Book Review: You Shall Leave Your Land

leave your land

“what happened in Huánuco two centuries back, when those men and women, who performed actions and took decisions without awareness that they would become our ancestors”

Renato Cisneros comes from a large, wider family with forebears who moved amongst many of the great and the good of their times. As a young man he felt proud of his name, linking him as it did to a past filled with characters celebrated at regular family gatherings. He was therefore perturbed as well as intrigued on discovering that they should all have gone by the name of Cartagena rather than Cisneros. His great-great-grandmother had been the long time lover of a priest, bearing their children out of wedlock and inventing for the offspring a father they never met. The historic affair was rarely mentioned across subsequent generations, a family secret that nevertheless reverberated.

“We all have wounds and that doesn’t mean our lives are nothing but frustration and trauma.”

You Shall Leave Your Land is referred to as a novel rather than biography. It tells the story of those who came to form the author’s paternal lineage from this shadowed beginning. Many of the men featured are serial adulterers, fathering children whose emotional needs are subsequently ignored as carnal appetites are sated elsewhere. The women of the family are referenced but remain mostly two dimensional.

“I can picture now my grandfather bewitched by the young Esperanza, completely outside of himself, forgetting his wife and his children, or perhaps remembering them all too well and for that very reason trying to evade his responsibilities and his role if only for a moment, knowing how unhappy he was in the marriage that Hermelinda Caicedo’s pregnancy had made necessary so many years earlier.”

Much of the tale is set in Peru. The ongoing political changes in this country provide the scaffolding within which the family history is built. As well as trade and diplomacy, there is a legacy of poetic output. It is hard to gauge how impressive this literary strand may have been, especially as a particularly admired bullfighter’s moves are described: ‘that is poetry’.

The author ponders the question of who owns family secrets, and how choices made can affect those living and also still to come. Despite the unsavoury aspects of characters’ lives delved into, the spare prose with which their story is told is rendered beautifully. I did not buy the suggestion that a propensity for infidelity can be inherited. Nevertheless, behaviour detailed here is what happened, offered with thankfully limited moralising.

Money is made and lost throughout the family history. Certain characters travel abroad – some by choice, others forced – to Europe and around South America. There is much name dropping, particularly within the Paris chapters. As this is based on facts the reader may assume the Cisneros enjoyed privileged connections.

An intriguing depiction of generational family dynamics and how, within such an institution, unvarnished truth is so often avoided. An engaging if louche family biography presented with verve and aplomb.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.


Book Review: Dislocations


“I find myself speaking in a void: there is no longer a home, no longer a before. Only an echo chamber.”

Dislocations, by Sylvia Molloy (translated by Jennifer Croft) is structured in short chapters, many less than a page in length. It documents moments, thoughts on interactions, between two long time friends. On most days the narrator, Molloy, will phone or visit M.L., who is living with dementia. In observing how a mind deteriorates their shared life becomes historical anecdotes that M.L. rarely remembers.

The period covered makes no mention of physical failings that can result from this condition. Neither is there violence or cruelty as sometimes manifests when social filters are lost. M.L. may not always recognise her visitor but retains decorum. The narrator questions why she sometimes attempts to get her friend to acknowledge a person or event – musing if this is for her benefit as she attempts to retain the person she has known for so long. There are still occasional flashes of comprehension but mostly the past is a lacuna to M.L.

There is poignancy in what is being documented but mostly Molloy is examining her personal reaction to this loss of shared memories, the loss of what her friend once was. M.L. is rarely portrayed as being upset by her condition. She functions within this new reality.

“I’m not writing to patch up holes and make people (or myself) think that there’s nothing to see here, but rather to bear witness to unintelligibilities and breaches and silences.”

