Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

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

Book Review: The Last Summer

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The Last Summer, by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is an epistolary thriller set in early twentieth century Russia. It is Peirene Title No 22 and the first offering in the publisher’s new East and West Series.

A challenge to the status quo by students has resulted in the governor of St Petersburg, Yegor von Rasimkara, closing the university. This controversial action has been countered by a threat to the governor’s life.

Yegor has withdrawn to his summer residence with his wife, the always anxious Lusinya, and their three children – Velya, their son, who is described as a handsome and droll young chap studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career; their two daughters, Jessika and Katya, are ‘sweet, blonde creatures’, although Katya retains a mind of her own.

“There is something childishly harmless about the family overall […] deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.”

The loyal servents are described as old-school Russians who still feel like serfs. They are joined by a new addition, Lyu, who is taken on as a bodyguard and secretary to Yegor in an attempt to mitigate Lusinya’s worries following the death threat. Unbeknown to them, Lyu is the rebel student’s chosen assassin.

Lyu is welcomed by the family adding depth and diversion to their daily discussions. The letters each writes to friends and wider family tell of first impressions, love interests and then growing disquiet at the developing situation. It is a fascinating study of how people react and their opinions change as experience colours perceptions.

Lyu gets to know the family and considers several means by which he may carry out his quest. Where his reconnaissance risks raising suspicion he finds the trusting family jump to conclusions he could not have predicted.

The novelty of a new mind to probe soon wanes and the family resume their own pursuits which Lyu seeks to influence. The audacious plan he settles on is not without risk. The family become caught up in the younger members’ attempt to further their education despite the university’s closure. They talk of aiding other students who do not enjoy their privileges which vexes their father.

The writing is taut and insightful laying bare how selfish individual outlooks tend to be. Other than Lyu, whose actions some may consider a necessary means to an end, the cast at first appears benign. Their actions, however, will have repercussions on the less fortunate. They think of helping only when it was of little trouble to them.

Despite the historical setting this story remains pertinent. It is also beautifully written, its points raised more powerful for their subtlety. The polite interactions tremble with undercurrents of suppressed emotion. In reading I became a part of the time and place.

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

Book Review: The Empress and the Cake

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The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bolloch), is the third and final book in the 2016 Peirene series, Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Earlier this year I read the second in this series, Her Father’s Daughter (you may read my review  here). These exquisite short works of fiction are the treasure discerning readers seek.

Set in Vienna, this latest tale centres around Frau Hohenembs, an elderly countess now living in a city apartment cluttered with objects from her past. She is cared for by a rotund housekeeper, Ida, who puts up with her mistress’s temper and quirks due to an oft repeated promise of a house in Corfu. The story is told from the point of view of a young women Frau Hohenembs meets at a local bakery. The countess offers a share of the cake she is buying and persuades the young woman to accompany her home, taking advantage of perceived weakness and a compliant nature.

Eating the cake triggers the young woman’s food addiction and she descends into a dangerous spiral of binge followed by purge. Meanwhile, Frau Hohenembs plans raids on city museums to reclaim items once owned by her icon, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, referred to as Sissi.

Throughout the narrative are scattered anecdotes written by an unknown source who was close to the assassinated Empress, detailing episodes in her life. Sissi was obsessed with her looks, particularly her hair and weight. She observed a rigorous exercise regime and strictly controlled her diet. She would be sewn into her clothes and spend up to three hours a day having her exceptionally long hair styled and dressed.

Frau Hehenembs emulates this way of living, regularly berating Ida for lack of control in her consumption. When she notes that the young women, whose life she is now manipulating, has lost weight, she congratulates her even though the means by which this has occurred is evident.

The museum raids offer Frau Hehenembs a hold over her acolytes which she abuses dispassionately. When the young woman realises how she is being used she determines to escape.

There is a sinister undercurrent. The vagueness of the timeframe and the similarities between characters’ habits and foibles add shadows but also depth. The denouement is perfect.

The story is told with an elegant succinctness. The author understands that her readers will possess sufficient intelligence to read between the lines. The quality of the prose is a joy in itself, the spine tingling unfolding of the tale a pleasure to satisfy any literary palate.

There has been a trend recently for publishing big books. This offering proves that size is no indicator of value. I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.

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

Book Review: breach

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breach, by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, is the first title in the Peirene Now! series, commissioned works of new fiction which engage with the political issues of the day. Set in the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, the eight short stories in this collection explore the current refugee crisis in Europe. As Popoola says:

“These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

The stories offer insight into the lives of the residents of The Jungle and their relationships with family back home. They look at the feared people smugglers so essential to the refugees’ journey, and at the people in France and the UK who fear the refugees impact on their neatly ordered world.

The collection opens with ‘Counting Down’, a story of waiting, of strangers who become friends yet are never really close. The residents of The Jungle are not one homogenous mass. They come from many countries, bound only by their desperation to reach the UK. At any moment their loyalty can turn.

