Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Seeing Red begins with a brutal, violent incident that happens at a house party the narrator, Lucina/Lina, is attending with her partner:

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most gorgeous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her other eye begins to fill with blood soon after and by three a.m. ‘even the most powerful magnifying glass wouldn’t have helped me’. The only compensation is that the following morning Lucina finds the blood in her left eye has sunk to the bottom leaving a slither of light.

In simple terms, what follows is the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her. Of course, the changes that will be wrought in her life are anything other than simple.

The ophthalmologist tells her that she’s ineligible for an experimental transplant and all that can be done for now is ‘to just keep an eye on it’. If the worst happens, he concludes ‘we would have to see’. Lucina is furious.

We follow Lucina as she begins to negotiate her terrain by learning to count the number of steps between places, by attempting to rely on her other senses which sometimes fail her, by having to rely on her partner, Ignacio.

Some of the chapters are bracketed and written directly to Ignacio, detailing the way in which their relationship is changing:

And you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened. You couldn’t calculate the gravity. You couldn’t bring yourself to ask the questions. You balled them up and stuffed them, like now, in your pockets.

Meruane explores the impact of forced dependency on an independent, ambitious woman. Lucina progresses from telling Ignacio, ‘I am only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambitious in the trade’ to telling her mother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I have to learn how to be blind. You’re not helping’. These two relationships, with her partner and her mother, are the key ones in her life and, almost inevitably, the ones which take most of the strain. As the book progresses, Lucina becomes angrier and the narrative more violent.

The tension that builds throughout the novel is aided by the short, flash fiction style chapters and the intensity of Meruane’s use of language and grammar, superbly translated by McDowell. Sentences are short and spiky, they cut off before they are finished. Words are picked up and played with, repetition and association are used to brilliant effect.

Seeing Red is a taut, brutal, horrifying novel. Fierce and unmissable.

I spoke to Lina Meruane about autobiographical writing, family relationships and women in translation.

My review of Hot Milk is here.

Books mentioned:

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Amazon

Waterstones

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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Waterstones

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Amazon

Waterstones

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Amazon 

Waterstones

Thanks to Lina Meruane and Kirsty Doole for the interview and to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

The Core of the Sun – Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Lola Rogers)

Finland, 2016.

I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underwear, and push my index finger in to test the sample.

The seller’s eyes go wide. The maple tree’s branches and sparse leaves splash shadows over his face, the whites of his eyes flash, and I can see his Adam’s apple as he swallows.

Vanna/Vera is a chilli addict, a banned substance which she buys from dealers who advertise using a covert system of keywords and pictures.

As well as including chillis on their banned substances list, Finnish society has divided women into two groups: Elois and Morlocks, terms taken from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Elois or femiwomen are allowed to reproduce. There are dedicated ‘to the overall advancement of the male sex’. Morlocks or neuterwomen are excluded from reproducing and made to do routine work tasks. These are intelligent women who might disrupt the status quo; they are supressed by sterilisation and drudgery.

Vanna/Vera is an unusual woman; thanks to her quick-thinking grandmother, she is a Morlock disguised as an Eloi. Vanna is her Eloi name – all Eloi names end in ‘na’ – but she maintains her original name in the hope that one day she’ll be able to use it again. She has a boyfriend, Jare, in name only. Essentially, he protects her identity and ensures that she sources enough chilli for her needs. Her need for chilli is linked to Vanna/Vera’s other desire: to find her sister, Manna. Manna’s been missing for some time, having disappeared from her and Vanna/Vera’s childhood home where Manna was living with her husband, Harri. Despite there being a grave for Manna, Vanna/Vera’s convinced she’s still alive and is determined to find her. However, dealing with her disappearance often leads Vanna/Vera to what she terms ‘the cellar’:

The door to the cellar is in the back of my head.

Sometimes the door to the Cellar is made of solid steel with clunking metal bolts and rusty, creaking hinges – heavy. Sometimes it’s made of rotten wood, sometimes gauze that flutters in the wind. Sometimes there’s no door at all, and the ice-cold wind blows out of it.

[…]

At the bottom of the Cellar, dark, ominous water splashes. It seeps out of openings the size of molecules through walls sealed with nuclear fire. I can bear the black wind, the merciless mist, but when the deep water starts to lap at the threshold of the Cellar and threatens to flood the rooms in my head, I know how close I am to drowning.

