Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

April 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Anna is a sad and lonely woman. She lives a beautiful life outside Zurich in a beautiful house with her husband Bruno and their three Swiss children, who chat together in Schweitzerdeutsch and leave her feeling very excluded. She’s been living there for nine years without having made any systematic attempt to learn German, although she has picked up a great many phrases to get by. The book opens when Anna, convinced by her therapist that she needs to make more of an effort to feel at home, begins German classes and, at the same time, an affair with a fellow student.

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In the novel much is made of—or perhaps I should say Anna makes much of—her passivity. She lets herself get caught up in someone else’s plan without making a real decision to do so, for example, although personally I would call that a variation of “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.” So Anna might not really be passive (after all, when the Archie, the attractive student in her class, asks her what she is doing later, her answer—“you”—seems predatory rather than passive, even if it does spring from a destructive impulse) but she isn’t, as the self-help pop psychophilosophy would have it, living intentionally, being her best self or making every day count.

Anna’s predicament of loneliness and purposelessness is far from uncommon, in life or in literature, but is exacerbated by her lack of a life beyond her family and household, and intensified further by her foreignness in a place that is hostilely indifferent to foreignness.

A lot of the novel’s discussion of being a person living in a foreign country felt very heartfelt (Essbaum herself lived in the same place she locates Anna, even if the author’s experience appears—from the blurb—to have been somewhat happier), and this is perhaps what contributed to a sense of being stuck in a loop—and not just in terms of plot, with Anna making little to no progress with her therapist, her marriage or anything else in her life. The narrative drive was moved on primarily by external events and actions rather than Anna’s development or decisions. Anna’s insistence on her passivity—actually a euphemism for inertia borne of depression—is frustrating in the way living with a depressed person is frustrating.

There’s a lot of good writing in Hausfrau, but nothing heartstopping. Anna’s two expat friends, Edith the Ice Queen and Holy Mary are rather caricatured, although Mary does manage to shrug off the shackles of stereotype a little. It occurred to me in an unoriginal moment that the novel itself is rather Swiss—efficient, good at what it does, but ultimately unexciting.

Reading around the world: Afghanistan

March 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

I completed Afghanistan in my reading around the world list well over a month ago, but haven’t had a chance to write about them (or anything else, for that matter). I read two books: A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi. Two of Rahimi’s other novels, The Patience Stone and Earth and Ashes have been made into films, but it seems impossible to watch them without buying a DVD at an extortionate price. (On this note, why is it so hard to watch films in this brave new webworld? Apart from the DVD, I could not find a single legal way to watch these recent films. iTunes will sell me the French-subtitles version for $20, so why not English?)

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Given Rahimi’s titles, you might be forgiven a moment of alarm: books from Afghanistan with words like “dream” and “stone” in their titles might suggest novels like The Kite Runner. But his work is very different. He was granted asylum in France in 1985, and his earlier novels were written in Dari, while The Patience Stone was written in French. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is, appropriately enough, a book that questions the boundary between dreams and reality. The book is written in short sections and switches back and forth between the narrator’s dreams, the memories of the previous night as they slowly return to him, his present semi-captivity and the past that led up to the crisis the novel skirts.

It’s 1979 and Farad is a student. Having grown up in a more liberal Afghanistan than the one that has been thrust on him recently, Farad has had some trouble adjusting to the pro-Soviet regime. He got into some trouble the previous night with a friend, that might have involved alcohol and definitely involved a physical struggle with authority, and he’s being sheltered by a mysterious woman—at considerable risk to her own reputation and safety—whose son appears to believe that the narrator is his long-lost father. The short sections are powerful and work towards a cumulative effect of gradual understanding for both the narrator and the reader. The writing is dark and cynical, and the book is, at least to begin with, a demanding read as we must struggle with the narrator through his disorientation.

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The Fort of Nine Towers is not a novel but rather memoir. Qais Akbar Omar opens by describing Kabul life before the Taliban and Mujaheedin. In 1991, when Qais was eight, Afghanis wanted the Soviets to be expelled—but they weren’t expecting what they got instead: the Mujaheedin. The memoir details around two decades of the author’s life, as daily life becomes ever harder and increasingly dangerous. This extended upper middle-class family is forced to move en masse to the titular fort, from where they can observe the fighting without being quite as at risk as in their old compound. Each time a family member ventures out—Qais’s father or grandfather leaving to pick up the relatives that couldn’t fit in the car the first time or to try to dig up the gold they buried before they left the compound—they have a terrifying brush with death.

