‘We look for the wrong things in the right places’ [book review]

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated by Clarissa Botsford

‘I get lost all the time / But I always know which way / the sea lies’. So reads one of the miniature poems scattered throughout the pages of Thirsty Sea, the restless, visceral and compulsively playful debut novel by Erica Mou. The Italian singer-songwriter’s foray into fiction is also a first for her publisher, Héloïse Press, a new Canterbury-based indie set up to focus on women in translation. Leading a list of four titles slated for publication in 2022, Thirsty Sea, in Clarissa Botsford’s superb translation, is a highly inventive and deeply compelling work that concerns itself with big contemporary issues yet never loses sight of the pleasure to be found in simply reading quality literature.

Cover image Thirsty Sea

The poem quoted above, whose title is ‘Beeline’, is typical of the fragmentary lines that conclude each section of Mou’s novel – written, we assume, by her narrator, Maria, who is obsessed with the many layers of meaning inherent in compound words. Though they may at first seem dashed off – even their placement in the text, aligned right, makes them appear more like margin notes – we soon begin to sense an uncanny echo not only between the poems and their titles, but between each verse and the section we have just finished. Oblique and fleeting, almost felt rather than read, they are just one part of Mou’s intense linguistic creativity and the way this novel seems to shift beneath our feet, elliptical and rhythmic, straining at its boundaries only to return to where it began. The sea, you could say, made of paper and ink.

Maria, who more than deserves the plaudit of being one of the most engaging narrators I’ve encountered this year, is in her early thirties and living a fairly conventional life: after a brief, slightly hedonistic year in London as a younger woman, she returned to her hometown of Bari, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Nicola, and runs the highly creative ‘Be Present!’, a bespoke gift-buying service. Ruth, her best friend, whom she met during that year in London, lives in America; they communicate mainly by post and have a complex relationship shot through with jealousy and forgiveness. The events of the novel proper are condensed into the space of one day – its four roughly equal sections titled ‘Dinner’, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Teatime’; just one of many ironies on the part of Mou, given that Maria barely eats – but its scope is much wider, encompassing as it does our narrator’s past and possible future, and providing an expansive canvas for her wide-roaming thoughts.

Though not quite a stream-of-consciousness novel, Thirsty Sea seeks to reflect the jumbled interior of a human mind in its loose, often looping structure: while on the face of it Maria is recounting the course of one decisive day, the narrative is constantly interrupted by thoughts that come out of left field and ironic observations that may or may not have to do with the present she is currently living. Maria is in many ways frustrating – the kind of self-sabotaging narrator who any well-meaning reader wants to seize by the shoulders and shake – but she is also bright, witty, empathetic and insightful, making her a voice I could happily have stayed with for hours. Bored in her relationship, fearful of the future and haunted by a past she seems powerless to escape, she is flawed to just the right degree, consistent in her quirks and pleasingly relatable.

While much of the novel revolves around Maria’s relationship with Nicola – seven years old, it has survived infidelity and the shattering death of Nicola’s father, but looks set to founder on at least one of two questions: will they get married, and will they have a baby. Nicola, a man Maria regards with a degree of contempt for his niceness, is desperate for both, but Maria’s uncertainty swells throughout the novel; unable to leave the relationship entirely (‘Force of habit / is my force of gravity’, she writes under ‘Slapdash’), she is equally unable to commit. This has in part to do with the thirsty sea that underpins the novel: the guilt Maria feels about the death of her younger sister, Summer, twenty-five years ago. Very early on she tells us, ‘I killed my sister’, yet the truth proves to be a good deal more complex, a current of mystery that carries through to the end of the novel. The waves of guilt Maria can’t escape are the driving force of the narrative, a vast body of feeling that both sustains and threatens to capsize her.

Thirsty Sea picks up in the middle of a life, opening one ordinary weekday evening, and it drops us again just as suddenly, leaving Maria to carry on alone. Over the course of its twenty-four hours, she is restlessly searching for something – what exactly, even she doesn’t seem sure, but she does know that ‘we look for the wrong things in the right places’. And, perhaps, by extension, the right things in the wrong places. By the time the novel closes – following a few formally experimental pages that seem almost to lift off into free writing, echoing the turmoil inside Maria’s head – our guilt-ridden narrator has made a brave decision; one that, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, has a somehow life-affirming quality to it.

Lyrical, defiant and delighting in the myriad possibilities of the written word, Thirsty Sea is a confident debut that tackles big themes on an intimate level. Clarissa Botsford has rendered Erica Mou’s many-layered Italian into an English radiant with meaning, producing a novel that is as effortlessly readable as it is thought-provoking. A delicious work of contemporary fiction, it suggests great things are yet to come from both Mou and Héloïse Press.

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford, is available in paperback from Héloïse Press.

The Monthly Booking: July 2022

After a rather extended break, The Monthly Booking is back – and diving straight into summer with a Latin American-themed reading list.

As usual, I’ve picked four titles from my digital and physical bookshelves, covering fiction, non-fiction, translation and independent publishers. Happily, having given myself a geographical theme for this month, July’s list is very translation-focused – a good reflection of my reading habits in general. Three of my four books are translated fiction (two of them, quite by chance, brought to us in English by Rosalind Harvey), while my non-fiction pick is a hefty older tome in a genre I don’t often write about: biography.

As I’ve missed a lot of reviews recently, I will also be using the summer to catch up on some brilliant new(ish) titles – keep an eye out for write-ups of books from the likes of Charco Press, V&Q Books and Fum d’Estampa.