During the first half of the novel, Vanna/Vera writes to Manna, recounting moments from their childhood and revealing to the reader the depth of their grandmother’s deception. It also details how Jare came into Vanna/Vera’s life and the problems this caused them. As a device, this could grate but Sinisalo uses it as a way for Vanna/Vera to work up to and through the reasons her sister might have disappeared. The letters are never intended to be sent. Sinisalo also interweaves definitions, a re-written fairytale and extracts into the text in order to world build while keeping the focus on Vanna/Vera and the chase for chilli.

In the second half of the book, the chase becomes more significant as Jare meets a group of Gaians who are farming fresh chilli and are on a quest which might offer both Jare and Vanna/Vera a means of escape.

The Core of the Sun is an engaging tale of two female siblings divided by a patriarchal society and a quest for the ultimate high. The Handmaid’s Tale meets Breaking Bad.

Thanks to Grove Press for the review copy.

 

 

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.

In this epistolary novella, Lyu, a young revolutionary, takes a position as a bodyguard/secretary at the house of Yegor, the governor of the state university in St. Petersburg. Yegor and his family – his wife, Lusinya, and three children, Velya, Katya and Jessika – are staying at the family’s summer residence. The governor has made the decision to close the university following student unrest and a death threat.

We learn from the outset that hiring Lyu was a mistake. He writes to his friend, Konstantin:

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary.

His opinion isn’t quite founded on reality, however. Velya, the son, writes to his cousin, Peter:

I feel he wants more and is capable of more than other people. I suspect his views are no less revolutionary than our own, but so far he has given nothing away about himself in discussion.

Over the summer, several letters are sent between Lyu and Konstantin as well as numerous members of the family – Velya and Katya write to their cousin, Peter, while Jessika and her mother write to Tatyana, Peter’s mother. The letters build a picture of life in the family home. Lyu tries to move the family into a new era through encouraging them to buy a car, a typewriter and listen to Wagner. Katya and Jessika fall in love with Lyu, albeit briefly in Katya’s case, and Lusinya worries about Yegor.

Early in the book, Lyu decides to enter Lusinya and Yegor’s room at night. He is contemplating murdering the governor in his sleep and wants to see how far he can get into the room without being discovered. He is barely over the threshold before Lusinya is awake. She writes to Tatyana:

The fact that all of a sudden there’s a man standing in our room at night, whether because he’s sleepwalking or for any other reason, isn’t alarming to me, but I do find it most sinister. I cannot sleep anymore, because I’m always thinking that he’ll be standing there at any moment, looking at me with his strange grey eyes which seem to penetrate everything.

Lusinya’s worries are tolerated but no one seems to take them seriously. Later, Katya also expresses concerns at Lyu’s behaviour but is dismissed by her brother. There is a clear thread of women’s worries and opinions being ignored while we, from our omniscient position, can only watch the tension build and wonder whether Lyu’s plan will succeed.

The Last Summer is a gripping novella which sets family tensions against a backdrop of a changing era. Although first published in 1910, the translation allows it to feel modern and relevant. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.

 You can buy The Last Summer from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

 

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.

So begins Waking Lions, Gundar-Goshen’s challenging, morality-questioning second novel.

 

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Driving the SUV is Doctor Eitan Green. He’s just finished a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits the man.

He looked at the Eritrean again. Blood flowed from his head, staining his collar. If he was lucky, the judge would give him only a few months. But he wouldn’t be able to do surgery anymore. That was for certain. No one would hire a doctor convicted of manslaughter. And then there was the media and Yaheli and Itamar and Liat and his mother and the people he happened to meet on the street.

And the Eritrean kept bleeding as if he were doing it deliberately.

Suddenly he knew he had to go. Now. He couldn’t save the man. At least he’d try to save himself.

However, it’s not going to be as simple as that, of course. Firstly, there’s the problem of the dead man’s wife arriving at his door the following morning, Eitan’s wallet in her hand. Secondly, there’s the police investigation to which Liat Green is assigned; yes, Eitan’s wife is a senior detective in the Israeli police, determined to prove to the misogynists she works with that she’s highly capable. Finally, there’s the deal that Sirkit, the Eritrean’s wife wants from Eitan. It’s a deal that will have serious consequences at work and at home.

