Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, published by Charco Press

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), published by Charco Press.

 

“People here prepare for winter like animals. Nothing distinguishes us from them. Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate – I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes, their faces stained red, sticks propping their mouths wide open.”

My 2017 reading year has focused on the UK’s small independent press scene, source of the most exciting literary fiction. Many were already familiar to me (Fitzcarraldo, Tramp Press, Peirene, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories) but Charco Press is new, not just to me, but to the publishing scene generally. Their name is taken from the colloquial expression ‘cruzar el charco’ meaning ‘crossing the puddle’, a way of referring to when someone is going overseas, or travelling between continents, and their mission is to bring exciting Latin American literature, via translation, to the UK. Their mission statement is worth quoting in full:

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz was one of their two launch books last Summer and tells the story of an unnamed new mother and her – strikingly also unnamed in her narration – husband and first born child, six months old as the novel opens. It is a visceral and haunting story of post-partum depression which begins:

“I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool, the water thirty-five degrees. It was the Sunday before a bank holiday. I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?”

This is not a mother who is sentimental for her child or the mystery of birth:

“If I’d closed my legs and grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already. The moment other women give birth they usually say, I can’t imagine my life without him now, it’s as though he’s always been here. I’m coming, baby! I want to scream, but I sink deeper into the cracked earth.”

University educated and from urban surrounds, the French countryside where she lives also depresses her:

“These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there’s more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can’t see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.”

Harwicz wrote the book listening ‘obsessively’ to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata n. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 n. 1 and Glenn Gould‘s rendition of part of the Sonata captures the book’s mood.

As the novel progresses, in a stream of fevered thoughts, it is not always clear what actually takes place and what – notably an affair with another parent in the locality – is imagined:

“My baby was practically asleep on his feet but he still went on stumbling through the house, holding onto the curtains and the century-old coffee tables and throwing whatever he found to the floor. Ashtrays, cutlery. Maybe he was staying awake to make sure I didn’t spend the night in another man’s arms. It was a long time before I was finally able to put him in the cot, stop his crying, turn the pages of one of his books about astronauts or sea captains and convince him that the best thing you can do at night is sleep. Mummy’s telling lies.
[…]
As soon I stepped outside, I saw him and forgot about everything that had come before, about the smouldering house, about my little soldier sleeping with his eyes open like a rabbit, about all those days of anguished anticipation. And I devoured him. Because that, my dear son, is what the night is for.”

But her relationship with her, even in her account, remarkably patient husband is characterised by an extreme form of love-hate:

“We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love.”

(and some years later at her son’s birthday party)

“Something made me rush inside and shut myself in my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I hope you all die, every last one of you. As usual, he came knocking on my door. Darling, honey, sugar, sweetheart, my bunny rabbit, my love, I can’t remember all the names he called me. And I said nothing. Are you okay? And I still said nothing. Come out, all the guests are leaving, don’t ruin this. Where are the party bags? And I said, Why don’t you leave me the hell alone and die. Just die, my love.”

The contemporary translation by Sarah Moses (Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina) and Carolina Orioff (Editor and Co-Director of Charco Press) adds to the power of the work.

It has, as other reviewers have noted, a flavour of Fever Dream meets Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. A striking novel, and I was immediately prompted to subscribe to Charco Press’s forthcoming releases.

PF

 

You may read my review of Die, My Love here.

Coming later this week, a guest post from the publisher and an interview with the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

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Book Review: My Sweet Orange Tree

My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (translated by Alison Entrekin), is an autobiographical novel set in Rio de Janeiro. It introduces the reader to five year old Zeze, a precocious and mischievous child who lives much of his life in his imagination. Zeze is the second youngest of seven surviving siblings. Their father is out of work so their mother must put in long hours at a factory to keep the family afloat. There are many others living in poverty in the city but Zeze still finds their situation challenging, especially at Christmas when there is no money for fine food or presents. The hardships the family endure lead them to take out frustrations on their little troublemaker. Zeze suffers regular beatings, believing those who tell him he is a devil child and that it would be better had he never been born.