For July 2022, my reading list is as follows:


Witches by Brenda Lozano, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Maclehose Press)

What the publisher says: ‘Weaving together two parallel narratives, Witches tells the story of Feliciana, an indigenous curandera or healer, and Zoe, a journalist: two women who meet through the murder of Feliciana’s cousin Paloma. In the tiny village of San Felipe in Jalisco province, where traditional ways and traditional beliefs are a present reality, Feliciana tells the story of her life, her community’s acceptance of her as a genuine curandera and the difficult choices faced by her joyful and spirited cousin Paloma who is both a healer and a Muxe – a trans woman. Growing up in Mexico City, Zoe attempts to find her way in a society straitjacketed by its hostile macho culture. But it is Feliciana’s and Paloma’s stories that draw her own story out of her, taking her on a journey to understanding her place in the world and the power of her voice. This captivating novel of two Mexicos envisions the writer as a healer and offers a generous and distinctly female way of understanding the complex world we all inhabit.’


Gabriel García Márquez: A Life by Gerald Martin

What the publisher says: ‘Gabriel García Márquez, author of the modern classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, is one of the greatest and most popular writers of the late-twentieth century. As Gerald Martin tells the story of the author’s fascinating rise to wealth and international fame, he reveals the tensions in García Márquez’s life between celebrity and literary quality, between politics and writing, and between power, solitude and love. Interviewing more than three hundred people including Fidel Castro, Felipe González, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, the author’s large family as well as “Gabo” himself, Martin immerses himself in García Márquez’s world. This at first “tolerated” and now “official” biography is as gripping and revealing as the writer’s journalism and as complex and involving as any of his fiction.’


Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

What the publisher says: ‘Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel, treats one of the most consequential decisions of early adulthood – whether or not to have children – with the intelligence and originality that have won her international acclaim. Alina and Laura are independent and career-driven women in their mid-thirties, neither of whom have built their future around the prospect of a family. Laura has taken the drastic decision to be sterilized, but as time goes by Alina becomes drawn to the idea of becoming a mother. When complications arise in Alina’s pregnancy and Laura becomes attached to her neighbour’s son, both women are forced to reckon with the complexity of their emotions. In prose that is as gripping as it is insightful, Guadalupe Nettel explores maternal ambivalence with a surgeon’s touch, carefully dissecting the contradictions that make up the lived experiences of women.’

Independent Publisher

Here Be Icebergs by Katya Adaui, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Charco Press)

What the publisher says: ‘The mysteries of kinship (families born into and families made) take disconcerting and familiar shapes in these refreshingly frank short stories. A family is haunted by a beast that splatters fruit against its walls every night, another undergoes a near-collision with a bus on the way home from the beach. Mothers are detached, fathers are absent – we know these moments in the abstract, but Katya Adaui makes each as uncanny as our own lives: close but not yet understood.’

‘The light comes in cautiously’ [book review]

A review of Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn

In Diamela Eltit’s novel Never Did the Fire, the two main characters, an unnamed man and woman, spend most of their time in a room. In a bed, to be even more specific. Sometimes they lie in it, sometimes on it; they cough and dream and fidget and trace fingertips across the rough plaster of the walls. The man in particular complains of pains in various parts of his body, rarely leaving the bed itself and certainly never venturing beyond their small apartment. The world of the woman, our narrator, is wider, though hardly by much. For this novel, it becomes apparent, is concerned with interiors, opening out only at certain moments into external views so strikingly clear and sudden they cannot fail to shock.

Cover image – Never Did the Fire

Translated with immense care by Daniel Hahn (a claim that can be confidently made having read Catching Fire, the superb ‘translation diary’ published as a companion piece to this book), Eltit’s Never Did the Fire is a dense, precisely crafted novel that evokes a sense of crushing claustrophobia and quite frankly bewildering ambiguity. While certain elements of the narrative are made crystal clear to us – the bed, the people in it, their rice and bread and tea, the details of their failing bodies – much of it is hazy, composed of fragmented scenes and half-suppressed memories that swirl around in our narrator’s thoughts. Gradually, a picture begins to emerge, but it is like the outline of a distant tree seen across a field in thick fog.

The moments at which our narrator’s thoughts and emotions do seem most lucid are when she makes her rare forays out of the apartment; when she is inside, she is chiefly concerned with her partner’s health, their shared past, the neat columns of her accounts, the death of Franco, and a traumatic memory which she occasionally dares to probe. Outside, moving through the city – beyond the room, the novel’s setting is ruthlessly urban, giving a strong sense of people stacked on top of one another – she is a care worker, visiting the houses of bedbound patients to wash them, change their sheets and nappies, rub cream into their flaking skin. These scenes are physical, extremely so, and the catalogue of bodily fluids they contain is later joined by other disturbingly vivid moments in which human flesh is perforated and mangled in a bank robbery and car accident. Recounted in horrifying detail yet seen from a seemingly unbridgeable distance – though the narrator seems to relish describing them to us, she makes it clear that they have no real bearing on her life – these episodes of violence are intense, shocking, bringing home the frailty of our bodies and displaying the unnerving richness of Eltit’s prose.

