World’s Greatest Bookshops: phil, Vienna

It might be an obvious contender when it comes to a list of the best bookshops in Vienna, but there’s a reason that phil is so highly rated by book lovers in this city. Although the selection is small, it’s very carefully curated, and the comfy seating areas and outstanding cakes make this bookshop-café popular with readers and non-readers alike. And as if all that wasn’t enough, the fact that you can pop into phil and buy a book at half past midnight is reason enough for it to get full marks from me.

Carefully curated bookshelves at phil Vienna

On a corner of Gumpendorfer Straße in Vienna’s ever-trendier 6th district, phil is something of an institution among the hipster, student, artsy and international crowds (many of which overlap). At any given time of day you’ll hear a range of languages being spoken here, groups of students working on presentations, and people hotly discussing the latest arthouse film premiere – the bookshop/café is linked to the Gartenbaukino and papered with tattered posters for films and arts festivals. While a lot of the clientele and staff is achingly hipster (especially in the evenings), phil is absolutely an all-inclusive venue in which I’ve never felt uneasy for not having an asymmetrical fringe, long beard or fleamarket-sourced outfit.

Stop in at phil for a coffee, breakfast or glass of wine

A good way to treat this bookshop is to come in for breakfast (served daily except Mondays from 9am until 4pm), a grilled cheese sandwich or a plate of falafel and hummus, using the time before your food arrives to browse, buy and get yourself comfy on one of the battered old sofas (which are, incidentally, mostly for sale). If they aren’t working or catching up with friends, a lot of people do this, meaning that if you’re unlucky you’ll have to buy a book and head across the road to the more traditional Café Sperl for a cup of coffee. But even better, in my opinion, is to pop in after dinner one evening (phil is always open until 1am) for a glass of wine combined with a book-buying session. I find the all-day music level just a little too loud for me to really concentrate on reading if I sit here, and there’s something thrilling about buying books on a late-night whim somewhere other than the internet.

Despite its slightly oddly mixed product range (books, cakes, furniture, drinks), phil is one of those ‘concept stores’ that just works. In part this is because of the carefully curated bookshelves, which stock a mixture of new German-language fiction, selected English titles, shiny coffee-table tomes on everything from yoga to wild camping, art books, a handful of kids’ books, and a goodly number of non-fiction titles ranging from biographies of Beethoven and Einstein to dense works on religion and economics. Come with an open mind and you’re definitely going to find at least one book to pique your interest, or arrive with more specific demands and the booksellers will happily order within 48 hours if your chosen title isn’t in stock. You get the feeling that people here really do care about books, and the sign around the central island says it all, really: ‘Don’t classify me, read me. I’m a book, not a genre.’

Whether you read in English or German, live in Vienna or are just visiting, phil is definitely worth a visit for its eclectic but lovingly assembled bookshelves and laid-back, welcoming atmosphere. Try late-night book shopping, read a novel over breakfast, or pop in for one of the occasional events (usually author discussions or film opening nights). I don’t live in Vienna any more, but phil was one of the first places that made me feel welcome there and I go back – whether for ten minutes or two hours – almost every time I’m in the city. I defy any book lover to visit and not leave feeling happy and inspired.


phil is at Gumpendorfer Straße 10–12, 1060 Vienna, Austria and open on Mondays from 5pm to 1am, Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 1am

The Monthly Booking: March 2020

The Monthly Booking line-up for March 2020

After having had a Dutch moment in February, this month my reading list is expanding somewhat. Apart from the fact that all of them have been sitting around on my ‘to be read’ list for a while, there is absolutely nothing to link these four books (although two of them did appear on the shortlists for the 2019 Costa Book Awards without taking away the prize).

When choosing books I’m guided by many sources – bookshop tables, reviews online and on paper, podcasts, Instagram, real-life recommendations – and it almost goes without saying that whatever ends up on my big reading list has been deliberately put there by me. Almost, because occasionally a wild card does slip in thanks to a couple of small presses I’m proud to support. This month’s small press title was the second of two books I received in 2019 through my subscription to And Other Stories. I’ll be writing an article about small press subscriptions in the near future, but one definite bonus is that they make me pick up books that might not have come on to my radar otherwise. Theft by Luke Brown is one such novel and I’m curious to see how I get on with it.