A story of shared memory of lives lived, and the impact of its loss. Written with precision but also empathy, it offers another window into dementia and how it affects all who harbour affection for the patient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Homesick


Homesick, by Jennifer Croft, tells the story of Amy and her relationship with her little sister, Zoe. It is a bildungsroman of sorts, starting when Amy is five years old. The sisters are close, with Amy believing it is she who looks after Zoe rather than their parents. She is content with this arrangement until she reaches her teenage years when the secrets she keeps from her sibling increase.

The family lives in Oklahoma, close to the girls’ grandparents who they see regularly. The mother wishes her children to understand the realities of the world they live in, telling them stories of disasters, natural and man-made. The girls share a bedroom and draw comfort from each other when these anecdotes cause nightmares. Although not wealthy, theirs is a happy enough childhood until Zoe gets diagnosed with a health issue that could kill her.

Removed from school, Amy thrives academically. She enrols early at university but finds herself unravelling there. She believes her successes have come at a cost to those she cares most for. To save them may require a sacrifice.

The book is structured in short, succinct chapters. Despite its brevity, much of depth is conveyed. The author is a master of language and uses it to effect. The story remains warm and engaging despite elements of tragedy.

Originally written in Spanish in 2014, Homesick was published in Argentina under the apt title, Snakes and Ladders. It was described as a memoir, the key events in Amy’s life mirroring the author’s. This new, English edition is marketed as a novel and dedicated to Croft’s sister.

Whether Amy is based on the author or not, the tale told is riveting. Written with elan and compassion it captures the close world of childhood, how it shapes the emerging adult in myriad ways. The minimalist portrayal adds power to the complexities of character conveyed. A recommended read that will linger beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Here Be Icebergs


“we often fail to recognise the brutality of families when observing them from the outside – or even at times from the inside”

Here Be Icebergs, by Katya Adaui (translated by Rosalind Harvey), is a collection of twelve short stories that lay bare many of the often unacknowledged issues that erupt within a diversity of family units. There is little talk of love in these tales although it clearly exists. What is being explored are the resentments that fester alongside feelings of duty and expectation. The scars that form in childhood continue to affect.

Many of the stories adopt a non-linear, episodic structure. The reader is trusted to fill in the gaps in both timeline and reasoning. There is brutal honesty in the recognition of lasting damage inflicted by words thrown in moments of difficulty. The collection should not be rushed as it delves into challenging themes.

“Adaui examines the way we ceaselessly attempt contact despite all the evidence that each of us is an unknowable island”

A favourite story was We, the Shipwrecked in which the narrator is trying to cope with the death of her father. His demise was expected due to diagnosed illness but still she did not feel ready. The remaining family members provide little comfort, making decisions that grate.

Also particularly enjoyed was The Hamberes Twins with its subject of assisted dying. Structured as an interview with the doctor who agreed to help, this short tale offers much to consider.

The complexity of individual reactions to the same experiences alongside the unreliability of shared memories provide grist for the mill in the everyday subjects mined so skilfully. Families need not be dysfunctional to suffer disagreements. It was satisfying to read of subtle shades of acrimony, unadorned with the more usual personal justifications.

Although set in Latin America, the families featured are more everyman than is often acknowledged in fiction set in a place foreign to the reader. Parents and children, partners and siblings, all harbour feelings at odds with how their relations behave.

A taut and engaging collection that presents a wide variety of concerns faced and regretted across generations. Another excellent release from this high quality small press.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Tender


“I listen, patient as he talks and talks but out there on this frosty night the sordid race is still being run”

Tender is the third and final instalment in the author’s ‘involuntary trilogy’ which started with Die, My Love and Feebleminded. It is, once again, set in and around a remote home in rural France. The bucolic surrounds – cow pasture, woodland and vineyards – offer a stark contrast to the protagonist whose lusts and passions often veer into violence.

The story is narrated by a mother who is trying to raise her teenage son while barely controlling her desperate and carnal desires for her married lover – she grows frenzied when the man will not prioritise their affair as she demands. The boy regularly misses school – the pair have police records, coming under the radar of social services. The woman has vivid dreams that merge with her lived experiences. She struggles to contain her reactions when erotic appetites are not sated.

