Book Review: The Angel of Santa Sofia

Angel Santa Sofia

This is a short book, fewer than fifty pages in length. I generally prefer shorter books, so long as the story being told is well developed and complete. This one did not meet these criteria. The varied threads are fragmented, the weaving together loose and open to interpretation. I needed more direction. The structuring of numbered paragraphs makes it easy to set down and return to. I found this necessary. It is one of the strangest stories I have read.

A man arrives in Turin as evening descends. He observes the sun setting behind the Alps, the sky ‘aflame like a furious fire’. He settles down to dinner at his hotel where he is then irritated by the approach of a loud fellow. Both are in the city to attend a conference on demonology at the local university.

“I also study the Devil and his works.”

What unfolds is a curious mix of manifestations in lectures led by supposed experts in the field, and then real or imagined encounters beyond these halls. There is a dreamlike quality to much of the narrative, or perhaps nightmare may be a more accurate descriptor. Children are described as possessed, observed drained of their life force only to suddenly rise and wish to play. A dead man returns to his family before setting out on a long journey. Nymphs feature as do sirens. Throughout the short work it is hard to know: what is meant to actually be happening, what observations may be affected by consumption of mind affecting substances, what is a dream.

There are pockets of prose that are almost poetic. What I took from the whole was how unwise it would be to choose to dance with the devil. Why tinker with dark possibilities, especially given the effects set out here?

A strange and disturbing tale populated by shadowed characters existing within the margins of an infernal society. I cannot claim to understand what the author hoped to offer the reader. A troubling and darkly opaque read.

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


Book Review: Venom


Venom, by Saneh Sangsuk (translated by Mui Poopoksakul), tells a story that is fable like in message and construction. Set in a small, rural village in Thailand, depicting a lifestyle from a bygone era, it is populated by farmers and their families alongside religious leaders and their acolytes. The protagonist is a ten year old boy, an only child, whose days are spent caring for his family’s small herd of oxen. He is thoughtful and conscientious with dreams of a future in which his creative skills will be revered by many.

Much of the action takes place over the course of an evening. The boy and his friends are overseeing their grazing cattle, amusing themselves with sport and imaginative play. Backstory to their community is provided, including an accident that left the boy with a deformity. A self-proclaimed medium, who dislikes the boy and his parents’ for their refusal to kowtow to him, puts it about that this is a punishment from the Patron Goddess he claims a connection to.

As the sun begins to set and each of the boys must soon think of getting the oxen safely back to their sheds, the protagonist entertains his friends. This activity disturbs an enormous snake that launches an attack. As friends flee the imminent danger, boy and snake embark on a struggle to the death.

To get the most out of the story it is necessary to set aside the practicalities of the unfolding situation. If taken as metaphor the tale offers much to consider around who will help when most needed. The snake presents as a threat, not just to the boy, and some will use this for selfish ends.

A poignant, engaging story with a strong sense of time and place. Plot may be somewhat surreal but the lyrical prose is a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: A Light Still Burns

Light Still Burns

“Those who leave can never return, because the places they knew disappear.”

A Light Still Burns, by Selim Özdoğan (translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire), is the third book in the author’s Anatolian Blues trilogy. I have not read the first two parts and, although this finale succeeded in telling a complete story, I pondered if my inability to warm to any of the characters stemmed from not having shared in their earlier life experiences.

The protagonist, Gül, married her husband, Fuat, when just fifteen years old. Her recollection of this decision was a desire to give her family one less mouth to feed. Following the death of her mother when she was a child, Gül helped raise her siblings and then half-siblings. Stemming from this she expects gratitude and respect for her efforts – she regards them as sacrifices, especially as it led to a curtailment of her education. When this is not forthcoming from her siblings, it causes resentment.

Early in their marriage Fuat decides to leave home and family in Turkey to become an economic migrant in Germany. Gül accompanies him, leaving their two infant daughters with her mother-in-law. The eighteen month separation from her children haunts her throughout her life, the damage she fears she inflicted on them.

Gül and Fuat take whatever jobs are available in Bremen, where they settle. Gül makes little effort to learn the local language and assimilate, mixing mostly with other Turkish immigrants. She makes friends but then chooses to go back to Turkey, for reasons I expect are covered in the previous book.

This story opens when Gül is around forty years old and returning to Germany to be with her husband after eight years back in her homeland. Their daughters are now grown, one living in each country. Fuat is not exactly welcoming, the reason for this causing a rift that does not heal. Gül does not regard marriage as a happy state, observing conflict between most couples she knows, and yet she insists the vows made on her wedding day must be kept. She blames Fuat for indulging in the interests that bring him pleasure, for his outlook on life, his sense of entitlement and endless complaints, especially about money.

