Book Review: This World Does Not Belong to Us

this world does not

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The mind of a child doesn’t solve problems, doesn’t contemplate overcoming obstacles; it simply thinks what it would be like to win.”

This World Does Not Belong to Us tells the story of Lucas Torrente de Valses, the son of a wealthy landowner who ends up being sold into slavery. Told from his perspective, much must be inferred. Lucas was too young when certain pivotal events occurred to fully comprehend cause and effect. He observed but could not change what was happening, any attempt being regarded as unruly behaviour. By the time he returns to the family mansion as a man, having escaped the master he was forced to serve, it has been taken over by two men who befriended his father. Lucas seeks revenge but has learned to act with patience and deference when required.

From a young age Lucas developed a fascination with the world of insects – of botany and biology – encouraged by his mother and then tutor. Lucas’s father was angered by this interest, demanding that his son focus on something more useful.

“I understand now that all fathers have a god inside them and look down upon their sons like clay figurines, always incomplete, wanting to create them over and over in their own image and likeness.”

Lucas was raised by nursemaids while his mother tended her garden. All of their lives started to unravel when the father allowed two strangers to move in with them – a supposedly temporary arrangement to assist in the running of his various enterprises. Lucas instantly despised these interlopers – their dirty beards and unsavoury habits of which they never appeared ashamed.

A chain of events are set in motion when cows the men have recently milked stray into the beautifully kept manor house garden. Lucas’s mother’s reaction to the destruction thereby wreaked draws the attention of a local priest and townswomen. She is given medication to calm her down and openly prayed for. Her subsequent treatment is sadly typical of well to do husbands of the time whose wives behaviour embarrassed them.

“This is what was said in the market lanes by respectable-looking ladies – which is to say, ladies who were horrid but well dressed.”

The timeline jumps between when Lucas was a boy and his return to the home from which he was ejected. We are aware from the start that both his parents are now dead and the great house where they all lived is falling into disrepair. The invasion by nature and its creatures feels apt to Lucas given what precipitated the family downfall. He addresses himself to his late father as the catalyst and facilitator.

“There’s nothing left of us, Father, except for these tiny animals attracted by the warmth surrounding death. More alive than the living who walk and talk.”

To gain his revenge Lucas must once again join the household. He offers himself as a labourer and is housed by the animals kept. His only friend is a poisonous spider but this suits his purpose. The nursemaids, who remained in the house as servants, fear for his safety but Lucas’s plans matter more to him.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Lucas sees through a glass darkly, his childish senses unable to comprehend his father’s intentions. The reader must decide on the reliability of Lucas’s narration. Are dubious actions caused by the two strangers or had Lucas some hand in what later occurred? He grew to hate his father alongside the men allowed to infiltrate their lives. They and the church were complicit in how his mother was treated, her eventual death regarded as a release.

The writing is vividly sensuous, feasting on the rot at the heart of man’s selfish behaviour. The state of Lucas’s mind may be pondered, but it remains understandable why he regards the order and useful industry of insects as more worthy of respect.

“The resurrection of our flesh is a miracle. There is no spirit that ascends, only a body that breaks down and descends in spirals through the earth, forming a more perfect and symmetrical existence.”

This is a tale to challenge assumptions of what may be recoiled from as dirty or creepy. Is it the hard working crawling and flying insects or the men who abuse for their own ends? Nature may be temporarily tamed but, given opportunity, will return with a vengeance. We have here an unflinching yet somehow lyrical account of one man harnessing such knowledge to overcome pests.

Any Cop?: Some readers may quail at the imagery. Here it is convincingly depicted as more beneficial and admirable than human behaviour.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Goodbye, Ramona

Goodbye, Ramona

“I’ve been chasing chimeras all my life”

Goodbye, Ramona, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall), follows three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Ramona – each of whose lives tilt on what turns out to be defining encounters with men. They lived in Barcelona through its varying, tumultuous times, although their personal concerns remained insular. Despite close family ties, they misunderstood the impact of each other’s experiences and preoccupations.

The stories being told of these women jump from one to the other. Although chapters are headed by name, secondary characters serve to remind the reader which Ramona is being focused on. The novel is bookended by a key event in the life of Ramona Ventura – the mother – on a day during a violent uprising, when she searched for the remains of her husband amongst a sea of mutilated bodies. She would hark back to this episode regularly in the years to come, her family growing weary of her focus on that one day.