Without further ado, my reading list for March goes like this:

Fiction

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach (Head of Zeus)

What the publisher says: ‘Devastating and beautifully written, funny and life-affirming, Confession with Blue Horses explores intimate family life and its strength in the most difficult of circumstances.’

Non-fiction

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum (Penguin/Vintage)

What the publisher says: ‘Fellow foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum draws on unpublished diaries and interviews with friends, family and colleagues to produce a story of one of the most daring and inspirational women of our times.’

Translation

It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo, translated by Elizabeth Bryer (HarperCollins)

What the publisher says: ‘An urgent literary phenomenon sold in over 22 languages before publication, a gripping tale of one woman’s desperate battle to survive the dangerous, sometimes deadly, turbulence of modern Venezuela. From a powerful, new voice, It Would Be Night in Caracas is a chilling reminder of how quickly the world we know can crumble.’

Small Press

Theft by Luke Brown (And Other Stories)

What the publisher says: ‘With heart, bite and humour, Luke Brown leads the reader beyond easy partisanship and into much trickier terrain. Straddling the fissures within a man and his country, riven by envy, wealth, ownership, entitlement, and loss, Theft is an exhilarating howl of a novel.’

‘This is about being together.’ A review of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It’s official. I have fallen in love (again). Twice in one month is pretty impressive, but with both Haruki Murakami and Bernardine Evaristo on my list of new authors in recent weeks, it’s hardly surprising. At moments like these I wish I could do nothing but read all the time, because Bernardine too comes with an impressive back catalogue that I can’t wait to launch into.

Like far too many people, I had never heard of, much less read anything by Bernardine Evaristo before last year’s Booker Prize and the ensuing furore. This week, however, I found myself having a clandestine affair with Girl, Woman, Other. I thought about it when I was supposed to be concentrating on other things, I carried it around with me to all sorts of impractical places, I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day to keep reading it . . . and when it was over I was left feeling bereft.

Because of the Booker affair, Girl, Woman, Other has been much talked about, so long before I got round to reading it I had a fairly good idea of what to anticipate. Yet, in a fit of brilliance, this novel smashed right through and went far beyond my already high expectations. I knew that it tells the stories of twelve different women, but what I didn’t know was just how subtly and credibly they would all be linked. I knew that it features a distinct lack of punctuation (something it has in common with fellow Booker contender Ducks, Newburyport, though on a lesser scale), but I didn’t anticipate just how non-disturbing this would be, allowing Evaristo’s verse-like prose to flow seamlessly into my consciousness as though I was being read to. I knew that it touches on a wide range of experiences – the vast majority of them female – but what I didn’t know was that I would recognise myself in characters with whom I have absolutely nothing in common. The chances of me ever becoming a black lesbian theatre director are zero, and yet I understood Amma and, in particular, Dominique. The fact that Evaristo was able to make me find myself in them is testament to both her unique character-drawing abilities and her strikingly astute way of writing about humanity.

Girl, Woman, Other is all about people – the feelings they have, the way their identities are shaped, their hopes, desires, ambitions, relationships, failings. It is also about place – Britain, most definitely, but also London, which was so beautifully evoked from the first page onwards that it sometimes seemed like a thirteenth character. For someone who spends a lot of their time feeling slightly homesick for London, this was just one of the small but perfect details that broke my heart.

Although I did find the novel moving at many points, it is also irreverently funny, never getting too serious about either itself or life. Although Evaristo manages to give each of her main characters a different and authentic voice, I felt that her cohesive style of storytelling also brought her own voice into the novel – an extra aspect that I greatly enjoyed. And while I found each chapter brilliant in its own way, there were some women in particular who stood out for me: Amma, Dominique, Bummi, Shirley and Carole. As I mentioned before, my life hasn’t been like theirs at all. But still I felt able to identify with them, and I hope that Bernardine would say that’s exactly the point.

If I had one criticism to make of Girl, Woman, Other it would be the occasional use of text-speak (or Twitter-speak) which I found to be troublingly inauthentic. I think this issue probably lies more with me than it does with the author – I find things like that are always very hard to integrate into a text – but in prose that is otherwise lyrical or clearly voiced I did occasionally find it jarring.

