Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

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


Q&A with World Editions

Today I am delighted to welcome Judith Uyterlinde, publishing director at World Editions, an independent publisher set up to bring international literature to a global readership. This year World Editions is bringing the Netherlands’ Boekenweek (Book Week) to the UK by promoting three prize winning Dutch authors they have had translated into English. If you click on the covers below you may read my reviews of these books.

Judith has answered some question I put to her about World Editions. I hope that you enjoy finding out more about this publishing house.


Can you tell me a little about World Editions and why it was set up?

World Editions publishes and promotes high quality literary titles from all over the world in translation into English. We believe there are a lot of treasures to discover for English language readers. There are so many great books out there that haven’t been translated into English yet!

You publish books from around the world. With such a wide remit how do you select the titles you wish to acquire?

One has to read a lot and trust one’s taste. I believe I have a nose for good literature. And of course you need the help and advice of other people too. We have a broad network of agents and publishers, translators and authors all over the world. We visit book fairs in London, Paris, Frankfurt and other places all over the world, to find the most beautiful books to translate into English.

What is the most rewarding aspect of independent publishing, and the most challenging?

The most rewarding aspect is getting to know the most wonderful people and ideas. The most challenging is making sure that the books reach the wide readership they deserve.

Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out – how do you connect with booksellers and readers?

The books and the authors need to be visible: in the bookshops, at festivals, on (social) media, everywhere. We are a very young Publishing House – we only just got started with a brand new team in the UK and the USA, so there still is a lot of work to do!

There are a good number of small publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

We focus on translated books and we all read them ourselves. Coming from a small, international oriented country, the Netherlands, with a strong tradition in traveling, trading and translating, we have the advantage of reading many languages. Within our team we read French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Polish and English. And on top of that all of us have a lot of publishing experience from working for big international literary houses in both Europe and the USA before.

Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

Selling books is like winning a war – it’s only with hindsight that you can tell who the winner is. But you need to keep trusting that gut feeling and convince others of it!

Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

Hard copies are still most popular but E-books have their merit too in international publishing.

Do you consider World Editions to be niche or mainstream?

We are specialised in the sense that there are not many Publishing Houses which focus on international literature and translations as intensively as we do. But our ambitions and the quality of our books do not differ from those of the major literary houses.

When working with your authors are you collaborative or dictatorial?

Working together with the authors is one of the things I love most about publishing. There is no use or fun in being dictatorial.

Plans for the future?

To keep on publishing the best books from all over the world! To contribute to an intercultural dialogue. If books can change our view of the world, they can also change the world. Is that enough of an ambition?


Visit the World Editions website here.

You may follow them on Twitter: @WorldEdBooks


Book Review: The Darkness that Divides Us

The Darkness that Divides Us, by Renate Dorrestein (translated by Hester Velmans), is a story of lives blighted by secrets surrounding a murder. Told from the points of view of the children most affected, it highlights the misunderstandings and frustrations that arise when adults charged with caring for young people forget that children speak a different language to them.

The book is set in and around a new housing estate in the Netherlands, a prototype that the government promised would allow families to grow amongst like minded people, detached from the problems and fears of inner city living. Young couples moved into these sterile and remote dwellings, and soon began procreating. As fathers had to travel longer distances to work, the mothers would get together to air their grievances. Thus their children got to know each other from the cradle.

Close to these new homes is an old rectory. Here lives Lucy, her bohemian mother and their two lodgers, Ludo and Duco. Lucy’s mother illustrates children’s story books. She reads Tarot cards for the other mothers. She doesn’t fuss if clothes are dirty or juice is spilt. The children love to visit her house and Lucy, always ready to suggest a daring and imaginative game, becomes the de facto leader of the preschool group.

When a new boy, Thomas, moves into a house on the estate Lucy chooses him as her special friend, deciding that they will become engaged. A party is held at her house to celebrate the occasion which turns inexplicably grim when Lucy’s mother discovers Thomas’s origins. She decides that her family can no longer live in the rectory, that they must move far from these people. Appalled, Lucy decides to run away.

On a stormy night Lucy sneaks out of the house, overhearing an argument between her mother and their two lodgers as she leaves. The next morning Thomas’s father is found dead.

The children are six years old and have only just started school. Their escapades and reasoning appear precocious, a reminder that adults struggle to empathise with young people at their level. Parents will think they know best and try to protect. Children observe the fickleness of adult friendships, the interesting facts they refuse to share, how their opinions are swayed by gossip and speculation.

Events of that stormy night change Lucy forever. The other children are frustrated by her sudden restraint and try to force her to react by tormenting her, desiring the return of their exuberant leader. Unbeknownst to them Lucy has been tasked with keeping a dark secret that over time she locks away in the recesses of her mind. She accepts years of vicious bullying believing it is her due.

