On Friday evening we went to see Aqualung give his first London show in 12 years. (Here’s his lovely new song “November.”) I like travel days because I tend to get loads of reading done on my Kindle, and this was no exception: I read both of the below novellas, plus two-thirds of a poetry collection. Novellas aren’t always quick reads, but these were.
For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie (2023)
Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on when she posits that Margery visited Julian in her cell and took into safekeeping the manuscript of her “shewings.” I finished reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love earlier this year and, apart from a couple of biographical details (she lost her husband and baby daughter to an outbreak of plague, and didn’t leave her cell in Norwich for 23 years), this added little to my experience of her work.
I didn’t know Margery’s story, so found her sections a little more interesting. A married mother of 14, she earned scorn for preaching, prophesying and weeping in public. Again and again, she was told to know her place and not dare to speak on behalf of God or question the clergy. She was a bold and passionate woman, and the accusations of heresy were no doubt motivated by a wish to see her humiliated for claiming spiritual authority. But nowadays, we would doubtless question her mental health – likewise for Julian when you learn that her shewings arose from a time of fevered hallucination. If you’re new to these figures, you might be captivated by their bizarre life stories and religious obsession, but I thought the bare telling was somewhat lacking in literary interest. (Read via NetGalley) [176 pages]
Coming out on January 19th from Bloomsbury.
Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik (2020; 2022)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken; Archipelago Books]
Ørstavik wrote this in the early months of 2020 while she was living in Milan with her husband, Luigi Spagnol, who was her Italian publisher as well as a painter. They had only been together for four years and he’d been ill for half of that. The average life expectancy for someone who had undergone his particular type of pancreatic cancer surgery was 15–20 months; “We’re at fifteen months now.” Indeed, Spagnol would die in June 2020. But Ørstavik writes from that delicate in-between time when the outcome is clear but hasn’t yet arrived:
What’s real is that you’re still here, and at the same time, as if embedded in that, the fact that soon you’re going to die. Often I don’t feel a thing.
She knows, having heard it straight from his doctor’s lips, that her husband is going to die in a matter of months, but he doesn’t know. And now he wants to host a New Year’s Eve party, as is their annual tradition. Ørstavik skips between the present, the couple’s shared past, and an incident from her recent past that she hasn’t yet told anyone else: not long ago, while in Mexico for a literary festival, she fell in love with A., her handler. And while she hasn’t acted on that, beyond a kiss on the cheek, it’s smouldering inside her, a secret from the husband she still loves and can’t bear to hurt. Novels are where she can be most truthful, and she knows the one she needs to write will be healing.
There are many wrenching scenes and moments here, but it’s all delivered in a fairly flat style that left little impression on me. I wonder if I’d appreciate her fiction more. (Read via Edelweiss) [124 pages]
This is my eleventh translated novella from Peirene Press* and, in my opinion, their best yet. It’s an intense work of autofiction about two years of hellish treatment for breast cancer, all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain from the protagonist and onto the reader.
This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel whole while reality shatters it into fragments. The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back, and after five centimetres makes a gentle curve up and continues to your armpit. It’s still fresh and red.
How does the story crumbling under your tongue and refusing to take on a firm shape begin to be told?
You knew on that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d get cancer?
Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d never get cancer?
Both are equally true.
In 2014, just a couple of months after her husband leaves her – making her, in her early forties, a single mother to a son and a daughter – she discovers a lump in her right breast.
As she endures five operations, chemotherapy and adjuvant therapies, as well as endless testing and hospital stays, her mind keeps going back to her girlhood and adolescence, especially the moments when she felt afraid or ashamed. Her father, alcoholic and perpetually ill, made her feel like she was an annoyance to him.
Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient. Her body will document what she’s been through: “Perfectly sculpted through all your defeats, and your victories. The scars scrawled on it are the map of your journey. The truest story about you, which words cannot grasp.”
As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella can also be creative, playful and even darkly comic.
Things you don’t want to think about:
Your bald head
Almost unbearable nausea delivers her into a new space: “Here, the only colours are black and red. You’re lost in a vast hotel. However hard you try, you can’t count the floors.” One snowy morning, she imagines she’s being visited by a host of Medusa-like women in long black dresses who minister to her. Whether it’s a dream or a medication-induced hallucination, it feels mystical, like she’s part of a timeless lineage of wise women. The themes, tone and style all came together here for me, though I can see how this book might not be for everyone. I have a college friend who’s going through breast cancer treatment right now. She’s only 40. She was diagnosed in the summer and has already had surgery and a few rounds of chemo. I wonder if this book is just what she would want to read right now … or the last thing she would want to think about. All I can do is ask.
(Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth) [165 pages]
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
*Other Peirene Press novellas I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve
For my meager contribution to Annabel’s five-week Nordic FINDS challenge, I got out my copy of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that came from the free mall bookshop in 2020.
Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (1994)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Paulette Møller]
Sophie Amundsen, 14 going on 15, starts receiving mysterious letters asking her life’s big questions: Who are you? Where does the world come from? Soon her anonymous correspondent starts sending whole sheaves of paper elaborating on episodes from the unfolding history of philosophy, from creation myths through the Greek philosophers to Marxism and Darwinism via the Renaissance and Enlightenment. She’s so engrossed in her impromptu philosophy course that she starts to neglect her schoolwork and worry her mother. Sophie identifies the letter-writer as one Alberto Knox, who perhaps lives in a lake cabin nearby, and starts to interact with him by writing back. (I loved that their letters are delivered by a golden Labrador named Hermes.) Meanwhile, she’s perplexed by all the postcards she receives addressed to “Hilde,” also 15. Is she reading Hilde’s story, or is Hilde reading hers?
I’ll be honest … I made it just 96 pages (out of 394) before I started skimming, flipping past big chunks to get to the story. As to what I did experience, my feelings are mixed:
- On the one hand, this is certainly a more fun way to encounter philosophy than the textbook I had in college, while still offering accurate and thorough information.
- On the other hand, is the novel’s young adult audience really going to stick around for all the talky/preachy bits surrounding the slightly magical, mind-bending plot?
I think this became a word-of-mouth bestseller a couple of decades ago because of its novelty value. It’s a book that asks and assumes a lot of its readers: that we be curious and diligent, that we engage in the universal search of meaning. As Alberto writes in his first proper letter, “We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.” I feel I missed my moment to read it, though I can admire its aim.
(See Annabel’s review here.)
My current Scandinavian read is Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen, a Finnish author, about the treatment of Sámi people during World War II (coming out from Pushkin Press tomorrow).
First of all, I need to give some proper attention to the books on my set-aside shelf (nearly 40 of them), preferably clearing this in January – while also catching up on review copies from last year and continuing with the January releases.
Thereafter, I’d like to concentrate on backlist books for the year. This may seem ironic given that I review new ones on the blog and for various other outlets, and that I’m going to be featuring my 20 most anticipated titles of 2022 in a post tomorrow, but I have a few reasons for wanting to focus on older material.
One is that backlist reading consistently produces new favourites. Another is that every time I shelve in the library’s back room rolling stacks, I see novels that I’ve always meant to read, or that look fantastic, and think, “I really should borrow more from in here” … then forget all about them and place holds on (sometimes disappointing) new books instead.
A final reason is that, as I pack up my library in preparation for moving and get a good look at the ~500 unread books all over again, I hope and expect that I will be inspired to read them – and also to revisit some long-neglected favourites. (Of course, I may also cull some before the move, which would be fine.) The plan is to eventually replace our fleet of white Billy bookcases with built-in shelving either side of the decorative fireplaces in a few rooms of the new house.
As always, I’d like to get to more classics, doorstoppers and literature in translation (I own hardly any translated titles, so most of this will have to be from the library). I’ll participate in all the usual annual blogger challenges plus any new ones I can fit in, including Annabel’s #NordicFINDS – I’m currently reading Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder to review later this month.
I’m sure to follow a similar set of literary prizes as last year, including the Young Writer of the Year Award, the Barbellion Prize, the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Wainwright Prize, and (to a lesser extent) the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Women’s Prize and the Booker Prize. And, of course, I’ll be carefully monitoring the later stages of the McKitterick Prize judging after sending off my own longlist for the unpublished manuscripts. These prize lists plus various review copies will ensure I have a regular influx of recent releases to counterbalance the backlist reads.
Brand new or backlist for you in 2022?
This is the second year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It was a joy to read the entire shortlist for the inaugural prize this past February and support the well-deserved win of Riva Lehrer for Golem Girl. I’ll be following the 2021–22 race with interest again, not least because one of the three judges is a long-time blogger friend of mine, Eleanor Franzen.
