Book Review: Feebleminded

Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff), is a disturbing depiction of an intense mother and daughter relationship. The younger woman is around thirty years of age and consumed by the affair she is having with a married man who lives many miles away. The older woman wants to know all the details, having once been sexually decadent and adventurous herself. Told from the point of view of the daughter, the reader is offered a stream of consciousness and ongoing reactions alongside flashbacks to a childhood that was is some ways ordinary but coloured by the mother’s similar distractions and needs.

The pair live in a remote, rural home that also housed the grandmother until her death. The picture painted is of women who seek release through alcohol and men but do not sustain conventional relationships. There is both lethargy and anger, the beauty of location fogged by fluctuations in mood and introspection.

The story is written in three parts. The first dives deep into the daughter’s thoughts and agitations as she satisfies her body’s cravings between assignations. Her lover does not contact her as often as she needs. There is desperation, a feeling of suffocation in the inanities of the everyday. The mother and daughter drink together, suffer hangovers and berate the sexual choices each has made. Happy moments from their past, those that started with innocence and childish pleasure in memory, were rarely sustained. The mother rushed her adolescent daughter into a womanhood that they could share, taking delight in knowing the details of burgeoning sexual activity. Now she watches as her daughter sinks into a lassitude of frustration over a man who lives with and loves another.

The second part sees the daughter lose her job due to her preoccupation with this man. Her mother fears destitution and blames her daughter for granting too much importance and attention to the affair. The pair argue, yet there remains mutual concern.

“I’m not a fucking ATM. Mum pulls a sorrowful face and I imagine stroking it. They always find a way to get you, these women with long, straight, clean-smelling, usually honey-coloured hair. They can say the most horrendous things, behave like utter despots, but afterwards you still want to run your fingers through the strands. How much is left, how long can we survive?”

The third part of the book sees the daughter leave their home but then discover that the man will not forsake his wife as she is pregnant, despite how he had spoken of their relations. The mother and daughter plot a terrible revenge.

The writing is dark and intense yet in places, somehow, also poetic. It is shocking in its rarely voiced, searing authenticity. The imagery is violent in its beauty, grotesque in its imaginings, yet provides sunbeams in momentary descriptions. There is care and a shared lust for life amidst the discord and blame.

Described as the second part in an ‘involuntary’ trilogy that opened with the critically acclaimed Die, My Love, this book will appeal especially to those who enjoyed the former work. It is impressively potent and tightly tempestuous. A memorable if not always comfortable read.

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

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Book Review: The Book of Tehran

On their website Comma Press write about why they publish short story anthologies.

“an anthology of short stories has certain advantages over a novel: it is better equipped, for example, to give readers access and insights into new cultures, because it is able to embrace difference and diversity within any one culture”

In the introduction to this latest collection from Comma’s ‘Read the City’ series, Orkideh Behrouzan asks the reader to set aside the

“over-simplified accounts of Tehran […] in Western media: from click-bait cliches about veiled women to images of a youth in revolt”

What these ten stories offer is a window into ordinary life in the Iranian capital. Most are written from the points of view of young people – male and female. Their outlooks on life are, obviously, coloured by their upbringing. While some feelings expressed are universal, and the cultural restrictions are generally accepted, it was hard to read these tales as requested – without judgement. The men and women appear to regard each other as almost different species. The girls aspire to marriage despite the fact many of the older, married couples speak of their partners with disdain. Women are routinely locked in rooms overnight. A young female character is told

“a girl’s virginity is her most prized asset”

In one of the notes sections that accompany some of the stories it is explained that the term ‘girlfriend’ is regarded as an insult.

“Since the use of this word was and still is a taboo in Muslim cultures, it has derogatory overtones. Used by men of lower classes”

The book was therefore read with a chasm between the morality policed outlooks of the characters depicted and this liberal, feminist reader. Gaining a better understanding of why such differences in attitude are accepted in different countries is one reason why the series is so worthwhile.

