April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
Things have been a bit quiet at Bookist Towers recently as reading and writing time have been in short supply. But a few things I wrote a while ago have been trickling out into the wider world.
In February I had not one but two reviews in the TLS: Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler (just longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award) and Perrine Leblanc’s The Lake, translated by Lazer Lederhendler.
My review of Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist was published in March’s Open Letters Monthly.
Full Stop published my review of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written In the Present Tense (translated by Martin Aitken).
February 9, 2016 § 2 Comments
Atavisms, Quebec author Maxime Raymond Bock’s debut short-story collection, translated into English by Pablo Strauss and published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive, contains thirteen stories spanning time periods from Samuel de Champlain and the (most recent) white discovery of Canada to the present day. Many of them are first-person, with characters that look at the world in a slightly off-kilter way.
Both stylistically and content-wise, Bock’s writing reminds me to a certain extent of Samuel Archibald’s work. Archibald was recently shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, but Bock’s book–more explicitly and literary and meticulously concerned with the precise effect of the language–has not had the attention it deserves. Both writers are contemporary, immersed in a world of Anglophone literary fiction as well as the Quebec tradition, both write with a masculine edge softened by introspection and insight, both can turn their pen to a variety of genres—and both, intriguingly, have written a scene in which a young boy (who is nonetheless old enough to know better) brutally kills a small domestic animal.
The first story, “Wolverine,” starts off with a would-be writer—Poet—and his two friends, who are somewhat less intellectual, setting out for a night drive with a difference: there’s a cabinet minister imprisoned in the back seat, his hands duct-taped together. As they head for the forest, Poet thinks it an opportune moment to describe his novel-in-progress to his friends: “It was a love story. A couple of depressed, coca-chewing revolutionaries were getting ready to take over a coffee plantation that had somehow escaped the forest fires and the clear-cuts.” Tonight’s adventure illustrates the gap between what these boys are (immature mediocre wannabes who believe they’re superior to everyone else) and what they think they are (badass Quebec nationalists). Poet is quickly losing his alleged sensitivity as the night wears on, with ominous lines like “Turbide was stirring now, waking up to a nasty headache. His moans were wrecking the nice silence you look forward to when a tape ends” combining reason and rationality with threat. But Poet isn’t in charge, Jason is, and once they’ve tied up the old man, Jason starts punching him in the face, “[e]very blow accompanied by … the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation—the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy.” After the beating, which the Poet thinks is sufficient payback for one night, Jason pours petrol over the man. The ending is not the anticipated foregone conclusion but leaves the characters and reader shaken just the same.
“Wolverine” isn’t the only story with a character poised on a precipice between a life of the mind and a life of brute force; what Bock does well—something that is often attempted by writers of more macho fiction without always fully coming off—is show that these two kinds of lives are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. But Bock also shows characters from entirely different social situations. In “Raccoon” a very young couple with a newborn live isolated in their apartment. The first-person narrator is the “official ambassador to the outside world’; whenever he returns, he goes through an elaborate disinfection process to avoid bringing in C difficile. The narrator distrusts authority and believes in conspiracies, but feels safe behind the locked doors and windows of the apartment. They have “a good life[: …] TV, couch, fridge, bed, table.” They change cereal brands because of the brand eaten in the girlfriend’s favourite soap opera. When a nurse present at the birth tells them the baby has FAS (foetal alcohol syndrome), they misunderstand and make a joke about him being speedy. It would be easy—and satisfying—to write about these characters with a superior tone, but Bock doesn’t do this, instead giving them agency, the ability to be happy with what they have, and hopes, plans and good intentions. The result is something complex and thought-provoking.
There isn’t a single story in the collection that isn’t political in some way, most often dealing with Quebec nationalism or colonialism (hence, perhaps, the atavisms of the title). The politics is handled well—definitely not subtle, but also never intrusive or awkwardly stuck on. The last, and possibly best, story in the collection is “The Still Traveler,” an intriguing combination of indigenous issues, time travel and Inuit legends. The opening immediately calls Dorian Gray to mind as the narrator tells us that “Those who have seen me age so quickly suspect nothing. They think I have some rare disease, some form of adult progeria or congenital degeneration.” The narrator has inherited a semi-dilapidated house from his parents, and leaves his urban Montreal apartment for the country to slowly renovate it. While sorting through the collections of possessions, he finds a trunk that had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d been a seaman and sailed the world. The contents of this trunk are not junk; in fact, it’s a collection of Inuit art that the narrator recognises needs to be professionally evaluated. Among the artefacts is a metal eye. While reading his grandfather’s diaries to trace the origins of this eye the narrator discovers that his grandfather was part of a smuggling ring, supplying these artefacts to private collectors. Whenever there was nothing left to barter, they stole what they needed. The narrator is too familiar with colonialism to be shocked by this discovery, but he was “still hurt to see my own great-grandfather caught up in such outrages, and now to find [him]self in possession of his ill-gotten booty.” As he packs away the artefacts in disappointment, he is transported, while holding the eye to a rock by the ocean, surrounded by fishermen. He learns that the eye will transport him to whatever place and time he thinks of. This sounds gimmicky, but the rest of the story is held together by Bock’s attention to the logistical minutiae of time travel as well as the story told by the places and times he visits.