It’s a fascinating memoir because the child in Qais never leaves him. Whatever new situation he and his family are thrust into—leaving the fort at short notice to travel a hugely indirect route to stay with a relative, which descends into an impromptu camping trip with several hair-raising escapades worthy of a Famous Five plot, or travelling the country with the nomadic extended family he’s never met—he is always interested and eager to learn. (This book definitely has shares something with Khaled Hosseini’s writing.) He’s also irrepressibly optimistic: despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still believes in the essential goodness of people. The narrator’s cynicism and bitterness in A Thousand Rooms, by contrast, seems to spring precisely from the betrayal of this trust.

What both books have in common is an examination of the way people adapt to extreme circumstances. Like Anne Frank’s diary, they are a reminder that there is a before for people in war-torn or politically repressive situations; a before when civilisation and the rule of law seemed untouchable. In both books Taliban stop the narrator/author and demand to see whether their testicles are hairless (in neither case are they; this is deemed a very serious offence), reminding us in the West that it’s not just women’s rights that are comprehensively trampled under these regimes, even as we also see the much greater extent to which women’s liberty and self-expression is curtailed.

Just one country in and I’m starting to think that every school curriculum should involve the study of fiction from every country in the world (except, of course, for the sad fact that pedagogy and literature make an astonishingly ugly couple). Next up is Albania. Last year I read Elvira Doñes’ Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford from the original Italian), published by the excellent And Other Stories. Interesting as it was, I’m not sure how representative you can call it, so I’ll be looking for at least two more recent books. Ismail Kadare springs to mind. Any recommendations?

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

There’s something about a power cut, or any other interruption to our otherwise on-tap services like water or heat, that makes us recall the intense fragility of civilisation, makes us contemplate that we are only a switch or two away from needing those emergency preparedness kits the Canadian government is always encouraging us to create.

Obviously when the apocalypse/earthquake/ice storm/financial meltdown comes I will wish I had taken it seriously and prepared like any sensible person, but it seems like too much effort to make this kit, not to mention all the perfectly good food I would let expire. (The government, keen not to be seen to promote food waste, very practically recommends eating the food in your kit before its use-by date and then replacing it with a new batch.) Plus, where would you keep these supplies, and what are the chances both of being at home when disaster strikes and of not having any other food? In any case, wouldn’t creating an emergency kit be tantamount to admitting that we don’t really trust this rickety thing called civilisation, which any fool can see is not even skin deep? I think that’s really behind my aversion to the idea. If I’m going to admit that much, then surely I’m only one step away from becoming a prepper and stockpiling tinfoil and tampons for when the shtf.

Anyway, one evening before Christmas we had a power cut. In the dark I came across this package I’d forgotten to open earlier. I pulled out a bundle of hard, lumpy things wrapped in a scrap of brown material and tied with jute twine. I was amused, then, to find in the bundle some candles, a tin of Spam, a few lists of emergency supplies and a ball of twine. Also, most importantly, a box of very good quality matches.

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Taken with no flash, lit by headlamp and tea light

This package was all part of an excellent marketing strategy for Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy Hillcoat is from a well-off family living in London. In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father—a man who has long been planning his retreat from civilisation—takes her away to a forest to live. Their shelter is “die Hütte”; beyond the trees and the mountains there is, he tells Peggy, nothing. Peggy believes that her mother and everyone else in the world is now dead.

Peggy and her father live for an astonishing nine years in the forest, hunting and growing their own food, surviving the winters, and never seeing a single other person. This narrative is interleaved with the story of Peggy’s return to civilisation—her mother, a nine-year-old brother she’s never met, some friends who haven’t aged in her mind since she saw them last. It’s not easy, coming home, especially when you’ve had the experiences Peggy has lived through.