The family move house when their rent arrears become untenable. In the new back garden is a little orange tree which becomes Zeze’s friend. He plays games around it with his little brother, turning their backyard into exciting new worlds. At school he reveres his kind-hearted teacher, behaving well to please her and excelling in his lessons. Zeze earns what money he can from polishing shoes and assisting a songbook seller. He finds a friend in a wealthy adult who teaches him tenderness exists.

Zeze’s escapades are undoubtedly naughty but he is punished so regularly and severely he regards himself as unlovable. The smallest kindnesses offered are grasped and held close. Zeze may lie and swear with abandon, copying the adults around him, but he feels deeply the unfairness of the life he must accept. He shares his thoughts with his little orange tree which he believes listens and responds.

The narration is way in advance of any five year old I have come across but Zeze’s life is also unlike any situation I have known. He is cunning but never malevolent, although at times he harbours thoughts of bloody revenge when mistreated. He dreams of being a poet, finds beauty in music, is eager to learn and to be seen to attain.

Alongside the poignancy of Zeze’s day to day life there is humour, such as the inappropriate lyrics he sings because he likes the popular tune. He asks the adults he encounters whatever questions come to mind without filter, delighting in new words and their meanings. He ponders why Jesus rewards only those who already have plenty.

This is an unusual little story but one that draws the reader in. The author achieves a fine balance between conveying Zeze’s distress at his circumstances and his imaginative coping strategies. The harshness of the boy’s life is clear yet the telling never feels heavy. A story of survival and a search for love as seen through the eyes of an insightful, lonely child.

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

 

Book Review: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town

Secret Passages In A Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers), is a quirky tale of a middle aged man whose past comes back to haunt him. Its protagonist is Olli Suominen, a husband, father, parish counciller and head of a small book publishing business based in Jyväskylä, Finland. Olli considers his home town to be a monument to dull ordinariness. His marriage has grown stale and he barely knows his young son.

Olli has recently joined a film club and Facebook. A girlfriend from his teenage years, Greta, connects with him on the social network. Greta has written a bestselling book – A Guide to the Cinematic Life – which Olli’s wife buys him for his birthday. It prescribes a new way of living.

“The deep cinematic self is an artist that sees life above all as an aesthetic construct. It is like the voice of the conscience but instead of moralizing it leads us to make cinematic choices and interpret our roles as well as we possibly can. It also silences the stage fright of slow continuum attachment so that stories can be set in motion and cinematicness can be achieved.”

Olli’s publishing house needs to find a new title that will sell well. When Greta mentions online that her current publisher is unhappy with her ideas for her next book – the first in a series of magical travel guides starting with Jyväskylä – Olli suggests that she could publish with him. This business arrangement soon starts to affect his personal life.

The reader is taken back to the childhood summers Olli spent with his grandparents in Tourula, where he first met Greta. Olli was part of a group who called themselves the Tourula Five; they even had a dog named Timi. The children would spend their days going on adventures, seeking out underground passageways, eating picnics, messing about on the river. It was a thrilling time until it all went horribly wrong.

Olli has disturbing erotic dreams which are described in detail. His real life sexual encounters are also recounted leaving little to the reader’s imagination. The sex scenes were too numerous and graphic for my tastes, but the same could be said of many popular films, and this story is cinematic in style. As happens on screen, sex is regularly conflated with love.

Much of the story seems preposterous but this appears to be the point. A cinematic lifestyle does not require that the script be realistic, only that it be aesthetically memorable, and the writing reflects this.

Greta’s ideas, which include the existence of mood particles in certain places that affect behaviour, are granted potency. The power of suggestion and the adoption of fads is mocked throughout. When characters become inconvenient they are written away without consequence.

Two denouements are offered for the reader to choose from allowing film preferences to be catered for. The big reveal adds a little depth to the somewhat fantastical plot.

This is a story that encapsulates adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy and comedy with references to the numerous films it parodies. As a whole it is kooky, which at times I found irritating, but despite this it somehow works.