Never Did the Fire is a novel about bodies, but its relentless textual layering is such that this cannot possibly mean just human bodies. Political bodies loom large as well: our two main characters were once (indeed, probably still are) left-wing revolutionaries, members of an underground cell so deeply buried that they felt unable to leave their home even when they most needed to. The crucial moment at which their own fear and the flat detained them seems to have involved the death of a small child, though like most of the memories around which our narrator constantly circles, this is somewhat abstract. Perhaps a child died, perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it never existed at all. Perhaps, like the man and the woman themselves, it could be seen as just another metaphor for a failing state, a dying revolutionary movement, political entities made flesh on the page.

Once the reader has accepted Eltit’s unwavering determination to be ambiguous – spoiler alert: there are no answers in this novel – Never Did the Fire becomes an intriguing and engrossing read, a thick stream of language that seems to pin the reader in place, reminiscent (though decidedly less furious and expletive-ridden) of Fernanda Melchor’s work. Peeling back the layers of imagery, there is much to be discovered here; for all its confusion, it is a haunting novel, and one that would certainly bear reading again.

Lying in bed in a darkened room, our narrator makes repeated reference to a faint light, which at various points ‘comes in cautiously, a light that is altogether blocked.’ This light is different to the electric light, to which the man seems increasingly averse, providing a kind of opaque illumination that wonderfully reflects the experience of reading the novel. At certain moments – usually involving mention of some past significance – the narrative suddenly seems flooded with light, albeit weak, and we can be fooled into believing we have finally understood what it is all about. Then, on the turn of a word, with unusual phrasing or a half-formed image, Eltit snatches it all away again, and we are once more plunged into the darkness of ambiguity.

As an exercise in how to use language with such precision that it tells us almost nothing at all, Never Did the Fire is a masterpiece. Filled with subtleties, layered metaphors and stark, driving contrasts between the insides and outsides of bodies, between surface lives and deep emotions, it is an ambitious, intelligent novel that succeeds in wholly unsettling the reader. A simple story this is not. And again: it has no answers. Yet to read it is to experience something, to contend with – and maybe come to accept – the many unnameabilities of living.

Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit, translated by Daniel Hahn, is published by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘Not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act’ [book review]

A review of In the Margins by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

In our world of instant celebrity, Elena Ferrante is something of an anomaly. For three decades, she has been publishing – with wild success – under a pseudonym, her true identity known only to her Italian publisher. Though she could certainly be deemed prolific, she appears not to make much of her fame, rarely granting interviews and giving away as little as possible about herself. Accordingly, the recent appearance of In the Margins, a slim volume of essays, is cause for great excitement among Ferrante fans, offering insights into her writing practice and allowing us to come even a little bit closer to the keen intelligence behind novels such as The Lost Daughter and the Neapolitan Quartet.

Cover Image - In the Margins

Originally conceived as a series of lectures to be delivered in autumn 2020, In the Margins contains three essays on writing composed specially for the University of Bologna, followed by a detailed reading of Dante penned for the Association of Italianists. In each of them, Ferrante displays her characteristic care with words, layering meaning into her sentences and adopting a flowing rhythm that seems to take the reader by the hand and lead them deep into the text. At the same time, however, there is something less finely developed about these works: on occasion, they seem a little breathless, written perhaps more from the heart than from the head. The voice that emerges – ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s long-time collaborator – is both wise and unassuming, reserved yet full of warmth, confident and, charmingly, at times a touch uncertain.

In ‘Pain and Pen’, Ferrante takes us back to her school days, to the torment of learning to write neatly in copybooks, keeping her letters between not only the horizontal lines but also the red lines of the margins. These exercises have shaped her profoundly, she tells us – giving her neat handwriting, for one, but also making her associate writing with ‘the satisfaction of staying beautifully within the margins and, at the same time, with the impression of loss, of waste, because of that success’. Writing, she goes on, is about harnessing the energy of disorder with established forms and structures, about trying to create something that ‘fills the gap between pain and pen’. Here in particular, she sounds sometimes disarmingly unsure of whether she has achieved such a thing herself – or, indeed, if it is possible at all.

She goes on to detail what she calls her ‘struggles’ with writing: her early and continuing attempts to find words with which to capture real life and render it true to the reader, and the ways in which she allows her characters and their stories to develop on the page. ‘Aquamarine’ is as near as we come to a close reading of her own novels – in particular The Lost Daughter, Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment – or a description of how she goes about writing (Ferrante, one gets the feeling, is far above such a thing as sharing her ‘writing techniques’). Meanwhile, ‘Histories, I’ looks specifically at the Neapolitan Quartet, how to read like a writer, and what it is to write as a woman. Throughout these essays, she makes copious textual references to Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein and Adriana Cavarero, to name but a few – the admiration with which she engages with their work is infectious, in itself a powerful lesson in how to let reading flow into the written word.

The final essay in the volume, ‘Dante’s Rib’, is a dense, fiercely intellectual and feminist reading of Dante, a major influence whom she advocates reading and re-reading. This essay is written ‘out of love’, she says, and despite its complexity – Ferrante is nothing if not thorough – it does indeed contain such enthusiasm, a sense of such boundless awe, that even a reader unfamiliar with the great man cannot fail to be inspired. Dante too, Ferrante tells us, shares her sense of writing as a dangerous balancing act between success and failure, an act that is compulsive but also to be feared, very often remaining in the margins of what it is actually trying to achieve. Her fellow feeling is powerful, making the reader want to reach for a pen or a volume of Dante – or, perhaps better, both. Here, reading and writing combine to go somehow deeper than what the book’s subtitle would suggest: ‘On the pleasures of reading and writing’ does not, it turns out, refer only to positives.

