Book Review: Real Life

“life was a big soup in a mixer where you had to try and avoid being shredded by the blades”

Real Life, by Adeline Dieudonné (translated by Roland Glasser), is – understandably – a multi-award winning novel that is now being brought to readers of English by the excellent World Editions. It is a coming of age tale but with a voice that raises it above bland attempts to pigeonhole. The richness of the taut prose and devilishly dark humour make it a standout addition to the genre. The story is of a girl growing up but that is merely its frame.

The narrator is ten years old when the tale she is recounting begins. She takes delight in her younger brother, six year old Sam. They are a close and companionable unit because their parents cannot be trusted. Father is a brutal bully who only seems to find joy in hunting and killing animals. Mother is described as an amoeba and lives in fear of the beatings she takes.

The narrator’s life is forever changed when she and Sam witness an horrific accident. Thereafter, Sam loses his sunny smile and willingness to play happily with his sister. Determined to recover what has been lost, the narrator decides she will build a time machine – as she has seen done in a film. She will travel back to the fateful moment and change its outcome.

Over the next couple of years she strives to accumulate the knowledge and materials needed. Sam, meanwhile, is developing worrying habits and bonds with his father. Distressing as his behaviour is, the narrator makes no attempt to intervene. She is convinced that their present is temporary.

When the knock back happens the girl must find a way to continue. She proves resourceful but, for now, must still live in the fearful familial shadow of violent disdain. Puberty brings with it added danger although also warmer feelings that, with her scientific reasoning, she is drawn to explore further. The denouement is tense but handled impressively.

In fact, the entire character and plot development are impressive. The girl’s situation may be disturbingly bleak but her outlook remains focused and forward thinking. Woven within are nuggets of comparative lives that are mined with understated skill, adding both a degree of light and breadth. Much is revealed without the need to explain.

An original read that I devoured and relished. The brutality the girl must live with is unsettling but this remains a recommended read.

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

Book Review: The German House

The German House, by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) is a story of ordinary people woven around the first Auschwitz trials that ran from 1963 to 1965 in Frankfurt. The protagonist is a young woman named Eva who lives with her parents and siblings above their thriving restaurant. She works as a translator and is drawn to offer her services to the specially created legal court when she realises the truth of what happened at the Auschwitz camp and how it has been swept under the carpet of her country’s collective conscience. Jürgen, the wealthy young man she hopes will become her husband, is against Eva taking on the job, going so far as to try to forbid her. Likewise, her parents are concerned, although for more intimate reasons.

Twenty-two defendants were tried in Frankfurt under German criminal law for their roles as officials in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death and concentration camp complex. They all denied the charges. The court’s proceedings were largely public and served to bring many previously unknown, horrific details to the attention of the German population who, two decades after the events, had chosen to move on with their lives. The hundreds of witnesses called included camp survivors, many of whom had observed the worst of the atrocities. The sheer scale of what had happened was not believed by many, including Eva’s sister, Annegret, a nurse with dark secrets of her own.

The subject matter – systematic Holocaust – is obviously distressing to read about. What makes this story particularly powerful is the parallel consideration given to more everyday matters. After listening to the terrible detail of witness testimonies, the characters continue with their family concerns and pleasures. Jürgen and Eva meet each other’s parents. Annegret starts an affair with a colleague. A Canadian on the legal team grows closer to a prostitute he has been using, who is distracted by her son’s educational aspirations. All have personal issues to contend with, now affected by the reminder of what their fellow man is capable of.

The writing is jagged in places, – dynamic and direct – as the trial progresses. Eva is struggling with the growing realisation that her beloved parents have not been entirely honest with her. Annegret is disdainful, accusing the witnesses of attention seeking, something she understands all too well. Jürgen grows jealous and attempts to exert greater control, fearful of taking on a wife who will not obey him. Eva’s crisis of identity results in her becoming less pliable and ever more alone.

It is too easy to assume that those who do monstrous things must be monsters. What this story brings home is the selfish complicity of supposedly good people and how shame leads to secrecy or even denial. Towards the end of the story there is a scene where Eva, wracked with guilt by association, talks to a camp survivor. His response provides a moving and candid understanding of how self-absorbed even those seeking some form of redress often are.

This is a moving but also compelling tale that opens a window on human behaviour – and how the instinct for survival can result in a terrible cost. It is a timely reminder that, “crimes of such magnitude […] could never have come to pass had only a tiny sliver of the population been complicit.” As Eva discovers, complicity can include doing nothing.