To say much more would spoil the novel for the first-time reader, I think. It’s a powerful enough book that it still works if you know the deal Sirkit asks for but I enjoyed discovering it myself and following the consequences of it through to the end.

If you’ve read Gundar-Goshen’s debut, One Night, Markovitch, you’ll find Waking Lions a very different beast (pardon the pun). The setting, the style, the pace are much altered but perfectly woven to create a tense, almost cinematic psychological thriller.

There’s a point in the second half of the novel when the narrator says this about Sirkit:

That one battered Eritrean had called her an angel and one grief-stricken Bedouin had called her a devil, and that both of them were wrong, had to be wrong. Because neither angels nor devils existed. Of that Eitan was convinced. People existed. The woman lying on the mattress only a few meters from him, that woman was a person. She slept. She ate. She urinated. She defecated.

It sums up Gundar-Goshen’s characters; they’re three-dimensional, thinking humans who make mistakes; who are both good and bad in different circumstances. By making the protagonist a doctor married to a detective, she questions our expectations of people. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What punishment do they deserve and is it always delivered?

Waking Lions isn’t an easy novel to read. There’s no sugar-coating of the effects of Eitan’s deception and it’s all the better for it. This is a sharp, thoughtful, challenging novel. It marks Ayelet Gundar-Goshen out as a very talented writer indeed.

If you like the sound of Waking Lions or One Night, Markovitch come back tomorrow when I have an interview with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen about her work.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The Bound Man and Other Stories – Ilse Aichinger (translated by Eric Mosbacher)

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Only the most beautiful girl in each country was allowed to enter. One of them failed to appear because her aircraft crashed on the way. Perhaps she might have turned out to be the winner, but the dead were not eligible because, apart from anything else, immediately after death they are generally more beautiful than the living.

Judging by Ilse Aichinger’s preoccupation with death, contained in the ten stories which make up The Bound Man and Other Stories, that statement might well be her own opinion. It pervades every tale, whether it is being visited upon someone or being evaded.

Those that deal most overtly with death include ‘The Advertisement’ in which a ‘billsticker’ (someone who pastes advertisements on hoardings) tells himself ‘You’re not going to die’ as he plasters the poster above a railway line. As he says the phrase, he’s unaware that the boy in the picture can hear him, which leads to the child to ponder what the words mean.

‘Angel in the Night’ sees a girl attempting to stay awake to see the angels her fifteen-year-old sister says visit her. If only she didn’t sleep too long and miss ‘the silver in the air’ on those ‘bright days in December so penetrated with their own brightness that they become brighter still’.

While ‘Story in a Mirror’ is a life told backwards from funeral to birth, which if told in that sense, is also a death, and ‘Ghosts on the Lake’ and ‘Speech Under the Gallows’ are exactly what you might expect from the titles.

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What’s most interesting about Aichinger’s work, however, is her ability to switch perspective and show us, and her characters, a different view of the world.

In the title story, a man wakes outside to find himself robbed of his knife, money and coat. Not only that, he’s been left bound.

His legs were tied all the way up to his thighs; a single length of rope was tied around his ankles, criss-crossed all the way up his legs, and encircled his hips, his chest and his arms. He could not see where it was knotted.[…]he thought he was unable to move until he discovered that the rope allowed his legs some free play, and that round his body it was almost loose. His arms were tied to each other but not to his body, and had some free play too.

We never discover who the man is, where he’s come from and why no one comes looking for him. Instead we follow him to the circus he discovers at the edge of the field he’s in and then on, through his time as a performer and the consequences that restriction brings for him.

In fact, few of our characters have a given name. Those who are identified are usually given a title, such as ‘The Private Tutor’ in the story of the same name. One in which the danger the parents fear for their son by leaving him home alone waiting for his tutor is not the one that is realised. And also in one of my favourites from the collection, ‘The Opened Order’, in which a soldier and ‘the driver’ deliver a message from headquarters to troops in the field which states the soldier carrying the message is to die.

