‘Another sort of beauty altogether’ [book review]

A review of A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft

Strange things happen in small towns. This seems to be the premise of Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, a collection of substantial short stories that gleam in Jennifer Croft’s English translation. At the tipping point between realism and its reverse, these strange tales are shot through with threads of absurdity, sharp observations and a dark sense of humour. As much as they probe the darker sides of the human experience – loneliness, heartache, jealousy, obsession – they are also a reminder not to take it too seriously. Ordinary lives, Falco suggests, can be filled with the fantastical, if only we are willing to let it in.

Cover image A Perfect Cemetery

On the face of things, the stories in A Perfect Cemetery play out in a fairly straight setting: small-town Argentina, largely modelled on the author’s birthplace of rural Córdoba. These backdrops contrast sharply with the characters who walk before them, ostensibly conducting ordinary lives but to whom unusual things are happening. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’, for example, a teenage girl who has just begun to question her parents’ devout Catholicism falls head over heels in love with a young Mormon missionary. Her wild infatuation is grounded in items all the more extraordinary for being prosaic – bottles of Sprite, an Axe deodorant – but we see it beginning to shape her as a person, even as her mother battles against it. Falco sensitively captures the hopeless magnificence of unrequited passion, making us feel deeply for Silvi even as we might laugh at the manner of her falling in love.

Where Silvi’s hot-headedness contrasts with her mother’s strict piety and the increasingly outrageous laments of the priest asked to help her, yet more sharply opposing characters come into play in ‘Woodland Life’ and ‘A Perfect Cemetery’. In the former, an ageing father searches desperately for a man to whom to marry off his adult daughter, Mabel; evicted from their home by a logging company, he believes his only recourse is to find a son-in-law to provide for him. Mabel bears the humility of the search with stoicism, the same tight-lipped resignation with which she meets her eventual husband’s nightly attentions. This buttoned-up quality is at odds with her father’s shameless flaunting of her availability – trying to make her look pretty, he braids flowers into her hair – and his eventual escape from the nursing home his son-in-law has indeed paid for. The man who believed his salvation would be found within the social convention of marriage chooses to end his days in the shadow of the pine trees among which he lived, imbuing the story with a sense of wildness that makes it seem quite different on second reading.

Another story that definitely bears multiple readings is ‘A Perfect Cemetery’, which rightly gives the collection its name. In this warped tale about faith, love, ambition and fear of death, celebrated cemetery architect Víctor Bagiardelli is invited by the mayor of a small town to design and construct a graveyard. The mayor is fed up of the townspeople driving to a rival municipality to bury their dead, but pride is not his only motive – his 104-year-old father has been on his way out for twenty years, and the mayor’s fervent wish for his death is to be somehow compensated by his building him a grand final resting place. The old man’s firm refusal to die is a twinkle in the eye of this story, in which the characters are automatically mistrustful of one another and worldly success is measured by where your burial plot is located. Despite finding it hard to actively like any of the characters, Falco draws them in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel flashes of sympathy for their thwarted hopes or twisted dreams. An air of faint resignation hangs over the story, counterbalanced by the same thread of dark humour that runs through the rest of the collection.

There is no doubt that Falco is incredibly gifted when it comes to observing people, yet some of the most striking passages in A Perfect Cemetery are those detailing the natural world – and, more particularly, the way people live with and move through it. Certain motifs crop up again and again: trees, hillsides, flowers (sometimes wild, but mainly cultivated in greenhouses and gardens), and the line of the horizon. This last has a special symbolism as a marker of ‘the infinite, where your eyes get lost and everything seems to end – but doesn’t’, a symbolism displayed perhaps most clearly in ‘A Perfect Cemetery’. As Víctor walks across the ground that will become his masterwork, ‘the horizon was a clean line that got away up ahead of him at every step, a line desired, impossible to reach’. As the boundary of any landscape, the horizon is with us all day long, yet though it could be said to hold in the world, Falco manages to twist it to signify instead his characters’ outsider status. Though they all are clearly of the places they live in, they seem in a strange way to be floating separate to them, tethered just above the events of their own lives.

Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the collection’s opening story, ‘The Hares’, a surrealist fable about a man living in a forest some distance from a town. The self-styled ‘King of the Hares’ occasionally eats his subjects, but his admittance of a woman to his forest threatens to upend the relatively peaceful existence he seems to have carved out for himself. Something about the dark fairy-tale elements of this story snagged emotionally; the forest, the cave and the king proved hauntingly vivid.

Right from this introductory story, in dialogue and descriptive prose, Jennifer Croft’s translation is marked by a definite voice, one that seems both probing and faintly philosophical, as though it wants to nudge readers towards a realisation hovering on the edge of our consciousness. There is to these stories ‘another sort of beauty altogether’, not of the classic kind but one that is all the more arresting. In Croft’s rendering, Falco’s prose is taut and limpid, every word in its right place. His settings and characters become both timeless and specific, filled with a hazy, dreamlike quality that put me very much in mind of the eerie clarity preceding a storm that is so beautifully captured in Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste, another Charco Press title translated by Chris Andrews.

Sparingly written yet conveying a wealth of feeling and insights into how we cope as humans, A Perfect Cemetery is a remarkable feat of storytelling. Federico Falco is rightly celebrated across the Spanish-speaking world, and Charco Press has once again done us a great service in bringing his work into English. In Jennifer Croft’s sensitive translation, these stories are profoundly amusing, subtle and illuminating.

A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Charco Press in digital and paperback on 6 April 2021. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘A forest full of troubles’ [book review]

A review of The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore

It may only be March, but when it comes to the memoir genre I’ll wager that this year you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more powerful example than Wayétu Moore’s. Combining elements of fantasy with all-too-real experiences of war and racism, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women is a creative, memorable and fiercely moving exploration of trauma, displacement, skin colour, and identity formed by and in defiance of conflict. Formally interesting and narrated with a well-judged element of reserve, Moore’s story deserves a place on any contemporary reading list.

Cover image The Dragons, The Giant, The Women

Divided into four sections, ‘Rainy Seasons’ and ‘Dry Seasons’, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women opens when Moore is five years old and living with her family in their home on the outskirts of Monrovia. When conflict suddenly crashes over Liberia they are forced to flee, dropping everything and making a dangerous journey on foot to her mother’s childhood village. Moore and her sisters are protected by their father, Gus, and their maternal grandmother, Ol’ Ma, but their mother is mysteriously absent – Moore knows only that she is far away in America. As the family rushes from their house and into the relative safety of the forest, they leave a video playing in the machine: one of Moore’s last memories of her home is Julie Andrews singing in The Sound of Music, a film her mother had sent just a few days earlier.