And yet, it was an earlier period in her life that shaped her, the summer a republic was declared. It was then that she first fell in love, with a man regarded as dangerous. Ramona was eager for new experiences, regarding herself as ready to escape the ordinariness of her life to date.

“everything always began and ended in the same way. Except in the summer of ’34, and that fall when…
But everyone has a summer and a fall in life. The truth is I’ve been molded out of details and miniscule events that will never add up to much of anything at all.”

The grandmother’s story, Ramona Jover, was my favourite. As a young bride at the turn of the century, her early life experiences were more salubrious than they later became. This did not, however, bring her happiness. She longed for passion, but both she and her husband remained repressed by their upbringing.

“He loved me measuredly, properly. But I never felt seduced by him.”

Ramona was happier when they moved from a quiet district to an apartment in Barcelona, although this brought with it dangerous temptations to stray.

Each of the three women depicted are introspective, the men they become involved with self-absorbed. Love is declared but with the aim of providing personal satisfaction – in matters of: desire, art and literature, politics. Women were required to be supportive and compliant. Mostly the Ramonas try to perform as was expected by their peers.

“You know you’d prefer to be more like Telele, who gets whatever she wants using her feminine wiles. Knowing to always keep quiet, to pay attention to men when they speak”

Many of the other women depicted seek husbands, fearing the prospect of being an old maid. Once married they get together to complain about their husbands, secretly jealous of any single, financially independent ladies.

Although living through changing political times, the Ramonas are preoccupied by lovers along with their love / hate relationship with their home city. They each seek to broaden their horizons with travel. Those who do get away briefly then long to return. Barcelona is a vivid character in these stories as it adapts and homogenises with the passing of the decades.

“The city… A city that was no longer the same idyllic place it was in the 30s, and nowhere near the legendary Barcelona of the turn of the century. She crossed Gran Via and passed by the student bar. The prostitutes were just getting to work”

What the stories of these three women reveal is how rose tinted recollections can be.

I struggled to warm to the daughter, Ramona Claret. Described as impulsive she comes across as foolish. Perhaps she is simply young, but then all three women were in the periods of their lives being shared. What is interesting in her story is how she views her mother and grandmother, unable to consider that they too once had lives shaped by parents and grandparents, lives that did not include her.

“Her family would depict the war in a million different ways, and the differences always came down to the highly peculiar, highly singular way that each person had experienced it”

The pacing of each women’s tale is recounted with a degree of breathlessness, despite the mundanity of many of their experiences. This serves to build tension and retain interest. The Ramonas seek freedom from constrictions, a desire for passionate encounters, a longing to break the bindings that provide security yet feel suffocating.

A skilfully rendered, vivid history of life in Barcelona during a changing half century. With my lack of knowledge of the city’s history I struggled at times to place and differentiate each Ramona, but their stories remained taut and engaging.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: Marseillaise My Way

marseillaise my way

“I was furious with our countries, that turn these young people, these nations, into refugees, these people who had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the world, where dictators think nothing of slaughtering an entire nation just to stay in power.”

Marseillaise My Way, by Darina Al Joundi (translated by Helen Vassallo), is a sequel to the recently published The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing. It is again written as a monologue and includes stage directions for a performance. Thus the reader understands not just the words being spoken but the emotions they engender as memories are recalled and hopes shared.

The protagonist, Noun, has left Beirut and moved to France where she has applied for citizenship. After checking out several countries as potential new homes she opted for France as the most likely to offer her the freedoms she desires. Noun acknowledges her privilege in having the personal and financial support to make this decision. What she wants though is rights, unavailable to women in her homeland.

“I thought I was moving to the most secular country in the world. It’s true that it’s still a lot more secular than a lot of other countries, even if its secularism is under threat. I thought that here, women were more fortunate, had more of a chance to fight, not to make bad choices, not to be influenced by men who only want to control them. I thought that culture and education would give them a better future, the means to free themselves.”