‘I loved and love Dante’s words but am exhausted by their force,’ writes Ferrante – a sentiment she transfers to her own readers with admirable intensity. In the Margins is carefully fashioned yet full of life, revealing much of its author while still holding back, the kind of book that ought to inspire one to read or write with renewed vigour. Conveying confidence even as it betrays some of its author’s wrestling with her own texts, this book is a hymn to the written word that succeeds in being both: ‘an elegant, studied gesture’ and ‘a convulsive act’.

In the Margins by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘A certain sense of weight and precision’ [book review]

A review of Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

In a busy street outside a station in Tokyo, the ground is ‘not asphalt, but a series of small, square tiles, if you cared enough to notice’. So we are informed by the narrator of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, in an opening passage that contains the beating heart of this small yet wondrous novel – if we care enough to notice, that is. This is not the essential line – that comes just beforehand, in the form of our narrator’s observation of her mother: ‘[she] stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart’ – yet the tiled street is characteristic of Au’s singular ability to note small, seemingly insignificant details and weave them in to the deeper fabric of her story. Enmeshing the everyday and the extraordinary, the banalities and profound emotional experiences that coexist to create a life, this slight and unassuming novel is a moving exploration of memory, language and parent–child relationships that deserves to be read as much for its use of words as for the weighty themes it encompasses.

Cover image Cold Enough for Snow

On a trip to Japan, a mother and daughter attempt – without ever discussing it – to come closer to one another, to spool in some of the threads that keep them bound to each other yet a considerable distance apart. The daughter, our narrator, has painstakingly planned the holiday to a country she has visited before, though under different circumstances: she thus experiences a steadily waning sense of familiarity with Japan that mirrors how she feels about her mother, a figure who remains fixed in her mind as she was in her childhood but, occasionally, when seen as she really is, seems far more like a stranger. This sense of half-recognition echoes again in an anecdote concerning the narrator’s sister, about visits she made to Hong Kong first as a child and then as a young woman – one of the many textual layerings Au has built into her novel. This slow building up of a theme comes eventually to ask questions about identity: who do we become as we grow older, how are place and memory so irrevocably intertwined, and how can we share the deepest of bonds yet never truly know another’s mind?

It is a marvel that Cold Enough for Snow should ask so much of its reader when, on the face of things, very little happens. The action is gentle in the extreme, composed of keen yet tenderly made observations: the mother’s fastidious dress sense, the care she takes choosing presents, the placement of a red string tying a paper gift bag. In Tokyo, Kyoto and a couple of small towns in between, the narrator and her mother visit bookshops, cafés and art galleries, with most of the scenes set in one of these venues, a hotel room or a canal-side street. The atmosphere is somewhat rarefied, in keeping with Au’s meticulously elegant prose, itself reflected beautifully in a description of a restaurant the narrator once worked in, which was imbued with ‘a certain sense of weight and precision, as if to create a floating world’. Language, it proves, is everything in this novel, each word chosen for its exact heft and ability to combine with others in crafting an often ambiguous meaning.

For as much as the narrator is a sharp-eyed observer of the world through which she moves, this is a novel that is ultimately about an unbridgeable distance between two people – mother and daughter, but also, perhaps, one’s older and younger selves. Not only is the reader kept deliberately at arm’s length by scenes that disappear half-finished into the next, or curious stories with endings left open, but the narrator herself seems to hover on the verge of her life, paying minute attention to but never quite understanding what is before her. Occasionally, the novel threatens to tip into the horrifying or the absurd: arriving back at the hotel later than anticipated following a solo walk, the narrator is informed that her mother was never even there with her; the detailed memory of a story about her uncle turns out to be a false memory, lifted perhaps from a soap opera. Cases like these are usually at least partly resolved, the plot nestling back into the real world, yet they leave the reader with an unsettling sense of not-knowing, of uncertainty about what it is that really matters in this story.

The fragmented structure of the novel serves to further compound this, with memories and present-day narration bleeding into one another – a comment, again not explicit, on how the past informs each day we live through. The importance of memory in shaping people feeds into another short but significant line: ‘parents were their children’s fate’, muses our narrator, who is herself considering having children, causing the reader to take pause and wonder whether this is a comfort or a curse to her. There has shimmered throughout the novel a sense that the mother, not the daughter, is in fact the main protagonist. Though never given a voice of her own except in snatches of conversation, we encounter in her a woman who treads lightly, yet has considerable presence on the page – and, despite the distance between them, in the narrator’s life.

With surprising depths for its slender build, Cold Enough for Snow has an ineffable, haunting quality that makes it a profound experience to read. At times, it could be longer – it seems to exist too quietly in the world – yet the half-finished nature of so many of its scenes is part of its magic, integral to the message it seems to be imparting. A joy to read with its luminous, graceful prose, it is a novel about peripheral experiences that somehow goes straight to the heart.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au won the inaugural Novel Prize and is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, New Directions in the USA, and Giramondo in Australia/New Zealand. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

‘Life from the margins can be perfectly fruitful’ [book review]

A review of The Intimate Resistance by Josep Maria Esquirol, translated from the Catalan by Douglas Suttle, and Wilder Winds by Bel Olid, translated from the Catalan by Laura McLoughlin

The world can be pretty exhausting sometimes. In this age of information and global connection, it can seem as though we are being urged from all sides to do more, be better, go further – to put ourselves constantly out there. Thanks to the internet and social media, not even a pandemic has really been able to stop that. How refreshing it is, then, to read a book about staying quiet, being at home, about the pleasure we must take in ordinary moments, and the importance of celebrating the everyday. In The Intimate Resistance, a book-length essay by Catalan philosopher Josep Maria Esquirol, translated into English by Douglas Suttle and published by Fum d’Estampa, we are encouraged to do exactly this: to slow down, think smaller, look at the little details of life, and only then, in doing so, appreciate the bigger picture.