Atavisms is a strong collection, and Pablo Strauss, one of the best new translators working in Canada at the moment, captures Bock’s rhythms and voice fantastically well in his English rendition.
Bock’s new novel, Des lames de pierre (Le Cheval d’août, 2015), moves in a slightly different direction. It’s a study of the lives of two poets, Robert Lacerte, born in 1941, and the unnamed first-person narrator, a contemporary Montreal writer. The two meet at an outdoor poetry reading a year and a half before the older man’s death, and the two stories of their lives pull together two separate threads of Quebec writing. Lacerte had a typical childhood, being sent away at fourteen to a lumber camp to work for the entire winter, but having the luck to meet a fellow teenage worker who introduced him to literature. The narrator is an urban poet attending readings, suffering from occasional city-ennui. The intertwining of the lives of these two men, juxtaposing their very different but equally of-their-time existential and material concerns, is skilfully done, leading to a moving ending. Read an extract in translation here.
Both Des lames de pierre and Bock’s novella, Rosemont de profil, about the perils of revisiting childhood friendships, share both Atavism’s strong voice and Bock’s care and attention to language that is always interesting and often exhilarating. This is a Quebec writer who deserves a wider audience.
January 18, 2016 § 7 Comments
There were a lot of 2015 books that I loved and really wanted to write about but just never managed it. And that’s ok, I’ve decided. There were books like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (had no idea where to start talking about it even though it was one of my top books of the year), Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (felt as though I needed more art-world expertise to comment knowledgeably), Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (needed to read it at least once more and preferably three times) and Anne Garréta’s fabulous Sphinx, which I still hope to write about in detail, so I won’t talk about it here.
So here are my thoughts–definitely not critical, definitely not reviews–of four books from 2015. Three are Canadian and one is German. The first one is Carellin Brooks’ One Hundred Days of Rain. I’m a huge fan of BookThug fiction. Both their English-language books and their translations are always interesting and provocative. Just last season we had Jess Taylor’s Pauls (from which a great story was printed in CNQ 93), The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree by Jason Massey, and Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen (my review of which will be published in February at Full Stop. And then there’s Jacob Wren, whose work I have inexplicably not read. But that will change in 2016, when he publishes Rich and Poor.
One Hundred Days of Rain is the moving story of a post-breakup life. The narrator and her young son keep plodding on, through Vancouver’s endless rain and grey clouds, through difficult times and distressing incidents. It’s a story told in long fragments, with the short and choppy sentences conveying the narrator’s frame of mind. The first new situation she encounters is being arrested after a fight with her partner, being photographed and fingerprinted and eventually being barred from their home and contacting her spouse.
This is a life that has come apart, and yet still demands certain routines of the narrator as she deals with the constant obstacles to rebuilding something resembling her old life. The skill of using the weather as a meditative device without resorting to pathetic fallacy is one of the book’s great achievements, along with its beautiful depiction of how interior and exterior bounce off each other. It makes me very keen to read Carellin Brook’s wonderfully titled Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces.
One morning last summer I woke up in the middle of the night with the lights on and Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know under the bedclothes. And a good job it was that I did fall asleep on page 10, or I’d have been up all night devouring it. Women should read it because it’s a shiveringly good portrayal of the little accommodations we make every single day, the unexpected noises we are aware of, the decisions we make based on what seems—and sometimes feels—like irrational instinct. (I know there are women who don’t feel like this, who feel that their lack of concern about walking home across a park at 3am makes them special is nothing special, so congratulations to them on having never once been scared by a man, never once having stopped breathing from terror of what might happen next.) And men should read it because it’s such a startlingly good account of what it’s like to feel that kind of jumpiness.
I’m not going to summarise the plot, but in brief, The Devil You Know is a mystery/thriller, but it wears its genre very lightly. I mean that in the sense of feeling as though resolution and answers wouldn’t even have been necessary, because both the writing and the characters were so powerful that the plot seemed almost unnecessary. It’s set against the backdrop of the horrific real-life Paul Bernardo serial-murder case of the late eighties and early nineties; if you’re not Canadian, start by reading this excellent memoir piece by Stacey May Fowles. I’m only a thriller reader occasionally, and often disappointed when I do pick up the year’s top picks, but The Devil You Know deserves to be as well known as Gone Girl (it’s also way better written).