“Great fiction doesn’t disguise: in revealing contradictory emotions and contrasting worlds, it urges us to imagine and to challenge what we assume to know about a people.”

The collection opens with Wake It Up in which a young man is looking forward to the heartbreak he expects to feel when his partner emigrates, and how he hopes this will ignite his writing. Finding that he simply sleeps better after she leaves, he moves apartments and comes to the attention of a small boy. There is much humour in the tale alongside a touch of pathos.

The Other Side of the Wall tells of a young girl from a wealthy family who is required to take piano lessons despite showing no musical aptitude. Each week she must wait for her lessons in the apartment of distant relatives. She observes the neighbours, so different from the affluent adults her parents socialise with. She is especially drawn to one lady of ill repute. Despite dreading her lessons, the girl wishes to please her family.

“what they do and where they stand is predictable and fixed, and we, the younger generation, will inherit this ‘fixed place’. That is a comfort to us”

Sharing her short life to date with the successful and respected, she is then shocked when hypocrisy is revealed.

Mohsen Half-Tenor offers a picture of addiction and greed based around ancient antiquities. As in several of the stories, certain characters regard women with contempt. It is not stated but I wondered if this was based on class or behaviour. There appears to be little social mixing between the sexes, except within families or what are regarded as the lower orders.

My favourite story in the collection was In the Light being Cast from the Kitchen. A man wakes in the night and observes a smartly dressed stranger sitting on the sofa in an adjacent room. He is afraid of what will happen if he confronts the unexpected and uninvited man, yet also fears for his sleeping wife’s safety believing it is his duty to protect her. He starts to feel guilty at his reactions and to dissociate.

Sunshine focuses on a man’s obsession with a woman’s looks. She is having fun, experimenting with hair colour and other changes. He grows annoyed that she will not settle to his ideal. Wrapped around their encounters are dealings the man has with guards who warn him about possessing a photograph showing a woman’s body.

Domestic Monsters is a tale of families and their resentments which are passed across generations. Written in the form of a letter from a niece to her aunt it describes how the young women’s eyes have been opened to the older woman’s manipulations over many years. This was one of the stories that made me question why marriage was seen as desirable. Could the life of a single woman in Iran be even worse?

There are tales of potential poisonings, of wanting to impress a neighbour, of an intended punishment that goes awry when a man refuses to be controlled by a woman.

The collection finishes with The Last Night – a tale of four young college students who are together in their dorm for the last time. These women are educated yet long for marriage, worrying it will not happen for them. They talk of being brides rather than dreaming of future careers. One of the women plans to emigrate suggesting this is the only way to attain any sort of personal freedom.

These portrayals of life in Tehran were well written and interesting but so far removed from my own experiences as to throw up many further questions. Few of the characters, male or female, talk of how they earn a living – several of the men seem to sleep a great deal, even in the day. Morality plays a significant role in life choices, as do family expectations. I pondered, is their culture a choice or an imposition? What role does the acquisition of wealth play in acquiring status as happens in the west?

The stories offer a taster and I would be keen to learn more about how those living in Tehran, particularly the women, view the lifestyle they are required to adhere to. As the introduction states

“To solely read Tehran’s stories through the lens of politics and censorship, therefore, would be to overlook the tenacity of the life that pulsates through them.”

Readers are invited to immerse themselves

“in the deep and complicated currents of these stories.”

I struggled to empathise with many of the characters’ attitudes and wondered how they would view my supposedly liberal perspectives.

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

Book Review: Mothers and Daughters

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everyone talks about the extension of people’s life span as a miracle we ought to rejoice at. The extension of some people’s life is a killing of other people in their best years.”

Set in modern day Croatia, Mothers and Daughters opens with the sixty year old narrator’s husband enjoying a garlic-infused meal and a glass of white wine. The reader will learn that the smell of this gastronomic combination brings with it a reminder of the narrator’s late father. Such memories are hard for her to live with even after many decades.

