One Hundred Shadows – Hwang Jungeun (translated by Jung Yewon)

I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path there, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.

Hwang Jungeun’s novella One Hundred Shadows has a fairytale quality to it, one of shadows that rise up, woods, darkness and lovers. Walking in the woods with our narrator, Eungyo, is a young man, Mujae. It is he who stops her following the shadow deeper into the woods, into the darkness. As they try to find their way out, sodden from the rain, Mujae tells Eungyo a story about a shadow.

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The story concerns Mujae’s father and the day his shadow rose. He followed it a little way and then confessed to Mujae’s mother. Mujae’s mother makes his father promise not to follow it again, but the fact he grows thinner and dies leads Mujae to believe his father did follow his shadow:

If you spot someone who looks just like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once its risen.

Tied up with Mujae’s story is the fact of his parents getting into debt looking after him and his six older sisters. When he describes getting into debt as ‘inevitable’, Eungyo challenges him. He responds:

I don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. This might sound a little harsh, but I think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without any industrial products.[…]A lot of things can happen in the manufacturing process, can’t they, when it’s the kind of mass production that uses all sorts of materials and chemicals? Rivers could get polluted, the payment for the labour could be too low. What I’m saying is, even if you buy so much as a cheap pair of socks, that low price is only possible because a debt is incurred somewhere along the line.

Eungyo works at an electronics market, manning the customer services desk and running errands for Mr. Yeo’s repair shop. Mujae’s an apprentice at a transformer workshop. This is where the three elements of the story coincide: Eungyo and Mujae’s growing relationship; knowledge about the shadows, and the idea of debt linked particularly with progress in manufacturing.

In her introduction to the book, Han Kang says:

This is a world in which those living on the edges of society, at the very bottom of the social scale, are being brought to the limits of what they can endure.

As Eungyo and Mujae’s place of work is threatened, their very selves – and those around them – are threatened by the rising of their shadows. Jungeun asks whether love can survive in a place overtaken by such darkness.

One Hundred Shadows is smoothly translated into English by Jung Yewon, leading the reader alongside the lovers as they navigate a landscape both familiar and utterly alien. It’s a short, unusual and compelling tale.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy.

We and Me – Saskia de Coster (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier) + Q&A

It’s one thing to suffer the disintegration of a family that had never been perfect but is at least surviving in the midst of all the new family-type constructions. It’s something else to hang out your family’s dirty laundry. This is something Mieke’s father drilled into her. Even though she finds family life so suffocating at times that she can barely catch her breath. It makes her feel like a fish that has fallen out of its aquarium and is flapping its gills in misery. Everyone thinks it’s applauding but actually it’s choking to death. […] somehow she’ll keep applauding no matter what the circumstances. She’ll keep her façade intact until the end of her days.

The Vandersanden family – Stefaan, Mieke and Sarah – live on a private estate in the mountains. It is 1980 when de Coster’s omniscient narrator guides us up the mountain, apprising us of the history of the residents and their social conventions. We land at the house on the day Sarah is born.

Stefaan, her father, is a manager at a large pharmaceutical firm. He had to abandon his dreams, at 28, of opening his own laboratory when a rival company threatened legal proceedings that would wipe him out before he began. Now, at 40, he thinks he’s reached the pinnacle of life:

He has finally been granted the title of father.

He has always told himself that he must not rest until he has reached that rarefied, precarious point: the top. It’s not everyone who makes up their mind one day to assume a leadership position, but such people do exist. These are people who don’t take orders from others but deal them out themselves. Arms crossed, shouting defiantly at the world: come on, I dare you.

There’s a problem with being at the top though…

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Mieke met Stefaan at the notary’s office where she worked. Her inherited wealth and his work means that with the birth of their first child, she is to be a stay at home mum. There will be no nanny. Mieke had considered an abortion but as the years progress, Mieke’s family – including her rebellious brother who wanders in and out of their life as he please – become all she has. She doesn’t know who she is, she doesn’t recognise the man she’s married to, and she has a daughter who rebels against her.

We follow the family through to 2013 as Mieke’s attempts at keeping up appearances fail and the cracks become chasms.

The narrative voice moves between members of the family, giving alternative perspectives into people’s behaviour and an insight into each character’s psyche. It was interesting to see a European female writer take on what’s traditionally been seen as the bastion of the great white American men and provide a different take on the middle class family.

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I’m delighted to welcome Saskia de Coster to the blog to discuss the novel further.

We and Me, despite being mostly set in Belgium, seems to me very much in the tradition of  ‘The Great American Novel’: a family at the centre, an extended timespan, a backdrop of key events and some universal questions about humanity. Were you thinking about these things as you wrote the book and if not, where did your inspiration come from?