The last of my Canadian choices is Alison Pick‘s wonderful memoir, Between Gods, about discovering her Jewish ancestry and the hidden stories of her family. This is a truly fascinating and moving book that dives into the debates about nature versus nurture or blood versus culture in very personal and sophisticated ways. Although Pick was never especially Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, she feels the pull towards Judaism. Her depictions of how her search for the right God, and what wanting a God even means, affect her life and her family are honest and compelling. One of my favourite non-fiction titles of 2015.
And finally, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik (translator Katy Derbyshire). I loved this tiny volume from Readux Press (you might have been hearing good things about Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair, also published by Readux and on which I am keen to get my hands). This story features two real literary characters, Ivan Blatny and Nicholas Moore. The first half of the book tells their stories, in parallel and on facing pages, the correspondences of the language used for each character mimicking the correspondences and coincidences of their lives.
The Moore tale begins:
When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.
And here’s Blatny’s opening:
When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St. Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.
The two men were both twentieth century poets who started off well before being forgotten through a combination of unfortunate personal circumstance and changing tastes. The second half of the book is made up of the correspondence between the two men, which began in 1962 when Blatny wrote to Moore, whom he did not know. The letters reveal how their lives progress, and their attitudes to the disappearance of their early promise and fame.
I’m rather fond of slightly experimental fiction about real characters (like Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters), particularly scientific or literary ones. It would be easy to look up how far this little volume was based on fact, but I prefer to enjoy the fiction and the not-knowing, particularly when it comes in such a formally innovative package. This book costs almost nothing; try to get hold of a copy if you can.
January 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
As 2015 is now over, I’ve been able to add up my reading numbers for the year. In total, I read 88 books. Of these, 19 were by non-white authors (a category that seems even more problematic after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eight of these were in December; so eleven over the rest of the year. Not a great tally. For some sort of comparison, my #readwomen numbers were 44 women, 40 men. That’s a category I never pay attention to at the moment of reading since my numbers are almost always evenly split. Clearly Diverse December was something I needed to do. With the exception of Farzana Doctor (library copy), all these books were already on my shelves; I just needed a reason to move them right up to the top of the TBR. So thanks to Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby for inspiring me.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book sort of blew my mind. It was like being on the other side of one of those articles that say, Hey, men, just thought you might want to know that this is what it’s like being a woman Every Single Day. The articles that talk about minimising and brushing things off and being polite, and that open the eyes of even the most feminist of men. Reading this book is neither easy nor comfortable (and will send you off to find out about other things too) but it’s important. Structured as a letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son and containing all the history and street smarts he wants to be sure to pass on, Between the World and Me is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year, and its place on so many best-of-2015 lists is well justified.
All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor
This is Canadian writer Doctor’s third novel. She writes really well about families and relationships. All Inclusive is about Ameera, a travel rep working in Mexico who is getting into trouble for sleeping with the tourists–couples only. Her mother is white Canadian and her father—whom she never met—was from India, but died the day after her conception in the 1985 Air India bomb, something that neither Ameera nor her mother know when the novel opens. It’s a moving and well-plotted story, with lots of holiday sex (it sounds incongruous with the subject matter but it works). For another recent fictional take on the Air India disaster, read Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar)
This is the first book I’ve ever read from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. It’s the tale of a childhood spent on an isolated Atlantic island, a place where religion and superstition mingle with fascinating results. As devastating as Job’s tribulations and the plagues of Egypt combined, the island’s tragedies are brutal and relentless. Told in part like a folk tale and translated well by Jethro Soutar, By Night the Mountain Burns works towards a moving conclusion.
Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni
The second And Other Stories title on my Diverse December list, this is possibly the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines (a theme seems to be emerging…). Keni is a physician who was born in London to Indian parents, so the choice of the Philippines is intriguing. I didn’t know this until after I’d finished reading, but I did notice that the novel doesn’t fetishise poverty and rose-tint hardship in the way some novelists do when writing about their parents’ country of origin: perhaps writing about a different country altogether makes this easier. Joseph, the main character, is a young houseboy in the household of Mary Morelos, a widow whose left-wing convictions put her at odds with many of Esperanza Street’s richer inhabitants. When a local man wants to develop the street, destroying businesses and homes in the process, she comes into conflict with much of the neighbourhood. Esperanza Street is a well put together novel that combines socioeconomics, politics, family relationships and personal responsibility, and allows its characters to be both familiar and unfamiliar to western readers.