“this uncontainable fury across furrowed fields, groves of trees and every few miles a tantrum”

The mother’s behaviour is often reckless, sometimes cruel and regularly neglectful. She states a wish that she could keep her house in a better state, provide more regular food for her son and pay him more attention. Her days, though, pass at seemingly breakneck speed as she careers from one ill-thought action to another. There is a disturbing sexual tension at times in descriptions of filial interactions. It remained unclear to me what was being shared.

The son wishes to support his mother but struggles to keep up with her volatility. She tussles with the need to let go when he leaves her for time with his peers.

“They ride away, their exhaust pipes waking the families with him their new conscript. I stand up and walk through the house, still not dressed. I’m no more than the sound of an insect’s wing. Old age is a shipwreck.”

The woman tries to persuade her son to attend school then takes him off on a road trip that goes nowhere. The boy sides with his mother against her lover but is left on his own when it suits.

All of this is told in prose that sparks and burns with unsentimental candour. In many ways it is disjointed, yet this suits the recounted events unfolding through memory, action and regret. What comes across clearly is the fury and desperation of a beautiful woman who is libidinous yet inexorably aging. She may love her son but has needs of her own that she needs to assuage.

A short and powerful read that puts a labile woman front and centre – she is a mother but also herself. There may be discomfort in some of the attitudes expressed – towards immigrants, gypsies, illegals – but the raw honesty captures and pierces with its taut expression of emotions rarely confessed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Byobu


Byobu, by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning) is structured as a series of short vignettes that take the reader inside the head of the eponymous protagonist. The episodes recounted are often playful but also poignant, offering insights into how Byobu sees himself and the effects he has on others. He lives alone but is not a loner, aware that his inability to recount amusing anecdotes can lead to boredom in any audience he secures. He prefers his days to be predictable, following habits, even when he recognises they do not make best use of his time.

The book opens with a musing on what makes a story and how, when told, they will roam free, ‘like a lightening bolt no lightening rod has grounded’. The reader is then offered a description of a typical day in Byobu’s life, how he makes choices yet often gets sidetracked, time passing due to his ‘habitual indecisiveness’. We learn that he ‘loves the sun’ yet seeks shade when it shines. He claims to be continually seeking ‘how to be more’.

Thus the reader gains an image of Byobu’s character. From here we are taken through some minor events that he has experienced and what he thought as they were happening. They mine the mostly everyday but demonstrate how thoughts are wont to wander.

“Often, distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important.”

Most of the short chapters are easily understood, relatable or likely metaphors. Some, however, are more opaque. I remain unsure what the author wished to convey in The Race.

One chapter relates the fate of Byobu’s generational home, which he valued highly. When potential structural faults started to cause anxiety, his life became intolerable. He found it easier to accept loss and move on than live with the gnawing unknown.

I enjoyed the anecdote about the wife who, realising her husband didn’t listen when she spoke, came up with an entertaining means of regaining his attention, of trapping him in his rudeness, thereby forcing him to admit he was in the wrong.

Another chapter detailed Byobu’s discomfort when he found himself on a bus amidst a gathering of deaf people who were chattering away happily with their hands. It offered a powerful reminder of how the deaf may feel if alone amongst the hearing.

There are thoughts on: resistance, rebelliousness, order to be found in personal actions, boring others and being bored.

The final chapter muses on what are, or perhaps are not, original thoughts. I was particularly taken by one of these short summaries.

“Poetry seeks to extract from its abyss certain words that might constitute scar tissue we are all unconsciously chasing.”

There is much within these pages to ponder, yet each chapter deals lightly with what are deeper concerns. That the author has drawn them together in such an entertaining way is impressive. An engaging but also lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Brickmakers


Brickmakers, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), is set in small town South America. It focuses on two families with patriarchs it is hard to like or empathise with. They become sworn enemies for reasons that appear to offer an outlet for self-entitled anger – a desire to provoke and enjoy the reaction – more than anything that makes more sense. The damage wreaked by their feud leads to tragedy in the next generation.