Cover image The Intimate Resistance

Refreshing the subject matter certainly is, but this is perhaps not quite the right word to apply to The Intimate Resistance when it comes to matters of style. A serious philosophical text that draws heavily on the work of Nietzsche, Arendt, Heidegger and others, it requires close reading and a good deal of concentration – the kind of book best approached in a silent room. Once engaged with Esquirol’s particular style, however, the prose takes on a flowing cadence, studded with moments of poetic brilliance that underline its author’s key points. In Douglas Suttle’s nuanced translation, this complex book is a pleasure to read, an intellectual challenge that offers plenty of rewards.

Structured around a trio of ‘moments’, which begin with an evocative description of a laden table, Esquirol’s ‘philosophy of proximity’ includes elements as varied as cultivating vegetables, the basic care of oneself (‘without becoming Narcissus’), spending time at home, and ‘the essence of language as shelter’. Here, he asks us to think of ‘the desert and the ocean [as] the two great irreconcilable metaphors of the human condition’, writing about space and loneliness, the importance of shelter and how we must welcome others in order to experience meaningful connection. As he puts it elsewhere, ‘Life from the margins can be perfectly fruitful because what counts is the possibility of being a beginning; of each and every person being a beginning.’ Intimacy, not grandeur, is the foundation of a good life, he tells us – and reading this wise, calm, often supremely lyrical essay, it’s a philosophy to which it is difficult not to subscribe.

As much as the media and cult of celebrity would have us believe otherwise, life for most of us does happen in the margins. Another recently published translation from Catalan, Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds is a slight but beautiful collection of short stories that zoom in on life’s most minute details. Laura McGloughlin’s sharp, supple translation breathes vitality into narratives that are often only a page or two long, yet filled with memorable characters and life-changing moments that range from the obvious to the subtle.

Cover image - Wilder Winds

From a grandmother who ignites a protest movement in Kyiv’s Independence Square, to a former cabaret performer struggling to come to terms with her new body after a weight-loss operation, the figures who move through the eighty pages of Wilder Winds are nearly all women. While not exactly feminist, this is very much a female collection – about women’s bodies, women’s struggles, women’s ambitions and aspirations, what is expected of them by society and how they are perceived. Olid shifts seamlessly between external and internal viewpoints, affording us moments of breath-taking intimacy but ensuring that we keep an eye on the wider social picture. As in the very best short stories, so much of what matters here isn’t actually written – entire narratives hinge on an unsaid word, an implied course of action, the emotions rather than events conjured up on the page. In rendering Olid’s sparing prose into English, McLoughlin has chosen her words judiciously. The resulting series of stories is jewel-bright, a treasure trove, to be dipped in and out of or taken together as a kind of collective social portrait.

Though Olid tackles big topics – motherhood, social inequality, armed conflict, violence against women – some of her most striking stories are those that describe everyday moments. Take ‘Sibylle’, a story about shoemaking, in which the path of a life is changed entirely by a small act of kindness from a stranger. Suffused with the ‘warm glow’ felt by the narrator, it is among the shorter but more hopeful stories in the collection. In some ways equally optimistic, drenched as it is in the beauty of the natural world and a woman’s journey of self-discovery in solitude, the joy in ‘Wild Flowers’ is carefully balanced by a sense of threat, an underlying violence that risks spilling over at any moment into the gently calibrated life of its main character, Gabriela. Perhaps the most unforgettable of all, though, is ‘Baba Luba’, the tale of the aforementioned Ukrainian grandmother who spends her days ‘obstinately going over the map of her small homeland formed of attainable habits’. A stirring exploration of how politics and everyday life intersect, this is also a deeply moving story centred on strong female agency that shows how doing the right thing is often a matter not of thinking, but of feeling. Again, in her characteristic way, Olid upends what appears to be a classical narrative arc – with its interplay of unexpected achievement and loneliness, the resolution of Baba Luba’s story is nothing if not haunting.

Though very different in subject matter and tone, both Wilder Winds and The Intimate Resistance look at life through a magnifying lens, using language as a powerful tool to convey their philosophies on what it is to be alive today. Thoughtful additions to what is already a strong, eclectic list, we are fortunate to have Fum d’Estampa bringing Catalan literature of this calibre into English.

The Intimate Resistance by Josep Maria Esquirol, translated by Douglas Suttle, and Wilder Winds by Bel Olid, translated by Laura McGloughlin, are both published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing review copies.

‘Cloth tells the story’ [book review]

A review of Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

‘Unerringly, cloth tells the story of the rise and fall of our societies and cultures,’ writes Sofi Thanhauser in the conclusion to Worn: A People’s History of Clothing – a statement with which, having read this richly detailed book, I am more than inclined to agree. In five sections devoted to linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool, Worn unpicks the fabrics we use to clothe ourselves on a daily basis, tracing the line where clothing and politics intersect, and illuminating many of the fashion industry’s darker corners. Drawing on a range of personal investigations and a solid body of research, Thanhauser has written a highly engaging book that should serve to change the way we think about our clothes.