“Fuat is a keen skiver – not because he’s lazy, but because he feels smart when he does less than he’s supposed to without suffering any consequences.”

The tale follows Gül into her sixties. She works diligently at her cleaning job until retirement, trusting Fuat to put their earnings aside to keep them comfortable when they eventually make the planned move back to Turkey. Each summer they travel to their homeland, spending many weeks with family in the parental summer house. She regards these as happy times and is particularly devastated when an inheritance causes division between the siblings. She had believed the Turks valued family, unlike the Germans in her estimation.

“That’s why people here are so lonely. They want to have their own lives just for themselves, without any consideration for others.”

The author skilfully captures the immigrant mindset and experience, especially across the generations as attitudes and values change. His portrayal of both men and women avoids the usual pitfalls. Although I struggled to empathise, particularly with Gül – who made little effort to change even small aspects of her life that she was unhappy with – her thinking is portrayed with care and insight.

“Her daughters are keeping secrets from her […] She sees less and less of the world because she only wants to see the things she approves of.”

Gül, and to a lesser extent her daughters, concern themselves with how others may gossip about them. The constraints this imposes prevents them from walking paths that may lead to greater happiness. There is little attempt to bridge the chasm between acceptable behaviours in men and women.

Mention is made of how Germans object to the many Turkish immigrants who tend to live within their enclaves, rarely mixing with local natives. Given the behaviour of Fuat when he takes on a job cleaning, and of young Cal whose attempts to get rich quick by whatever means keep landing him in prison, this dislike is understandable. Although the immigrants long to return to their homeland with the wealth accrued, Turkey is still regarded by the younger generations as less free and accepting than Germany. As Fuat and Gül age, they each seek new interests, coming to terms with past decisions made and their failing bodies.

“No alcohol, no fat, no going to bed late, and ideally no more gambling either. Apparently, you can grow older without these pleasures, but the question is, why would anyone want to?”

The writing style and structure impressed so I questioned throughout why I was suffering such a failure of empathy. I could not warm to Fuat due to his interests and attitude, his unpleasant selfishness. Gül had more depth but offered little to endear a reader. She smoked like a train despite complaining of lack of money to phone home, expected special treatment from the family she had chosen to leave behind, and spent much of her time staring out a window rather than exploring her neighbourhood. She seems happier when eventually back living comfortably in Turkey, although the means by which this came about felt a rare misstep in the story. Her changing relationships did, however, elicit more understanding from this reader.

“It’s not a question of languages; there are never enough words when you want to tell someone how you feel.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed this book despite its many admirable qualities. I wanted to better understand the immigrant experience whereas what I got was reasons why they are so resented by locals unless they assimilate. Not getting what is desired and expected from a story may, of course, reflect more on reader than author. However much I may admire the composition, my lack of connection to the characters made this a lacklustre read.

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

Book Review: History. A Mess.

History A Mess

“In her narrow world, the world that fostered me, there was no room for diversity, only a few stereotypes. Chiefly aesthetes and philistines”

History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir (translated by Lytton Smith), opens a window into the world of a young Icelandic woman who is recuperating at home in Reykjavík prior to submitting her PhD thesis. She has recently returned to the city where she was raised, and where her parents still live, her husband having accepted a new job there. She is on medication and spends her days, when not hosting visits from family and friends, in her nightwear. Her husband remains loving and supportive although neither he nor anyone else understands the true reason behind her breakdown.

The timeline jumps around in time and place, adding to the delirium inherent within the narrative. The young woman struggles to anchor herself in what is happening around her, becoming fixated with a room in her house nobody else pays any attention to. When she sneaks in, unobserved, she senses inexplicable but disturbing presences.

Long time friends try to draw her back into their activities, offering support by visiting for evenings of hoped for conviviality.

“Each woman’s speech begins with one and the same personal pronoun; the next speaker usually makes no effort to understand the previous speaker’s perspective, only picks up the thread to serve her own story.”

The catalyst for breakdown was thus: having spent close to a decade reaching the point where her thesis was ready for publication, the young woman came across a previously unread entry in a key manuscript that could negate the basis of her work. Her reaction to this discovery tipped her over the edge. The dilemma she faces is as much a matter of personal standing, particularly with her parents, as academic reputation. It has sapped her ability to deal with everyday reality.