This opening section is incredibly immersive, narrated from a child’s point of view yet dropping hints that allow the reader to understand more fully what is going on. Told by her father that the gunfire is the sound of drums, Moore begins to comprehend the conflict – and accordingly relays it to us – as a story of dragons and princes, figures from the legends she grew up with. Throughout the book, in fact, the First Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, is only ever spoken of in these terms. Perhaps it is a form of distancing, keeping figures such as Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor firmly in the realms of fantasy where they are unable to hurt our narrator; perhaps it is a gentle way of explaining the bare bones of the conflict to readers who have no prior knowledge. Whatever her original intention, Moore’s decision serves both purposes, and also makes her account of war experienced in childhood far more moving. The details she deliberately leaves out can be all too well imagined by the reader.

Despite coming to a place of relative safety after their arduous journey, conflict rages on across the country: ‘There was no saviour to restore a forest full of troubles’. Yet with the help of a young rebel soldier, the author’s family is reunited, and so begins the second part of the book – Moore’s experiences as a young Black woman growing up in America. Relayed in snippets that take place in Texas, Connecticut and New York, Moore has written here a powerful reckoning, an unflinching account of everyday racism and what it means to be made to feel an outsider. More troubling even than angry shopkeepers yelling obscenities after young Black girls or her classmates’ mocking of her accent are her accounts of relationships with white men, of how it feels ‘to be loved as resistance, as an exception to the rule’, not to mention her probing examination of why the statement ‘I don’t see colour’ so often means the opposite. Timely and interrogatory, but with the grace and generosity to allow the reader to judge themselves, Moore has distilled her experiences into a searing portrait of racism in America that needs to be read as widely as possible.

‘“I keep hearing the theme of loss,”’ says a therapist to whom Moore speaks after a particularly bad break-up in her twenties, and despite her consistent denial that her childhood experiences caused her any trauma, she cannot shake a desire to track down the rebel soldier who helped her escape Liberia. This sets up the final two parts of the memoir, in which we are given her mother’s account of the year she spent separated from her family by conflict, and finally see Moore return to Liberia where her parents are once again living. Her mother’s story is also written in the first person, which initially creates a slightly jarring shift in narrative, but soon allows us to become immersed in a different but no less affecting story – a reminder that displacement can apply not just refugees on the ground, but to those who suddenly become cut off from their home. As Moore observes early on in her memoir, ‘there were many different ways to tell a story’.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women ends where it began, in a country now barely recognisable. Gone are the dragons, but the fabric of society is still saturated with memories of conflict – in her search for her family’s saviour, someone else she proves to have lost, Moore speaks to former rebels now earning a living as security guards and touches on the harrowing legacy of child soldiers. Underpinning it all is an interrogation of how Liberia came to exist in the first place, land apportioned as a country by colonial rulers. ‘Without agency, who can love a country forced upon them?’ she asks, a question that references both Liberia and the USA, the home forced upon her as a child in search of safety.

Despite its difficult subject matter and many heart-wrenching scenes – all of which are narrated with pleasing understatement that only makes them more moving – The Dragons, The Giant, The Women ends on a note of hope. Moore has chosen to close her memoir with a powerful defence of storytelling, of the need to listen to one another and seek out stories beyond the bounds of our own experience. Though the past can never be undone and loss exists, there is a sense of moving forward – yet in what way, she gives us to consider, will we take these steps? What can we as individuals do to defeat the dragons hovering among us? Will we be giants like her father, a towering figure of bravery and strength, or the women on whose shoulders this story is founded – resilient, compassionate, wise and courageous? She may in one way close the circle of her narrative, but Moore leaves many questions open for the reader to ponder.

Hard-hitting in substance, immersive in its detail, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women is a work of fiery imagination by a brave and perceptive storyteller. With many qualities of a novel but grounded firmly in reality, it demonstrates the power of literature in reaching across divides and bringing us all towards a deeper understanding.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore is published by Pushkin Press on 25 March 2021. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

‘A petted, butterfly girl’ [book review]

A review of The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

There is so much fantastic contemporary literature out there that it can be difficult to remember also to look backwards. Thank goodness, then, for publishers like Persephone Books, whose elegant grey covers hold stories by brilliant but often forgotten female writers of the twentieth century to whom we all ought to be paying more attention. In fact, I was surprised when I picked up The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (better known to me for her children’s novel The Secret Garden) to find just how much contemporary relevance it has. At times, it felt a bit like standing in an echo chamber. There is the outbreak of a deadly disease (typhoid fever), during which the rich do very little to help. There is the scene in which a young woman is on the verge of being murdered by a man, lost in the woods and far from home. And there is the figure of Sir Nigel Anstruthers, who does a fine line in gaslighting other characters, including but not limited to his own wife.

Cover image The Shuttle

While the parallels with today’s headlines are astonishing, these few plot points are also where The Shuttle stops bearing any close resemblance to contemporary fiction. Written between 1900 and 1907, when it was first published, it is a novel very much of its time, almost breathless with the sense of possibility ushered in by the turning of the century. Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was herself a great traveller, takes up here the ever-tightening links between Britain and the USA, which were made possible during this period by technological advancements in both communication and shipping. As increasing numbers of people – particularly the young and wealthy – crossed the pond to seek love or fortunes in ‘a manner as epoch-making, though less war-like, than that of William the Conqueror’, the two countries wove closer and closer together; the fabric of what would later become that ‘special relationship’ created by something the author imagines to be a great invisible shuttle. There is a certain romance to this idea, as there was at the time to the notion of transatlantic travel, and from the very first pages the reader can’t help but be swept up in a giddy whirl of new possibilities and adventures.

Despite her evident approval of travel and the growing alliance between the two countries, Frances Hodgson Burnett also paints an astute portrait of the darker sides of romance. The novel centres on the marriage between impoverished English aristocrat Sir Nigel Anstruthers and young Rosalie Vanderpoel, the eldest daughter of a New York billionaire. Married before she turns twenty, Rosalie’s excitement soon turns to horror when her husband shows his true colours: he is physically and psychologically abusive, cuts her off from her family, and leaves her all but locked up in his Kent manor house while he spends her fortune and engages in affairs. After twelve years of living in this nightmare, Rosalie’s salvation comes in the form of her younger sister Bettina, now grown up and as unlike her sister as it is possible to be. Quick-witted and unafraid, she journeys to England to turn Rosalie and Nigel’s life on its head, falling in love herself in the process and proving to be the very essence of a ‘modern woman’.