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

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai), is a short novel about a young boy’s infatuation with a woman he observes working behind the sandwich counter at a busy supermarket. He is drawn to her eyes, the lids of which are ice-blue. He is fascinated by her attitude, the aloofness with which she treats her customers being so at odds with the typical obsequiousness of service industry employees in Japan. Over the course of a summer he visits the supermarket each day to watch as she slips sandwiches into bags and hands out change. He saves his money that he may purchase the products she sells and thereby get close enough to speak.

When school resumes he cannot spend as much time watching the woman he has named in his head Ms Ice Sandwich. Nevertheless she remains on his mind. He tells his grandmother all about her and draws pictures of her face, painting in the ice-blue eyelids. Grandma is a good listener as she lies in her bed, unable to interact, waiting to die. The boy’s mother is too distracted by her work to converse about more than daily essentials. Peers have their own obsessions, the reasons for which are rarely understood or appreciated.

The boy has a school friend, Tutti, who enthuses about the foreign movies she watches with her dad. She has invited the boy to join them one evening to share a favourite film although a date has yet to be agreed. The boy would like to tell Tutti about Ms Ice Sandwich, especially when other classmates make derogatory comments about her looks. He cannot find the words. When Tutti finds out how he feels she is saddened but advises him to act.

Each of these characters has family and friends yet are portrayed as isolated. What matters to an individual is put at risk when its importance is shared with someone else. The boy does not wish to be laughed at, to have his feelings mocked. Tutti offers him a place in her world, which he is grateful for even if he cannot match her enthusiasm for her interests.

A deftly written, unusual tale of the changes life inevitably brings. Although emotive it is never sentimental. The story touches on universal attitudes, the desire to belong, and the difficulties of conveying what is deeply felt. It is a thought provoking, satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Compass

Compass, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell), narrates the thoughts of a middle aged academic as he spends a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. Franz Ritter is a musicologist suffering from insomnia. He believes he is ill, possibly dying, although doctors have yet to diagnose any specific ailment. As he lies in his bed he thinks back over key events in his life. These include travels in the Middle East, acquaintances he spent time with there, and his obsession with a woman he has been friends with for many years. Franz met Sarah, another academic, when she was working on her thesis for her PhD. She has since gone on to enjoy success in her field. Despite being an intelligent, articulate and personable colleague, Franz regards her through the lens of desire. He has an image of how she should look and behave, expressing annoyance when she diverges from this construct. His supposed love for her is based on possession; he grows jealous when she expresses interest in other’s work.

As the night progresses Franz recounts conversations and adventures with other colleagues, many of them fellow academics. They take themselves and their work very seriously, assuming each will be remembered for what they regard as important contributions to obscure studies. Franz is often condescending, self-aggrandising and self-pitying. When Sarah laughs at his habits and conceits he feels hard done by. When others show an interest in Sarah he develops a dislike for them.

Despite travelling extensively himself, Franz complains of the activities of tourists in Vienna. His arrogance would be amusing if this story were not so heavy. Franz’s melancholic nature permeates each rambling recollection. There is a huge amount of detail provided. Some of this is interesting if sieved from the surrounding asides.

As with anyone’s tired night-time thoughts, the discourse wanders. Franz considers the lives of musicians and composers alongside the histories of Middle Eastern countries. He remembers his encounters with eastern natives and the reactions of the westerners he travelled with. All are explored in depth, piecemeal, alongside his memories of Sarah. The night drags on, as did my progress through these pages.

It was not the quality of the writing but rather the garrulous pretentiousness of the narrator that stifled engagement. Franz’s devouring passions may be interesting but were drowned by the relentless intensity with which he shares. He is easy to dislike with his opium habit, hypochondria, and treatment of female colleagues. Given this, the denouement was unexpected.

“better to publish well-chosen, brief articles than vast works of erudition”

A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia; reading this felt like hard work. There is much about the Middle East that piqued my interest, but I felt relief when I turned the final page.

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Die, My Love

Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), is a raw and unflinching journey through the mind of a new wife and mother whose feelings of entrapment are driving her over the edge. Her thoughts are brutal and increasingly desperate as she seeks to find a way to satiate her personal needs. The mind-numbing banality of her day to day existence is proving more than she can take. Her erratic behaviour verges on the dangerous, including for her child.