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This novel took quite some time to get going. For almost the entire first half, the survival sections were too slow, too full of “I” sentences. The forest scene had to be well set up in order for us to believe in the continued existence of Peggy and her father, but it drags–and I say that as someone interested in how a person might live entirely self-sufficiently. The problem is compounded by a first-person narrative that mediates every sensation with “I heard” or “I felt.” What kept me reading through these slow parts was Peggy’s re-entry into society. She’s surprisingly sullen about the whole thing, and her relationship with her mother is—oddly yet fittingly—marked by a typical teenage “you don’t understand anything about me or my life” attitude, which works well here. Even in these sections, though, I felt I was waiting a little too long for payoff in the first half.

As Peggy gets older, tension in the forest mounts and both writing and structure improve. When Peggy starts to wander further, she meets the elusive Reuben and begins to realise that perhaps her father has been lying to her all this time. There’s no single clear moment when she decides to rebel, but things come to a head when her father, increasingly deranged, decides that it’s all too difficult, and that it’s time for them both to die. She promises to go with him, and for a time believes that it’s a promise she must keep, watching fatalistically from a distance as he hunts for poisonous mushrooms. She changes her mind just in time, but this decision has significant consequences both for her immediate situation and for the rest of her life.

There are some faults with this novel—the characters, even Peggy, are a bit thin and shadowy, and it could have been more forcefully edited to great effect. There’s also a musical theme throughout (Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist but has never taught Peggy to play the piano; she learns from a single sheet of music her father brought with them, and plays for hours on a soundless “piano” that her father constructs) that I found annoying but very typical of contemporary upmarket mainstream novels. These themes are never load-bearing; rather, they could be knocked out without affecting the overall construction, but giving a sense of spaciousness instead of fussiness. Overall, though, Our Endless Numbered Days is an interesting story that deals with a great many aspects of inter-human relationships, and it finishes up with a very well executed slow reveal about the nature of mind and memory under intense stress.

Why you should never read the blurb

February 10, 2015 § 4 Comments

I never read blurbs. I never have, not out of any particular reason, except possibly that summaries of novels rarely interest me. I don’t even open a book to read the first few pages. If I’m not going by reviews or recommendations, I really do judge books by their covers. It seems to work quite well for me.

Last week I read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for my book club. Not only had I not read any reviews of it, but I soon realised I’d thought the book we were reading was one by an entirely different Karen. It started off quite well, probably better than I expected. And then a few chapters in, there’s an astonishing revelation that turns everything you thought you understood on its head. It’s really quite an impressive authorial feat.

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The morning after I read that part, I idly glanced down at the back of the book while I was doing something else. The amazing twist was entirely given away right there! What a waste–at least that was my first impression. I am sure the book would not have had nearly such an impact if I had already known what was coming. It’s psychologically important in a meta sense too. This thing we now know would have changed how we read the story, and Fowler points this out. If you’ve read the blurb, you literally will not have the experience the novel thinks you have had or needs you to have had. There’s an interesting discussion of the spoiler situation here, though, and the different ways of enjoying the reading experience.

I wonder how the conversation between author and publisher went. Did Fowler try to object, on the basis that she had carefully crafted the novel to lead up to this crucial point? Did the marketing people roll their eyes and say, yes, but this is your USP? How can we not mention it? Fascinating to ponder. Safe to say I won’t be reading blurbs any time soon.

 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

January 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

My review of Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James appeared in the National Post last week. Read it here.

Childhood by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

January 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, Oberski was just a year old when World War Two broke out. He published this slim autobiographical novel in 1978, almost forty years after the events in it, and it is a truly astonishing accomplishment.

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The novel opens in Bergen-Belsen, with the four-year-old narrator being reassured by his mother:

There’s been a mistake, but everything will be all right. We’ve gone away for a few days with a lot of other people, but we’ll be going home soon and Daddy will be there too. They’ve made a mistake, so we’ll have to stay here for a few days, visiting the way we visited with Trude a while ago.

The mother’s words seem to be setting up the most terrible kind of dramatic irony. We are sure we know how this ends, and it certainly isn’t with them going home. But somehow, mysteriously, a week later they do go home. “A few other people went,” writes the boy, “but most stayed.” This matter-of-fact reporting of the situation is one of the most astounding features of Childhood. Somehow Oberski has managed to capture a wonderful and realistic child’s voice, rooted firmly in the moment and barely concerned, even at such a time, with events that will have an enormous impact on his life. Or perhaps he didn’t have to try; perhaps what happened was seared into Oberski’s memory so deeply that these memories were unable to be later tainted by adult knowledge, hindsight and the desire to ponder what-ifs. Either way, this technique is used here flawlessly and successfully.