The story sounds simple enough and not necessarily the kind of thing I’d go for – I’m not a fan of a neatly happy ending, it has to be said – but The Shuttle gave me more than I’d bargained for. Despite the fact that a fair amount of simpering goes on, I found myself deeply invested in the characters – particularly Betty, but also members of the well-drawn supporting cast, including the brooding Lord Mount Dunstan, the kindly clergyman Mr Penzance and Rosalie’s unusually perceptive (and wonderfully named) son Ughtred. As a result (and thanks, too, to a couple of unexpected plot twists) the story was far more compelling than I’d anticipated; it did end up reading, as the publisher boldly claims, like something of a ‘page-turner’.

My absorption in the world of The Shuttle wasn’t purely down to believable characters, but also to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ability to create a tangible sense of place. Though New York is only visited briefly, she captures all the colour and clamour of its streets, while the Kent countryside is depicted in pastoral scenes that stay on just the right side of cliché. Her words on English autumn weather, for example, hit the nail exactly on the head: ‘the rain began to fall softly, slowly, and with a suggestion of endlessness. It was a sort of mist itself, and became a damp shadow among the bare branches of trees’. And woven through it all is the sense of a world trembling on the cusp of change, touched still by a sort of innocence that the reader is all too aware will soon be shattered.

Though we aren’t given a lot of detail on the wider fate of women during this period, the twelve–year age gap between Rosalie and Bettina – and some major differences in character – are enough to create two opposing experiences of womanhood. Bettina, who has all the typical attributes of an old-fashioned heroine, is also educated and business-minded, not to mention possessed of a feisty temperament that proves more than a match for the wicked Nigel Anstruthers and his view that ‘a very clever woman is something cunning and debased’. Although she may lack some nuance, Bettina is hard not to fall for, but I was disappointed by the narrator’s often supercilious tone when it came to describing Rosalie: ‘a petted, butterfly girl, pretty and admired and surrounded by inordinate luxury’. More than this, she is often described to us as ‘stupid’ – a characterisation that seems to undermine her husband’s clearly terrible treatment of her. While it is important to read novels like this in context, the subtext of ‘she was stupid so she had it coming to her’ did rankle a bit, especially when contrasted with the otherwise supportive feminist overtones.

We didn’t always see eye to eye on the characters, but the narrative voice was one of my chief delights in reading this novel. Smart and insightful, with an edge of wry humour, it contributes much to the page-turning quality. And though the language may be of a different time and the smelling salts called for a little too often, The Shuttle is a pleasing reminder that there is more to link us to the past than we might think, and that even a novel written more than a hundred years ago can still end up offering a fresh and lively escape.

‘God bless sedation’ [book review]

A review of Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches

A translator’s note is something that really ought to be included in every work of translated literature. Though I have come across more recently, it seems still to be an uncommon practice, yet even the shortest one can offer the reader a far more profound experience of a book. Translator Julia Sanches’s afterword to Permafrost by Eva Baltasar is a fantastic example, a few pages that discuss direction and cadence, compare translation to pottery and, in revealing the ‘heart-keys’ that aided her, themselves provide a key to understanding the novel. Sanches writes about translation with elegant lyricism, and a keen ear for rhythm that has clearly informed her work.

Cover image Permafrost

The debut work of fiction by Catalan poet Eva Baltasar, Permafrost is a shooting star of a novel: a brief yet brilliant story that leaves a strong impression. The first-person narrator is prickly-voiced and supremely intelligent, describing her life with refreshing honesty that is applied just as strongly to her accounts of the women she sleeps with as it is to her thorny relationship with her mother or her regularly recurring thoughts of suicide. Juxtaposing the inner life with external appearances to devastating effect, and nipping in the bud any hint of mawkishness with a wry sense of humour, Baltasar proves herself to be a fresh and powerful voice in the realm of fiction as well as poetry.

As Julia Sanches writes about so engagingly in her afterword, a certain sense of poetry does indeed pervade Permafrost: this is a book that moves to its own rhythm, certainly in English. Subtle word choices and sentence structures that often seem to unfurl over the course of a paragraph add an element of compulsion to a plot that otherwise seems to be drifting, much like our narrator herself. Uncertain what to do with her life and uncomfortable in the ordered spheres of her parents and sister, she leaves and then returns to her home city of Barcelona, searching for purpose and a place in which her sense of self can be reconciled with the world around her. Near the beginning of the novel, she delivers a warning, ‘I’ve settled on an edge . . . my temporary home’, and over the course of the next 120 pages the reader herself will always be slightly on edge, wondering at which point the narrator – with whom it is impossible not to empathise – might decide to tip herself over. The end, which is shocking, does indeed mark a tipping point, but not in the way I had expected. It could read like a cruel joke on the part of the author – or, more likely, a sobering reflection of how life enjoys dealing unexpected hands.

Despite in many ways seeming in control of her life – our narrator is confident in her sexuality, determined not to be like her mother, and unafraid to sever herself from ties of responsibility or family (‘some individuals,’ she tells us, ‘can only grow as amputations’) – Baltasar simultaneously presents us with an unsettling portrait of a woman who isn’t sure she wants to live. ‘I am done. I won’t waste another minute. I’ll do it from my roof terrace’ is a typical sequence of sentences, yet her careful considerations and even a botched attempt with a plastic-covered razor blade twist the subject of suicide with a strangely black humour. It may sound like a dangerous game for an author to be playing, but Baltasar succeeds in never trivialising the matter – rather, she confronts the reader with it, refusing to let up. The rapid switches from the highs of new relationships or unexpected professional fulfilment to the deepest of lows create an emotional seesaw that requires our full attention. Showing that what is on the outside by no means reflects the inside, Baltasar’s narrator is both strong and immensely fragile, a woman who takes a hard-to-discuss subject and drags it firmly into the light.

Although Permafrost is a novel of the mind – the title refers to the emotional barrier our narrator has erected around herself – it hinges almost entirely on the body. Frank about sex, unsparing when it comes to detailing the functions and failures of human limbs and organs, Baltasar takes on both ends of the spectrum, writing about terminal illness and carnal desire within the same paragraph. She is irreverent, too, in her discussion of how obsessed with health and safety we have become as a society: after listing a series of common ‘precautions’ including ‘seat belts, helmets, alarm buttons, and blockades . . . foam floor tiles, zippers, condoms, riot police, and football’, which she views as working against her attempts to take control of her own life – and indeed its end – our narrator wraps up her lecture with the weary conclusion, ‘God bless sedation’. But if she, or possibly Baltasar, sees a society dependent on sedatives to keep it happy, then Permafrost is surely a novel to shake us all from our trance.