“I no longer know if I’m watching or imagining what’s in front of me”

In constructing this tale from the young woman’s perspective, the author takes the reader into a world of vivid dreams and imaginings. Conversations envisaged between friends on a weekend trip she is not a part of become intertwined with memories of previous get togethers. When in company she detachedly observes interactions, struggling to hear what is actually being said.

“Words about music. Highfalutin, intoxicated words about music, the obtrusive words of a layman in search of a specialist’s recognition”

The reader gleans further understanding from snapshots shared of the young woman’s childhood, and how she believes she was regarded by her family. The borders between fact and fantasy blur further, suggesting the breakdown may have been a crisis waiting to happen.

The evocative rendering of a life blighted by obfuscation is powerfully blended with the comings and goings of a cast of supporting characters caught up in their own day to day concerns. The denouement, while unexpected, retained the integrity of previously developed subtexts.

A disturbing dive into a mind destabilised.  An intriguing take on intellectual conceits, familial expectation, and the superficiality of scholarly admiration.

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

Book Review: Collected Works

“But almost everyone’s mediocre. They’re intelligent enough to recognise genius and excellence, and with a bit of luck they may achieve something above average themselves. But the vast majority of people are middling. And they don’t want to accept that.”

The first thing a reader may note about Collected Works, by Lydia Sandgren (translated by Agnes Broomé), is that it is very long – not so much a brick of a book as a breeze block. Anyone taking this on their commute will develop muscles, or back ache. If you consider £20 expensive then be assured it provides value for money. What we have here is a good story – engaging without taking itself too seriously, unlike the protagonist.

Martin Berg is approaching his fiftieth birthday when the tale opens. He and a long time friend are co-owners of a small, independent publishing house based in Gothenburg. They specialise in literary fiction, holding somewhat pretentious views on genres that sell in large quantities. They regard readers who choose more popular fiction with a degree of disdain.

“A symptom of cultural degeneration and a lack of intellectual rigour more generally”

Martin has two grown children, Rakel and Elis. He raised them alone after his wife, Cecilia, left them. She provided no contact details, disappearing from their lives overnight.

Cecilia had a fierce work ethic, gathering an endless stream of qualifications – and lasting admiration – from the academic community. Martin, an aspiring author, never quite managed to achieve his stated aims by finishing his novel, or the biography he claimed he would write if he only had more time and space.

Collected Works progresses along two timelines (yes, another one, but don’t let this put you off). In the later timeline Martin is considering publishing a translation of a book originally written in German, a language his daughter studied. He tasks Rakel with producing a reader’s report for his company – he would like her to be more interested in the business. When she finally gets round to reading the book – her day to day habits are explored first – she recognises one of the characters, but cannot talk to Martin about what she suspects. She slowly starts digging around, talking obliquely to family and eventually the author of the book.

The earlier timeline makes up the bulk of the story. In this the reader is taken through Martin’s formative years in a great deal of detail. He meets Gustav – who will become a lifelong best friend – at Upper Secondary School. They remain close through their university years during which they imbibe copious quantities of alcohol and somehow achieve qualifications. Gustav then becomes a highly successful artist. Martin starts his novel, meets Cecilia and dreams of when he will be a renowned writer.

“At some point, you came up against the limits of your own ability, and it was better to finish something as best you could than to spend eternity fumbling for perfection. A person who spent their whole life on unfinished masterpieces had one foot in the world of the dead.”

Although containing more wry humour than darkness, the book brought to mind A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It is mocking, particularly of the artistic and literary worlds, but its deep dive into friendships, and the importance of these over family, was reminiscent.

There are riffs on numerous tropes, including: the artist, art collectors, the writer, publishers, arty students, clever clogs children, rebel son, intrusive family. This all fits within the lives of the characters being developed. Friends remain close but also move independently within their chosen spheres.

“This friend was supposedly a photographer, but it was unclear what he really did, since his artistic integrity was so strong he never showed his pictures to anyone”

While the pacing keeps moving things along, there is little tension. The writing style is enjoyable to peruse, the plot development retains interest, although there are only so many drunken nights out that could hold my attention. The denouement is managed well, offering food for thought as well as closure on key threads. Any questions that remain may well be answered in a reread.

“If you don’t acknowledge the fact that there are things you don’t know, it’s very difficult to learn anything at all”

Martin often voiced resentment at the roles he ended up playing in the lives of those he cared about, blaming others for his own lack of literary achievement. What he didn’t appear to pick up on was the cost of supposed success, on an individual and those their blinkered focus affected. The abuse at the heart of A Little Life may be absent, but within this story there are still many damaged people.

