical fiction it is also excellent, weaving together fact with speculation and examining a sweeping history alongside a close family story. Forsyth’s other novel Bitter Greens (also based around fairy tales) is on my reading list, and I’m sure it will be just as excellent as The Wild Girl.

*

Published in 2014 by Allison & Busby (UK paperback).

Notes: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

Tom-All-Alone’s caused a lot of (positive) fuss when it came out earlier this year, but I don’t really have a good reason for not having read it before now, except that its association with Charles Dickens seemed to be a big selling point and I have honestly never been a fan of Dickens. I know, I know. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I was sent a proof of Lynn Shepherd’s new novel, A Treacheous Likeness. This Victorian mystery focusing on Percy Shelley, as well as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, interested me greatly as I studied the Romantic poets at university and always enjoyed reading about them. Though it is not a sequel to Tom-All-Alone’s, A Treacherous Likeness also stars detective Charles Maddox, and is set directly after the earlier book. Not wanting to miss anything and seizing the opportunity, I read Tom-All-Alone’s straight away.

2012 paperback edition – I love this cover!

Being a big fan of Sarah Waters and having really enjoyed The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams, I knew I would enjoy the Victorian setting and the murder-mystery plot. It was really only the Dickens link that had previously been putting me off, which is ridiculous. Shepherd states in her acknowledgements that Bleak House was a huge inspiration (along with Collins’ The Woman in White), and ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ was an early title for Bleak House, and there are many characters, settings, scenes, events and even chapter titles in Shepherd’s novel that Dickens wrote first. So if you like Dickens, great. If you don’t, off-putting. But luckily, once I actually started the book, I forgot about Dickens. This book is amazing in its own right and Shepherd knows what she’s doing. Every now and then the sheer amount of open-ended information that Charles is gathering in his cases meant that I got a little lost, and the Chadwick case gets a little too sidelined for my taste, but it doesn’t matter really. Likewise Hester’s narrative could have been beefed up a bit more, but once you’re into the last third it all comes together and you’re just glad you still reading.

Tom-All-Alone’s is not for the faint-hearted, and I am still reeling from what I just read, but I loved it. Lynn Shepherd is a clever girl and I cannot wait to get started on A Treacherous Likeness. I might do that now actually…

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Tom-All-Alone’s was published in hardback in February 2012, and in paperback in September 2012, by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Freshta by Petra Prochazkova

2012 paperback edition

I was sent a copy of Freshta from Stork Press, and to be honest, I might not have chosen to read it otherwise. Despite now knowing it’s rather good, I wasn’t instantly drawn in by the words on the back cover:

Welcome to Kabul: one family, countless secrets

When Herra falls in love with Nazir, she has no idea about the life that awaits her in post-Taliban Afghanistan, nor about the extraordinary family she is about to join. But as the cracks begin to show, Herra soon finds she will have to choose a side.

Deeply moving, provocative and funny, Freshta is a universal tale of husbands and wives, lovers and friends, a novel that will transport you into a truly extraordinary world.

That middle paragraph is a bit misleading. At the time of the novel Herra and Nazir have been married for 12 years and she is more than aware of the type of family she is now a member of; but it is only at the time of the novel that ‘the cracks begin to show‘ and things begin to change. Sides form.

Also, it’s not like life in Afghanistan is a topic that hasn’t been covered. While I’m not exactly an expert we have all seen the news reports, we all know how repressive the Taliban were and how life after they were no longer in power wasn’t instantly super duper for everyone. East/West divides and contrasts are always interesting, but with the UK and the US having been at odds with the Middle East for so long, one does wonder if there is anything new left to say (from a non-Middle East point of view) – especially by a writer from the Czech Republic as opposed to downtown Kabul.

Turns out, there is. Prochazkova’s narrator is Herra, a woman with a Russian mother and a Tajik father. Her Afghan husband Nazir is studying in her hometown of Moscow when they meet. They marry and travel around a bit before going to live with his family in Kabul. From this point on, Herra does not look back. She frequently references the fact that she is different, in so many ways, but she does not at any point express a desire to go back to Russia. At times she wonders how her family are, but she doesn’t seem to miss them. After 12 years with Nazir’s family she is completely engrained. She refers to his parents as Mother and Father and to his grandfather as Grandpa. Her family, from everyone’s point of view, no longer matters. They are irrelevant.

To me, it seems, if there is a theme in this book it is that of perspective. Herra understands that from the perspective of her Afghan family, her old life in Russia is irrelevant. Even her time there with Nazir seems like a ‘dream’, not quite real. Another world. Their relationship in Kabul also seems different from the carefree newlyweds that travelled around Russia.

There is also, crucially, our Western perspective of life in Kabul. Herra, as a Russian, almost counts as Western and so, especially since Prochazkova is Czech (closer to Russia than the UK), we are inclined to see her as ‘one of us’ living amongst ‘one of them’. This is not to do with race but with culture and religion, I must stress that. The practicalities (and impracticalities) of wearing a burka are often discussed, as well as the women’s absolute lack of power and the men’s lack of respect for them. They sit (are hidden) in a closet when guests come to the house, released only to serve food. However, the entire family clearly love each other, and Prochazkova is expert at creating scenes of familial chaos with ten things happening at once, and emotions running high.

Petra Prochazkova

With the arrival of Americans who set up a medical centre, and Herra working for them, she does consider what life could be like if she had stayed in Russia or travelled West instead of East. But mostly she pities the ignorance and piousness of the American Heidi who seems to think Afghan women are all miserable, beaten creatures who are desperate for a bikini and a bike ride. Herra grumbles to herself that it isn’t all that bad. Like the other female members of the family, she accepts that this is just what things are like. Right and wrong are not considered – they are entirely subjective concepts.