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

Book Review: It Would Be Night In Caracas

“Death takes place in language first, in that act of wrenching subjects from the present and planting them in the past.”

It Would Be Night In Caracus, by Karina Sainz Borgo (translated by Elizabeth Bryer), opens with the narrator burying her mother. The two women had lived together in an apartment in Caracus, a city being torn apart by competing revolutionaries intent on consolidating their power. Followers of the various factions vie to instil fear through deadly violence while others amass personal wealth through black market control of vital supplies. The local currency has become worthless. The streets are battlegrounds.

The mother had two sisters who still live in the old family home in the seaside town of Ocumare de la Costa. The mother chose to leave this place to attend university. She raised her daughter to appreciate the arts, especially literature. Although understanding that family meant just the two of them, the narrator recalls summertime visits to her aunts and a spacious house that functioned with different priorities. Nevertheless, she was content in her mother’s company.

“We were made to endure. Our world was sustained by the two of us keeping it in balance. Everything outside our family of two was the exception: supplementary, and for that reason expendable.”

With her mother’s death the narrator’s foundations are fractured but worse is to come. Revolutionaries decide to commandeer her apartment, trashing the possessions her mother had valued. This brings into sharp relief what their country has become. She must somehow find a way to move on.

From the window of a neighbour’s apartment the narrator watches as people are beaten and killed in the streets below, tear gas wafting upwards making the simple act of breathing difficult. The descriptions are fearsome and vivid, evoking reader sympathy which is then tempered as comparisons are made with bullfighting.

“Paying for a seat to watch death play out.”

Men kill animals for sport – there should be no surprise when they turn on each other in times of heightened tension and lawlessness.

The narrator must make a terrible choice. As she enacts what is still a fledgling response to her need to survive, she encounters another survivor. Santiago is the brother of a good friend who seeks shelter when the narrator foils his attempts to help her. He describes in detail what happens when citizens protest against the actions of the revolutionaries. Santiago’s experience as a prisoner was intense and at times his testimony is difficult to read due to its searing, graphic content. When the thugs take over, the intelligent and talented are regarded as of little value, pleasure taken in their degredation.

It is terrifying to consider how a country in which it is possible to live a full and rounded life can degenerate so quickly into one where lives are shrivelled and fear filled amidst the violence of self seekers spouting their false mantras of sharing wealth which they work to horde for themselves. This is the reality of war and revolution.

The narrator sees that she has a potential way out. To take it she must give up everything, including herself.

The writing is stunning, evoking a city in chaos with piercing clarity. Its citizens’ anger and impotence are powerfully portrayed alongside the searing consequences of open attempts to protest, to stop the carnage.

I took minor issue with just one point in the text. Song lyrics are included but not translated meaning they add little of value. I also found the description from the narrator’s childhood of the preparation of a tortoise for consumption distressing – a hypocritical reaction perhaps, typical of those of us removed from the realities of food production.

This is a compelling and potent story of a woman who loses both her beloved mother and motherland yet determines to find a way to live despite the hand fate has dealt. The eloquent prose ensures that the difficult subjects explored remain gratifying to read.

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

Book Review: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis), is the third book in the publisher’s 2019 ‘There Be Monsters’ series. It is a collection of thirteen interlinked short stories set in France across several decades. The initial tales, whilst evocative, struggled to capture my full attention. As reading progressed common threads and characters emerged. Meaning and depth increased thereby strengthening engagement.

The collection opens with The Lake’s Favourite which tells of an almost too perfect period in the narrator’s childhood. At just a few pages in length this offered a snapshot with little development.

The Jigsaw Puzzle, whilst still short, offered more to consider. It portrays a marriage faltering in the shade of an old and popular lime tree that draws visitors to the remote location. The couple’s young daughter happily copes with each change in circumstance until her mother tries to impose her concerns on the child, against the girl’s will and that of her father. I was pleased when, later in the collection, this family was revisited from several perspectives.

The Short Cut is set largely around a funeral. A woman is returning to an area she left as a teenager to watch as her cousin and doppelgänger is buried. The women made choices when they went their separate ways but neither could predict where these would lead.

“I knew what frightened her most: it was the life that I had chosen where nothing is known. She had tried to persuade me not to leave, telling me other places were the same as here but worse”

I read through this story twice and still it remained elusive until the characters were revisited in subsequent tales.