This is a small point and absolutely outweighed by the rest of the novel, which was a big part of my life as I was reading it and will stay with me for a long time to come. Novels that can make me laugh, crack my heart and help me see the world through different eyes are few and far between, but this one did all three. It also filled me with a great zest for living and a sense of huge admiration for the writer who was able to craft such an intricately layered story without it ever seeming too big or complex and still had the energy to deliver a perfectly pitched ending which I never saw coming.

I wrote down several quotes from the book as I was reading, but somehow none of them seemed quite right for my review title. And then, right at the end, I found them: the simple words that sum up this novel and my experience of reading it. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in saying that Bernardine Evaristo ends her Booker-winning masterpiece with one of my favourite closing sentences ever:

this is about being

together.

My rating: 5/5

‘Ein Niemandsland, in dem man verloren gehen kann.’ A review of Engel des Vergessens by Maja Haderlap

Maja Haderlap’s debut novel, Engel des Vergessens, was published in 2011, but it has taken me this long to discover it. In fact, I only did so by way of my new local bookshop. I recently moved to the state of Kärnten (Carinthia in English, but please bear with me while I continue to refer to it as Kärnten, the name I know it by) and found her on the ‘regional authors’ shelf, alongside Peter Handke and Ingeborg Bachmann. As it turned out, the unassuming paperback in my hands would open my eyes wide to the hidden currents of history that course through this new home of mine.

Kärnten is located in the south of Austria, on the border with Italy and Slovenia. A largely rural state, it is often regarded as something of a provincial backwater by those in the capital and, accordingly, is easily forgotten (vergessen) by Vienna and other large tracts of the country. Unfairly so – to me, Kärnten is beautiful, very literary and unexpectedly fascinating. It is also, it turns out, a deeply troubled place.

The borders around here are porous these days, but it wasn’t always so. The unnamed female narrator of Engel des Vergessens grows up a member of Kärnten’s Slovenian population, living on a small dairy form in the shadow of the Yugoslavian border. Other shadows reach their fingers over her life – her father’s increasingly erratic behaviour, violent drinking bouts and inexplicable depressions; her grandmother’s half-told stories about her period of internment in Ravensbrück concentration camp, an experience she shared with many of the neighbouring women – but on the whole her childhood seems relatively idyllic. In a slow burn of a novel that picks up in pace, interest and emotional impact as it progresses, Maja Haderlap portrays the narrator’s early years as picturesquely rural, only to tear down this beautiful world she has built as the narrator grows older and begins to expand her horizons.

It took me a while to understand what I was reading in this novel, which I believe is the point. The narrator grows up with a few snippets of locally common knowledge about World War II: her grandmother was in Ravensbrück, her father fought with the partisans, most families in the area lost at least one member to the Germans. It is something that happened in the past, but life is better now.

And yet.

Her grandmother doesn’t just keep her Ravensbrück spoon and camp journal in a drawer; she gradually withers away until she dies as thin as a concentration camp inmate, in an awful closing of some incomplete circle. Her father retreats more and more into his memories, the only thing able to rouse him from his drunken stupors a rousing chorus of partisan songs. It takes years, sometimes decades, for war pensions and victim compensation payments to come through, during which time broken minds and bodies slave away in the fields to make ends meet, damaging themselves further still. And in the village pubs and town schools, Slovenians of all ages are verbally abused by the German-speaking population. In the country they have always lived in, and whose freedom they supposedly fought for, they are not welcome, not at home.

Life is not better now – in fact, the history of the Slovenians in Kärnten, whom the Nazis largely tried to exterminate, has simply been forgotten, pushed under the carpet in the wave of national forgetting indulged in by Austria after 1945. But for this group of people, the trauma of war has never been forgotten. It bubbles and seethes beneath the surface, manifesting late in a series of heartbreaking yet inevitable scenes in which family ties are stretched to breaking point and the narrator struggles to find a place where she feels truly at home. Haderlap’s carefully constructed novel lulled me into a false sense of security before hitting me with the full weight of the message behind her story. Trauma is something that runs deep, and all the collective forgetting in the world will never be able to shrug it off.

