Book Review: Punishment

punishment

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Punishment is a collection of a dozen short stories drawn from the author’s long career as a criminal defence lawyer. Unlike many true crime writers – if that is where this book could fit – his prose is written in a factual style that avoids foreshadowing as a device to build tension. The narrative is kept crisp and cool, providing necessary detail but avoiding salacity.

Tales are told from a variety of perspectives including: victim, perpetrator, legal representative. Sometimes the boundaries blur. The justice system is not always just – evidence must be sufficiently strong and procedures adhered to. Punishments for crimes committed are not always meted out by the courts. A ruling that frees a person to commit further harm can come to haunt those working for the judiciary.

Background to characters is provided adding nuance and depth to their subsequent emotional reactions. For many of the protagonists these are coloured by traumas in childhood. Although appearing to move beyond these and make a good life for themselves, they unravel under pressure of the events being recounted.

The collection opens with a case involving a lay judge who is required to preside over an allegation of domestic violence. The evidence she hears affects her badly, putting at risk the required impartiality of the court.

The second story focuses on a successful lawyer whose career is derailed following the acquittal of a father accused of abusing his children. The lawyer falls into addiction before trying to pull himself together to help a client accused of killing her husband. He receives help in this endeavour from a shadowy source.

Many of the cases are both sad and disturbing. All are fascinating under the author’s skilfully rendered discourse. The length of each story varies but all are told succinctly with impressive clarity.

One of the more unusual tales is ‘Lydia, in which a lonely, middle aged man finds comfort in a way many may mock or condemn. The ruling of the court in this case demonstrates an empathy that is rare alongside insight into needs within relationships.

“Falling in love is a very complex process. Initially, we’re not in love with the partner themselves, but with the image we create of them. The critical phase of every relationship begins when reality catches up…”

The Small Man is quite a roller coaster of a story. Its whiplash ending offers a glimpse of the author’s dry wit.

What is clear from these cases is how strangely perturbing some people’s thought processes and behaviour can be beneath a conventional veneer. A previously caring and successful man develops dangerous proclivities after watching his wife give birth to their child. A retiree takes revenge on neighbours when they come to represent change to a place he has worked all his life in order to hold static. There are tales of revenge within unequal marriages. There are children who escape rigid familial environs only to find freedom is not what they dreamed of.

The crimes committed are serious but it is the circumstances that surround them that provide most interest. Facts are presented rather than judgements.

The collection closes with ‘The Friend’, a story written in a much more personal style than previous entries. Narrated in the first person, it is a poignant and powerful appraisal of what little of substance remains after all the effort poured into achieving what may be outwardly regarded as success.

“I thought a new life would be easier, but it never did get easier. It’s just the same, whether we’re pharmacists or carpenters or writers.”

As so many of these stories demonstrate, personal effort can be derailed by unfulfilled desire, and by the actions of others – rarely predictable, and giving rise to emotions it can be a challenge to control.

Any Cop?: Although offering a somewhat negative view of humanity, the stories remain reflective and engaging. A book I devoured eagerly. An impressive page-turner with substance and bite.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Wild Horses

wild horses

“When you’re an addict and you need your drug, you don’t see or consider the peril you’re walking into”

Wild Horses, by Jordi Cussà (translated by Tiago Miller), tells the story of a group of drug addicts and dealers in 1980s Catalonia. It is based largely on the author’s own experiences as a heroin addict and dealer. Written in factual but engaging prose, the madness and euphoria of drug taking are captured without glamorising. Many sexual encounters are mentioned but most avoid the usual gratuitous detail.

The episodic structure is effective in retaining engagement as the rolling cast of characters intermingle across the decade. Timelines shift back and forth, narrators change, but it is the numerous and varied experiences described that take centre stage. Each chapter opens with a few lines from an appropriate song lyric. This really is a story of: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

The book opens at a funeral. Lluïsa is being buried having finally succumbed to AIDS and methadone abuse. Lex, the main although not only narrator, attends with a group of their mutual, drug addicted, lovers and acquaintances. Lluïsa’s brother objects to their presence and a violent altercation ensues. Such violence and death are regular features in the unfolding tale.