In the first few years following her emigration Noun discovers how frustrating bureaucracy can be. She must apply for fresh work visas every few months. The citizenship process demands every shred of paperwork from her past be submitted, calling into judgement certain relationship decisions she made. It angers her that these were necessary at the time to keep herself safe, something the French authorities may struggle to appreciate. She recalls the horrific experiences of other women she knew who suffered greatly for trying to stand up for their rights in countries where men could effectively imprison them, treating them violently with impunity.

In France, she rails against women wearing the veil or burqa when this is not a legal requirement. She comes from a place where women put their lives at risk for the right to choose what they would wear and how they may behave. She sees the closed communities that have formed in European cities where women become trapped by the laws of their home countries. The men have even asked that laws be passed to enable them to govern their people under Islamic rulings. She recalls a legal case from Frankfurt in 2007.

“A female judge dismissed this woman’s request to initiate divorce proceedings on the grounds of domestic violence. And why did she dismiss it? Because the couple was originally from a Muslim country. And apparently, according to the Qur’an, a man may beat his wife.
So the victim ought to have expected that kind of treatment.
The judge even said that the husband’s honour had been violated.”

Noun wishes to have the right to live freely as other French citizens do. She longs to vote in elections, something women were denied in her homeland. To gain citizenship she must submit all her paperwork and then sit a test. She must be able to sing La Marseillaise.

In amongst the anger and despair being shared is a fierce determination. Noun is clear in her conviction that women deserve the same rights as men and should be treated equitably. She has decades of first hand knowledge of the suffering any other way of living brings.

The book finishes with a Postscript by the author in which she reverts to the factual experiences that inspired her to write Noun’s story. She mentions the refugees who are processed in centres she visits, stripped of humanity as they become numbers for the authorities to deal with.

“I’ll be honest: it was a five-star hotel compared to the refugee camps that I’ve seen back home, but that doesn’t make the suffering of the refugees in these European centres any less real.”

It is this honesty that the author brings to her writing that makes it so powerful and piercing. She longs to be treated like a human being, with dignity. Her story asks the reader to consider an important question – why this is not possible for everyone in what are purported to be civilised countries? Given current arguments raging around rights and immigration issues in Britain, this is a particularly timely and worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Naked Eye Publishing.

Book Review: Jacobé & Fineta

jacobe and fineta

Jacobé & Fineta, by Joaquim Ruyra (translated by Alan Yates), is a slim volume of two short stories preceded by an introduction by Julià Guillamon. I would advise skipping the enthusiastic introduction until after the stories have been read as it contains spoilers.

The first and longer story, Jacobé, is narrated by a young man named Minguet who has returned to visit the coastal town where he grew up. As a young child from a wealthy family he was placed in the care of Nursie, a widow with a daughter two years older than the boy. The pair were lively playmates and enjoyed each others’ company, developing a deep affection that abided long after Minguet was sent away to school.

The tale opens in autumn. The author uses descriptions of weather and the natural decay of the season to create a shadow of pervading melancholy. The comparison between this and the happy memories of Minguet’s time spent with Jacobé and Nursie portend some deterioration in events to come.

It has been Minguet’s habit to visit his former playmate and carer when home during holidays from school. He is always made welcome, although Jacobé’s enthusiasm could at times be uncomfortable.

“even though such a warm welcome was enough to stifle in me all feelings except tenderness, those ‘little one’ pricks felt very offensive to a man who had already turned twelve.”

By sixteen Jacobé was considered beautiful – ‘healthy and full of vitality’. She was, however, starting to display worrying behaviours.

“Jacobé would welcome me with exaggerated enthusiasm, and with a rather indiscrete interest in what I had been doing.”

Within a few short years this behaviour developed into a psychosis alongside which Jacobé’s physical health deteriorated markedly. At this stage there is a suggestion that she is being punished for the sins of previous generations. Minguet ponders such an idea under the tenets of his religious faith, which I personally found a tad off-putting. That is not to question its authenticity given period and setting.

The narrative voice employed in the telling is smooth. The dialogue between characters is somewhat coarse at times. I wondered if this was to highlight differing social statuses and associated opportunity in education.

Metaphors make much use of natural phenomena to portray how people appear and behave. The growing agitation felt by Jacobé and then Minguet add to the tension.

Although poignant, the denouement offers what is almost relief after the suffering described. While the religiosity did not work for me, the comforts to be found in nature, especially the sea, were skilfully wrought.