Haderlap uses language to great effect, beautifully conveying the lush greenness of Kärnten’s meadows, the scent of a summer afternoon or the silent denseness of a border forest, but language also plays an important role in its own right. After attending a Slovenian-speaking school – which doesn’t even have its own building, but instead occupies a German-speaking school out of hours – the narrator finds the language of her childhood slowly being excised from her writing, until one day it no longer appears in her notebooks, poetry and essays. Here, language is a way of expressing identity and all that comes with it – at one point the narrator asks, ‘tragen die hier gesprochenen Sprachen immer noch Uniform?’ (‘do the languages spoken here still wear uniforms?’) – and yet it is also slippery. Her grandmother repeatedly uses the Slovenian word čudovito, meaning ‘wonderful’, because she either never learned or has forgotten the word for ‘terrible’.

As the title implies, forgetting, whether deliberately or subconsciously, is the main theme of the novel. And forgetting is a dangerous thing – for the title of this review, I chose a sentence in which Haderlap writes that between the alleged and actual history of Austria lies a ‘no-man’s in which you can get lost.’ In a quiet, unassuming way, she has brought her autobiographical novel into the world as a testimony to the power and importance of not forgetting, of being fully aware of the facts of history and trying to make our peace with it. While I didn’t get a complete sense of reconciliation at the end, I felt that the very writing process was an attempt at such a thing. Although not a complete healing, it is perhaps the first step along the road to finding peace – for an individual, a community and a nation.

Having read this book, I look at my surroundings differently – the bilingual road signs hold a lot more significance than they did before. But anyone interested in Europe would do well to read such a powerful reminder of what our porous borders can help to both build and conceal. Engel des Vergessens has been translated by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books under the name Angel of Oblivion. It’s well worth hunting down a copy, both for Maja Haderlap’s striking, searing prose and the sake of this forgotten, still-suffering corner of the world.

My rating: 4.5/5

‘The Path of Metaphor is rife with perils.’ A review of Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

I have come to Haruki Murakami comparatively late in life, a fact that is in itself a cause for great joy. Not only do I think I wouldn’t have appreciated him as completely as I do now had I been younger – I did in fact read Norwegian Wood aged about sixteen and found it relatively impossible to get on with – but I suddenly find myself in love with an author who has a huge back catalogue of work for me to devour. In terms of reading enjoyment, I can think of few better treats.

Of course I have long been aware of Murakami as a contemporary literary great, but my approach to him has been rather meandering – I have read many of his interviews, quotes and non-fiction, in particular his absolutely masterful almost-autobiography, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In as far as it is possible to know any author through their words alone, I thus have a sense of understanding a bit about Murakami’s character, which I was quick to recognise in the narrator of Killing Commendatore.

Flawlessly (I believe) translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen – the book reads as though it was written in English, with a perfectly consistent narrative tone, idiomatic use of language and never an awkward phrasing or linguistic slip – Killing Commendatore is a 600-page romp through Murakami’s quite astonishing imagination. It is a well-known fact that his own personal obsessions (which include music, especially jazz, cats and doing the ironing) often crop up in his novels, and this one is no exception. Classical music is a driving force here, and while I didn’t notice many cats there is one particular scene that reminded me of a 2014 interview with Murakami in which he stated that his lifelong ambition is to spend time sitting at the bottom of a well. Enter the mysterious character Menshiki, who spends a memorable few pages sitting in utter darkness at the bottom of a sealed pit. Although his reasons are hinted at, like many things in the novel they remain for ever unclear.

While Menshiki provides a dose of darkness and intrigue to counterbalance the narrator’s more straightforward character (though he does actually prove surprisingly open to the absurd), my absolute favourite figure in the book was the pint-sized Commendatore, who walks out of a painting quite early on and has a wonderfully defined voice. It was his manner of speaking that often had me laughing just when things were otherwise getting a bit too dark, yet this is just one example of the ways in which Murakami delivers his story so masterfully. I am not a fan of the supernatural, and at times this novel definitely verges on that, but Murakami is such a skilful storyteller that at just the right moment he is able to tip the narrative into the utterly absurd, such as with the line I have chosen for the title of this review. This in itself made me smile, coming at a moment of heightened tension, and when it was quickly followed by a straight-faced warning about the dangers of encountering a Double Metaphor in the dark, I found myself actually laughing out loud. Murakami, I got the sense, was poking fun at me and my imagined fears. He has claimed before that he has fun when writing, and Killing Commendatore is surely evidence of that.