The Bound Man was first published in 1953 and translated into English in 1955. Copy Press have republished it as part of their Common Intellectual series. ‘A series of 100-page paperbacks, each title providing a proposition for living, thinking and enjoyment.’ Aichinger’s work doesn’t read as though it’s over 60 years old. Indeed, I checked the date of the translation as I was wondering whether it was more recent. It’s not only the vocabulary choices and the sentence structures, it’s also Aichinger’s themes and ideas. Death is universal, of course, but she also looks at outsiders, questioning views of beauty and mental health. This is an interesting, engaging collection which asks you to view the world a little differently.

 

Thanks to Copy Press for the review copy.

Baba Dunja’s Last Love – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

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When the reactor happened, I counted myself among those who got off lightly. My children were safe, my husband wasn’t going to live much longer anyway, and my flesh was already toughened. And anyway, I was prepared to die. My work had taught me always to keep that possibility in mind so as never to be surprised.

Baba Dunja lives in Tschernowo, Ukraine. The last to leave when the reactor exploded and first to return when she decided she wanted to go home. She grows her own fruit and vegetables and cooks fresh food every day.

She’s no longer the only resident: there’s a small community now, including Marja, who lives next door but is struggling with the quiet; cancer-ridden, Petrow, and the Gavrilows, educated, middle-class snobs. It soon becomes clear though that the residents look to Baba Djuna as a default leader. She’s tough, outspoken and capable of looking after them all, regardless of her age.

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But Baba Djuna sacrificed something when she returned to Tschernowo, ignoring her daughter, Irina’s pleas:

There was one thing we didn’t talk about. When something is particularly important, you don’t talk about it. Irina has a daughter, and I have a granddaughter, who goes by the very pretty name of Laura. No girls are named Laura around here, only my granddaughter who I have never seen. When I went back to the village, Laura had just turned one. When I went back home, I knew I would never see her.

When a stranger arrives in Tschernowo, a change takes place that has an enormous effect on the villagers, and particularly Baba Djuna. Shortly afterwards she begins to write to Irina.

Baba Djuna’s a great character. She gets on with the life she’s chosen with a sense of purpose and a dollop of humour. She has progressive views for someone of her generation too, suggesting that she shouldn’t have got married, she should have just raised her children alone and that she’s glad she never had the burden of beauty. She also had a job as a nurse before the disaster. It was a joy to read a book with an old female protagonist and particularly one who had plenty of spark.

Baba Djuna’s Last Love is the second book I’ve read by Alina Bronsky and she’s fast becoming a favourite of mine. She’s not afraid to write protagonists who are sharp in more ways than one, nor is she afraid to tackle difficult subjects. Baba Djuna’s Last Love packs a punch in what’s a very short space. This is a novella worth looking out for and a good introduction to Bronsky’s work if you’re yet to discover this brilliant writer.

 

 

Thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

The Looking Glass Sisters – Gøhril Gabrielsen (translated by John Irons)

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The books, the scribblings, under the bed in my own room: I would like to have written down what I think and experience, but perhaps writing is precisely what I’m doing? A narrative about two seedy sisters and their determined struggle for a life, but also about all of us who have lapsed into laziness and fantasizing, hidden away in a room closer to the sky than the earth?

An unnamed woman lies in the attic of the house she shares with her sister. Outside her sister, Ragna, and her husband, Johan, dig a hole and heave a load into it. Or so the narrator tells us. She can’t see what’s happening outside as she is partially paralysed from the middle of her back down and weak from lack of food and drink.

She tells the story of the year leading to her incarceration in the attic. A year in which she says Ragna attempted to have her put in a nursing home. The narrator’s been partially paralysed since she fell ill before her fourth birthday. Their parents died when she was twenty-four and Ragna was nineteen. Ragna’s been her carer for the past twenty-nine years in an isolated house. Things have changed lately though, since Johan came to live next door and became a frequent visitor.

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The narrator is demanding of her sister, expecting her to be continually at her beck and call. She tells us of all the neglectful things Ragna does, like going to the toilet when she wants to go in there, making her wait for breakfast and not fetching her more library books from the village. It’s difficult to tell how reliable the narrator is, particularly when she makes statements like the one I opened the review with and this one:

Words. They can still make me feel dizzy […] But when I cautiously started to change their order in a sentence the dizziness became an obsession. I experienced falling into the deepest well or abyss just by moving a subject, an object, a verb around and changing one or two small words here and there:

My sister and I live on our own, the way to the man in the next house seems slippery and muddy.