The second story, Fineta, tells of a sixteen year old girl left alone at home while her father and brothers go out to sea, fishing for days and nights at a time. She fears the darkness in her solitude so rises early, encountering a woodman who is new to the area. Later in the day, her fears dispelled, she walks to a nearby beach. Here she swims and feels at ease, until the man reappears. Her long term reaction to what happens next is more complex than expected.

Both stories evoke the time and place to effect as well as providing much for the reader to consider. The elements of dark behaviour depicted suggest a transience in happiness through lived experience, although both plot and character development are secondary to the author’s artistry with language.

A book worth reading, offering much that will linger. A compact but still satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: Love Novel

Love Novel

Love Novel, by Ivana Sajko (translated by Mima Simić), is a brutally honest tale of a marriage suffering the twin stresses of a new child and grim, economic uncertainty. He is an unemployed scholar with plans to write a book for which the words won’t come. She is bearing the brunt of their childcare responsibilities having given up her job as an actress, albeit one who never quite made the artistic mark she hoped for.

“they had no interest in art, but rather only in very exact material relations; how many bums on seats per play […] They assured her the audience wouldn’t tolerate art either; all the questioning, uncertainties, hidden meanings and open endings”

The couple met, fell in love and then fell pregnant. Now they are living in a small apartment for which they cannot afford the rent. Suffering from lack of sleep and having to care for a young child, their resentments towards each other grow and fester. They lash out verbally but without explanation, believing the other should understand.

He escapes this toxic family life by taking part in meaningless protests against government corruption.

“when thousands of people sit in the streets to stop traffic, protesting against politicians, judges, bankers or the corporate mafia who, ultimately, pull the strings of all their lives, and when they unfurl their banners that read ENOUGH, they know it won’t be enough”

She deals with her anger by compulsively cleaning and tidying their home. She hates the ugly couch he brought with him when they moved in together, an item of furniture he regards as ideal for purpose. This difference comes to symbolise the emotional blindness they both suffer regarding the other.

“everything was still in place, undamaged, before they’d started resenting each other over promises unfulfilled, over weakness, laziness, selfishness, over stupid trifles and the goddam rent, while they still believed that love saves”

There is a brief respite when both find jobs and money worries recede. What happens next proves that hard work isn’t always enough – a timely reminder given the current and likely worsening economic situation here.

A thread explores the actions of a neighbour who has time and inclination for bringing residents of the apartment block together and trying to improve the aesthetics of the place. The couple seen through neighbours’ eyes reminds how societal judgements are made. What becomes of this man is shocking and rendered with perceptive precision.

Elements of the story are also told through their effect on the baby. It is painful to consider why grown children will often avoid calling or visiting parents, and the roots of this behaviour.

Although an often uncomfortable read this is still a love story, stripped of veneer and then corroded by emotional and material difficulty. There is no suggestion that either of the couple is a bad person, although they themselves may beg to differ given the thoughts they suppress. Their spiral towards the denouement builds tension but also a rare togetherness.

A remarkably intricate dissection of a relationship under pressure. The pithy yet powerful prose delivers a bitingly impressive and always riveting tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Book Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance

when i sing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I used to tell them they should come swim in the river, and there’s no war in the mountains, that wars end but the mountains never do, that the mountains are older than war, and wiser than war, and once you’re dead they can’t kill you again”

When I Sing, Mountains Dance tells the story of a mountain in the Pyrenees close to the border with France. It is told from a variety of points of view, many of these unexpected. The people who inhabit the area have mostly done so for generations. They will one day die, as do all living entities. Life cycles may end naturally or be abruptly curtailed, but death is, at some point, inevitable. This is not portrayed as tragic, although individuals may be grieved for a time by those who cared for them. The mountain, with its forests, rivers and multiple life forms, has seen many come and go throughout its existence.

“Most men are liars. The men who invent stories and those who tell them. The ones who cut us out, who collect us and force us inside words, so we are the story they want to tell, with the moral they want to explain. Cut out and shrunk down to fit into their tiny heads. Tiny and dumb, but not any less evil.”