Shining with details that make the action and characters leap off the page and into real life, set indisputably in modern-day Japan and tackling issues of love, loss, family, war, fathers and sons, trauma and emotional displacement, Killing Commendatore is that rarest of beasts: a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining ride. Having become hooked by around page three, I stayed up late one night to finish it and then had to flick through a cookbook in order to calm down enough to fall asleep. Not everyone will have this reaction, I’m sure – Murakami certainly does have a riotous imagination and for some readers this novel will no doubt prove too ridiculous – but as an introduction to his storytelling genius, I found this to be perfect.

The rest of this year is going to be quite Murakami-heavy, I fear, as I attempt to catch up with all the gems of literature I feel sure I have missed. Hats off to Haruki, one of the living authors whose hands I would most like to shake.

My rating: 5/5

‘Strange things are afoot.’ A review of The Evenings by Gerard Reve, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

They told me it was strange, and they weren’t wrong. In fact, so unsettling and beyond my usual style of reading did I find The Evenings that I almost gave up on it after fifty pages. In part because of my Dutch reading challenge and in part because I hate not finishing a book once I’ve started, I persevered to the end – and I’m very glad I did.

The brief author’s note at the beginning of the novel apologises – ‘It’s not my fault it caused such an uproar’ – in a voice that is very similar to that of the protagonist, Frits van Egters. Sardonic, slightly caustic and feigning innocence, it is a voice that took me a while to get used to and still longer to truly appreciate. The Evenings is a foray into a slightly absurdist world, a strange journey through the mostly evening streets of an unnamed town (I assumed Amsterdam) and into the life and mind of a young, clearly intelligent, but incredibly bored man.

There are definite echoes of Kafka here, and I was also put strongly in mind of a recent encounter with the wacky world of Tim Etchells, whose Endland seems to be a biting, bizarrely funny attempt to make sense of a world – dare I say Britain – gone very wrong. Reve, writing in 1947, had also just witnessed his world collapse into the madness of the Second World War, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why he felt compelled to write The Evenings. ‘I was convinced I had to write it,’ he says in his author’s note.

Gerard Reve is regarded as one of the Netherlands’ three greatest post-war writers (the others are Willem Frederik Hermans and Harry Mulisch, who I confess to never having heard of) and was one of the country’s first openly gay authors. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing to read a book in the light of what we know about the author’s background – although it might well influence their writing, it’s easy to end up misguidedly conflating author and narrator – but in this case I couldn’t help wondering if the clearly lost young Frits was somehow a reflection of Reve. There seems to be something that Frits want to say or do, particularly when it comes to his parents, yet he never seems to get round to it. Instead he opens his mouth to be mean or sarcastic, tell dark jokes or tease his friends about an ongoing obsession of his: baldness. All of it seems to be a way of beating around the bush, avoiding the real point.

There are several ongoing themes in the novel, of which baldness is just one. Cruelty to animals, children and old people (whether direct or implied) is another, as is the cinema, boredom and the pointlessness of life. Frits has a job in which he does little more than shuffle index cards between one box and another, lives at home with his despised parents, and passes the rest of his time in a haze of ridiculous conversations with friends, himself and a stuffed toy rabbit. Time passes strangely in the novel, leaping forward in bounds before suddenly slowing to a crawl, and Frits is constantly wondering how he’s going to pass it. We observe him doing the kinds of things we all might do when we’re alone, bored and think no one is watching – pulling faces at himself in the mirror or considering throwing water over a couple of cats – and it was one of these small but hilarious moments of skilful insight that finally got me to accept the novel for what it was.

My overriding impression of The Evenings was that it is enveloped in a sort of murk, in which occasional moments of genuine brilliance and humour gleam like sudden sparks. The world it is set in didn’t seem all that far from the modern one, and at its core is a sense of humanity that makes the reader implicit in Frits’ thoughts and actions whether they want to be or not. While I got the sense that most people in the novel were relatively reasonable, Frits himself often isn’t, yet his moments of exasperation – such as when he suddenly notices that his parents slurp when they eat soup – or despair at another person’s perceived idiocy are impossible not to relate to. The world is ridiculous, Reve seems to be saying, and people often cruel or thoughtless, yet in the end we are all lost and a little bit bored, just looking for ways to pass the time.