The woman has recently installed her elderly mother in a top notch care home after the older woman suffered a stroke. The couple can afford the astronomical fees required and the narrator could not bear to look after her mother herself. This attitude makes her feel guilty, something her husband and friends do their best to assuage. Her mother receives quality care with staff always on hand to deal with the many demands being made by people raging against their frailties.

“When you enter the building you’re not hit by the smell of crapped diapers, dirty old skin, urine, and the stench of rotting human beings noisily putrefying.”

The narrator’s mother had been hooked on prescription drugs, not her first addiction, and complains constantly of pain now that her medication has been withdrawn as unnecessary. She refuses to walk to the bathroom and asks for her food to be puréed and spoon fed. She berates her daughter for not killing her before life came to this.

The daughter remembers how her mother has treated her throughout her life, especially the moments when she looked the other way. In a country where domestic abuse is rife but rarely acknowledged, victims are expected to accept their suffering unless they can independently afford to leave.

“How long does trauma last? Anxiety? Regret? Anger? Powerlessness? Sorrow? Self-pity?”

Through one hundred short chapters the reader learns of the narrator’s pivotal experiences, from childhood to the present day. She is now married to a kind and supportive man. They travel frequently and he urges her to relax and allow the expensive carers to deal with her mother’s continuing complaints. The narrator cannot switch off the guilt she feels at putting her mother in a home rather than caring for her herself. If thoughts towards the old woman verge on the caustic there are valid reasons, yet she cannot bring herself to accept what was clearly necessary. As she endlessly broods over her options, aware of her mother’s unhappiness, she ponders how she is not so far from old age herself. The denouement contains an unexpected sting in its tail.

The relationships between parents and their children are complex and demanding whatever their age. This short tale explores the bonds and the blame forged from a shared inheritance and its indelible difficulties. There is bitterness in the writing but also a pathos born of a need to live with oneself after decisions have been made. There is much to unpack around the causes and effects of parental actions and their repercussions in shaping a grown child’s thinking long term.

Given that care of the elderly often falls to daughters and not all mother-daughter relationships are loving this is an interesting exploration of an increasingly problematic issue. The author pulls no punches in portraying the grotesque elements of aging bodies and the resentments felt by both elderly parents and their children. Although well written it was not an easy story due to its honesty and lack of smoothing over the cracks that are widely felt but rarely acknowledged, perhaps for fear of public approbation.

Any Cop?: Thought provoking and fearless, this is reading to challenge societal expectations of adult daughters, whose back stories cannot be assumed.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Resistance

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn).

Resistance is a fairly short novel but one that should on no account be rushed. The language and turns of phrases reward those who savour. It is a story about a family and how each are differently affected by the same experiences, both shared and inherited. The insights offered are meticulous, sympathetic and deserving of attention.

The narrator of the tale is the youngest of three siblings whose parents fled Argentina in the 1970s and settled in Brazil. The couple brought with them their infant son who they had adopted after failing to conceive. They knew little of their new-born’s background – how he came to be offered to them. They were assured it would be better this way.

Their younger two children were born after the forced migration. The children always knew their brother was adopted although it was rarely referred to. The narrator is exploring if, within his family, this difference in birth – parentage and country – had a detrimental effect.

“I’m writing […] a book about that child, my brother, about the pains and experiences of childhood, but also about persecution and resistance, about terror, torture and disappearances.”

Each chapter is short offering a vignette on childhood, a retelling of family mythology, and the narrator’s questioning of the truth behind his memories. He recognises the difficulty of expressing feelings that continue to reverberate across years during which the events will have been retold on a variety of occasions.

“They’re all disposable fictions, nothing but distortions.”

Photograph albums are viewed and an apartment in Argentina visited as the narrator attempts to reconstruct the anecdotes his parents shared.

He recalls missteps, embarrassing incidents when he said or did something he immediately regretted. Childhood experiences leave imprints that grow imprecise in recollection.

There is a careful hesitancy, a striving for authenticity, yet the prose is piercing in its power to convey with clarity the difficulties of being a child in a close knit family whose history involved conflict and deracination.