A story worth reading despite its length – and this is something other readers may not find quite so off putting. Pokes fun at the pretentious while avoiding that particular pitfall. A remarkably assured debut from a writer I will now follow with interest.

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

Book Review: The Fawn

the fawn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The protagonist and narrator of The Fawn is twenty-six year old Eszter Encsy, a successful actress in post war Hungary. The novel tells her life story through fragments of memory. These unfold and merge to explain the role she believes she must play to survive.

Born and raised in the city of Szolnok in central Hungary, Eszter now lives in Budapest. She has an older lover to whom she is directing her telling of events, including how she is feeling. Like all those she has ever known, he does not understand what she is below the surface. She acts out her own life as she does those of assigned characters on the stage.

Now orphaned, Eszter was the only child of a sickly father and an aristocratic mother whose wealthy family all but abandoned them after her marriage. As Eszter’s father did not work, for a variety of reasons, her mother earned what she could by giving piano lessons to their more privileged neighbours. Eszter was expected to clean and cook for her family as well as doing odd jobs for anyone who would pay her a few pengő. She used this pittance to buy food and medicine, much of which was then consumed by her beloved father. She was not averse to stealing should the opportunity arise.

“the cream was sweet and soft and she still had a whole bowl full of it, vanilla-flavoured, and at home everything like that went straight to my father”

Eszter regarded her parents as beautiful and adoring of each other to their end. She felt sidelined, growing bitter and resentful of the demands and expectations placed on her. She did not, however, complain, learning to internalise both her physical and emotional suffering. What festered within was a hatred for those whose lives appeared comparatively easy. This is personified in a classmate, Angéla, who harbours the mistaken belief that Eszter is her friend.

When their affair started, Eszter was unaware that her married lover’s wife is Angéla, who she had not seen at the time for many years. When this fact is revealed, the way he speaks of Angéla and their history eats into his and Eszter’s relationship. Eszter, once again, wants nothing more than to hurt her former classmate, whose life as she sees it has been filled with comfort and kindly attention. Eszter grows increasingly angry and frustrated when Angéla continues to garner support and consideration, always taking it for granted.

What is revealed is the lasting damage caused by a childhood of hunger and deprivation. Eszter learned young how to hide her true feelings in order to survive. This stood her in good stead as political turmoil changed the lives of so many, especially the wealthy. When Eszter’s family home was destroyed in a wartime bombing raid she did not mourn the loss of their few possessions – she valued them little. Rehomed temporarily in a hotel she had enough to eat and this was a luxury.

The narrative is disjointed in many ways but the structuring fits with how memory works. Images come to mind and their significance is pondered, retold as suits the time in which they are remembered. The ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the start of the book is useful in differentiating the cast of characters. Although it takes time to understand and engage with the plot, the writing style remains impressively taut and compelling, holding reader attention.

There is much screaming with laughter or faces wet with tears – these are obviously an emotional people. Even Eszter, who so often detaches herself from difficult feelings, cries and laughs, although mostly from a perspective of barely contained anger. Her lover reveals himself as shallow emotionally, self-absorbed and unaware of what Eszter is thinking. His continuing support for his wife may well stem from ego, a superficial need to believe he is a good person despite his infidelity.

Eszter is a strong if damaged character. She cares little how her lifestyle is regarded by others, believing she will never be loved having never felt valued for what she is. Her attention is focused on survival with a side dish of revenge. When a pivotal event pierces the armour she has constructed for self-preservation, those she could turn to do not recognise the crisis she now faces as they have never been permitted access to the true self even she can barely accept.

Any Cop?: Although a slow burn this is a masterfully constructed tale. The protagonist may often be somewhat unlikable but her outcome is still devastating. Hungary’s history through the mid twentieth century provides a fascinating backdrop. Another impressive translation of a story by this author that is well worth reading.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Mio’s Kingdom

Mio’s Kingdom, translated by Jill Morgan and first published in 1954, is a Swedish children’s classic. A light and optimistic tale of good versus evil, its a straightforward story with much to appeal to both the child and adult reader.

Karl Anders Nilsson is living with foster parents in Stockholm when he finds a bottle with something moving inside. Knowing immediately from ‘A Thousand And One Nights’ that this is a genie, he frees it – and finds himself taken away to Farawayland. Here, he discovers that his true name is Mio, and he is the lost son of the King. He befriends another boy named Pompoo, and together they explore Farawayland with his horse, Miramis. As they explore, Mio comes to know of his father’s enemy, the evil Sir Kato of the Outer Land. Mio discovers that he is prophesised to battle the evil Sir Kato, and travels on a quest to the Outer Land to face this foe.