The opening chapter is narrated by a storm that blows in one evening. It finds a young man, Domènec, outside picking mushrooms. A lightning bolt strikes and kills him, an event witnessed by four dead women who stayed on in the region after they were murdered – their story is told next. Domènec leaves behind a wife, an elderly father, and two young children. These siblings, Mia and Hilari, are central to the tale.

“Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost”

Their mother grew up in the city and found mountain life more challenging than she expected. She takes out the resentment she feels, particularly after her husband’s death, on her children. Nevertheless, they are able to run free, seeking out water sprites and other creatures from stories they are familiar with. They befriend a giant’s son, who brings a burgeoning happiness and then personal tragedy.

Key events are narrated through the eyes of witnesses, not just people. This adds power and depth. It is hard to feel sympathy when a man dies while trying to kill an innocent roe deer. The deer’s descriptions of men and their habits provide revealing perspectives – known but perhaps not often enough considered.

There are stories within stories, including local legends and myths. Men tell of the mountains being formed over the bodies of lovers. Of course, the mountain knows it was pushed up due to plate tectonics. People will believe what suits them; dismissing children’s words while holding close what has been inculcated.

Much of the writing is elemental but also playful. Sexual activity between a couple, narrated by a pet dog, was amusingly clever. A hiker from the city, enthusing about the bucolic beauty of the region, grows annoyed when he cannot purchase sustenance due to businesses closing for a funeral. He believes it is he who has been badly treated.

The ghosts in the forest appear happier than the living, content to exist among the creatures that surround them and enjoy all the mountain offers. Those still alive remain blinkered by their everyday concerns.

“The movement will have begun again. The disaster. The next beginning. The nth end. And you will all die. Because nothing lasts long. And no one remembers the names of your children.”

Within these tales are reminders that not everyone sees or senses the same things. Some know when snow is coming. Some know when the dead are near. It is posited that the dead no longer care for the living. They are now beyond their petty worries.

Although centring on a small, rural community across half a century – those whose lives are subtly changed by Mia and Hilari – this is a story of a place and all that exists there, coloured by history. The sweeping narrative makes clear how fleeting any life is. Death is the shedding of another leaf, a season turning.

Despite death being a recurring theme – a fact of life, and man no more important than any other creature – this is a story that proves remarkably uplifting. The writing is both lyrical and pithy with many amusing observations. It is evocative and skilfully rendered, lightly told but offering rare insight.

Any Cop?: An exceptional story that is impressively atmospheric but never heavy. Beautifully put together, it will affect and linger.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

memoirs polar bear

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada (translated by Susan Bernofsky), tells the story of three generations of polar bears, none of whom live in their natural environment. The grandmother is a former circus performer who garnered fame when her memoirs were published. Her child, Tosca, also performs in a circus although her section is as much about her trainer as the bear. Tosca’s son, Knut, is rejected by his mother and raised in the Berlin Zoo where he is also required to perform to a paying audience. All are anthropormorphised, creating an affecting lens through which to view human behaviour and prejudice.

The first section is, perhaps, the most fantastical. It is not just the polar bear who moves among humans – at times attending pointless conferences and living in an apartment – other creatures carry out workaday functions, such as a sealion publisher. The bear writes of her early years and the methods used as she was trained to perform tricks. While this makes clear the cruelties inflicted on captive animals whose owners require them to entertain an audience, it is easy to compare with how human children are trained to act in ways society approves. Other threads lay bare how the corporate world uses those they regard as powerless as a commodity to be exploited. Even when the bear is helped to defect from East to West, her ‘rescuers’ retain a selfish agenda.

The second section offers a picture of life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite being a skilled ballet dancer, Tosca struggled to find the type of work she wanted. Audiences expect to watch lithe and feathery performers on stage, whereas a polar bear is anything but.

“Though she’d graduated from ballet school with top honors, Tosca hadn’t been able to land a role in a single production, not even Swan Lake as everyone had expected. And so she was regularly performing for children.”

When invited to join a circus, Tosca accepts the invitation at once. She learns how her human trainer came to live and work there, a life story told across several interesting settings. The circus remains at the forefront – a microcosm of a closed society within a closed country. It is only at the end of the section that the voice shifts to the bear. Tosca finishes by explaining why she gave up her son.