Our man slippery and muddy lives in my sister’s house, I’m in the way, on my own it seems.

It’s clear that the narrator can’t see many of the things she claims are happening in the house, she makes assumptions on the noises she hears and her interpretation of potential events.

She is also fascinated with her sister’s sexuality. When Ragna’s in the village one day, the narrator looks through her things and finds a box containing red underwear and red lipstick. She pulls the bra and pants on over her clothes, then smears the lipstick on her lips.

Supported by my crutches and wearing Ragna’s bra and panties, I move from room to room to flaunt myself. […] I open the front door so as to be gaped at by birds, heather and moor, I display myself to the lavatory, to all the things in my bedroom and hers. Gradually, I make her red secret pale, dull and my own – something Ragna doesn’t know. And in this way there is a balance in the shift of power in the space of just a few hours. I know everything about her little fairy tale, and she knows nothing about mine.

The narrator’s envious of Ragna’s freedom and fearful of a future which might see them separated:

I can’t think of anything apart from my relationship with Ragna. It’s always Ragna, little Ragna, big Ragna, difficult Ragna.

The beauty of The Looking Glass Sisters is it’s impossible to know what the truth is. There are plenty of suggestions that the narrator’s unreliable, but to what extent? Is she capable of doing the things she says she does? Is she really locked in the attic? Is the load that her sister and Johan bury at the beginning her body? Why does the title allude to an alternate world or perhaps an alternate sister? Are they two-halves of the same person?

If you like your books with enough ambiguity to leave you puzzling out what you think happened then The Looking Glass Sisters is one for you. It’s an intriguing, skilfully woven tale of two-sisters trapped in a life with each other.

 

 

Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.

Cry, Mother Spain – Lydie Salvayre (translated by Ben Faccini)

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Spain, 1936. As writer, Georges Bernanos, witnesses the events he would later describe in his book Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, José Arjona returns from Lérida with thoughts of revolution that will change his and, Montse, his fifteen-year-old sister’s lives.

The novel is narrated by Montse’s daughter. Now ninety, Montse has dementia…

Yet her memories of the summer of 1936, when the unimaginable took place, are still intact. It was a time, she says, when she discovered life – without doubt the only adventure of her existence.

She recalls that year, telling the tale through her daughter in the trans-Pyrenean language she’s spoken since she ended up in a village in the south-west of France seventy-five years earlier.

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Her story begins with a visit to the house of Jaime Burgos Obregón who’s looking to employ a new maid.

He studied my mother from head to toe, and stated with an air of assurance that my mother has never forgotten: She seems quite humble. My grandmother thanked him as if he were congratulating her, But that comment, my mother says, throws me into turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years. It makes me understand the meaning of the words my brother José had just bought back from the Anarchist communes around Lérida. So when we are in the street again, I start to shriek, to griter: “She seems quite humble”! Do you realise what he meant?…What don Jaime means – I was really boiling, my darling, ma chérie, I was boiling with rage – is that I will make a good maid, sweet and thick, and obedient with it. It means I will accept doña Sol’s orders without flinching, that I will clean up her shit without protest. It means I seem to have all the qualities of an idiot, and I won’t balk at anything, I won’t cause any sort of moleste to anyone. It means don Jaime will pay me, how do you say it? clopinettes, peanuts, and I’ll have to say muchísimas gracias with my sweet, grateful, humble face.

I’ve quoted at length because I wanted to show what an absolute firecracker Montse is (though she’d undoubtedly hate that term too!). She’s a fantastic character who spends the first section of the book watching events around her and then, inspired by the young men in the village, going off to have her own big adventure.

The day after Montse’s job interview, war breaks out. In their village, José has returned having learned the words Revolución! Comunidad! Libertad! He dreams of crushing the Nationalists and an equal future for all. At a general assembly in the town hall, José and his childhood friend Juan call for the creation of a commune. Their desires are modified by Diego, adopted son of don Jaime, who’s refusing to accept his birthright and has joined the Communist Party. Initially, the villagers ignore Diego, but as the days pass and they have time to consider the consequences a further meeting is called. This time the villagers, including José and Montse’s father, support Diego.

When José tells Montse he’s leaving, she goes with him, heading for Barcelona and freedom. Or so she thinks.