This is escapist fantasy, a chance for children to dream of a life where they are the hero. Most of the quests are fun and lighthearted, with a core theme of love saving the day. Be good and kindhearted, this book says, and you will always triumph over evil.

Mio is easy to relate to. At the start of the book, he is sad because he feels unwanted by his foster parents who would really have preferred a girl. Compared to his friend Ben, who has loving parents, his life feels very cold. It’s impossible not to be drawn to this child who just wants to be loved – to want his dreams to come true.

As an adult reader, there must of course be a suspension of disbelief – but it’s freeing to spend an hour in Mio’s fairytale new life. Even his trials against Sir Kato avoid being too dark. This is a hopeful book, one that brings a smile to the reader.

Some children’s classics do not age well into adulthood – this is not one of them. A recommended read both for the young and the young at heart.

Published by Oxford University Press
Paperback: January 1954

Jackie reviews Mio’s Kingdom here.

Book Review: You Shall Leave Your Land

leave your land

“what happened in Huánuco two centuries back, when those men and women, who performed actions and took decisions without awareness that they would become our ancestors”

Renato Cisneros comes from a large, wider family with forebears who moved amongst many of the great and the good of their times. As a young man he felt proud of his name, linking him as it did to a past filled with characters celebrated at regular family gatherings. He was therefore perturbed as well as intrigued on discovering that they should all have gone by the name of Cartagena rather than Cisneros. His great-great-grandmother had been the long time lover of a priest, bearing their children out of wedlock and inventing for the offspring a father they never met. The historic affair was rarely mentioned across subsequent generations, a family secret that nevertheless reverberated.

“We all have wounds and that doesn’t mean our lives are nothing but frustration and trauma.”

You Shall Leave Your Land is referred to as a novel rather than biography. It tells the story of those who came to form the author’s paternal lineage from this shadowed beginning. Many of the men featured are serial adulterers, fathering children whose emotional needs are subsequently ignored as carnal appetites are sated elsewhere. The women of the family are referenced but remain mostly two dimensional.

“I can picture now my grandfather bewitched by the young Esperanza, completely outside of himself, forgetting his wife and his children, or perhaps remembering them all too well and for that very reason trying to evade his responsibilities and his role if only for a moment, knowing how unhappy he was in the marriage that Hermelinda Caicedo’s pregnancy had made necessary so many years earlier.”

Much of the tale is set in Peru. The ongoing political changes in this country provide the scaffolding within which the family history is built. As well as trade and diplomacy, there is a legacy of poetic output. It is hard to gauge how impressive this literary strand may have been, especially as a particularly admired bullfighter’s moves are described: ‘that is poetry’.

The author ponders the question of who owns family secrets, and how choices made can affect those living and also still to come. Despite the unsavoury aspects of characters’ lives delved into, the spare prose with which their story is told is rendered beautifully. I did not buy the suggestion that a propensity for infidelity can be inherited. Nevertheless, behaviour detailed here is what happened, offered with thankfully limited moralising.

Money is made and lost throughout the family history. Certain characters travel abroad – some by choice, others forced – to Europe and around South America. There is much name dropping, particularly within the Paris chapters. As this is based on facts the reader may assume the Cisneros enjoyed privileged connections.

An intriguing depiction of generational family dynamics and how, within such an institution, unvarnished truth is so often avoided. An engaging if louche family biography presented with verve and aplomb.

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

Book Review: Mio’s Kingdom

mios kingdom

Mio’s Kingdom, by Astrid Lindgren (translated by Jill Morgan), tells the story of a nine year old Swedish boy who releases a genie from a bottle and is taken to Farawayland. Here he discovers he is the long lost child of the King. He also finds the love and friendship he has always craved. As time passes he comes to realise it is up to him to defeat the evil Sir Kato whose actions cast a shadow over the otherwise perfect kingdom.

The tale is aimed at children but has much to offer the adult reader, not least what becomes clear from the denouement. First published in 1954 (this translation 2003) it is considered a classic of the genre. From my reading I would say it has not suffered through aging and remains relevant and appealing to young readers today.

When the story opens the protagonist, Mio, is living with his foster parents in Stockholm. His name here is Karl Anders Nilsson, known as Andy. His only friend is Ben who he plays with in Tegnérlunden Park. He observes how Ben is treated by his parents, wishing that he could be loved in this way. Andy’s foster parents regularly make clear that they regret taking him from the Children’s Home where he used to live.