The spark for this novel came when I noticed I had started to repeat some of my mother’s favourite sayings.. Although we are very different people and I rebelled against my upper class upbringing , I had wanted to write the story of my youth for a long time, not as a form of cheap therapy but because I can see how life in the upper classes, where We and Me is set, is emblematic of life in Western Europe: characters filled with fear struggle to survive, even though they live a seemingly very comfortable life in a perfect setting where luxury is the norm. Neighbours in these posh neighbourhoods like to keep a close watch on each other as showing off is a big part of their lives. Inside their homes and behind the facade, family members look for their own chance to be free, on their own, not as a family: the father has his hobby shed, the mother has a neurotic obsession with combing her carpets and Sarah, the daughter, flees to her grunge band The Lady Dies (named after Lady Di – We and Me is set between 1980 and 2013).

There seems to be a pre-occupation in the publishing industry as to how likeable and engaging protagonists are. None of your key characters are particularly likeable; did it worry you how readers might react to them?

To me, that is one of the main challenges a writer should set herself: to not just bring to the fore obvious, likeable protagonists and let the reader develop some kind of very self-evident relationship with them, but to carve out the characters over the course of the novel and the years in the narrated time, so that they have more depth. On first sight, the mother Mieke is a completely horrible, neurotic, uptight and stuck-up woman, but throughout the novel, she’s actually the person with the most inner strength and a kind of admittedly tough love. Mieke is the one who develops a certain strength under very dramatic circumstances. Writing in her logic made me understand the logic and reasonings of my own mother and women like her much better.

The novel is a multi-narrative moving mostly between three key characters; did writing from different perspectives provide any particular challenges?

Yes challenges and opportunities. There is not one way of seeing things – e.g. while Stefaan digresses more and more and falls into a deep depression, even though he’s a hot shot at work, his wife Mieke starts to enjoy life more and breaks free without noticing the changes in his behaviour. One can argue she, from her point of view, does everything she can to make Stefaan’s life better but he sees it completely differently, from his side.

We and Me is translated into English by Nancy Forest-Flier; did you work closely with her on the translation? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?

A translation is like a second life for a book:  It becomes different with the words being changed into another language but the core is still the same somehow. Nancy Forest-Flier did an excellent job on the translation and improved the book, as only really outstanding translators can do.  She also noticed some inconsistencies including a mistake in a scene between two subway stations in New York (it seemed as if they were only 500 meters apart).

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

Well, my all time favourite is (of course) the genius Virginia Woolf. However nowadays, a great many strong female authors have emerged, to name but a few of my favourites: Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Jennifer Egan, Ali Smith (all of them not so new), Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Valeria Luiselli, …

Thanks to Saskia de Coster for the interview and to World Editions for the review copy.

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.

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.

 

Panty – Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha)

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So, ultimately, she – who had no name, no identity, no family, no city or village, no property or assets – had still retained a religion.

A woman arrives at an apartment at eleven o’clock at night. She lets herself in only to discover that none of the lights work. She showers and lies on the bed. The next day, the man who owns the flat calls twice.

The phone rang again. It was him. ‘Should I call your friend and tell her you’ve settled down?’

‘Please, no. There’s no need to tell her anything. I…I want to be lost to everyone forever. Just tell her I’ve arrived.’

He tells her she can stay as long as she likes.

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The following day, the woman unpacks her few belongings. When she looks in the wardrobe she finds a pair of crumpled leopard print knickers. She examines them, discovers a white, mouldy stain inside them and then, feeling that they offer a presence in the flat, throws them back inside the wardrobe.

After meeting a man later that evening, she’s lying in bed when she realises her period has started. Not having a second pair of knickers with her, she decides to wear the leopard print ones, thinking that the sanitary towel will provide a layer between her skin and the mouldy stain on the knickers.

I slipped into the panty.

What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.

I stepped into her womanhood.

Her sexuality, her love.

I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.[…]Although I do not admit that I fell asleep, it is undeniable that I was woken by a series of sounds in the room.

They were making out. Kissing. Fucking wildly. They were panting, but could not stop. Hours seemed to pass this way. They remained engaged in their sex – till I passed out.

I had not understood them that first night. I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were on the wall.

The couple appear on the days she wears the leopard print knickers.

Panty is a fragmented tale of a woman unsure of her own identity. The chapters – which run in a seemingly random order (29, 15, 11…) – build a picture of a mother, a lover, a writer, an escapee but it’s impossible to pin down a true sense of this woman. She’s also waiting for surgery, for what we’re never told, but this adds to the sense of a shifting identity.

This is a bold book both in terms of the content, which caused a furore in the world of Bengali literature, and the enigmatic style and structure. I’m sure there are readers that would find this book infuriating but if you prefer your literature to be elusive, challenging and require some work to decipher what the writer’s intensions might be then Panty is a great and fascinating book.

 

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press for the review copy.

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.