Lucy’s mother goes to prison and her child is cared for by Ludo and Duco. The men are largely unaware of the torments Lucy suffers at the behest of her erstwhile friends. When her mother is released it becomes clear that their situation has become untenable. The four decide to move away.

The first part of the book is told from the point of view of one of the bullies, a child living in a supposedly ideal family unit. The second part, set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, is narrated by Lucy. Here she must learn a new language and find a way to fit in with local children raised on the remote island. Although still only twelve years old, the damage caused by her childhood reverberates.

Ludo and Duco continue to offer Lucy their unconditional if somewhat gauche support. Lucy and her mother struggle to cope with what the other has become. Lucy is trying to move forwards, unsure of the truth of her memories from the pivotal night, unwilling to think too deeply about what happened and her role in events.

“The story that lay pressed between the covers of our mutual silence had best remain what it was; a closed book.”

The damage caused by her mother’s attempts to protect Lucy lead to her dealing with the island children’s taunts in a shocking way. She is terrified of once again becoming the victim of unrelenting bullying. She longs for the company of younger children who have not yet learned to torture those they perceive as not fitting in.

By the denouement Lucy has turned eighteen and is facing her future. Out in the world, away from the support of Ludo and Duco, she is forced to confront the way she has allowed the secrets of her past to shape how she thinks. The adults who cared for her may have had her best interests at heart but each person, child and adult, were affected in ways the others proved unable to comprehend.

This tale is in many ways chilling, not least because of the uncomfortable truths it lays bare. As adults it is too easy to think we know better than the children we interact with. We cannot control the events they will remember, the conversations and silences they will translate in unforeseen ways. The voices of the narrators are a reminder that, whatever our age, it is only possible to live inside one’s own head, unable to fully appreciate other’s perceptions, feeling at the moment and dwelling on whatever causes pain.

A complex and unusual story that, whilst heart-rending, is never sentimental. It is tense in places, thought provoking and engaging. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: You Have Me To Love

You Have Me To Love, by Jaap Robben (translated by David Doherty), is a tale of grief and loneliness set on a small, unnamed island in a remote region. The protagonist is a boy named Mikael who, at nine years old, watches as his father is lost to the sea. The boy blames himself for what happened, as does his mother, Dora. Guilt and recriminations fester as they skirt around each other, unable to provide the particular support each craves.

Also living on the island is Karl, a fisherman. There is a third house which lies empty following the death of an elderly lady, Miss Augusta, who was raised there by her parents. Mikail used to visit with his father who would sort any repairs or maintenance at Miss Augusta’s request. After her death the remaining residents help themselves to the contents of her home as it slowly decays.

Each fortnight groceries are delivered to the island by a boatman, Brigitta. Other than the policemen who come to investigate his father’s disappearance, and one trip several years ago to the nearest town on what they call the mainland, these are the only people Mikael has ever seen.

The story opens on the day Mikael watches as his father is taken by the sea. Afraid of being punished, he does not tell his mother immediately. Even when her husband was alive Dora had been volatile. In her grief at his loss she lashes out at her son creating a painful distance between them that will remain.

Mikael had been home schooled by his father, a task his mother cannot deal with. Thus his schooling ceases and another contact with the outside world is severed.

By the time he is fifteen Mikael is helping Karl, although Dora does what she can to prevent the boy leaving the island even for short fishing trips. She grows jealous when he chats to Brigitta’s son. She resents when he escapes her moods by spending time alone in Miss Augusta’s house. Dora is growing ever more unhinged, her plans for Mikael more than the boy knows how to deal with.

Life on the island is portrayed as one of contrasts. There is a harsh beauty alongside the dirt and decrepitude; a freedom from rules within the confines of the surrounding sea; a loneliness that demands self-reliance. Dora may be jealous of any person or thing that draws her son’s attention away from her, but Mikail is also intent on keeping his mother’s attention for himself.

There is an undercurrent of foreboding, a tension as the reader realises the grotesque direction Dora’s mind is taking. A powerful, parallel plot line with a searing relevance, revealed at the denouement, injects a moment of empathy for the woman whose maternal instincts have appeared so lacking.

A somewhat bleak but evocative portrayal of a life removed from the oft maligned compass of society. Although engaging throughout, the power of the story is the impact it leaves beyond the final page.

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

Book Review: Hotel Silence

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.

Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.

Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.

Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.

Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.

He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.

Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.

The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.

The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.

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

Book Review: Craving

Craving, by Esther Gerritsen (translated by Michele Hutchison), is a story of family, and social disconnection. Its protagonists are Elisabeth and Coco, a mother and daughter with an uneasy relationship. The book opens with a chance encounter in the street where Elisabeth tells her child that she is dying of cancer. Coco is quietly angry with her mother, a regular reaction when they are together. She looks forward to being comforted when she shares the news with others who will expect her to be upset in a different way.