Cover image - Worn

It is a change that, as soon becomes apparent, the world is badly in need of, the progression of cloth having moved steadily away from nature to reach what looks like the end of the line. Thousands of years ago, cloth was still sustainable: our ancestors wrapped themselves in furs. Then came domestication and farming, and the fabric we now know as linen was born. Linen gradually gave way to other natural fibres – silk, wool and cotton, each of which proved to be the mainstay of at least one national economy – before finally we reached the twenty-first century: the rise of rayon, synthetics and the fast-fashion industry. This is what a potted history of fabric might look like, but, as Thanhauser so compellingly demonstrates, cloth is far more complex than that. ‘The past repeats, but with variations,’ she writes, in one of her more philosophical moments – in the garment industry as in so many other areas of life. Without fail, each of the fabrics she discusses has both driven social progress and been the cause of many a human plight, from the bloody shootings of mill workers demonstrating in the USA, to the appalling conditions found in the clothing factories of China, Vietnam, Honduras and Bangladesh. What we wear doesn’t simply reveal our fashion choices, aligning us with one or the other social tribe. Instead, the very fabrics of which our garments are made have an impact more far-reaching than we might imagine.

Fast fashion has been getting a lot of press lately – just this week I watched a report on a ‘clothing graveyard’ in the Atacama Desert – yet it can often be difficult to grasp the vast scale and intractable nature of the problem. Worn is thus an important addition to the discourse, not least because of Thanhauser’s ability to connect the global with the personal. It’s all very well to read that it takes ‘twenty thousand litres of water to make a pair of jeans’, but an account of a trip to a Texas cotton farm does far more to show what this actually means for the environment. Likewise, the author’s conversations with factory owners and workers in some of the world’s leading garment-producing nations serve to highlight clearly the human cost of the West’s insatiable appetite for clothing. Immensely detailed in places – the chapter on Honduras, for example, which also has to map out some political history, requires close reading – Worn weaves together numerous narrative strands to create an often shocking picture.

Bookending the rise of fast fashion, the issue at the heart of the book, Thanhauser also delivers a colourful history of clothing and offers hope with a glimpse at trend-bucking movements. Memorable sections include a detour to the court of King Louis XVI, where clothing often carried a political message and Marie Antoinette’s penchant for dressing as a shepherdess had devastating effects on the French silk industry, and an exploration of the homespun selvedge denim business causing a quiet revolution in the US. For a keen knitter, the report on Cumbria’s Woolfest was a particular delight; a later section that looks at the intricate designs created by traditional Navajo weavers provides plenty of food for thought – not just on a history of violent oppression, but in terms of the many forms that art takes, and where beauty and functionality collide. Also threading through the book is an examination of the role women have long played in the fabric business, how weaving and embroidery and garment assembly has at times been liberating, all too often exploitative.

If it sounds like an ambitious project, it is – yet Thanhauser’s unwavering enthusiasm for her subject and gentle but insistent urging towards change ensure that Worn remains engaging, no matter how knotted up in detail it may get. Snippets of archive material – mill songs, diaries, newspaper clippings – are scattered throughout the book to great effect, and Thanhauser has a fine eye for both humorous anecdotes and encounters that will underscore the more serious aspects of her message. For as much as it might be pleasantly informative to read about linen embroidery or dyeing techniques, the subtitle of this book must never be forgotten. Returning time and again to ‘the immense amount of human labor necessary to handle fabric’, Worn is a history of how people use garments – but also how the garment industry has very often used them.

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser is published by Allen Lane. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘Truth is merely our perception of the truth’ [book review]

A review of The Night Will Be Long by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg

Santiago Gamboa’s The Night Will Be Long takes its title from a line by Spanish poet José Ángel Valente. Gamboa has chosen it as one of two epigraphs for his novel – the other is a line by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick – and it appears in a slightly extended version at the front of the book:

Close the door tight, brother;

the night will be long.

It is interesting, this, as Gamboa’s novel, a dense thriller, does pretty much the exact opposite of closing a door tight. Instead, it throws it wide open – the windows, too – inviting the reader to step right in to a cast of colourful characters, a maelstrom of events, and an ever-changing backdrop of lush landscapes and teeming cities located largely in Colombia, but also other parts of South America (notably Cayenne, capital of French Guiana). More than this, though, it uses its twist-filled plot as the stepping stone for an exploration of modern-day Colombia, with all the thorny social and political challenges it faces. At times highly critical, often revelling in a bittersweet kind of affection, Gamboa has written a novel that is both a love letter to his country and a song of despair.

Cover image - The Night Will Be Long

‘What happens after a crime?’ wonders the narrator of The Night Will Be Long, before concluding on the following line:‘It depends—sometimes nothing.’ The same cannot be said of this particular novel, which sparkles in Andrea Rosenberg’s bright, clever translation, though it does indeed begin with a crime – a brief, violent shoot-out on the banks of the Ullucos River in Colombia’s south-western region of Cauca. The only surviving witness is a young teenager who we will later come to know as Franklin, but news of the shooting still makes its way to the Office of the Prosecutor General in Bogotá. Enter the novel’s three main protagonists: Edilson Justiñamuy, a hard-working, highly structured prosecutor who can’t always maintain the lofty moral standards or rigorous lifestyle to which he subjects himself; Julieta Lezama, a brilliant investigative journalist who drinks too much, thinks too much, and loves her teenage sons fiercely, despite mainly leaving them in the (to her) substandard care of her estranged husband; and Johana Triviño, Julieta’s equally smart assistant, who grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Cali and spent twelve years as a member of the FARC. Determined to find out who is behind the shooting (all evidence of which has been smoothly swept away), the trio embarks on a labyrinthine investigation that will lead them to the dark heart of Colombia where religion and politics intersect.