‘Fresh as seashells’ (and with a correspondingly inspired line in poetic imagery), Permafrost defies categorisation and presents us with a complex yet somehow charming challenge. Buoyed by the liberties it takes as it engages on a deep level with selfhood, sex, mental health and female freedom, it is a blisteringly sharp and witty novel that forces the reader into a new mode of thinking. Already a highly regarded poet, Baltasar has revealed a formidable talent for fiction – and if the tone of Permafrost is anything to go by, there is clearly a lot more simmering just below the surface.

Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches, is published by And Other Stories in digital and paperback on 6 April 2021. The cover pictured is a limited early edition for subscribers.

‘Exercising an unnecessary degree of enthusiasm’ [book review]

A review of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton

I have a friend who writes about work. She writes about team-building strategies and co-working spaces, working from home and how to avoid burnout. About how to strike a good work–life balance, finding ways of doing a job you love. It seemed unusual at me at first, that writing about employment could be a job. But then, as recruitment officer Mrs Masakado says in Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, ‘“There are so many jobs in this world I still don’t know a thing about.”’ Even the world of work, which we might expect to be humdrum, is consistently full of surprises.

Cover image There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job

One thing I do know is that before she writes another word, that friend of mine needs a copy of this book. Recently translated into English by Polly Barton, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job tackles the theme of employment with a rare astuteness and wicked sense of humour that ought to make the novel a runaway success in English as well as its original Japanese. Told through the framework of five supposedly simple jobs, it is a sly, incisive examination of society’s obsession with employment – how we tend to define ourselves by what we do rather than who we are – which uses comedy to deliver a troubling message about stress, burnout and widespread loneliness, particularly among the young in urban environments.

By far the most compelling aspect of the novel is the first-person narrator, whose name we never learn, but who has one of the sharpest and most likeable voices I have encountered in fiction for some time. We first meet her in an ‘easy job’ she has taken after burnout forced her to quit her job as a medical social worker and, at the age of thirty-six, move back in with her parents. From watching surveillance tapes of an author suspected of harbouring contraband to writing trivia for the back of rice-cracker packets, the novel follows her increasingly thwarted search for ‘a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not’. Aided by the unflappable Mrs Masakado, our narrator gradually learns that there is in fact no such thing as an easy job: each position comes with its own challenges, which gradually become more social in nature. By the final two – ‘the postering job’ and ‘the easy job in the hut in the big forest’ – she has come to learn a lot about society and her position within it, finding that she is not alone in her feelings about employment, and that meaningful connection with others – even through the medium of a job – is what gives life colour and substance.

While the message of the novel is made abundantly clear in the closing pages – a device that in any other book may have run the risk of seeming twee, but works here purely because of the light-hearted tone that precedes it – it is one that creeps up gradually, appearing through the haze of a dreamlike sequence of events. Tsumura uses surrealism to great effect: in our narrator’s second job, which involves writing advertising copy for a bus company, strange disappearances begin affecting the businesses she deals with, while in the final chapter, the mysterious forest setting featuring a blank map and a shadowy cave is deliciously shiver-inducing. Tsumura, however, makes a welcome move in resolving the majority of these surrealist escapades with plain old reality, underlining as she does so the absurdities of being alive. Our narrator helps by never being willing to believe in fantasy – she is too clear-headed, too rationally minded, to give in to fears or silly superstitions. Her struggle with herself is one of the novel’s charms: we as readers know she is far smarter and more socially adept than she would ever give herself credit for.

Although she describes herself as ‘a chronic over-thinker’ (in many ways true: in her fourth position, she spends a considerable amount of time worrying about whether she is ‘exercising an unnecessary degree of enthusiasm’ for her job), our narrator is in fact extremely insightful, a warm, compassionate and quick-witted person whom I wanted as a friend. There is no doubt that Tsumura has done a superb job of creating an entirely believable character with a well-defined voice and the ability to deliver sharp one-liners that had me creasing with laughter, but all credit is due, really, to Polly Barton for having transported this voice so masterfully into English. Filled with particular inflections, sentence structures and turns of phrase that are entirely idiomatic but combine to create a sense of a very individual voice, the consistency of tone in this novel is remarkable. There were plenty of phrases that made me smile – see ‘a face like the sole of a worn-down shoe’ – but any translator who can so smoothly insert words like ‘kibosh’ and ‘icky’ is more than deserving of respect. There is a confident, nuanced feel to this translation that makes me suspect Barton and Tsumura are extremely well matched.

For all its pacey plot and smile-inducing narrator, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job contains a sombre thread about the many unseen, unheard stories of people who, like our narrator and her friends, are ‘gritting their teeth and clinging on as best they could’. While our narrator may spend much of the novel uncertain about how to strike the right balance between fulfilment, mental health, salary and benefits like health insurance, this is nothing compared to the dilemmas facing some of the characters we meet later on, while the passages dealing with loneliness are especially perturbing. As our narrator puts it, with her perceptive bluntness: ‘Nobody’s life was untouched by loneliness; it was just a question of whether or not you were able to accept that loneliness for what it was. Put another way, everyone was lonely, and it was up to them whether they chose to bury that loneliness through relationships with other people’. While it is true that social isolation, particularly among the young, is a growing problem in Japan – a topic probed in conjunction with others in Mizuki Tsujimura’s cult novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror, translated by Philip Gabriel and published next month – it is a universal issue and one we should all take note of, particularly as our world becomes ever more digital and pressurised.

Serious messages conveyed with empathy and humour in a whip-smart voice: put simply, There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job has pretty much everything I’m looking for in a novel. An essential read for anyone who has ever worked, Kikuko Tsumura’s words in Polly Barton’s translation are also a brilliant advert for why we need ever more literature in translation. Bringing the world into slightly sharper focus and making me feel personally understood, it is a novel that will stay with me for a long time to come.

‘A complicated journey in small stages’ [book review]

A review of A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Lying on the west coast of Africa, surrounded by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon is a country of 27 million people about which I’m ashamed to say I know almost nothing at all. After finishing A Long Way From Douala, Cameroonian writer Max Lobe’s debut appearance in English courtesy of Ros Schwartz’s spirited translation, I have, however, been doing some research. Among other things, Cameroon suffers from a form of migration known as ‘brain drain’: according to the IOM, more than 170,000 Cameroonians are currently living abroad (in France, Gabon and Germany for the most part), many of whom are highly skilled. Increasing numbers of people are willing to make what can be a perilous journey in search of ‘a better life’ away from the violence, corruption and economic challenges of the country in which they were born.