An Argentinian colleague who was disappeared by the regime is remembered by the narrator’s mother, her story thereby impacting the next generation.

“I never knew Martha Brea, her absence does not live inside me. But her absence lived in our house.”

These family stories are an aspect of a childhood that was itself loving and stable. Also remembered are later difficulties dealing with the elder brother, although these are viewed differently by their parents and perhaps by the subject himself.

“I have tried to construct the ediface of this story, on deeply buried foundations that are highly unstable.”

The narrator is drawing on the experiences of parents and other forebears in an attempt to explore how an adopted child may be impacted when raised alongside unadopted siblings.

“An attempt to forge the meanings life refuses to give us”

The narrator writes of how his brother is regarded by their family and also by the boy’s friends. He acknowledges that the family view can only be his interpretation, and is perhaps not shared by his siblings or their parents.

“Our children always transcend how we think of them.”

After spending two years pulling together his various stories and analysing his thoughts on them he concludes:

“writing about the family and reflecting so much on it isn’t the same as experiencing it, sharing its routine, inhabiting its present.”

The narrator can only view his brother through a personal lens.

As a reader it is not so much the unfolding history, interesting though it is, that affected; rather, it is the carefully considered depiction of family and their interpretations of shared memories that reverberates.

The prose is breathtaking in its power and beauty, carefully crafted and always engaging. This was a joy to read.

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

Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Charco Press contributed a fascinating guest post about the origins and aims of their publishing house last year after one of their inaugural titles, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, was longlisted for the RofC prize. This title went on to make the 2018 shortlist and was also longlisted for that year’s Man Booker International Prize.

You may read the guest post here.

I did not ask them to contribute again but was grateful to receive a copy of this year’s longlisted book, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), which I will review tomorrow.

In looking at what has been happening at the press in the past year there was a wealth of exciting news and achievements (summarised on their website). Charco are reaching impressive heights in the literary world and deserve further, wider attention.

A conversation between Ellen Jones and Charco’s Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, published in Hotel magazine, was of particular interest – you may read it here. Amongst other topics they talk of: the exciting publishing scene in Scotland; their vision for the visual presentation of their beautiful books; the value of bringing established and respected authors who have won awards internationally to English speaking readers.

Resistance has already won the Jabuti Award for Book of the Year (2016), the Oceanos Prize (2016), the José Saramago Literary Prize (2017) and the Anna Seghers Prize (2018). Julián Fuks has gained recognition as one of Brazil’s most outstanding young writers.

Charco’s aims are best summarised in their own words from their website.

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

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

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

Until now.”

Personally I would like to read every book put out by this fabulous publisher. I am grateful that the Republic of Consciousness Prize brought them to my attention.

 

You may follow Charco Press on Twitter: @CharcoPress

Book Review: Children of the Cave

Children of the Cave, by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), is the first book in the latest Peirene series: There Be Monsters. Presented in the form of annotated and incomplete diary entries, it tells the story of an ill fated scientific expedition to a remote forested area in north west Russia.

Setting out from Paris in 1819, the leader of the group is Professor Jean Moltique, a controversial figure within the Académie des Sciences. His assistant, translator and author of the diaries is Iax Agolasky, a Russian born twenty-four year old eager to travel and work alongside a man he naively admires.

A year into the expedition the group comes across signs of life outside a cave. They set up camp and prepare to observe. What they encounter is a group of small creatures – not quite human yet not quite animal. The reactions of the various adventurers to this discovery lead to disagreements due to ethical issues. The arrogant Moltique pounces on the opportunity to present an exciting discovery to the scientific community. Agolasky is learning that sometimes facts will be bent to fit a preformed conclusion.

“I am surprised that an experienced and esteemed scientist like him, albeit one who is sensational and controversial, is not more critical of his own ideas.”

Agolasky succeeds in getting close to what are now referred to as the children. He no longer fully trusts Moltique but recognises that the professor is more likely to protect his research subjects than the other men in the group, who are described as rogues. They have their uses as labourers and hunters but have appetites that repel the young scholar who is more used to academic life.