After the mistaken trip to the camp, short chapters describe how the narrator celebrates a birthday, experiences an instance of bullying because he is Jewish, is taken by his parents on a trip on the ferry, during which he is allowed to drive for a brief moment, and goes to work one day with his father, where the boss helps him use the typewriter. These give us a rapid, blinkered view of the narrator’s world, and furnish details about the time period and the family’s life. The birthday celebration excepted, each of these instances shows the reader how hyper-aware Jews had to constantly be of their position in society. First there’s the grocer’s son who stamps on the boy’s mud pies and taunts him, and when his father goes to complain, the grocer tells him in a telling non-sequitur that “it couldn’t have been his son; he said he’d always sold us everything we wanted, which had got him into plenty of trouble.” Then there’s the ferryman, who merely compliments the boy’s grasp of Dutch without rudeness or hostility. The recognition of difference is there, creating suspense, but nothing happens. And finally, the day the narrator goes to the office with his father, he mentions that “My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, ‘Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.’ I thought the star was pretty, but I’d rather have gone without.” He then moves seamlessly onto something of more pressing concern: “We had a long way to go. Luckily my father lifted me up on his shoulders now and then.”

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I give all these examples to try to show all the different currents moving around the boy, who remains largely unaware and seemingly uninterested. His parents, devoted to him, are trying to protect him from the worst, trying to build up his self-esteem (for example with the star) in situations where other people are intending to destroy it (even when the grocer’s son stamps on his pies, the worry that lingers is the loss of the mould to build them).

Throughout the novel he’s resolutely just a boy growing up. His perspective is narrow, short-sighted and short-term; he does not try to think things through or come to terms with his situation or with other people’s inhuman cruelty. Things happen, but he does not become precociously wise or develop feelings of inferiority. There is no need to reflect on his own self because he is still too immature to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him, even while he seems resigned to the fact that in his world he is in control of nothing. Others take advantage of his innocence, even in the camp, when he and his parents are permanently interned after their brief reprieve: a group of older children egg him on to thumb his nose at a guard, and later encourage him to sneak into the morgue. When children take it in turns to clean the cooking pots, he doesn’t understand that this is a way of sneaking them extra food. It’s potato peelings, not dinner, and in any case, he doesn’t have a spoon.

Despite the lack of analysis, or inserted reflection on what his parents must have been feeling and enduring, this is a stark yet deeply profound book. The reader is drawn in by the skilful contrast of what’s important to the boy and what we know—from history and from the context of the novel—he should be worried about. And that should is an interesting word. Should he be worried about anything? Is it better that he is cocooned from the true understanding that so many people wish him deliberate and dreadful harm? Or is this refusal to understand, almost but never quite disingenuous, a mechanism to protect himself? The narrator certainly does not flinch at reporting how his own selfishness at times puts his family in grave danger.

Childhood provokes a great many interesting questions. It’s a book about the Second World War, something familiar to us from so many films, novels, first-hand accounts and so on. But this child’s perspective, at once determinedly unself-conscious, detached, and heartbreaking, is worth reading.

Other reviews of Childhood:

John Self at The Asylum

Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly

Reading around the world

January 15, 2015 § 2 Comments

There’s been an idea percolating in my brain for a while. Why not read a contemporary book from every country round the world? Give it a deadline of a year, say, or maybe two. This totally unoriginal idea has evolved into something marginally less gimmicky: read a handful of books from each country (countries in strict alphabetical order, of course), with the timescale to be … as long as it takes. I still want to read plenty of everything else while I’m doing it. And other things might get involved too: non-fiction, films, restaurant visits: why not?

I haven’t quite decided what definition of “country” to use; most likely it will be the 193 member states of the UN. But whatever list I go with, Afghanistan is first. I’ve got four candidates so far, but none of them have always lived in Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. They are:

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I definitely don’t want to read Khaled Hosseini, and in truth I’m a little concerned about the Hashimi. The cover alarms me. But it’s in my local library, so no harm done if I don’t like it.

It seems that only Atiq Rahimi originally wrote in Dari (and later in French); the others in English. Words Without Borders had a great Afghan literature issue back in 2011, but it’s hard to track down books by the featured authors.

Any other recommendations?

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