Blind Spots is told from the point of view of a hitchhiker who has worked out a way to gain lifts by taking drivers by surprise. I found this story overlong and repetitive although it had a good ending. It turned out to be a pivotal tale in the collection.

“The faster you go, the less you can see on either side. The bigger your blind spots. On the motorway it’s as if we’re looking down a tunnel […] lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision.”

The Loony and the Bright Spark is one of several stories looking at the elderly and misfits in society – how they came to be where they are and the strange rituals they adopt to give them some reason to keep on living.

Mum at the Park is a snapshot of a child’s view of their book reading parent who has no interest in other people or playing childish games. The city doesn’t suit her but the boy regards it as a playground filled with potential friends.

I enjoyed Just a Dad – another view of a parent as seen through the eyes of their child. By this stage in the collection the reader is observing recurring characters at different times in there lives. This fragmented approach to storytelling added interest but required a going back to reread previously portrayed details.

Over the Aquaduct tells of a childish joke that has unintended consequences, driving apart good friends.

The penultimate story, The Dropout, revisits characters, this time at a wedding where a wrongly invited guest causes the bride to behave badly.

“life is just that, a whole lot of hitches, contradictions, mishaps and revisions, and it’s all the better for that. It’s the opposite of inertia.”

Having read each tale I would say that overall I enjoyed the collection even if it was quite a slow burner. The writing is choppy in places as is the subject matter. The sense of place is strong and the characters interesting. I suspect this is a book that would offer more on rereading.

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

Book Review: Welcome to America

Ellen is eleven years old and stopped talking after her father died. She had prayed for his death and now feels culpable although also happy that he can no longer disrupt her family’s life. She was afraid of him and is also afraid of her brother. She adores her beautiful, actress mother but cannot imagine ever recapturing the closeness they once enjoyed.

Welcome to America, by Linda Boström Knausgård (translated by Martin Aitken), is told in the first person by Ellen as she navigates her self-imposed silence and the effect it has on those around her. Unwilling to communicate, she watches as her mother tries to maintain some normalcy. Ellen fears change, especially the prospect of growing up. She wishes her mother happiness but does not want to be like her.

“I didn’t want her glitzy smiles. Her perfect hair. Her wanting me to be a beautiful girl. To her, beauty was something on its own. An important property that had to be cultivated like a flower.”

The tangled threads of how the family got to this moment are revealed in spare prose. Caught in the crossfire of her parents’ behaviour, Ellen remembers moments of light and her mother’s determined optimism. She has internalised so much trauma but cannot find the words to explain. Once words are spoken they generate ripples. Silence offers Ellen the stillness she craves.

The story unfolds mostly in the spacious apartment where Ellen lives with her mother and brother. She observes her brother demanding solitude by nailing closed the door of his bedroom. She observes her mother as she prepares meals, teaches her pupils and goes out to work. The ebb and flow of family life is evoked with painful insight – the closeness and necessary distancing.

The pain Ellen feels is palpable yet rarely expressed. Her mother’s reaction to her daughter’s behaviour is filtered through a determination to grant agency. There is much love within this family but also recognition of the needs of individuals – finding that difficult balance between neglect and freedom.

A fierce yet beautifully rendered depiction of family trauma and its repercussions. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: Will

Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers (translated by David Colmer), is a hard hitting fictional memoir written from the point of view of a Flemish nonagenarian, Wilfried Wils, for his teenage great-grandson. Wils was a young policeman living in Antwerp during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. Repercussions of the choices he made during those years continue to haunt him.

“When a city is occupied by new masters, new customs, you get the same thing. After the shock, most people can’t wait to act like it’s normal. Life goes on, you have to adjust.”

Wils became a policeman to escape the forced labour imposed by the German occupiers. His new position was arranged by a family friend who has shady connections and thought he could use the young man to gain information and therefore advantage. Wils befriends another rookie cop, Lode, during training. They are then assigned to the same station. Just a few weeks later the pair are required to assist in rounding up a Jewish family for deportation. Lode is appalled and lets this be known to their superiors. Wils is discomfited but pragmatic, aware of potential consequences of not obeying their overlords.

“Sometimes people say you have to stand in someone else’s shoes to really understand their situation. But that’s hypocritical too, because when they talk about those other shoes, they always mean the victim’s. They never say a word about the shoes of those who might have felt stirred to join the persecutors.”