Cover image A Long Way From Douala

There isn’t much that’s entertaining about this situation – and yet Max Lobe has taken it as the premise for a novel that can only be described as blisteringly funny. A Long Way From Douala is a short, sharp and entirely addictive read that explores complex themes such as terrorism, homosexuality, prostitution, religion and migration in a tone that is never anything but light and fizzing, sparkling with wit and the desire to live. To have subject matter and voice so violently opposing is a difficult narrative trick to pull off, yet Max Lobe does it to extraordinary effect. This novel left me feeling entertained and upbeat, yet with the strangely sneaking sensation of also wanting to cry.

The narrator, who speaks to us in the first person, is Jean, also known as Johnny, a young man from Douala whose older brother, Roger, runs away from home shortly after their father’s death. While their mother has always had a soft spot for Jean, she has routinely beaten Roger, and with the loss of his protective father his disillusionment with Cameroon seems to have spilled over. After spending time closed off in his room, ‘alone with his football kings and his dreams of fame and fortune’, Roger sets off for Europe to pursue his ambition of being a famous footballer – as one of his helpers later puts it, in a loaded understatement typical of the novel, ‘“Football here isn’t played the way he wants to play.”’ Yet leaving home without a backward glance is not the done thing in this family. Jean and Simon, an older friend referred to as ‘our brother from another mother’, are despatched by their mothers to the north of the country to bring Roger home safe and sound.

What ensues is a madcap journey through Cameroon, first by bus to the capital of Yaoundé and then by train into the northern provinces, which are increasingly at risk of violent attacks carried out by terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Passenger searches at railway stations and unscheduled night-time stops accompanied by gunfire are described by Jean in a tone that ranges from genuine levity to barely mustered bravado: the true severity of the situation always readable between the lines. Approaching an important subject with humour can be dangerous, but when done well – as here by Max Lobe – the comedy is often far more effective than if the topic were to be broached with the seriousness it warrants. In this case, I was struck enough to want to find out more – about Boko Haram in Cameroon, about the internal conflicts that have affected hundreds of thousands of people, about the corruption symbolised in the novel by rude and spectacularly unhelpful policemen. (On a side note, I highly recommend the heartbreaking film Adú, which I happened to watch shortly after finishing this book.) Lobe offers us just a taste of all these things, but ultimately leaves it in the hands of his readers to go and do the digging.

The approach is admirable – and, I can’t say it often enough, his use of light-hearted comedy masterful – yet I did put down A Long Way From Douala feeling I’d wanted a little bit more. Of course, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to finish a book and wish it had gone on for longer, but in this case the ending was perhaps a little too abrupt. Lobe no doubt has his reasons (and I suspect the comedy was one of them; taking his characters any further on their journey would soon have made it difficult to maintain this particular tone) yet I felt that Jean, Simon and I had just been starting to get somewhere when suddenly we reached the end of the road. Other themes, like homosexuality – Jean is secretly in love with Simon – also require a little background knowledge for the reader to understand their true importance: according to human rights organisations, homosexuals are routinely persecuted and even tortured in Cameroon.

To engage deeply with all these themes in one relatively slim novel would, admittedly, be far too much, and the main subject of migration is one about which Lobe writes very well. Referred to by its local name, we are told that ‘Boza means adventure. A complicated journey in small stages that takes the bozayers from Cameroon to Europe’ – and it is with an almost painful sense of adventure that Jean and Simon set out on their journey; the cynical reader will know that things surely can’t end well. Yet while one character is focused on leaving the country, others have reasons for wanting to stay, and so very often A Long Way From Douala reads like a love letter to Cameroon: moments of human connection, generosity and kindness bejewel its pages, not to mention sensual descriptions of a country filled with colour, beauty and culture. The vividness of each vignette is aided in no small part by translator Ros Schwartz’s decision to leave in many words of Camfranglais, the hybrid Cameroonian language she explains ‘consists of a mixture of French, English, Pidgin and borrowings from local languages’. Although a short glossary is provided at the end, each word is readily understandable from the context and comes to take on a special meaning for the reader. ‘Boza’, for example, could not in this book have been swapped for anything as simple as ‘migration’.

One other engaging element of the novel is the little-explored yet very moving relationship between Jean and his brother. Things have gone wrong here, that much is clear to see, but Jean’s decision to pursue Roger and ultimately let him go is based on a deep, unvoiced love. Jean is ashamed of his lack of sporting ability and the impact this has on his relationship with Roger: ‘Unable to be his henchman or teammate, I was simply his brother.’ What sadly neither of the boys seems to realise is that being a brother is more than enough.

‘“You see things on TV, and you believe them,”’ Simon says to Jean as they are nearing the end of their journey. To a certain extent this is true of everyone – bozayers and readers alike – and it is one of the novel’s most important messages. In writing this vivacious and heartfelt story, with its sombre themes not undone but rather highlighted by humour, Max Lobe gives us a fresh and urgently needed perspective of a country, of people, of the phenomenon of migration. A clever and compelling new voice in African literature, I look forward immensely to seeing what he does next.

A Long Way From Douala by Max Lobe, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz, is published by Hope Road in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for so kindly providing a review copy and giving me a space on the blog tour.

‘Those carefree, glittering summers’ [book review]

A review of The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu

Between 1961 and 1973, nearly 900,000 Turkish men and women left their homes to work in West Germany. This constant stream of migration was the result of a deal closed by the two governments; Germany badly needed workers, particularly in industrial areas like the Ruhr, while Turkey was struggling with high levels of unemployment. The solution seemed perfect: the Gastarbeiter (guest workers), as they were known, would be able to send money home to their families, and many eventually settled in Germany for good, sending for spouses and children to join them. Today, almost three million Germans have Turkish roots, including prominent politicians, footballers, businessmen and writers like Selim Özdoğan, but the picture of integration isn’t always as rosy as it might seem.

Cover image The Blacksmith's Daughter

Much could – and should – be written about this, but that really is the subject for a different post. In a literary or artistic context, however, it is important to say that the stories of the Gastarbeiter very often go untold, a part of the Germany’s cultural, political and economic history that simply falls by the wayside. In choosing to translate the first volume of Selim Özdoğan’s Anatolian Blues trilogy into English, Katy Derbyshire of V&Q Books has made an important move, propelling this aspect of Germany’s cultural heritage into the English-speaking consciousness and proving that ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ is so much more than we might initially think. The Blacksmith’s Daughter is a rich and moving story about childhood, family, hopes and dreams, what it is to come of age in a rapidly changing society, and how it feels to be caught between two worlds.