That might be a bleak view of things and perhaps not at all what Reve was trying to convey, but that was the message his novel offered me. The Evenings was Reve’s first novel, after which he went on to write many things that often sparked controversies because of their eroticism or treatment of religion. Pushkin Press did the literary world a great service by publishing this first-ever English translation of The Evenings back in 2016, and I hope they go on to produce more of Reve’s novels (Childhood: Two Novellas, also translated by the great Sam Garrett, was published in 2018). I’d be interested to see where the workings of his mind took him – though I don’t often read this style of writing, it was an educational experience and I like a novel that makes me really think.

Despite the fact that it was written in 1947, The Evenings is a very timely read. Perhaps the best way to cope with a world gone insane is not to take it as seriously as we are wont to do, but to look at things through the mirror of the absurd. After all, Reve’s repeated refrain is as true now as it was back then: ‘strange things are afoot’ indeed.

My rating: 3.5/5

‘I neglected to notice my husband’. A review of Sleepless Night by Margriet de Moor, translated from the Dutch by David Doherty

Dutch novelist Margriet de Moor has a wide following in the German-speaking world, but before I actively went looking for Dutch literature I had never come across a mention of her works in English. Why this is I can’t quite fathom, but with translations making up only around three per cent of the literary market in the USA and UK, it’s no wonder that most non-English-speaking authors go unsung. Thanks to New Vessel Press, it’s now possible to get your hands on Sleepless Night, de Moor’s brief but luminous novel translated by David Doherty.

Despite its brevity, this is a deeply complex novel, with a distinct psychological bent and layers upon layers of hidden meaning. This is particularly noticeable as the narrative progresses, to the extent that by the end I felt that I was being played with. There was something hidden there – some event, some feeling – that rose to just below the surface but refused to be revealed.

The narrator is a woman around the age of forty who is experiencing a sleepless night. To soothe herself she leaves her new lover in bed and goes down to the kitchen to make a cake. As she mixes ingredients and waits for the batter to rise and bake, she reflects on her fledgling relationship and the one she had with her husband, Ton, who died young in tragic circumstances. Her life, once so full of promise, has been marked by terrible events, and while the novel is calm and still – reading it, I could almost feel the silence of the night pressing down around me – a contained sense of grief and rage bubbles beneath the restrained prose.

Despite her refreshing frankness about sex and her relationships with men, a steady suspicion builds throughout the novel that the narrator is not giving all of herself away. In this she becomes an exact mirror of her young husband – who, she comes to realise, she never really knew – and so shows rather than tells the reader how frustrating it is to be aware that someone close to you is refusing to share their true self and deepest feelings. I suspect that a second reading would throw up more concealed meanings, and although I tend not to re-read this is more likely to happen here thanks to the book being so short.

Although I did leave this novel feeling frustrated by what I felt I didn’t understand, I wholly admire de Moor’s beautiful, sparing style of prose. It came as no surprise to me to learn that she is a classically trained pianist – there is a musical quality to her writing. Her sentences are very carefully phrased, not a single word out of place. The fact that I felt this must also be a tribute to David Doherty’s translation, which seems to have captured perfectly her nuanced and reflective way of writing.

Dealing as much in what is said as what is unsaid, this is a short, surprising, strangely unsettling book that uses silence to great effect.

My rating: 3.5/5

‘This shining land is not ours.’ A review of Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I found it slightly disconcerting at first. Eva Meijer, the multi-talented author of Bird Cottage (Het vogelhuis in the original Dutch) has such a particular way of articulating her main protagonist’s thoughts on the page that I almost felt like I was inside her head. Although definitely not a stream-of-consciousness novel, the slightly jerky way in which thoughts and observations are expressed, which to me often felt like a layer of (ultimately unnecessary) explanation had deliberately not been added, gives the reader the sometimes unsettling sense of being inside someone else’s mind. Although this is what all first-person narratives aim at doing, I have rarely noticed it to be so skilfully done as here. Initially it threw me a little, until I realised what it was that I found different.

Bird Cottage is a fictitious portrayal of the life of Len Howard, a professional musician who gave up her career with a London orchestra to move to Sussex and study ornithology. Her relationship with birds was intimate and unusual, her research – based on entirely autodidactic knowledge – unprecedented and way ahead of its time. The two books she published in her lifetime were great successes, but when she died in 1973 her work sank into oblivion. Now Eva Meijer has brought it back out into the light and, using her imagination and skill as a writer, given the story wings.