‘The Terrier’ looks at the refugees through the eyes of a French local who offers to accommodate two young Syrians in exchange for payment from the City Council. Although she sympathises with the youngsters plight there is a lack of trust, on both sides. The refugees are lonely in this house so return to the camp for friendship despite the squalor. The landlady hides her involvement from friends who complain of the refugees proximity and the trouble they bring.

‘Extending a Hand’ tells the story of two young Ethiopian women. They are grateful for the dry clothes handed out by volunteers yet resent that they are a position that requires such help.

“No one makes trousers for your shape. The pair you picked yesterday aren’t the loose-fitting ones volunteers think are suitable […] Why people think they know what’s best for you when they are not you, you don’t understand […] Dignity involves choosing your own outfits, at least”

The women have not told their families back home about conditions in the camp, pretending that all is well and they have jobs. Now demands are being made to send their earnings home, and there is only one way that a women in this camp can earn.

‘Paradise’ offers the camp from the perspective of the volunteers who hand out tents, sleeping bags and donated clothes. They feel good about helping, perhaps not recognising how they are often despised by the refugees. What they do not want though is to become too involved, as happens when Marjorie brings her teenage niece along to help. Marjorie is forced to recognise the hypocracy of her situation and this makes her angry. The refugees also do not wish for too close an involvement. When the volunteers leave to go home and the refugees cannot, this causes pain.

‘Ghosts’ looks at the precarious and often violent world of the people smugglers. It helps explain why there is so little trust in the camp, why people are reluctant to engage and tell their stories.

‘Lineage’ simmers with the resentments felt by those forced to stay calm when their lives have been blown apart. The Jungle is not one big happy family. It is populated by mud and desperation.

‘Oranges in the River’ tells of the constant battle to escape, to find a way to get to the UK by whatever means. However risky the endeavour, this is why The Jungle exists.

‘Expect Me’ is set in the UK. Alghali has made it across the channel and is studying hard to learn English and accounting. He visits Mr Dishman, an elderly local, to improve his ability to converse in this new language that, when his papers come through, he may find work. Mr Dishman talks of Europe being overrun. Alghali believes there is no other way for him to move forward with his life. He is mourning the death of a young friend who died trying to make it to England. He is blamed for a terrorist attack.

Even after reading these stories I pondered why the refugees chose the UK as their destination. It is understandable why they flee but not why other supposedly safe countries are rejected. Perhaps it is the language, the fact that some had learned English before. Perhaps it is because when they ring home they do not admit how bad things are. They make it sound as though they have jobs and safety, thereby encouraging the next set of refugees to follow in their wake.

The authors have produced poignant, challenging stories that facilitate an empathy that is often missing when these issues are discussed. If the human tide is to be slowed then the causes need to be addressed.

Through fiction, tales like these can help to bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. This is an important but also a satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Her Father’s Daughter

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Her Father’s Daughter, by Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter), is the second in a series from the publisher titled Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Peirene Press publishes these series of contemporary novellas, each consisting of three books chosen from across the world connected by a single theme. TLS described them as “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”

This story is set in Paris at the close of the Second World War. It centres around a child, not yet old enough to attend school, who lives in a small apartment with her beautiful mother. It is told from the girl’s perspective but with the clarity of an adult’s mind. It is memory, those fragments of a life that stay with us when others are lost to the passing of time. The events related will change the child’s life forever, in ways that she could not then comprehend.

Referred to by all she knows as ‘the child’, or ‘my darling’, she was given the name France at the dictate of a father she has never met. He is a prisoner of war, taken early in the conflict. The war is now coming to an end and he is to return.

France’s days revolve around her mother. She has been allowed to act as she pleases, drawing on walls and in books, eating only the food she enjoys, her unruly existence indulged. France resents any who distract her mother: neighbours, acquaintances, and most especially her maternal grandmother who berates her daughter for the child’s behaviour. France likes best to stay home, to have her mother to herself. Although they go to the park or to shops, she has only once left Paris. This was to stay in a house in Normandy, with a garden, but memories of that time are hazy and she is forbidden to mention them.

When France is told that her father is to return she understands that the life she has enjoyed is about to change. She cannot imagine having a man in their home; this is beyond her experience.

“What is a father? […] Father’s, these days, are pretty thin on the ground”

When her father moves into the apartment the dynamics of the little family must adapt. He is still suffering the effects of his incarceration, is appalled at France’s behaviour and the way his wife has kept house. France observes how her parents behave when together and how her mother has been altered, shrunk. France desires nothing more now than to win her father’s affection for herself.

What the reader is offered is a view of the strange world of adults through the eyes of a child, the hurts and resentments harboured when ignored or reprimanded, the promises made and then forgotten. France attempts to draw her father closer by sharing her innermost secrets. In doing so she emits a seismic blow to the fragile peace so carefully constructed from her father’s return.

The writing is subtle and exquisite, a literary ballet offering a poignancy and depth beneath the delicacy of presentation. Each short episode leaves the reader eager for the next. I couldn’t put this book down.

A stunning, beautiful read that is everything a story should be. I cannot recomend this book enough.

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