Gül, the main character and the blacksmith’s daughter of the title, learns from an early age what it is to be trapped between two places. Each summer, her family moves from their home in an Anatolian village to a house on the edge of a nearby town, where the local children laugh at her for speaking with a village accent. At home in both places but also in neither, Gül’s feeling of being torn only grows more pronounced when her mother, Fatma, dies of typhoid, leaving Timur the blacksmith to care for Gül and her two younger sisters. Though their Aunt Hülya is on hand to help, the girls are thought to be in need of a mother and accordingly a new one is found: Arzu, herself only thirteen years older than Gül. While Gül goes on to refer to Arzu as her mother, she and her sisters preserve their memories of Fatma – a handful of old dresses locked in a trunk, and the stories Gül is old enough to be able to tell the others. Though she has a strong relationship with her father, Gül will spend the rest of her life feeling adrift, bereft of the one person in the world who seemed truly to understand her.

The majority of The Blacksmith’s Daughter plays out after Fatma’s death, which seems in terms of both style and plot to function as something of a prologue. The first section of the novel, which ends with her death, is written in the past tense, after which Özdoğan switches to the present for a much more immediate, intimate style of writing. Apart from the very end of the novel, where we are offered brief glimpses of her sisters’ futures, the narrative sticks closely to Gül’s perspective, relating the minutiae of everyday routine alongside life-changing moments as she grows up, marries and has children of her own. Eventually, her husband leaves to work in Germany, a new life into which Gül will end up following him. Parts two and three of the trilogy – as yet untranslated, but hopefully to follow – are about her adult life between Germany and Turkey.

While Gül’s earliest years and experience of her mother’s death are of great significance, it isn’t until the second section that the novel really seems to settle into itself. This slightly shaky start soon gives way to smooth, melodious prose filled with poetic, sometimes striking imagery – ‘the children’s screams seem like the petals of a flower’ – and a haunting air of melancholy. We know from an early stage that Gül is destined to end up in Germany, and accordingly the entire novel reads like a work of nostalgia, words filled with longing for the very events they are describing. Though life is difficult – even after the family moves to town on a permanent basis, Gül feels herself to be an outsider, fails her final year of school and is forced by her stepmother to do the drudgery around the house – it is also filled with moments of intense beauty and harmony. Özdoğan excels particularly when it comes to describing ‘those carefree, glittering summers’ of childhood and the unbreakable bonds that exist between siblings; there are passages too, like his description of ‘the big water’, an annually recurring night-time flood, that seemed imbued with such magic I felt as though I was reading one of my own memories. It is a slow burn, this novel, but once it takes hold of you it is hard to put aside.

Contrasting sharply with the more beautiful passages are moments in which the modern world clashes with tradition, in which Gül and her contemporaries seem like pawns in a battle between two opposing forces. ‘“Why are you reading the newspaper like a grown man?”’ her stepmother asks a young Gül, just one of many sentences with which her thirst for knowledge is gradually quashed – yet years later her sisters, Melike and Sibel, will attend boarding school and become teachers. Fuat, Gül’s husband, meanwhile, seethes quietly against his lot in life, filled with an insatiable – and understandable – desire to have more than he does. Even a trip to the cinema can unleash feelings of hopelessness and restless ambition: ‘Films don’t make him forget his worries; they show him everything he hasn’t got.’ Germany, though far away from Anatolia in many respects, seems to be the only viable path, the only possible way to redress the unfair balance of life. By the time it ends, the world of the novel has grown almost without the reader’s noticing, in what is a clever reflection of the way ‘progress’ gradually alters societies, families and individual perspectives.

Though I have little experience against which to compare it, the setting of the novel reads very true to life – and, from co-translators Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu in conversation at the end of the book, I understand it will have special resonance for Turkish speakers thanks to the cultural and linguistic references hidden throughout the text. That this English version should be a co-translation is something of a marvel: the voice appears to be one, the text reading seamlessly, so that it is hard to tell the novel wasn’t originally composed in English, let alone translated by two people. Colloquialisms are inserted neatly, while details of buildings, food, local stories and superstitions help to compose a rich, vivid portrait of a world that seems both new and familiar.

The true strength of The Blacksmith’s Daughter lies in the fact that despite its clearly defined setting, the novel deals with themes that are entirely universal. We all understand the feeling of yearning – perhaps for childhood, perhaps for people now departed, perhaps for something yet to come – and of sometimes seeming like strangers to ourselves: ‘Feelings are like invisible people. They come, they go – they can be very close or you can see them as if from a distance, blurred and unclear . . . they all have a life of their own.’ Özdoğan writes with deep compassion, for his readers as much as for his characters, and the juxtaposition of events both happy and painful results in a reading experience that is bittersweet.

Beautifully crafted and giving a voice to previously untold stories, The Blacksmith’s Daughter is a novel doubtless deserving of a wide readership. To close, I can think of nothing better than a quotation from the book, which seems to encapsulate perfectly the message of the novel – and, indeed, the trilogy as a whole: ‘Though she doesn’t understand the lyrics, she can tell that this melancholy, this Anatolian blues, has something to do with death, with suffering, futility and the understanding that we still have to try, despite it all’.

The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu, is published by V&Q Books in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

The Monthly Booking: March 2021

Monthly reading list March 2021

Spring has sprung early this year – so much more pleasant to sit reading in the sunshine – and I’m leaving the cold northern climes of last month’s theme firmly behind me. March’s books have been selected at random, but they are all written (and, where applicable, translated) by women. Happily, the longlist for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced this month, on 10 March, so despite not expecting to find any of these books featured on it, I feel my reading will at least be vaguely topical.

While we’re on the subject of prizes, 30 March will see the announcement of the International Booker longlist – one I’m always very excited about. Yet another important date in March comes considerably sooner: today, the first, is publication day for the two new V&Q Books I mentioned last month. Translated from the German by Annie Rutherford, Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu, The Peacock and The Blacksmith’s Daughter couldn’t be more different, but are equally brilliant additions to the contemporary canon of translated European literature. If you’re not already familiar with the publisher, do have a look.

As ever, this month is likely to include a few books beyond the ones on my core list, and I still have to catch up on a couple of reviews from February. Before all that, however, my reading plans for March look something like the following:


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Persephone Books)

What the publisher says: ‘The Shuttle, which is five hundred pages long and a page-turner for every one of them, is about far more than the process by which an English country house can be brought back to life with the injection of transatlantic money [. . .] It is mainly about American energy and initiative and get-up-and-go [. . . and] about the excellent relationship that, curiously enough, many of the heiresses enjoyed with their multi-millionaire fathers. Above all it is about Bettina Vanderpoel. She is the reason why this is such a successful, entertaining and interesting novel – one could almost say that she is one of the great heroines, on a par with Elizabeth Bennett, Becky Sharp and Isabel Archer.’