Lode has a sister, Yvette, who takes a shine to Wils. She sees something in him that excites her, something dangerous. Wils calls the self he must hide from the world Angelo. This alter ego wishes to be a poet. On the outside it is a matter of being seen to behave as expected and to somehow try to please everyone. Times are dangerous. Ordinary men are finding they harbour a shocking viciousness. There is vocal dislike of the wealthy Jews in the city who ran the diamond trade. There are also those willing to help them, for a price.

The elderly Wils now lives alone in Antwerp, cared for by Nicole, a daily nurse. He still goes out to walk the streets and remember the war years. He is writing down his version of events for his great-grandson because he failed to do this for his beloved granddaughter, and now it is too late to rectify the damage he believes this caused.

Wils recalls the bully-boy Germans and the Belgian officials who bent to their will, thereby reaping rewards. He remembers the money that changed hands and the decadence of those wielding power. The Jews were persecuted and their belongings appropriated. It was often unclear who exactly were traitors and to what cause.

The timeline covers events during the city’s occupation and then the changes that came with liberation. There were many whose behaviour could not be forgiven, but more who simply wished to move on with their lives.

“In the beginning there was revenge and everyone said rightly so, because it’s only normal after so many years of misery. Everyone? No, not those who were now on the other end of the whip”

Wils has survived and Lode knows how. In the intervening years, secrets leak out.

Although there is little new in the actions detailed – history has since reported the sickening plans and events – the reasoning and immediacy of the narrative give it a tension and the horror of empathy. Those who helped the Jews did so at great personal risk but were not always heroes. Likewise, the perpetrators are presented as not always entirely evil. The author asks if in times of war neutrality equates to compliancy. At what cost is personal survival achieved?

The writing does not shy away from vivid description – of drunkenness, beatings and a young man’s sexual awakening. This was fitting given the subject matter but still, at times, stomach churning. Wils’ account is brutal but also a cry for understanding.

A story of life during the Second World War from a perspective that was new to me. A powerful and compelling read.

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

Book Review: Lost in the Spanish Quarter

Lost in the Spanish Quarter, by Heddi Goodrich, is a love story. The protagonists are two students at the University in Naples. Heddi is an American who first travelled to the city a decade previously on an exchange programme and decided to stay. Pietro is the son of farmers who have clawed their way out of poverty and famine to provide the security of land for their sons. The young couple meet at student gatherings where they have mutual friends. They quickly fall into a passionate affair.

“My experience had taught me that the real thrill was loving. Being loved was secondary.”

Interspersed with this love story are emails exchanged between the pair four years later. Thus the reader knows from early on that they separated, causing immense heartache. As the timelines come together, reasons are gradually revealed. It is an evocative and well told tale of young love and thwarted dreams.

The thrill and intensity of falling in love seeps through the pages until reality starts to demand answers to difficult questions. As students in a city far from their families, Heddi and Pietro may live their daily lives free from parental restrictions and supervision. They still, however, rely on support financially. This comes with certain demands – expectations of future direction. Student life may be memorable but is ultimately transitory.

From their cramped student lodgings is a view of Vesuvius with its ever present reminder of the risk of eruption. This mirrors brewing trouble when Pietro’s mother refuses to accept Heddi as anything other than an unfortunate passing phase. However much the pair declare their love for each other whilst planning possible futures, choices must eventually be made.

“Stop trying to change what can’t be changed”

The story is a reminder of how perceptions of friends and acquaintances are based on imperfect reflection rather than in-depth knowledge. Desire conjures up delusions that blinker those infected. When selfish neediness raises its head, the spectre of understanding can be painful. What was believed irrefutable is unmasked as a chimera.

“a tumour is not just any illness but the betrayal of one’s own body, which turns out to be capable of harbouring evil within, to live with it for a long time without ever knowing, to destroy itself”

The sense of place interwoven with the mix of heady excitement and despondency that is student life are well written. The playing through of the love affair grabbed my attention less well despite the candour of its depiction. I could see the direction the pair’s relationship would inevitably take when Pietro dismissed Heddi’s concerns about how his mother treated her – the red flag of his request that Heddi make more of an effort. I read the pages to know the details but with a degree of impatience.

The denouement worked well given the characters created. The author did not fall into the trap of changing given aspects of Heddi and Pietro to achieve a convenient ending.

Avoiding the mawkishness of many love stories, this is a well developed and authentic tale. Any reservations I may have are doubtless based on my dislike of equating possessive desire with deeper love.

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