Over the course of eighteen months the woman struggles through each day in a state of rage against her circumstances. She rails against her husband’s inability to satisfy her, including sexually. She hides in woodland near their home leaving the child with his grandmother or, at times, abandoned. She screams into the void when unable to articulate her needs in a way those close to her find acceptable. She recognises that her actions are beyond the pale but cannot quell the demons stifling her from within.

The narrative exposes the grotesque in the actions of people going about their quotidian lives. Observations of the ordinary are harsh in their candour. The woman displays little moral compass as she searches for a way to survive. She cannot retain the composure needed to present herself to the world as is expected, frequently angering or embarrassing her husband and then proving incandescent at his reactions.

The woman knows that her behaviour is unacceptable and yearns to act in the way others do when confronted with the needs of family. She observes her husband with their son and ponders if they would be better off without her. She suppresses the longing she feels for the freedom this would give her. There is pent up anger towards the man she chose to share her life with for coping whilst her needs remain unmet.

Although competently written this is not a comfortable book to read. Its prose pierces the armour most people don in order to maintain the illusions of happy families. Occasional thoughts, quickly suppressed as horrific, are here given free rein. A passionate, intense and disturbing acknowledgement of the stripping of self that parenthood can bring.

Die, My Love, is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Whiteout

Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English by Orenda Books. At the beginning of this instalment the protagonist, policeman Ari Thór Arason, is once again working in the small fishing town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. His former boss, Tómas, has moved to Reykjavik where he has joined the city force’s Serious Crimes Department. Neither is completely happy in their roles.

When the body of a young woman, Ásta Káradóttir, is discovered beneath cliffs near the deserted village of Kálfshamarsvík, Tómas feels he must prove himself to his new colleagues by uncovering how she came to die. He eschews their offers of help preferring to call on Ari Thór for assistance. Together they travel to the scene of the investigation, in a remote, northern location which has a chequered history and harbours many secrets. Ásta’s mother and sister were found dead at the same spot more than twenty years before. The policemen question if each of these deaths could have been accident, suicide or something more sinister.

In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. The cliffs are located by a large house, a lighthouse and a nearby farm, with little else close by. The residents of these properties have barely changed in the decades over which the story is set. Parents have died, their children grown, but few have moved on.  Although Ásta was sent to live with a distant aunt when she was seven years old, shortly after her sister’s death, those who knew her as a child remain.

Ari Thór and Tómas set about questioning their potential witnesses and suspects. An elderly brother and sister, Oskar and Thora, live in the basement of the big house and work as housekeeper and caretaker. The house is owned by Reynir who inherited the property and a successful business from his father and spends time there regularly. Living on the nearby farm is Arnor who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with his duties at the lighthouse. All were close by at the times of each of the three tragic deaths.

Post-mortem examination shows that Ásta had sex shortly before she died yet the men deny involvement. Her body was found on rocks but there is a possible head injury from another cause. Her mother and sister’s deaths were officially regarded as suicide and accident. Rumours float to the surface that Ásta, when a child, may have witnessed more than has been acknowledged. The policemen’s questions bring to light historic behaviours that those involved sought to suppress. Then another body is discovered within the big house.

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas which everyone is eager to celebrate for a variety of reasons. To avoid problems encountered in previous years, Ari Thór has brought his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Kristin, along with him to the hotel where they are staying. The author does not introduce plot threads without reason. Knowing this adds to the tension.

I was eager to review this book as I have followed Ari Thór through each of his adventures to date and grown fond of this young man trying so desperately to do something worthwhile with his life alongside creating the happy family of his imagination. He resents having missed out on this himself. His flaws are not of excess but rather a struggle to deal with his past and accept Kristen’s individuality. The ghosts haunting all the characters are the secrets they have tried to bury.

The writing is effortlessly captivating with a brooding quality that ensures plot direction remains actively unsettling. The reader’s eagerness to understand how and why is gradually rewarded. The denouement is accomplished yet retains a degree of ambiguity.

An entertaining read from a master storyteller that is crime fiction yet avoids the genres sometimes cliched predictability. I hope this is not the final book in what is a fabulous series. Highly recommended.

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

This post is a stop on the Whiteout Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.  

Whiteout is published by Orenda Books.