Interspersed with Montse’s recommendations are comments from her daughter as to what Bernanos was doing at this time. Where he’d travelled to and what atrocities he’d uncovered, including the corruption within the church. It leads her to comment:

I’m starting to see the weight of tragedy carried by the word “national”, and how every time it has been bandied about in the past, regardless of the cause (Ligue de la nation française, Révolution nationale, National Union of the People, National Fascist Party, etc.) it has inevitably brought violence with it, in France and elsewhere. History is awash with appalling examples.

A quick look at the world today tells you that it’s not just history that contains all the examples.

I absolutely loved Cry, Mother Spain. It’s a superb coming-of-age tale for its protagonist and the young men in the village, with a backdrop of a civil war which will change everyone’s lives. Montse’s a fabulous character; I would happily have spent more time with her.

Credit must also go to Ben Faccini whose translation fizzes. There are wonderful moments where he maintains the sense of Montse’s trans-Pyrenean language by not translating every word or by repeating it in English after the original. It was an utter joy to read.

 

Thanks to MacLehose for the review copy.

The Defenceless – Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

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Vilho Karppinen can’t sleep because of the music in the flat below. Feeling old and doddery, he goes downstairs to ask the young men to turn it down. In the stairwell, one of them grabs him by his nightshirt and drags him into the flat. After an exchange of words, Vilho turns to leave:

Just then a wave of dizziness over came him and his legs buckled beneath him. Vilho grabbed the first lad for support. The boy bellowed angrily and clocked him in the face with his fist. Vilho fell to the floor, knocking his head on the edge of the table. Blood gushed on the stinking living-room rug, forming a pool between an empty syringe and a can of beer.

The following morning when Senior Constable Anna Fekete arrives at work, she’s given the task of interviewing a woman who hit an old man with her car the following evening. The woman is Hungarian, as is Anna.

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More crimes are revealed as a bloodied knife is found by two school girls sneaking a cigarette in the woods behind their houses, and members of the Danish-Swedish street gang The Black Cobras, begin to infiltrate the city along with their drug trade.

Then there’s the case of Sammy, the other young man in the flat on the night Vilho Karppinen hit his head. Sammy came to Finland from Pakistan hidden in a truck. He applied for asylum, tried to quit heroin and waited for a verdict. When he received notice of his deportation, he moved on to the streets and discovered the heroin substitute Subutex.

Sammy started to feel that the only sensible option would be to go straight to the Hazileklek pizzeria the following day and explain it all to Farzad and Maalik, the whole sorry story from start to finish, the drugs, everything. He hadn’t the courage to tell the pizzeria owners about the refusal of his asylum application, though they were the only people with whom he had something resembling a normal contact. He didn’t want to cause them any trouble. He already felt ashamed of himself in their presence, unable to trust them. Sammy was convinced he would never be able to trust anyone on earth ever again. And yet, by himself, it was impossible to survive. He desperately needed help. He needed food and sleep. He needed to be at peace in his soul. He needed money; he needed Subutex.

Things with Sammy are complicated by the fact that the pizzeria owners who are so kind to him are also friends of Anna Fekete.

In traditional cop style, Anna’s life is also complicated: her brother is an alcoholic and it’s her who checks on him to ensure he’s okay; she also sleeps with her former friend’s husband sporadically. Work isn’t made any easier for her by her colleague, Esko Niemi, who is racist, sexist, unhealthy, an alcoholic and miserable. He veers from determination to show the young police officers how it’s done, hoping to capture members of The Black Cobras, to imagining a different life for himself.

The Defenceless has all the ingredients of a good, socially motivated, crime novel: two complex detectives; a diverse cast of characters including three elderly people, an asylum seeker, gang members and their relatives, and a number of seemingly disparate strands that are nicely weaved together by Hiekkapelto.

There are two small things I didn’t like, however. The first was, I think, an issue with the translation of some of the dialogue which meant that it felt very stilted in places. The second was with the character of Esko. I usually have a high tolerance for language used in novels but even I blanched at the racist names Esko’s character chose to use. I’ve no doubt police officers like Esko exist but his language was unpalatable and only vaguely challenged within the book.

Overall though, I found The Defenceless an interesting and engaging take on a changing society.

 

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

 

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.