This year’s longlist looks fascinating: it contains fiction, poetry and memoir, and includes two works in translation. I happen to have already read the three nonfiction selections, but hadn’t heard of the other nominees.
Click on any title below for more information from the publisher website.
From the synopsis: “Barokka’s second poetry collection is an intricate exploration of colonialism and environmental injustice … Through these defiant, potent verses, the body—particularly the disabled body—is centred as an ecosystem in its own right.”
From the synopsis: “Sharing stories of myths, legends and ancient bogs, a deaf child and her grandmother experiment with the lyrical beauty of sign language. A poignant tale of family bonding and the quiet acceptance of change.”
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury)
Excerpt from my TLS review: Chronic illness long ago reduced George’s territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto her quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (One of my favourites of the year.)
I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Pushkin Press). Translated by B. L. Crook
Excerpt from my Shelf Awareness review: The University of Oslo professor was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age three and relies on an electric wheelchair. In his powerful, matter-of-fact memoir, he alternates between his own story and others’, doctors’ reports and theorists’ quotations, mingling the academic and the intimate.
Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Excerpt from my blog review: Hattrick and their mother share a ME/CFS diagnosis. The book searches desultorily for medical answers but ultimately rests in mystery. Into a family story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice James and Virginia Woolf.
From the synopsis: “After a car accident Jarred discovers he’ll never walk again. … Add in a shoplifting habit, an addiction to painkillers and the fact that total strangers now treat him like he’s an idiot, it’s a recipe for self-destruction. How can he stop himself careering out of control?”
Duck Feet by Ely Percy (Monstrous Regiment)
From the synopsis: “A coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. … This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy.”
From the synopsis: “After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.”
I’m most keen to read Ultimatum Orangutan (that title!), but would gladly read any of the new-to-me titles. The shortlist will be announced in January 2022.
Do any of the nominees appeal to you?
I’m sneaking in under the wire here with a couple more reviews for the literature in translation week of Novellas in November. These both happen to be translated from the French, and attracted me for their medical themes: the one ponders the Ebola crisis in Africa, and the other presents a soldier who returns from war with disfiguring facial injuries.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo (2017; 2021)
[Translated from the French by the author and John Cullen; Small Axes Press; 133 pages]
This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16: a doctor, a nurse, a morgue worker, bereaved family members and browbeaten survivors. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy: the funeral of a traditional medicine woman became a super-spreader event; those who survive are shunned by their family members. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and the fruit bat in which the virus likely originated (then spreading to humans via the consumption of the so-called bush meat). Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
Like I said about The Appointment, this would make a really interesting play because it is so voice-driven and each character epitomizes a different facet of a collective experience. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with Covid – “you have to keep your distance from other people, stay at home, and wash your hands with disinfectant before entering a public space” – none of which could have been in the author’s mind when this was first composed. Let’s hope we’ll soon be able to join in cries similar to “It’s over! It’s over! … Death has brushed past us, but we have survived! Bye-bye, Ebola!” (Secondhand purchase)
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (2014; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; 172 pages]
With Remembrance Day not long past, it’s been the perfect time to read this story of a family reunited at the close of the First World War. Jeanne Caillet makes paper flowers to adorn ladies’ hats – pinpricks of colour to brighten up harsh winters. Since her husband Toussaint left for the war, it’s been her and their daughter Léonie in their little Paris room. Luckily, Jeanne’s best friend Sidonie, an older seamstress, lives just across the hall. When Toussaint returns in October 1918, it isn’t the rapturous homecoming they expected. He’s been in the facial injuries department at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, and wrote to Jeanne, “I want you not to come.” He wears a white mask over his face, hasn’t regained the power of speech, and isn’t ready for his wife to see his new appearance. Their journey back to each other is at the heart of the novella, the first of Villeneuve’s works to appear in English.
I loved the chapters that zero in on Jeanne’s handiwork and on Toussaint’s injury and recovery (Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, is currently writing a book on early plastic surgery; I’ve heard it also plays a major role in Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You – both nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize), and the two gorgeous “Word is…” litanies – one pictured below – but found the book as a whole somewhat meandering and quiet. If you’re keen on the time period and have enjoyed novels like Birdsong and The Winter Soldier, it would be a safe bet. (Cathy’s reviewed this one, too.)
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
(In a nice connection with a previous week’s buddy read, Villeneuve’s most recent novel is about Helen Keller’s mother and is called La Belle Lumière (“The Beautiful Light”). I hope it will also be made available in English translation.)