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

While Moltique is mulling over the best way to collate and present his findings, Agolasky is tasked with learning more about the strange creatures they are attempting to study. The children grow to trust him, something that places them in danger. Caught between the needs of these anomalous beings and his own people the young man struggles to stand up against Moltique’s stated plans.

“I fear his ambition blinds him.”

Agolasky notes in his diary that the professor sympathises most with the creatures that look most human, most like him.

The story builds around the attitudes of so called civilised society towards beings that are different from what is regarded as the norm. Given the way members of the expedition behave, the creatures’ looks are given precedence over their actions. Moltique’s theories require that they be animal yet he punishes those in his cohort who treat them as similar to the creatures they must feed on to survive. Agolasky now understands where the children came from but has neither the strength nor influence to fully protect them. He grows disillusioned with Moltique and at times in fear of his own life.

“To tell the truth I was impressed by the certainty with which the scientist I admired pursued the theory he desired. I could not help considering what the truth was about the yeti and his other achievements.”

The difficulties of living in an inhospitable forest take their toll as the years pass with Moltique still struggling to document his findings with any coherence. Meanwhile the other men in the group see a different potential for the children. Agolasky despairs at his ineffectiveness as events approach their inexorable conclusion.

The staccato style of writing serves to move the story forward quickly, offering snapshots of the changes taking place in each of the explorers. Their behaviour highlights the animal traits in all.

Although set two centuries ago this story has contemporary relevance. With fear of the other growing and swathes of society being dehumanised to protect the comfort of the privileged it is worth questioning the rights we grant humans, and how these are so inequitably enforced.

In many ways this is a disturbing read because of the truths it tells about man’s behaviour. Poignant and piercing, it is a story for our times.

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

Book Review: Doppelgänger

“Nothing is crucial to me, but I don’t realise that yet.”

Doppelgänger, by Daša Drndić, contains two stories that are subtlety interlinked. Each emanates an anguish exacerbated by the protagonists’ loneliness. These are not comfortable reads as they challenge the bland acceptance of society’s expectations of how the old and discarded should behave. There is a deep felt sadness that goes unanswered.

The first story, translated by S.D. Curtis, tells of a meeting between two septuagenarians. The characters are introduced with descriptions of the slow decay of their bodies. They wear adult nappies. Their skin is flaccid. They each live alone having once had families. Between sections that detail their histories are police dossiers. They are being surveilled.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Artur and Isabella are walking the quiet streets of their small town in Croatia. They are very different in their demeanour and habits but accept each other’s company. They engage in a sex act.

“We’re grown-ups, there’s no sense in equivocating. We should give it a try.”

While out, their flats are searched.

The second story, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, opens on a damp autumn day at a zoo in Belgrade. Printz is watching two neglected rhinos in their enclosure. It is a distressing scene to read. We learn that Printz’s mother died recently after a long illness, and that he helped care for her as her body failed. He is sleeping on a camp bed in his parents’ flat. His younger brother is waiting to inherit their many possessions.

Despite being raised by a wealthy family, Printz carries out acts of socialism. His parents valued their coveted things with which Printz is generous, perhaps attempting to bolster his self-worth. He accepts his ongoing descent in the eyes of society. He has a photographic memory, a wealth of knowledge, but lacks experience of feeling loved.

He remembers with fondness a childhood friend, Maristella, although their relationship emerges as tainted due to his behaviour. It calls into question how he was aware at five years old of the acts he performs on her.

The tale is a slow burner with a disturbing undercurrent. There is much for the reader to consider.

Both stories explore the legacy of Nazism and then Communism. Children cannot choose their parents yet are deeply affected by the inheritance of actions both before and after their birth. The writing has a haunted quality. Changing borders, geographic and familial, leave citizens unmoored.

Complex and at times elusive, the observations and actions so tautly and meticulously described can be unnerving. These are stories that ask the reader to step outside their comfort zone and confront a reality of historic dark deeds and their repercussions.

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