The story opens with two young men dying from stab wounds. As they lie in the mud by a fairground there are recollections from their past lives. The reader learns how their fathers and mothers met, why they married, how they treated each other and their children. The lives portrayed are of men wanting sex without responsibility, money without having to settle down to steady work. The women appear to accept this shiftlessness in their menfolk. Having read the author’s previous work, Dead Girls, I pondered if this was part of the culture of the area. The fathers beat their children yet expect loyalty. The mothers try to hold the family together without expecting much material help.

Fun for the young people is found around bars and dance halls with alcohol and sex a feature from a young age. The fecklessness of the young men appears to be expected although they somehow regard themselves as better, more deserving. There is cruelty amongst rival peers for amusement, a goading for momentary and selfish pleasure.

The reader knows from the start how the story will end. What is being told is how two young men ended up in this situation. It is presented as a common outcome given where and how they live. The violence depicted is not confined to people. Shocking animal cruelty, while not surprising, was challenging to consider.

The tale unfolds in short chapters. The prose is taut and engaging despite my dislike of the protagonists across both generations. While it was hard to feel sympathy given how the men act, the setting evoked demonstrates how limited life can be for those born in this place who choose to stay.

Although somewhat depressing, the author skilfully draws the reader in to lives riven by emotional and physical violence, alongside a lack of wider ambition. She offers a window into a culture I found disturbing by being deemed acceptable by so many.

An impressive but not entirely enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Occupation


“I told you … about my desire to expand, to go beyond my own petty dramas. To go beyond those beloved people surrounding me, too, to examine others and contemplate their abysses”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), is once again narrated by the author’s auto-fictional alter ego, Sebastián. In his rightly lauded previous novel, Resistance, the author focused on Sebastián’s parents and siblings – their shared memories and personal mythologies. This latest work is more outward looking while still offering intimate yet clear-sighted observations of family, along with several others the narrator comes into contact with. Some are dealt with briefly while a handful are revisited over several chapters as the tale progresses.

The story opens with two encounters while Sebastián is out walking with his wife. A man in a wheelchair and then a young boy ask for favours. Both want something from Sebastián and he finds himself unsure how to react, unsure how his wife wants him to behave. He fears that making the wrong decision could be his ‘ruin’. This concern – that he could become ‘not a man, merely the ruins of one’ – gains focus from his interactions with the aged and displaced.

The setting shifts regularly to a room occupied by Sebastián’s father who is in hospital and gravely unwell. Chapters focus on how Sebastián now views this man he has known all his life, who has been changed by time and illness.

“That man existed only in photographs, it was he who was guilty of the fate of this other man now pinned to the bed”

While his father approaches the end of his life, Sebastián and his wife are trying for a baby. He mulls what it means to occupy a body, not just with illness or the effects of poverty but also pregnancy.

Sebastián seeks out migrants as part of his research for his planned book, visiting those living in an abandoned tower block that houses the homeless in challenging conditions. He tries to tell their stories in their voices but recognises he is only capable of seeing them through a personal lens. Nevertheless, he empathises with their plights and desires, recalling his own family history.

“Like my family, every family has, if we go far enough back in time, countless displacements in its origin. All humanity is made up of this incessant movement, and it only exists in the way we know it thanks to these displacements.”

In the background, during this time, the reader is made aware that the political climate in Brazil is deteriorating. The narrator may despair of the ‘imbecility of the rulers of the day’ but still believes ‘literature will remain beyond any occupation’. All has happened before, somewhere, and will likely happen again.