Thanks to its troubled history and figures like Pablo Escobar, who has reached something of a cult status through popular TV shows such as Narcos, Colombia is all too often associated with cocaine-driven crime, closely followed by the FARC. But while drug lords, motorbike-riding sicarios and guerrilla fighters do all appear in The Night Will Be Long, the real criminal here is the Church – or, more specifically, a couple of decidedly shady priests. It isn’t a spoiler to say this, as the novel isn’t a classic thriller: who or what authorised the riverbank shooting turns out to be fairly irrelevant. What matters is the stories Julieta, Johana and Justiñamuy uncover along the way; the people – both ordinary and extraordinary – they encounter; and the vibrant picture of Colombia that emerges as a result: ‘a country smaller than the world, but just as cruel and violent’.

With its endless red herrings, looping backstories and unexpected tangents, Gamboa’s novel is a complex beast – and yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel that way to read. Structurally, it is digestible, with new, often self-contained plot arcs presented in the form of police reports, interviews or stories, and there is plenty of fairly pacey dialogue that both maintains momentum and helps the reader keep a handle on the story. Though often writing about dark subjects, not least the everyday violence to which the book returns again and again, Gamboa’s tone is light and playful, with a generous sprinkling of humour to keep things palatable. Above all, though, it is his strong characterisation that makes this novel so enjoyable: Julieta, Johana, Justiñamuy and their many fellow characters, both major and minor, veritably leap off the page, each with a distinct voice and set of personal problems that make them relatable and human. This is, of course, in no small part the work of translator Andrea Rosenberg, who has deftly created a parade of voices beneath the overarching, witty-yet-intelligent tone of the narrator.

The Night Will Be Long is a novel about Colombia, about corruption and murder and self-interest and lies, but also about the world in general and the difficulty with being human. It is about everyday struggles and the way the past repeats on us, about the many layers to any story and what makes good people do bad things. At its heart, it is about the impossibility of ever being right – after all, as even the impassioned Julieta seems forced to accept in the end, ‘“Truth is merely our perception of the truth”’. As Gamboa so deftly shows in this novel, it is not so much the ‘what’ that matters as the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – two factors that can be almost infinitely various. Smart, thoughtful, liberally doused in both metaphor and wit, The Night Will Be Long is a celebration of voice and multiplicity, and of the vital art of storytelling.

The Night Will Be Long by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg, is published by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘Not feeling is a feeling too’ [book review]

A review of Tides by Sara Freeman

Slipping quietly into the new year comes Tides, the carefully crafted, deeply felt debut novel by Canadian-British author Sara Freeman. With its sparse mode of expression, striking imagery and experimental structure, it is a book that tries to be many things at once – but, when all that is stripped away, there remains at its core a fierce, raw story, a moving meditation on grief and love.

Cover image Tides

In her late thirties, Mara has unmoored herself from life following the trauma of a stillbirth. Unable to bear the presence of her husband or to continue living in the same building as her brother and sister-in-law, who have a new baby, she turns off her phone and sets out on a bus, disembarking in Rome, a small American seaside town. As the summer begins to fold, Mara spends nights on the beach in a drunken stupor, sleeping occasionally in a hostel dormitory with Spanish-speaking seasonal labourers, drowning slowly in the pain of her bereavement.

The novel progresses slowly, in fragments, each page merely a paragraph or two in length. Freeman’s prose is spartan, clipped in places, and she consistently refuses to give too much away – even Mara’s name isn’t revealed until we are a good way into the story. In the swirling haze of grief that surrounds her, other elements of Mara’s past only gradually come into focus: the shadowy beginnings of her marriage to Lucien, her relationship with her father, the extreme love she continues to feel for her brother. Slowly, very slowly, we come to see that the trauma of losing her baby is underlined by another – somewhat disturbing –dispossession, which has come from growing up and being forced to relinquish the intimacy and sense of ownership she experienced with her sibling.

Tides is very much a novel about possession: self-possession, a mask that Mara, and indeed others, often let slip; and the ultimately impossible desire to possess another fully. As winter sets in, Mara stumbles into a job in a local wine shop whose owner, Simon, has his own domestic issues to contend with. Silently, he allows Mara to sleep in the storeroom above the shop, where each day she seeks to eliminate all traces of her having been there. The relationship that develops between the two of them is inevitable, but doomed, of course – in a book such as this, a happy ending seems unlikely from the start. At first, Simon becomes an emotional shelter for Mara to flee to: he asks for little, is ‘easy, a sail aloft on a perfect windswept day’. But, with the sudden reappearance of his wife and daughter, he too finds himself trapped, ‘a hapless tourist in the land of feeling’. As cracks form, the novel takes on a slightly harder tone: Simon now seems written off as something of a weak character, with only Mara allowed to plumb the true depths of emotion.

Though Tides veritably seethes with pain and anger and bewildered grief, it is all tamped down, held firmly below the surface. Freeman has taken care to keep her prose on an exceptionally tight leash, a stripping-back that is generally effective, hinting powerfully at what lurks beneath. At times, however, the use of sharp imagery – much of it wind- or water-based – can become a little relentless, keeping us frustratingly distant from Mara, as though we are looking at her through a clouded pane. ‘Not feeling is a feeling too,’ writes Freeman, and though the fragmented structure and reticent tone are doubtless there to help us appreciate Mara’s numbness, a novel needs to give as well as taking away.