The author doesn’t baulk at what happens when drugs fuel daily existence but neither does he push the small details. Things happen and then he moves on to the next thing. There are highs and lows, murders and suicides. Lovers are taken and then abandoned for whoever comes next. It was satisfying to read of the women pleasing themselves despite the jealousies and attempted possessiveness of the men – who thought little of bed hopping themselves.

“Afterwards came her dignified, calm response: her life and her genitals were hers, and it pleased her (or had pleased her) to share them with me. I understood, I even downright defended it on a rational level … I saw suddenly that she’d never be Mine, that she never had been.”

There is a certain amount of sordid, drug fuelled, sexual imagery. I questioned some of the scenes described from a female point of view that appeared, to me, far fetched. That the author is a male is telling here.

Despite the regular injuries and deaths, it is hard to garner sympathy for the characters – although this is not asked for. Risks are recognised and choices made. If addicts are generally thought of badly by society, it is clear to see why in this tale: most driving is undertaken while drunk and high; occasional robberies help fund the various habits; a breast feeding mother takes heroin; children die of inherited complications; money made dealing, to pay off debts, is blown on benders. And yet somehow the story humanises the young men and women featured. It is not just drug addicts who choose suicide.

The writing turns meta at times, implying the author is Lex. His friends know he is writing a book about them and encourage this. They do not encourage his attempts to get clean.

“I was fed up of running up and down like a frantic mosquito, risking my life thrice daily out of the ephemeral excitement of possessing it fully every second.”

Reading is akin to watching a car crash. The drivers know they are dicing with death, have watched others die before their time, but remain drunk on the thrill of the ride.

Although chronicling several interlinked life stories, so many similar episodes were recounted the tale became a tad repetitive towards the end. Highlights were chapters that looked at living from a different angle, although few of these offered happier endings.

A searing and unflinching window into the world of heroin addiction in which alcohol and cocaine abuse appear almost benign in comparison. A very human story of selfishness and risk taking. An impressive if disconcerting literary achievement.

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

Book Review: The day that didn’t happen

day didn't happen

“deep inside the banality of everyday existence a black orchid was being carefully digested”

The day that didn’t happen, by Gerd Kvanvig (translated by Wendy H. Gabrielsen), is a short novel written in such powerful and evocative prose it could be poetry. The story is narrated by a young woman, Margrete, whose life pivoted on a traumatic event that took place at a funfair near the end of a hot summer when she was twelve years old. She has told no one what happened, burying the memory deep inside herself in an attempt to move on from it.

At the time, Margrete lived with her mother in the small town of Jessheim in Norway. Her mother worked nights as a nurse, leaving Margrete to cope as best she could while her mother was either at work or sleeping. There was little communication between the pair. Margrete was provided with money for essentials but little else. She was often scared when left alone after darkness fell.

“In the empty flat there was nothing, something worse than nothing”

When younger, Margrete would spend holidays with her beloved grandfather who is now dead. He was the only person who paid her attention and showed affection. She has friends but keeps her distance, often pushing them away due to lack of money and Margrete’s need for head space. She cycles around the neighbourhood, the freedom of speed offering her some respite.

The book opens with the first brief snippet of what happened to Margrete during the annual Jessheim Festival. Fuller details are gradually teased out as the story progresses. Her memories are saturated with sensory perceptions – the weight of heat, music, scent. After the event she took to hiding away under a concrete stairway in her block of flats. She is discovered here by a new neighbour, a policeman named Erling. He takes Margrete under his wing, understanding her need for friendship without questions.

The narrative moves back and forward in time, offering glimpses of Margrete’s life before and after. Details are spare yet vivid. Recognising that she has been changed inexorably while all around remained unaware, she harbours a determination not to be defeated.

“What happened doesn’t belong to me. And yet it does. Little Margrete has carried it with her.”

Although shocking, when the extent of incident is revealed, young Margrete’s ability to carry on with so little support demonstrates her strength. Ultimately this is a story that offers hope. Despite the subject matter it is a beautiful, eloquent read.