“Aunt Hulda found me there. She really wanted a girl, but there weren’t any she could have. So she took me, though Uncle Olaf and Aunt Hulda don’t like boys. At least not when they become eight or nine years old.”

One evening, sent on an errand to buy rolls, Andy is offered an apple by a kindly shopkeeper. He takes it to Tegnérlunden Park where, from the bench he sits on, he observes families through lighted windows sitting down to eat together. Feeling very alone he spots a stoppered bottle on the ground with something moving inside. He knows from a library book he enjoyed reading, A Thousand and One Nights, that he must release the trapped genie – a somewhat scary prospect.

Andy is taken to Farawayland where he is reunited with his father, the King, and learns his real name is Mio. He befriends another young boy, Pompoo, who helps him explore the kingdom and its welcoming inhabitants. Gradually Mio learns about the evil Sir Kato, and that it has been foretold that a boy of royal blood must defeat him in battle.

The adventures Mio and Pompoo enjoy before they travel to the Outer Land on this quest are all relevant to the eventual outcome. The boys must then demonstrate kindness and bravery. Sir Kato’s dark deeds have made the lands he rules over a terrible place – he has spies everywhere. Mio finds help where least expected.

In many ways this is quite a simple fairy tale but it offers young readers the chance to dream of living in a wondrous place that they alone can save. It is structured to retain engagement with plenty of tension. The journey undertaken may be daunting but should not be too nightmare inducing.

A book to inspire daydreams that avoids the saccharine tone of Disney and its ilk. A wholesome tale of good defeating evil, offering a poignant depth to readers who understand what is beneath the surface of the fine adventures and then quest.

Mio’s Kingdom is published by Oxford University Press.

Book Review: Ruth


“Are women born or are they made in the process of living as women?”

As a topic, gender transitioning can be a hot potato. Add to this my personal antipathy towards reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity and Ruth, by Guillem Viladot (translated by P. Louise Johnson), may not have been my first choice of book. When it arrived through my door I set it aside, considering whether I wished to risk reading a story I may not enjoy. In the end two things appealed: it is published by a press I respect for putting out works that differ from the cookie cutter mainstream; it is epistolary, a format which, when done well, can be eminently engaging.

The correspondence through which the tale is told is entirely one sided. A short prelude details how the writer met the recipient. There is no indication if the letters that follow are welcomed.

The eponymous Ruth was baptised Raül, the second child of parents wealthy enough to support her through art college and beyond, when she worked as a sculptor. From a young age Ruth preferred the company of girls to boys. She wished to dress like them, something that appalled her mother.

“Because mother’s carry and give birth to their children, they seem to think they have the right to treat them as their property”

In order to become physically what Ruth believes she has always been, medical intervention is desired. When examined she is declared intersex – she has an underdeveloped penis but the smooth, hairless skin of a female. It is her wish to undergo surgery to remove the unwanted appendage and attain a vagina. She takes medication that causes her breasts to grow and seeks out sex as the female she presents as.

“my whole raison d’être is reduced to coitus”

The letters detail her encounters with men and women, describing explicitly their kisses, caresses and penetrations. There is a great deal of sex leading to multiple orgasms. Given the subject being explored this offered a degree of exploration into what it means to be a man or a woman. There is also the emotional difficulty of living in a body that does not fully reflect one’s identity.

Although Ruth’s mother is brutally callous in her reaction to her child’s gender transition, the sister is supportive, as are various friends including lovers. One of these, a young man Ruth enjoys her first sexual relations with, warns her when she falls in love with another.

“your emotional attachment is likely to be more complex because your femininity originates in the rejection of your male nature rather than in the affirmation of a natural femaleness”

Ruth proves quick to anger when challenged yet appears to avoid many of the more hurtful encounters that may, sadly, be expected. When her penis is discovered by potential lovers it is mostly regarded with fascination. The medical professionals who treat her are supportive and admiring of her superficial beauty. Ruth writes in vivid detail of her complex thoughts and experiences, exhibiting and describing body parts that are more often kept private. Her looks and those of others appear to matter to her more than less facile attributes.

A fascinating work of fiction offering much to consider on an issue currently garnering heated debate. Not always a pleasant read given its sexually graphic content but one it would be good to discuss with someone more directly knowledgeable. Whatever one’s views may be this is a poignantly challenging and lingering read.

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