The third section is more contemporary, with an undercurrent of polemic in its references to climate change. It opens when Knut is a newborn, being raised by experts in the science of animal development and behaviour. The zoo regards this cute, baby polar bear as potential revenue. Others have hopes that Knut will draw attention to why so many of his kind can no longer live in the North Pole. Knut is happy to perform as required but suffers from loneliness, especially when those who raised him leave to focus on other duties.

Like the circus, the zoo is a microcosm. Knut starts in a cage and then a room before being allowed to explore his enclosure and swimming pool. He is taken on walks where he talks to other zoo animals from around the world. At each stage he longs to visit the next ‘outside’ he can hear or has heard of.

Journalists make Knut a celebrity but then mostly lose interest when he grows out of his cute phase – an obvious reference to perceived beauty and aging. Knut learns how to read an audience but struggles with the limitations of his captive existence.

I mention just some of the issues explored. Although a sometimes disjointed tale – with characters introduced to enable particular social commentary – the quirky approach adds to the appeal of what are interesting outlooks from settings that often get negative media representation. The reader is required to accept that these polar bears can live side by side with humans and other creatures without eating them, but as allegory this works.

An unusual trio of interlinked stories written in voices that are strangely appealing. Food for thought for any reader willing to look beyond the superficial and question what so many accept and expect.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is published by Granta.

Robyn’s review of this book may be read here.

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: Wilder Winds

wilder winds

“Life had taught her that stability wasn’t to be found outside on the streets. That as soon as you get used to how others live, everything changes.”

Wilder Winds, by Bel Olid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), is a collection of sixteen short stories exploring the myriad conditions under which families and individuals must live. These are stories of the young and the old, of the contented and the displaced. One theme running though is how little control any person has over changing circumstances, and how they must adapt if they are to survive.

Some of the most powerful stories are those that bring to the fore comparisons in how people of similar age end up existing, often due to the accident of birth. In the opening story two young girls meet when one is thrust unexpectedly into the other’s home. The reader is shown how shadowed a life can become when surrounded by illness.

“she was such a spirited contrast to my dry, sick, elderly mother, but I was struck by the image of the splendid woman before the mirror”

The lasting impact on children of chance encounters occurs again in Red. A young girl walks in, unseen, to observe a birth, that leads to a death.

Other stories portray the lives of refugees who must live for years in basic camps while being processed. As well as the effect this has on inmates, there is the difficulty faced by staff and volunteers when they start to care about individuals. A humane response brings with it its own pain.

This type of pain is evoked brilliantly in Three. A mother of triplets works with the children of convicted criminals. To survive her job she must retain emotional distance. In working long hours she worries about the breach this creates within her own family.

Invisible tells of an undocumented worker living a hand to mouth existence. In detailing her day the reader is shown a life revolving around survival, amongst those who choose to look away.

There are stories about the impact of conflict. At times an uprising can be euphoric. There are also tragedies.

Linda tells of the everyday conflicts women face by simply existing in public spaces. When one young women responds with unexpected violence, the media reaction is one of surprise.

“‘We still don’t know why the young woman reacted this way,’ say the police officers in charge of the investigation. Yes, that’s the problem right there, thinks Lola; they really don’t understand.”

As well as writing of the complexities of relationships – of shifting dynamics over time – the stories tell of love, duty and occasional irritation. The voices are often visceral yet beautifully rendered. I was particularly touched by Anna, Anne, Anna, in which a young girl finds a book that changes her.

In Plus Ultra, the author makes a brief foray into the supernatural.

In Cabaret the body of an obese woman who enjoyed her size is inhabited. In losing weight, she feels she has lost some essential part of herself.

“me singing and dancing and laughing. Round, full of curves and complexities me, splendid and happy me, imposing my body wherever I went. Me taking up all the space needed and more.”

Although important issues are explored, the stories are about the people living with the effects of what is happening around them more than the whys and wherefores. The writing style is taut but also tender, characters are nuanced and portrayed with sympathy.

This is, quite simply, a stunning collection that I am now eager to recommend. Another fine read from the Fum d’Estampa Press.

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

Robyn Reviews: Beartown

‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?

The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.

Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.

Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.

Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.

The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018

Jackie reviews ‘A Man Called Ove’ here. Robyn reviews Backman’s latest release, ‘Anxious People’, here.