Based on a few scraps of biographical information, the novel follows independent, strong-willed Len (short for Gwendolen) from her childhood in coastal Wales to her longed-for musical career in London, where she has an on-and-off affair with an artist, makes many friends and helps teach music to children from poor neighbourhoods. Living through both World Wars, her life is affected by many of the twentieth century’s most significant moments; she is also briefly involved in the suffragette movement, for example. The scope of the novel is wide-reaching, yet at its centre is this one boldly drawn character, a woman who knows her own mind and whom we as readers are privileged to come to know as well.

In between chapters narrating her life – the course of which, I got the sense, was influenced in no small way by her rather temperamental parents – we are treated to excerpts (again fictionalised) from Len’s notes on the birds with whom she shares the latter part of her life. Moving to Sussex at the age of forty, she opens her home – the Bird Cottage of the title – to an array of British birds including great tits, robins and blackbirds. With a window always open for the birds to fly in and out, she dedicated her life to studying their behaviour in a natural, rather than controlled laboratory environment. The results were astounding, attributing a previously unthought-of level of intelligence and empathy to our common garden birds. These in-between chapters dwell particularly on her touching relationship with a great tit called Star, with whom she developed a deep and long-lasting bond.

It feels like the best possible time to bring Len Howard’s work back out into the light, a task that Eva Meijer has taken on with great imagination and perception. Antoinette Fawcett’s translation is likewise a beautiful piece of work – although I can’t read the original Dutch, her choice of words is sensitive to the vagaries of time and place, employing a language that develops naturally as Len ages and the Britain around her changes. The fact that this was a book written in Dutch but placed in a thoroughly British setting must also have posed challenges for the translation, yet whatever they were Fawcett seems to have tackled them with aplomb.

It might not have made me want to chuck it all in and move to live alone in the country – throughout the book I was haunted by a whiff of great loneliness emanating from the figure of Len – but it has certainly made me look at and think about birds differently. Next time you see a sparrow in the garden or hear an unseen bird sing, you will have a much greater sense of appreciation and understanding having read this book.

My rating: 4/5

‘Without families you don’t get stories.’ A review of The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es

Around a year ago, Bart van Es won the 2018 Costa Book of the Year award for his family memoir, The Cut Out Girl. (Interestingly, this year’s winner was also the non-fiction category champion, Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, another book about the Holocaust. Given that the award is designed to honour the ‘most enjoyable’ books of the year, I’m not sure what this says about our current taste in reading.) Ever since listening to him speak on the Guardian Books podcast about the extraordinary experience he had in the writing of this book, I’ve been determined to read it. What better way, then, to kick off my month of reading Dutchly.

Although he was born in the Netherlands, van Es has lived for most of his life in the UK and writes in English, making this the only book on my list this month to not be a translation. Van Es’s background as a literary scholar is clearly visible in his elegant, understated, magnetic prose, the kind of writing that shines off the page and makes it hard to put this book down. Although there is an awful lot of information packed in – historical, cultural and personal – it never once seems overbearing or too intellectual. This no doubt went a long way in the enjoyment factor so crucial to winning a Costa Award.

Written largely in the present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy, The Cut Out Girl follows van Es’s search to uncover a long-hidden family secret. During the Second World War, his grandparents had taken in a young Jewish girl and hidden her from the authorities until she was almost detected and forced to move on. After the war she came back to live with them, but a row saw her cut out of the family and never mentioned again. Van Es was an adult before he even learned of her existence and began to delve into his family’s past.

To create what will undoubtedly go down as a narrative non-fiction masterpiece, van Es intertwines a re-telling of Lien’s story – based on her memories and his own research – with an account of his experience as a biographer. The stories he heard and things he learned during the process of writing the book come to bear on many aspects of his life, from his relationships with his family (in particular his eldest daughter, Josie) to his feelings about his country of birth. And while the book is ostensibly a deeply personal look at one woman’s story, it also has far wider implications for memory (individual and collective) and how we deal with history as a whole.