Coco has an older boyfriend, Hans, who she regularly provokes to create a reaction. She recognises that he is growing tired of her behaviour, but she is not willing to allow their relationship to end. She hopes that having a sick mother will help to occupy his thoughts, buying her more time with him. She is angered when he will not channel his feelings of indignation or irritation into rough sex. She seeks extreme behaviour in order to feel, to escape what she considers the blandness of everyday experiences.

Elisabeth has never known how to cope with Coco’s behaviour. From an early age her daughter was a malcontented child and they shared little affection. Now she finds that she cannot speak openly for fear that her true thoughts will be revealed. Elisabeth can talk to her hairdresser, to her work colleague, Martin, but not to her truculent daughter.

Coco lived with her father and his second wife, Miriam, after her parents’ separated. Miriam encouraged Coco and Elisabeth to maintain contact but neither enjoyed their time together. Elisabeth resented that her husband left, not having realised he was unhappy in their marriage. She believes the catalyst for the breakdown was Coco’s birth.

Coco’s landlord has given her notice so she decides to move in with Elisabeth, to be seen to be there for her mother now that she is dying. She hopes for answers to questions about why her mother behaved as she did when she was a child, details of stories her father has told her that, although not remembered first hand, have created resentment. Elisabeth wants to behave like a good mother so reluctantly agrees to Coco’s plan. They circle each other trying to work out how to be together. Elisabeth does not wish to lie to her child but neither can she bring herself to share her true thoughts when questioned. Coco becomes ever more agitated. Elisabeth observes, accepting yet wishing Coco would leave.

There is a sense of foreboding in the language, a question of cause and effect in Coco’s destructive behaviour. As Elisabeth’s health deteriorates she has offers of help from Martin, her ex-husband, Hans, even her hairdresser. She seeks a tidy ending that her daughter, once again, threatens to blemish.

Although disturbing and somewhat brutal in places this is a tale of longing, a search for an elusive conformity that will not sit easily with either of the protagonists. Societal expectations create a culture of blame when roles are not adhered to. The tale provides a reminder that unconditional love is not a right, even within families.

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

Craving has just been adapted for the screen and was premiered last month at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. 

Book Review: Sońka

This post was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Sońka is set in Królowe Stojło, on the Polish-Belarusian border where the author spent his childhood. It opens like a fairy tale – Once upon a time – although its eponymous heroine is a toothless crone. She has lived her long life in the same small homestead with a cat, a dog, a few hens and a cow whose milk provides her meagre income. Although set in contemporary times, Sońka considers her life to have ended with the Second World War. She has a story that she has never told, of a time when she was “still very young, lived and felt so much afterward she didn’t live or feel at all.”

When her urban prince arrives – Igor Grycowski, a theatre director from Warsaw whose car breaks down leaving him stuck in her village where there is no mobile phone coverage – Sońka offers him a mug of fresh milk and decides it is time to tell the story of her life. It has been shaped by her great, unhappy love.

Igor has carefully hidden his background from his peers for reasons of self-preservation. Unbeknown to them he is familiar with this remote area. He spent his childhood with his grandparents in a nearby village, Wysranka, where he was called Ignacy Gryki and was Slavic Orthodox rather than Catholic and Polish as now.

As Sońka recounts her tale Igor shapes in his mind the play he will produce of her trials. He understands the potential power of such a depiction. The Ignacy in him comes to realise that this narration offers Sońka her final catharsis.

In August 1941 Sońka was living with her hated father and two older brothers, her mother having died in childbirth. Although now subjects of Adolph Hitler, their day to day life has continued as before. On the pivotal day, Sońka dons her only good dress and sits on the bench outside her home. From this vantage point she views the passing of numerous army trucks carrying soldiers she regards as “wonderful, dangerous and noble.”

An SS officer, Joachim, travels alongside, on a motorbike, and stops to speak to Sońka in a language she cannot understand. He presents her with a puppy and everything in her world is changed.

Sońka feels happiness when with Joachim that she had not realised could exist in her harsh life. Despite her dreams for the future, it cannot last. Her lies lead to barely imaginable personal tragedy, for her own and a neighbour’s families.

Phrases in Belarusian are included providing insight into a time now past in which Sońka, alone, still lives. For all his plans to appropriate her tale, Igor is sympathetic to her ongoing needs.

The fickle art world is depicted with humour despite the brevity of the subject being played. Igor wishes his production to touch heartstrings, even at a risk of turning tacky. He understands that critical response need not affect a play’s commercial success.

The author has said in a previous interview (with

“A few years ago, I realised that writing an outstanding novel for fifteen people is in fact a simple solution. It is not so difficult. If someone has a sort of a talent and is hard-working, he can easily create such a masterpiece. It is much harder to come up with a book that contains something deeper, and that is written in a reader-friendly language.”

With Sońka we have a novel that has this depth yet throughout remains accessible.

Any Cop?: Multi-layered, nuanced and perspicacious – an impressively satisfying read.


Jackie Law