“violence against the other is a violence against ourselves, doomed to destroy each of us and all humanity”

Despite some of the more bleak observations, somehow these musings come across as uplifting. Sebastián’s father is still there behind the shell of a body he must now occupy. The migrants taking over another building, preparing it for new occupiers, are forward looking. Sebastián and his wife face challenges but do so together.

Structured in short chapters, the tale told is humane and succinct. The writing is taut yet close to lyrical in places, philosophical and deeply personal. What comes to the fore is the difficulty of understanding human reactions and their affects. In trying to delve deeper, Sebastián offers his readers a chance to contemplate issues – those that cause change through the passing of time and the numbing caused by familiarity. He pauses to step back and consider, enabling the reader to do the same. Thoughts and observations are all the more powerful for the the clear language in which they are conveyed.

Like its predecessor, this book was a joy to read on so many levels. Thoughtful and penetrating, it is a tale for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Elena Knows


Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle), tells the story of an epic journey that takes place over the course of one day. The journey recounted is epic not in scope but in effort expended. The titular protagonist, from whose point of view the tale is told, is an elderly woman suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Her ability to move her limbs relies on the careful timing of medication.

Opening in the morning, as Elena takes her second pill, the difficulties she faces doing a supposedly simple task such as putting one foot in front of the other are laid bare. She is sitting in her kitchen waiting for the prescribed chemicals to take effect that she may walk to the local train station, five blocks away. She must catch the ten o’clock train if she is to reach her destination.

“Today’s the day she’s going to play her last card, to try to find out who killed her daughter, to talk to the only person in the world who she thinks she can convince to help her. Because of a long-ago debt, something almost forgotten.”

Elena’s daughter, Rita, was found hanging from the church belfry. Investigators concluded she committed suicide. Elena knows this can’t be how she died as, on the day in question, it was raining. Rita harboured a fear of lightning and refused to attend church on such days after she learned of its lightning rod. Elena believes she knew her daughter better than anyone else.

Mother and daughter had a tempestuous relationship.

“They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Neither let on that she was hurt.”

Nevertheless, now that Rita is dead Elena is grieving in her own way. Despite the many difficulties she faces, Elena mostly eschews any help offered, especially by her daughter’s boyfriend, a man Elena despises, appearing to resent that they had a relationship.

“They were two hopeless creatures, two losers in love, or not even, two lonely people who had never even entered the game, who had contented themselves with watching from the stands. As far as Elena was concerned, it would’ve been more dignified at that point for her daughter to abstain from playing altogether.”

After Elena completes the train journey she must travel a further distance to reach a house she has been to only once before, twenty years ago. She remembers directions and a front door but does not have an address. She must then confront Isabel, who lives there, and call in her debt. To continue to function Elena will need to take her third pill on the way.

Throughout the arduous journey, Elena remembers episodes with her daughter, including how disgusted Rita became by her mother’s failing body. There is no shying from detail in the depictions of a Parkinson’s sufferer. As well as difficulty controlling movement, Elena is now permanently stooped. She cannot cut her thickened toenails or remove her dentures. She leaks urine and cannot wipe herself after using the toilet. She constantly drools, including into her food, turning it to paste before she can eat it. Rita was her carer and didn’t hide how the personal tasks she was forced to carry out sickened her, as did the way her mother smelled and looked.

The denouement provides a change of pace after what was a poignant if challenging reveal of the mother-daughter relationship. It asks questions about the ownership an individual can have over their body given the effects of such issues as: illness, duty, domestic abuse. The determination Elena displays in travelling across Buenos Aires played out differently when Rita was younger. Rita herself had a lasting impact on Isabel. Their stories provide a shocking reminder of treatment women are expected to accept from those they look to for care or support, even when well intentioned.

The writing is taut and affecting, with a depth that develops slowly but lingers beyond the final page. In the Afterword, Fiona Mackintosh adds context – how the culture in Argentina, including the dogmas of the Catholic church, loom large and resist change.