Memory is a fickle beast, but as a central tenet of the book van Es never shies away from this fact. In fact, where Lien has been unable to remember events – for example, her traumatic night-time flight from a family cottage where she had felt relatively safe – the author is incredibly open with his readers, admitting that he has reconstructed the scene based on scrappy evidence. If what we take from this is that individual memory can let us down, then surely the lesson that collective memory can be even more deceiving is equally important. I was shocked – and van Es is clear that he was too – by the discovery that the Netherlands did not, in fact, offer such staunch resistance to the Nazis as is usually made out. More than 80 per cent of Dutch Jews died in the Second World War, an astonishing rate that is more than twice that of France, Belgium and even Germany. Ample reward money offered for the capture of Jews turned local police forces and normal civilians into bounty hunters.

While this new information does absolutely nothing to diminish my great appreciation of the contemporary Holland I have visited, it is something that will never let me go. (It also went on to colour my reading of other books on this list, including Gerard Reve’s The Evenings.) Van Es has done one of the most important jobs that I think this kind of writing is capable of today: calling on us to not simply believe what we are told, but to do our own research and question what we know. Especially in the age of boundless information, our points of view are in danger of becoming all too rigid, influenced by the herd.

The scope of The Cut Out Girl is incredibly broad, but at its heart lies one woman: Lien. Now in her eighties and living in Amsterdam, her story of loss, betrayal, survival and, ultimately, hope is a thing of remarkable beauty. At the same time, it is not remarkable. Many, many Jews faced the kinds of horrors she did during the Second World War; many people continue to face them today. The terrible experiences she went through are related by van Es with such a lack of melodrama – informed, I felt, by Lien’s own way of relating them – that they become all the more awful, all the more moving. The way the extraordinary can become the ordinary, the way unimaginable things can lie behind what might seem to be a regular façade – and this applies as much as it does to what Lien went through as a girl as to the unbelievable bravery shown by van Es’s grandparents in sheltering her – is the main message I took from this book. It is a message underpinned by the climax of Lien’s story, if you like: the cause of her falling-out with the van Es family. Without giving anything away, the spark that ignited the row was so commonplace, so trivial, that against the backdrop of what had gone before it broke my heart.

The Cut Out Girl is an important book, but no less enjoyable for that. Marrying deep thinking with genuine reading pleasure, it is a book that didn’t just deserve its award but undeniably needs to be read.

My rating: 5/5

The Monthly Booking: February 2020

A canal view in Amsterdam, October 2019

Dutch literature is having its day, so I’m beginning 2020 with a heavy focus on translation and a list of books written by Dutch authors. At the end of last year I visited Amsterdam and remembered something I used to do when I travelled a lot for work: wherever I went, I made sure to read a book by an author from that country. Sometimes this was challenging (like when I went to Tajikistan) but it gave me my first real appreciation of literature in translation and was a fantastic way to introduce me to aspects of the country I might not have noticed otherwise. Reading a contemporary Chinese crime novel in Shanghai, for example, made me look at the culture surrounding me through different eyes.

I failed to read a Dutch book when I was in Amsterdam, but I’m making up for it now with a list of four. Technically only three of them were written in Dutch originally, but Bart van Es, the author of The Cut Out Girl, this month’s non-fiction pick, is Dutch despite writing in English, and the book is intrinsically linked to the history of the Netherlands.

This is only a small sample of the Dutch writing out there, and thanks to the New Dutch Writing campaign of 2019–20 there are plenty more authors and books to be discovered. I’m going to try to pick up a few more throughout the year, but for this month I have chosen the following four:

Fiction

The Evenings by Gerard Reve, translated by Sam Garrett (Pushkin Press)

What the publisher says: ‘Darkly funny and mesmerising, The Evenings takes the tiny, quotidian triumphs and heartbreaks of our everyday lives and turns them into a work of brilliant wit and profound beauty.’

Non-fiction

The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es (Penguin)

What the publisher says: ‘His account […] is a searing exploration of two lives and two families. It is a story about love and misunderstanding and about the ways that our most painful experiences – so crucial in defining us – can also be redefined.’

Translation

Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett (Pushkin Press)

What the publisher says: ‘This moving novel imagines the story of [a] remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with the natural world.’

Small Press

Sleepless Night by Margriet de Moor, translated by David Doherty (New Vessel Press)

What the publisher says: ‘Margriet de Moor, master storyteller and one of Europe’s foremost novelists, recounts a gripping love story about endings and demise, rage and jealousy, knowledge and ambiguity – and the possibility of a fresh start.’

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