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

Book Review: Here Be Icebergs

here-be-icebergs

“we often fail to recognise the brutality of families when observing them from the outside – or even at times from the inside”

Here Be Icebergs, by Katya Adaui (translated by Rosalind Harvey), is a collection of twelve short stories that lay bare many of the often unacknowledged issues that erupt within a diversity of family units. There is little talk of love in these tales although it clearly exists. What is being explored are the resentments that fester alongside feelings of duty and expectation. The scars that form in childhood continue to affect.

Many of the stories adopt a non-linear, episodic structure. The reader is trusted to fill in the gaps in both timeline and reasoning. There is brutal honesty in the recognition of lasting damage inflicted by words thrown in moments of difficulty. The collection should not be rushed as it delves into challenging themes.

“Adaui examines the way we ceaselessly attempt contact despite all the evidence that each of us is an unknowable island”

A favourite story was We, the Shipwrecked in which the narrator is trying to cope with the death of her father. His demise was expected due to diagnosed illness but still she did not feel ready. The remaining family members provide little comfort, making decisions that grate.

Also particularly enjoyed was The Hamberes Twins with its subject of assisted dying. Structured as an interview with the doctor who agreed to help, this short tale offers much to consider.

The complexity of individual reactions to the same experiences alongside the unreliability of shared memories provide grist for the mill in the everyday subjects mined so skilfully. Families need not be dysfunctional to suffer disagreements. It was satisfying to read of subtle shades of acrimony, unadorned with the more usual personal justifications.

Although set in Latin America, the families featured are more everyman than is often acknowledged in fiction set in a place foreign to the reader. Parents and children, partners and siblings, all harbour feelings at odds with how their relations behave.

A taut and engaging collection that presents a wide variety of concerns faced and regretted across generations. Another excellent release from this high quality small press.

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

Book Review: Of Saints and Miracles

Of-Saints-and-Miracles

“Everything is happening at this moment and it’s all of equal importance, the only difference being who is telling the story and why.”

Of Saints and Miracles, by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie), is the first book to be published by the newly rebranded Peirene Press. It tells the story of Marcelino, a farmer who lives alone near the village of Cobre in the Asturias, where he was born and raised. He works the land inherited from his late parents, his younger brother having moved to the city. As a child, Marcelino was regularly beaten by his drunken father. He was abused by the local priest. All his life he has been considered an imbecile, loved only by his mother who was rumoured to be a witch.

The tale opens with a confrontation between the brothers that ends with Marcelino’s brother bleeding into the sawdust outside their farmhouse, which the brother planned to sell to clear his debts. When the body subsequently disappears, Marcelino realises he is in danger. He packs some food and a few belongings before heading into the mountains, seeking refuge at the abandoned village where his mother once lived. The residents of Cobre are galvanised by what has happened and set out to hunt the runaway down that justice may be served.

The timeline of the story moves back and forth between key events in Marcelino’s childhood and his current predicament. There are many disturbing incidents, including wanton abuse and bestiality. There are also sections that offer a view of the wider picture – of the village, its residents, and the area. These provide a reminder that stories can develop along unexpected trajectories. Woven in amongst the myriad challenges faced by Marcelino are local myths and legends. His tale will, in time, be added to these.

“He explained the past, on hearing which she began to miss what never was. He explained the future, at which she began to desire what could never be. And lastly, he explained the present, which made her feel trapped in a tiny space”

Although a well paced and engaging story, what raises the bar of this short novel is the beauty of the language used to construct the narrative. There is an ethereal feel to the sense of place evoked, despite the horror of many of the character’s behaviour. Marcelino seeks an Old World but cannot prevent the New World encroaching on the idyll he has tried to retain, if it ever existed.

The tangential threads add colour and, at times, humour. Marcelino, though, cuts quite a tragic figure. Even when his situation becomes known more widely, with supporters gathering to offer their hero solidarity, it is the cultish figure they revere rather than the reality of a man who has always struggled in the company of his cruel peers.

A beguiling and beautifully written story of a place that is ever changing yet, in many ways, retains its spirit. A reminder that life goes on, even after death.

“Men learn as egoists learn. When they suffer, it’s because they think they could have avoided it.
But there are always women, resisting, holding on, slowly chewing over their grief … Because a woman watches over a dying man knowing, like all women, that the real miracle is the giving of life, and so understands that it should end simply, without any fuss.
Death is never heroic. Life can be, but not death.”

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

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.