I could not warm to Elena, especially when considering how she treated Rita – a doctor’s appointment is particularly traumatic. Even so, the depiction of age and infirmity cannot fail to raise pity – and fear for their own future – in any reader.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Havana Year Zero

“I’ve always noticed that writers and artists are seen as unique beings with exceptional lives, as if they spent their whole time entertaining great people and talking in capital letters about profound, elevated topics. That’s OK by me, but I’m surprised that scientists aren’t equally valued. Very few people think about scientists; yet behind everything we touch, however ordinary it might be, there are hundreds of brains who worked on its creation, because science is a collective endeavour”

Havana Year Zero, by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), tells a story from 1993, when Cuba was reeling from the impact of international changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. At this time, Havana suffered regular power cuts and interruptions to mains water supply. Food was scarce and residents banned from many activities, including travel outside the country. The narrator, Julia, is a mathematician who gets caught up in the search for an elusive, historic document. If found, it could prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba by an Italian, Antonio Meucci. Julia initially seeks scientific recognition and national pride. Others on the trail hope for more material rewards.

Julia is looking back on this time from the future, telling a story of the friends, lovers and colleagues she worked with to try to uncover the document. Although known to each other, this group of scientists and writers retain secrets that Julia gradually discovers. The twists and turns are further complicated by the bed hopping enjoyed. When life has been shorn of many pleasures, sex proves a welcome if complicating distraction.

Julia remains close to the man who became her supervisor at university and with whom she had an affair that impacted his marriage. She refers to him in the narrative as Euclid – characters are each given a pseudonym to protect their identity, she explains. Julia first hears of the inventor, Meucci, at a dinner party where an author – she names him Leonardo – talks of writing a book on Meucci’s life and work. It turns out that Euclid is familiar with this story and knows of the existence of the document. He recruits Julia as his assistant in tracking it down.

Other variables in the problem to be solved include Ángel – an out of work man who, unusually for Havana at the time, lives alone in a spacious apartment. Julia falls in love with him – or perhaps it is his apartment – and dreams of moving in. Ángel welcomes her attentions but has unresolved issues to attend to that could thwart her plans and must be carefully navigated.

There is also Barbara, an Italian tourist visiting Cuba on the pretext of bringing Leonardo information on Meucci, promised by her colleague who is prevented from travelling. As an outsider, Barbara has valued currency and permission to purchase items the locals cannot access except through the black market. She takes her new friends out to dinner – a welcome change from their diet of rice and split peas – supplying them with decent rum and other goods regarded as luxuries.

Julia moves between Euclid, Leonardo and Ángel, trying to work out who knows what of where the document could be. She is hampered by Havana’s lack of reliable utilities – particularly that working telephones are rare. Oh, the irony.

Leonardo is eager to talk of his writing so from him Julia learns more of Meucci, as the author shares with her his research for the novel he is writing. She also learns of the final factor in the equation – Ángel’s ex-wife, Margarita, who left him to move to Brazil. The three men in the equation have a history of broken marriages and other family issues that pull on Julia’s heartstrings. She desires justice for those who have been wronged, including herself.

“My problem is that I have no family traumas. I had a happy childhood, no one abandoned me or stopped loving me.”

“growing up in that sort of environment causes real problems because it makes you too structured.”

Thus Julia sets out to help her friends and herself. New facts come to light that change the focus of her endeavours – as happens in science. At times she feels like a puppet, at others the puppeteer.

“Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words”

The structure of the book is that of a mystery, within which there are complex entanglements and much dark humour. There is a strong sense of place that offers a lesson in living with only basic amenities and supplies – in close proximity to wider family. My only quibble with the language employed is the occasional direct address to the reader – the narrator asking “Do you get me?”, “Do you see?” – which I found jarring. Aside from this, the tale remained engaging with elements of surprise that added depth.

An enjoyable tale that develops gradually but never feels slow, all detail adding to the final interweaving of threads. The author writes with skill and verve – credit to the translator. Fun but never frivolous, this was a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.