While we may be frustrated in our wish to get to know Mara, there is no doubt that Freeman is a considered writer, a sharp observer both of human interaction and how people can be shaped by place. The continual presence of the tides and slow turning of the seasons seem gradually to settle Mara, binding her once again to the world in which she must continue to live. By the end of the novel, we are allowed to believe – hope, even – that Rome has been merely a phase, a brief succumbing to a wave of grief from which she can now be freed. But then, an earlier line has hinted at some older, darker urge: ‘She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself’. Though her running away was doubtless a direct reaction to trauma, the pieces of Mara’s life we have been allowed to slot together build a blurry picture of an existence precariously balanced.

Within the narrow world of the novel, Tides raises more questions than it answers, yet its fractured structure and light linguistic footprint give it a uniquely haunting quality. Concerned with the discrepancy between surface appearances and what lies beneath, it encourages us to examine the murkier depths of our emotions, and confronts us with the perhaps painful truth that, ultimately, we can only ever know ourselves.

Tides by Sara Freeman is published by Granta. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

‘The man who planted roses’ [book review]

A review of Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Of all the great figures of twentieth-century literature, George Orwell is without doubt one of the most towering. As Rebecca Solnit rightly points out in her recent, creatively approached biography, he is one of the few writers – of any period; another is Shakespeare – to have his own adjective. Yet the man who made no bones about his politics, whose language was often sharp and whose influence still looms large in literary and popular culture with a raft of Orwellian concepts, such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Thought Police’, was also a man who loved the natural world, who planted a garden and sat down to watch it grow.

Cover image Orwell's Roses

That this image of Orwell may well be at odds with the brooding, heavily smoking, eccentric intellectual of more conventional biographies is something of which Solnit is well aware, and she returns to it often. From the opening pages of Orwell’s Roses, in which she visits the author’s former home in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, she begins many a chapter with a variation on the phrase ‘The man who planted roses in 1936’. Gone is the writer, the famous pen name, the firm political leanings, leaving us instead with a man quietly at work, tilling the earth in the hopes that something beautiful will spring from it.

It is a gentle, restful, altogether more hopeful view of Orwell that Solnit presents to us here, and her biography takes evident delight in breaking down the conventions of its genre. As she puts it, ‘Orwell’s life was notably episodic’, something she seeks to reflect in the structure of her own book, which adopts a roughly chronological approach to its subject’s life but is really ‘a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses’. Thus we encounter biographical detail, passages of critical reading, eclectic information about roses and the role they play beyond blooming in cottage gardens, and episodes from Solnit’s own life: her travels in England (concise and well observed, if at times a little cloying; she is unfailingly charmed by everything), her discovery of Tina Modotti’s rose photographs, and a long diversion in which she makes a clandestine visit to the greenhouses of Bogotá.

This section – though it has, on the face of it, nothing to do with Orwell – is in fact one of the book’s more memorable ones, arresting in the way it captures not only what Solnit sees (and sometimes doesn’t) but also how she feels about it. The cheap, plastic-wrapped roses we might buy in the supermarket are, it turns out, the product of Colombian (in the USA) and Kenyan (in the UK and Europe) flower farms, where working conditions are unsurprisingly appalling and from which the blooms are air-freighted to their destinations at great expense. At this stage, for Solnit, the beautiful, delicate roses so beloved of Orwell, flowers that traditionally symbolise love, are close to becoming ‘emblems of deceit’, an indication of all that is wrong with the society in which we live. Is it all a bit more Orwellian than we would like to think? Here, the book begins to make its wider point, discussing how much or little the world has changed since Orwell wrote in it, musing on whether the future he anticipated has come to pass, or may do yet.

Despite these darker undercurrents – and there are others, too, for Orwell’s was not always a happy life, and the circumstances of his death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-six particularly distressing – Solnit’s book is a radiant, engaging biography of a man not commonly associated with lightness and colour. From the mines of northern England to bullets whizzing overhead (or, almost fatally, into Orwell’s throat) on the frontline of the Spanish Civil War, from the Woolworths roses thriving in the rich soil of the Wallington garden to the thin, windswept soils of Jura, where Orwell lived latterly, we are taken on a journey through a fascinating life and offered glimpses, through his own words, of a man who took great pleasure in the smaller things. In this, I would venture to say, Solnit has done Orwell a service, allowing him to speak first and foremost as the man he was, not just the author he became.

Of course, it would be remiss of any literary biographer not to include critical readings of their subject’s work, and so Solnit does this, threading explorations of Orwell’s novels and essays into the appropriate chapters. Informative and approachable, writing with a deft touch, she makes the most of the limited space available to situate Orwell’s works politically and socially, as well as within the events of his own life. With Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular, she seeks a different kind of reading, looking for flowers and domestic details, for signs that Orwell was, perhaps, writing with a sense of hope as well as foreboding. Though not always entirely convincing, the ideas do stick, inviting the reader to go off and conduct her own explorations, to look at things through a different lens.

As an introduction to the man born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell’s Roses is an accessible and interesting work, yet its rambling structure and musing tone allow Solnit to pack in even more: it is also a meditation on small acts of resistance, on the beauty of the natural world (and, more depressingly, how humans try to exploit it), on ephemeral moments of happiness and how something seemingly insignificant can be the root of something much bigger. In tone and timing, it couldn’t be better – irrepressibly joyous, and filled with hope.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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