The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar
Sukkar was just twenty-one when she wrote this portrayal of an autistic boy as the Syrian war gathers pace around him and his family. You’ll have to forgive a slightly tedious oversignposting of autism in the early pages, but you really should forgive it because this book is quite devastating. It has had extremely little press attention, as evidenced by the fact that my own Three Rs interview with Sukkar is on the first page of Google results of a search for the author’s name. I believe it was the first novel about the conflict when it was published (Eyewear, 2014); it might well still be the only one. When most of the mentions we hear about Syrian people are to do with refugee camps and asylum seeking, it’s good to be reminded that there was a before—and also to see how quickly and violently a comfortable existence can be turned upside down.
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
A fantastic primer on Indigenous issues from one of North America’s great popular scholars. This should be required reading for all newcomers to Canada, all high-school students, and pretty much the entire adult population. King has a breezy, funny style that makes the difficult subject matter penetrable and comprehensible. He does not call the book a history, so let’s say that it’s an incredibly important back story that adds valuable context to our understanding of events from the beginnings of colonialism in North America to the position we find ourselves in today.
Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla
This was actually a reread; I read this book when it first came out and fully intended to review it here, but life got in the way. Nikesh Shukla is the writer whose comments about the lack of diversity in the books being given away for World Book Night prompted Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby to set up Diverse December in the first place (and it has now become @readdiverse2016).
Meatspace is the story of the hilarious collision between our online worlds and meatspace (formerly known as IRL, or in real life). It’s not the decade-old story of whether we are giving up too much of reality by spending so much time immersed in supposedly virtual worlds, but an exploration of what our online personas mean, how important they are professionally and personally, and what happens when people and incidents that you hope are safely confined to one of the worlds come crashing into the other. It’s funny and moving and poignant, and has an impressively light touch with the many political and difficult personal themes it touches.
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Blomfield)
When I started reading for Diverse December it didn’t occur to me that a book from Uzbekistan would be on my list. I pulled Peirene Press’s The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov from the shelf because I initially ignored the “ov” at the end of the last name and made assumptions accordingly. But Ismailov’s story is a fascinating (and sad) one. He is the most widely published Uzbek writer, but his books are banned—even mentioning his name is likely to get you into trouble. He’s lived in exile in the UK since 1992.
The Dead Lake is set in the Kazakh steppe around a former nuclear test site. Yerzhan, the main character, moves from child to 27-year-old adult over the course of this non-chronological novel. The cumulative effect of the 468 nuclear explosions that were carried out at this test site between 1949 and 1989 exceeded the power of the Hiroshima bomb by a factor of 2500. The story is simply and effectively told, and is incredibly powerful. It’s the sort of thing Peirene does exceptionally well, and the sort of thing we need more of in English.
November 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
When an unsolicited review copy of The Lemon Grove arrived (ages and ages ago now; I’ve just discovered this review all ready to go in my old files), I gave it a quick glance and looked away. Among my many rules of thumb when selecting reading material is the following: 10. Avoid books with fruit in the title. Off the top of my head, I can think of one successful exception to this rule (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswathan). But then I remembered that Helen Walsh was the author of, among other things, Brass, which I had never read but whose reviews and reputation had stayed with me over the years. And then I thought, well, it’s a lemon, and not an apple. Perhaps it won’t be that bad.
The Lemon Grove opens with Jenn and Greg on holiday in their beloved Deia, on the picturesque side of Mallorca. They’ve been coming each year with Greg’s daughter Emma, but this year they’ve had a week on their own and then Emma is flying out with her new boyfriend, Nate. The fact of Nate accompanying Emma has been the source of much discussion and controversy in the family, but Jenn persuaded Greg that Emma, at fifteen, was old enough for this big step.
Helen Walsh has a respectable critical following. A review of The Lemon Grove in the Guardian claims that Walsh proves that literary fiction and erotica need not be mutually exclusive. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. Some elements of the book are stronger than others: the fact that Jenn does not become ridiculous either during or after the fling shows that this is not a book reinforcing stereotypes about older women and sex, and that’s a good and rare thing. Although Nate comes off badly, Jenn manages in the end to bag not only the upper hand but also the moral high ground and her self-respect. The step-relationship is also well done: resentments that have been simmering for years, and resentments that mother and daughter each believe the other has been stewing in for years, come exploding out, as a diversion from what’s really going on, at a moment of extreme tension.