Sea State by Tabitha Lasley (Fourth Estate)

What the publisher says: ‘A candid examination of the life of North Sea oil riggers, and an explosive portrayal of masculinity, loneliness and female desire. [. . .] Sea State is, on the one hand, a portrait of an overlooked industry, and a fascinating subculture in its own right: ‘offshore’ is a way of life for generations of British workers, primarily working class men. Offshore is also a potent metaphor for a lot of things we might rather keep at bay – class, masculinity, the North-South divide, the transactional nature of desire, the terrible slipperiness of the ladder that could lead us towards (or away from) real security, just out of reach.‎ And Sea State is, too, the story of a journalist whose distance from her subject becomes perilously thin.’


There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (Bloomsbury)

What the publisher says: ‘A woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking. She is sent to an office building where she is tasked with watching the hidden-camera feed of an author suspected of storing contraband goods. But observing someone for hours on end isn’t so easy. How will she stay awake? When can she take delivery of her favourite brand of tea? And, perhaps more importantly – how did she find herself in this situation in the first place? As she moves from job to job, writing bus adverts for shops that mysteriously disappear, and composing advice for rice cracker wrappers that generate thousands of devoted followers, it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not searching for the easiest job at all, but something altogether more meaningful . . .’

Small Press

Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

What the publisher says: ‘Permafrost’s no-bullshit lesbian narrator is an uninhibited lover and a wickedly funny observer of modern life. Desperate to get out of Barcelona, she goes to Brussels, ‘because a city whose symbol is a little boy pissing was a city I knew I would like’; as an au pair in Scotland, she develops a hatred of the colour green. And everywhere she goes, she tries to break out of the roles set for her by family and society, chasing escape wherever it can be found: love affairs, travel, thoughts of suicide. Full of powerful, physical imagery, this prize-winning debut novel by acclaimed Catalan poet Eva Baltasar was a word-of-mouth hit in its own language. It is a breathtakingly forthright call for women’s freedom to embrace both pleasure and solitude, and speaks boldly of the body, of sex, and of the self.’


Schwitters by Ulrike Draesner (Penguin)

What New Books in German says: ‘A compelling fictionalised account of the famously eccentric avant-garde artist and poet, Kurt Schwitters, which considers questions of art, love, and survival. [. . .] Ulrike Draesner’s compelling interpretation of Schwitters’ experience of exile from Nazi Germany is strongly grounded in the artist’s biography. Draesner focuses primarily on his personal relationships and disappointments during and after the Second World War – first in Germany, then in Norway, and finally in England – with flashbacks to his years of greatest artistic productivity.’

‘Peacocks aren’t exactly people’ [book review]

A review of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated from the German by Annie Rutherford

A German novel set in Scotland and translated into English is a somewhat unusual proposition, as Annie Rutherford is quick to point out in her translator’s note at the end of Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock, which is published next week by V&Q Books. She’s not wrong – but nor was publisher Katy Derbyshire in her view that English-speaking readers deserve to be treated to this literary gem just as much as their German counterparts. After all, having sold half a million copies in her home country, Bogdan must be doing something right.

Cover image The Peacock

And yet I’ll admit that there was a flash of scepticism when I first heard this. Might the book not have been so popular in Germany because it indulged in a bit of good old-fashioned stereotyping? The setting – a crumbling Scottish castle owned by Laird and Lady McIntosh, who rent out several cottages in the grounds to holidaymakers – sounds like a bit of a cliché in itself, and then comes a party of investment bankers from London whose weekend teambuilding excursion is extended by a violent and unexpected snowstorm. It seems like slightly dangerous territory, but in the end I needn’t have worried. The Peacock is one of the most downright enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, and the combination of Bogdan’s incisive wit and Rutherford’s sensitive translation means that while it treads a fine line, it stays firmly on the right side of cliché.

The Peacock is a novel all about people and, interestingly, their superficial relationships. Though it hints in places at deeper realms of feeling – marriages and romantic affairs successful, failed or blossoming; characters’ opinions of and relationships with themselves – it is essentially about how humans interact as colleagues and strangers, how perceptions of others are formed and changed, and how people can often speak or act entirely at odds with what they are really thinking. As a study of human behaviour in this respect it is fascinating, both sharply observed and extremely funny: anyone who has ever had to attend a teambuilding exercise for work will recognise many aspects of the experience, from the excruciating to the positive. Awkwardness abounds in this novel, but it is awkwardness of a deliciously authentic kind, and given depth by a peppering of serious insights into everyday human interaction.

Impressive, too, is Bogdan’s ability to put her readers in almost as uncomfortable a position as her characters at times, albeit for very different reasons. While the novel is undoubtedly light-hearted, its merry pace and content supported by a certain linguistic buoyancy – on which more later – the author continually presents us with flashes of a less pleasant truth that she simply leaves out in the open, for us to do with as we will. For all the slightly romping nature of the plot, several of the characters are deeply unhappy: take Bernard, for example, one of the investment bankers, who is a generally difficult and unlovable figure. All the same, when the bankers become snowed in and have to phone their families to let them know, Bogdan unceremoniously ends the scene with the line ‘Bernard had nobody to call.’ This is just one of several such sentences that may initially provoke a smile but then invite the reader’s sympathy, all without letting us get too close to the character in question. The superficiality of the novel is in fact what highlights its capacity for deeper understanding of people; the brief nature of the information with which we are presented encourages us to think independently about its characters, to see them as real, partly unknowable humans.

I greatly admired Bogdan’s ability to create diverse and believable characters over the course of fewer than two hundred pages, but I was totally charmed by her similar skills when it came to getting into the heads of animals. Dogs, a goose and a deranged peacock play an important role in the novel; in fact, in what seems to be a comment on human nature, they are deliberately given as much significance as the people who care for them. In a refrain that haunts the entire book – ‘After all, peacocks aren’t exactly people’ (the two nouns are different each time) – various types of animal and human are continually compared against one another, which also links to the theme of superficiality versus hidden depths. Again and again, Bogdan probes our tendency to judge one another merely on what we can see, and ultimately succeeds in making a trait shared by most of humanity ever so slightly ridiculous.

Another interesting aspect of the book, which helps put humans and animals on an equal playing field – both narrator and reader seem to be on a plane just above them – is Bogdan’s totally smooth transition between private thought, spoken word and action, effected largely by her unrelenting use of indirect speech. The lack of direct dialogue is in many ways a little distancing, but it makes possible this seamless blend of parts and underlines another of the novel’s key messages: so often, out of fear of what might happen or what others might think, we leave unsaid what ought to be spoken and instead say things we perhaps don’t mean. The peacock of the title is the grandest metaphor in this respect – to reveal what happens to it would be to spoil the story; suffice it to say that ‘peacock in the larder’ could now be used as an alternative to ‘elephant in the room’ – and the classic teambuilding activities engaged in by the bankers (drawing symbolic pictures, building a den together) also involve a good deal of beating around the bush. With all its indirect speech and focus on the superficial, The Peacock is actually a plea for us to talk meaningfully to one another.