Perspective is again key: Heidi and Herra see the world in completely different ways. A very interesting scene occurs when Herra’s husband Nazir brings home a video tape (remember those?) that he insists the entire family sit down to watch. As it plays, Herra observes everyone’s reactions. They see a city on the screen, planes flying low, and then a lot of smoke and screaming as the Twin Towers collapse in New York. 9/11 has just happened. The children ask what it was all about and where it was. The adults are unperturbed – ‘the Americans bomb us all the time’ – they are not shocked. Having witnessed plenty of war and explosions and death, they are not only a little jaded but also lack sympathy for the Americans. They do not wish death on them, but they are simply not interested. They have enough to worry about with the British and American soldiers coming in to Afghanistan, and a household to deal with. And that’s it. They carry on with their day. In their world, other things matter.

There is of course the question of why the novel is called Freshta – Freshta is Herra’s sister in law, a cliche of a downtrodden woman, with an abusive, idiotic husband, too many children and not much assertiveness. She is strikingly beautiful, is never happy, and has a storyline of her own that burns slowly throughout the novel, culminating at the end. Just wait for it.

I came away from the book glad that I live the life I lead, that I am not repressed in my own home and that I have a say. I also appreciated the fact that no person – or country – knows best. Right and wrong only exist within ourselves.

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Freshta was published in October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

I will be attending the official launch event for Freshta on 23rd November at the Free Word Centre in London. Click here for more information about the event, which is free.

Grazyna Plebanek and Maggie Gee In Conversation at Belgravia Books

I was lucky enough to receive an advance proof of Grazyna Plebanek’s first novel to be translated into English, Illegal Liaisons, from publisher Stork Press. Stork Press are based in London and publish English editions of work by writers from Central and Eastern Europe: Plebanek is from Poland, and lives in Brussels, and has been very successful in Europe. Now, Stork Press have brought her latest work to the UK. Hopefully more of her work, including her back catalogue, will be translated into English.

2012 paperback cover

I reviewed Illegal Liaisons a couple of weeks ago to a great response from the publisher and author, as well as my readers. Stork Press liked it so much they sent me a gorgeous final copy as soon as they came in, and another of their novels, Freshta by Czech author Petra Prochazkova, which I have just finished reading and will review very soon. Extremely flattered and having really loved Illegal Liaisons, and with lots more I wanted to ask and to know, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to this great little event at independent bookshop Belgravia Books.

Belgravia Books

It is always interesting, whether good or bad, to meet the author of a book you like and to hear them talk about their work. I was fascinated not only by Plebanek’s work but also by the interview she did for the Stork Press blog, in which she talked about her motivations and process for writing Illegal Liaisons, and her thoughts on sexuality, passion, love, and gender. Luckily Maggie Gee asked wonderfully simple but insightful questions, prompting Plebanek to speak frankly about her inspiration and process. She cited Anais Nin as an influence and inspiration when writing about sexuality and relationships between men and women; and sitting with a male friend watching women walk past and asking him to comment on them in order for her to gain some insight into how men see women sexually. There is a lot of sex in this novel, and Plebanek’s narrator is male, so it is not surprising she had to do a little research to form his viewpoint.

No one in this novel is faithful. All relationships seem to be duplicitous and no one seems satisfied with what they have, no matter how great it is. I wondered if there is any belief in love and togetherness in this novel, any hope for a faithful relationship. When asked about the possibility of faithful love, both Plebanek and Gee agreed that the only faithful love in Illegal Liaisons is between parents and children – that is the only relationship that brings any of the characters any real happiness or sense of satisfaction.

Grazyna Plebanek

With everyone being so unfaithful, there is the question of morality. Gee asked Plebanek if she was a moralist, and this lead me to be brave enough to raise my hand and ask if it was intentional that there is no real judgment from the narrator about the behaviour of the characters. Plebanek answered that yes, this was intentional – none of the characters are better or worse than each other, no gender is better or worse. We are all flawed and dishonest sometimes, and we all have the capacity to lie and betray. That said, there is hope for love in this novel, in whatever form it may take.

I was glad that although there was plenty of discussion about sex and relationships, Gee and Plebanek also discussed the politics of the novel. The central group are foreigners living in Brussels, and most of them, like Jonathan’s wife Megi, work for the European Commission, which Gee stated hangs over the group and indeed Brussels like an oppressive force and the only way to progress is to work for it. Jonathan does not. He writes, and looks after the children, and conducts his affair with Andrea, who also does not work for the Commission. They are rebelling, breaking the accepted rules of lifestyle – what they are doing is ‘illegal’ not in the literal sense but in the sense that it is taboo (even though everyone else is screwing around) and not the same as everyone else (they all work for the Commission). Gee stated it was an interesting choice of title for a novel set in the political and strictly law-abiding city of Brussels. It is practically satirical.

Maggie Gee

Some literary events are better than others. The bad ones are a bit quiet and awkward, and only people who already know each other talk. On this occasion, this was not the case. In the small but pleasant space of Belgravia Books, everyone sipped their free wine (thank you Polish Cultural Institute!) and talked freely. I was lucky enough to talk to Maggie Gee (I even bought her memoir, My Animal Life), and Grazyna Plebanek, and they both remembered my review and signed my books for me. A very interesting and successful evening in a lovely venue. Read this book!

My signed copy of Illegal Liaisons!
And Maggie Gee signed my copy of My Animal Life!

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Illegal Liaisons was published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

My Animal Life was published in July 2011 by Telegram Books.

You can see pictures from this event on Stork Press’s Facebook page here.