Sex, though, is often a problem for literary fiction. Many people bemoan literary writers’ supposed allergy to writing about sex, and in particular the act of it. The cringeworthy Bad Sex awards poke fun at people who try. Even if you take it as a joke or a compliment, who really wants to be humiliated over something so personal, even if it’s not remotely autobiographical? Isn’t the real problem with sex in literary fiction that sex, in real life, is one of the vanishingly few moments when we are truly present in our lives? Incorporating sex into literary fiction—a genre whose basic raison d’être of literary fiction is the absolute antithesis of mindfulness—is tricky. Literary characters are always looking back, reflecting, pondering. The most successful inclusions of sex scenes might be ones where the character isn’t present, and is instead thinking about the shopping list or making the children’s school lunches or someone else entirely, but it’s not a particularly original story.
And tension is part of it, too. The characters give in to desire too early, in narrative terms, after which point the tension is no longer will-they-won’t-they, but rather will they be discovered by Greg or Emma, will he betray her, what are Nate’s motives and does he really find Jenn that attractive, while apparently still being as interested as ever in Emma? The problem is that none of these really escalates into tension: many of the times they could be discovered are reported afterwards rather than in the breathless rush of immediate terror. Nate’s motives and intentions get murkier by the minute, but ultimately he feels a bit too shadowy
If you’re a literary reader looking for erotica—especially that rare-ish beast, erotica that is not based on submission fantasies or on women being degraded or humiliated—this novel is a good bet. If, on the other hand, you simply want a strong literary novel, you might be disappointed in this one.
November 26, 2015 § 2 Comments
I started reading Sara Baume’s debut novel immediately after I finished André Alexis’s Giller-winning Fifteen Dogs. I’d forgotten that Spill Simmer Falter Wither was a dog book, and I groaned out loud when I saw the dog on the front cover. But I’d picked the novel up on the basis of Eric Karl Anderson’s review, David Hebblethwaite’s review, and Michael Caines’ TLS blog post about six books by women that could have made an alternative Goldsmiths Prize shortlist (I also have Pond and Don’t Try This At Home to read). So despite the dog I was prepared to give it a chance. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Alexis book, exactly, more that I felt I’d read too many similar things, even though I haven’t at all, and even though his book was cleverly done. I guess I’m just one of those snobbish readers that thinks books with animal characters are for children, although I can’t actually remember liking them even then. I don’t have, for example, especially fond memories of The Wind in the Willows or Watership Down. My limit for animal books was probably Beatrix Potter—less philosophy, perhaps.
Anyway, Baume’s novel is the tale of a lonely man who adopts a dog—not some friendly labrador or bouncy golden retriever, but a mutt who is frankly impossible to have around children or other dogs—even the man at the shelter calls him a“vicious little bugger.” The man, Ray, is fifty-seven (“too old for starting over, too young for giving up”) and his father has recently died. He’s more or less entirely socially incompetent in the way that Anakana Schofield’s Martin John is, except in this case it’s the father rather than the mother that has dominated for too long (and our man here has much less agency that Martin John—is, in fact, entirely under his father’s emotional control).
The book travels through the four seasons (spill, simmer, etc.) with the narrator plodding on through his sad and rather pitiful existence:
Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a shiny spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental notes of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.
Tension mounts when the dog, One Eye, attacks another dog and possibly a small boy. Complaints are made, and the narrator finds himself living in his car for weeks on end to avoid having the dog removed by the authorities. The book is, in essence, a love letter to One Eye, the safe recipient of a love that has had almost nowhere else to go for Ray’s entire life. For all this, the novel admirably avoids sentimentality.
Spill had some things I like in a novel as well as some that I don’t, but, interestingly, these preferences (or prejudices) were somewhat upended by this book. First, there’s description—lots and lots of description. Normally I skip over description of places. It bores me. But Baume’s language is fresh and vital (“He’s a triangular men. Loafy shoulders tapering into flagpole legs, the silhouette of a root vegetable”), with some wonderful verbs (“There are cherry trees lining the roadway in full flower, spitting tiny pink pinches of themselves into the traffic”, and kept me reading throughout. On the other hand, plot, something I can usually take or leave, was in slightly too short supply for me in this book. I’m normally quite happy for a novel to meander around inside a character’s head without making any outward linear progress, but with this book the stasis of being on the road (no destination, same thing day in, day out) was not compensated for by enough interiority. Ray withholds almost all the details of his life until the shocking later stages of the book, but unlike in Rachel Cusk’s Outline, another book of narratorly secrecy, we don’t discover anything about other people either.
Although Spill Simmer Falter Wither won’t make my top ten of 2015, it’s a beautifully written book and an impressive debut. Sara Baume is definitely a writer to watch.
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.
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.