Putting aside the deeper meanings that can be extracted from it, the novel is also a brilliantly fun read. Narrated in short, simple, sometimes repetitive sentences, Bogdan seems to be taking the reader into her confidence to share a good joke – though almost childlike in its construction, this is definitely prose for grown-ups. Her marked style of writing comes across effortlessly in Annie Rutherford’s lively translation: from start to finish the language is sparkling, its dry humour clearly present, while the clichés it does lean upon are emphasised in such a way that they are immediately relieved of their potency. Rutherford knows her audience, and has translated with a good deal of cultural sensitivity.

Sitting perfectly alongside other V&Q titles like Daughters and Journey through a Tragicomic Century, The Peacock is a clever and vivacious novel that gives readers a lot more than they might think they’re getting. In its neatly packaged plot (which also has a tongue-in-cheek air) it goes a long way to smashing those stereotypes about Germans not having a sense of humour, and illuminates as it does so a smart and engaging new voice in contemporary European literature.

The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford, is published by V&Q Books on 1 March 2021. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

‘A strange, feverish time’ [book review]

A review of Love and Youth: Essential Stories by Ivan Turgenev, translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

A short-story collection full of surprises, Love and Youth charmed and confounded me in almost equal measure. In what publisher Pushkin Press deems the ‘essential’ collection, Ivan Turgenev’s well-known novella First Love is gathered together with some of his short stories in a brand-new translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater. The result is a short and fairly turbulent ride that offers an interesting introduction to one of the greats of nineteenth-century Russian literature and leaves a powerful impression of the two often-confusing states of being that give the collection its title.

Cover image Love and Youth

When I settled down to read Love and Youth, which opens with First Love, I felt fairly confident I knew what I was getting into. There were the polite Russian gentlemen telling stories to one another; there was the somewhat high-flown language, the slightly staid manner of speaking that marked this text out as having been written in a previous time. Before long, however, events had taken an unexpected turn – particularly when it came to the second half of the book, which contains stories such as ‘The Rattling!’ and ‘Bezhin Meadow’. These are, without exception, unusual tales, full of strange twists and overtones of comedy, and characterised by a heavy dose of the ‘whimsy and wilfulness’ originally encountered in First Love.

The immense, dizzying and often agonising feeling of falling in love for the very first time is captured with sensitivity and sharpness in this novella, in which our sixteen-year-old narrator falls head over heels for the beautiful, witty and often cruel princess who moves with her impoverished family into the house next door. His love is, of course, doomed to remain unrequited, but the story takes an unexpected direction when Princess Zinaida chooses to bestow her affections not on one of the many young men who flock to admire her, but on an older and far less suitable figure. During this painful summer, our narrator is very often treated as a child – not just by other characters, but also by the author, who has structured the story such that the reader often understands things far in advance of the main protagonist – yet he steadily matures along with the novella as he comes to see the difference between infatuation and love. There is the inevitable moment of realisation – ‘my love, with all its joys and sufferings, now struck me as so trivial, and childish, and pitiful, when set against that other, unknown thing which I could barely guess at’ – but Turgenev has subtler ways too (the changing of the seasons, the narrator’s manner of speaking) to indicate his rather tortuous coming of age. Despite what felt like an unnecessarily neat and hasty ending (though this was doubtless the style of the period, not all ends really need to be tied up), First Love is a moving and timeless story that will find some resonance with almost every reader.

The same probably can’t be said of the remaining stories, which, though in their own way fascinating, are a little harder to get on with. All building on themes of love, human folly and social class, they read a little like the fairy tales they so often touch upon. In ‘Bezhin Meadow’, a lost hunter stumbles across a group of boys guarding a herd of horses and, settling down by their campfire, listens to them telling one another local ghost stories. In ‘Biryuk’, another footsore hunter is taken in by a forester, later going out into the woods with him to catch a local peasant in the act of felling a tree. Despite the rather stern sense of morality at its core, this story seemed among the most accessible and was particularly striking in its descriptions of the natural world, at odds with the narrator’s rather clichéd, not to say dismissive portrayals of the forester’s home: ‘A peasant’s hut at night is not a cheerful place’. The story that follows, ‘The Rattling!’ again juxtaposes the higher and lower classes as a nobleman on a hunting trip (sense a theme here?) is aided by a local farmer on a wild night-time drive to a nearby town. Though quite likely the strangest of the collection, I enjoyed the madcap tone of this story, its apparent delight in its own impetuosity. Turgenev, I felt, had fun writing ‘The Rattling!’ – and while this is in itself a cliché, fun isn’t something I often associate with nineteenth-century Russian fiction.

The later stories, ‘The District Doctor’ and ‘The Lovers’ Meeting’, were a little less successful for me on the grounds of their fairly overwrought language and too-masculine gaze when it came to talking of love. Literature does, of course, have to be read in the context of the period in which it was written, so I can’t entirely blame Turgenev for the minor (actually, almost non-existent) role he gives his female characters. An attempt to adhere to a popular style of writing may also be behind the author’s apparent – but bewildering – eagerness to package all his stories very definitely as fictions. First Love, for example, is introduced as a fireside story told by the narrator as an older man, but though given names in the opening paragraphs, his audience never resurfaces again. In a similar device, ‘Bezhin Meadow’ contains several references directed at an undefined ‘you’, the reader, while in ‘The Rattling!’ we even come across the blatant line: ‘Yermolay added something juicy and unprintable’. The net result of all this is a distancing effect, placing the reader definitively outside the story and thus making some of the characters – for me, at least – a little difficult to get on board with fully.

Niggles aside, Love and Youth is an enjoyable reading experience that brilliantly captures the fleeting sense described by the moony-eyed narrator of First Love:  ‘the earth’s own relentless, headlong rush through space’. Life goes at a fair clip in these stories and is quite often totally absurd, yet that isn’t an altogether inaccurate reflection of the real experience of living. Not what I’d counted on, but all the more charming for it, Love and Youth is an irreverent dash through some of literature’s more serious themes, an insightful look at nineteenth-century Russian society, and a clear indication of Turgenev’s prowess as a writer. Heavily influenced by dreams, legends and fairy tales, the stories ultimately offer a wonderful sense of escapism: ‘a strange, feverish time’ indeed.

Love and Youth: Essential Stories by Ivan Turgenev, translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater, is published in the UK by Pushkin Press and available in the US from 9 March 2021 through Steerforth Press. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started