Will and Testament (Arv og miljø) by Vigdis Hjorth (2016) – Norwegian Literature

From the blurb: “Four siblings. Two summer houses. One terrible secret. To what degree should the horrors of the past be allowed to shake the present? Stalked by the darkest of shadows from her childhood, a woman struggles against the tide dragging her back to the family she fled years ago. This emotionally searing novel is at once a wrenching look at a family fractured and a meditation on the nature of trauma and memory.”

Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth’s is very well known in her home country. She has written over twelve novels and won many prestigious Scandinavian prizes. I came across her name in a Swiss newspaper where she was mentioned as one of Norway’s most notable authors. Since it’s still Women in Translation Month, I thought she’d be a good choice. 

Will and Testament was a huge success in Norway, and I can see why. It’s highly literary but nonetheless as captivating as a thriller. The plot is moving back and forth in time, slowly revealing the dark secrets at the heart of the dysfunctional family depicted in the novel.

Bergljot, our fifty-something first-person narrator, hasn’t seen her parents for twenty-three years, when she’s informed that her father has died. Already before his death, her siblings tried to involve her in their dispute about their parent’s will. Even though, their parents had promised, they would evenly divide their possessions among the four siblings, they clearly changed their mind as the two coveted holiday homes on the Norwegian seaside go to Bergljot’s younger sisters. Bergljot’s older brother is very upset about this and tries to convince Bergljot to take his side. While she too, is sad that her children won’t have the opportunity to spend their summers in one of the homes, she understands why her parents decided to act as they did. After their father’s death, the discussion is renewed and gets even more heated.

Jumping back and forth in time, Bergljot tells the story of her life and reveals, bit by bit, why she chose to break with her parents. When the two younger sisters were only babies, but the older ones seven and ten respectively, something terrible happened. Something that both parents wished the children had forgotten. Unfortunately, Bergljot’s’ turbulent love life leads her start a therapy and, so, the distant memory resurfaces. She confronts her parents, but they both deny anything has happened. To keep her own sanity, she breaks with them.

The secret, which is finally revealed, isn’t very surprising. Most readers will guess it from the beginning. And if that was all the book had to offer, I wouldn’t have been as impressed with it as I was. But it has so much more to offer. The character portraits, especially those of Bergljot and her mother are fantastic. The mother is one of those crazy, dysfunctional, larger-than-life mothers that populate so many books about dysfunctional families. For me she was especially chilling because she did and said a few things that sounded so much like my own mother that it made me shiver. She doesn’t live her life, she performs it. She lies and manipulates, is cruel and mean and distorts the truth to her own advantage.

The book reveals the intricate family dynamics in a truly admirable way. It also shows that when there are several siblings, each one of them might see the parents completely differently, have a totally different relationship with them. In Will and Testament it’s Bergljot’s tragedy, that her parents know very well that they treated Bergljot and her brother badly. Because they knew this and because they wanted to repress the memories, they treated the younger girls differently. By the time Bergljot accuses her parents, and drops the bomb, as she says, the younger sisters are firmly on the parent’s side.

I can imagine how painful it must be, to see a repressed memory resurface and then be told, you made it up. I could imagine that, for the longest time, one would doubt oneself. The reasons why Bergljot knows she’s remembering correctly is because she’s so damaged. She drinks far too much, falls for the wrong men. But she’s a terrific mother and her children are behind her all the time. Not for one second do they doubt her.

It took me a few pages to get into this book because it isn’t told chronologically, but once I got the structure, I liked it very much. I was impressed by the intricate way the family dynamics are described and by the subtle psychological insights. And while some of it is dark, it’s never depressing. Bergljot may be damaged but she’s true to herself and courageous. It’s not easy to face a hostile family front.

Will and Testament will be out in English in September. If you like stories about dysfunctional families, you shouldn’t miss this.

Peach by Emma Glass – Dylan Thomas Prize 2019 Blog Tour @dylanthomprize

Emma Glass’ Peach is one of the books on this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize Long List. The prize is awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. I’m very glad I was invited to participate in the blog tour.

When I chose Peach from the longlist, I wasn’t entirely aware of what type of book this would be. I knew it was about a teenage girl who goes to college, has a boyfriend named Green, a best friend, a cat, a baby brother and parents who just seem to have rediscovered sex. And I knew that something horrible, a sexual assault, happens to her. What I didn’t realize was how artful this book would be. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it outside of poetry or flash fiction. The way Emma Glass works with sound, repetitions, alliterations, onomatopoeia is astounding. What is even more astounding is that this book, while experimental to some degree, still is immensely readable. In many ways, the style she uses seems to tell us that the unspeakable cannot be named. It has to be evoked.

Given the topic, the book isn’t for the faint of heart and it had one of those moments I’ve come to dread – cruelty against an animal. (Spoiler – why do most perverted people in books always, sooner or later torture an animal – mostly, like in this case, a cat?)

I’ve seen some critics argue that this book fell flat because it’s surreal and, at the end, Peach seems to disintegrate. I would disagree. It’s a shocking topic, told in quite horrific short chapters, but there are also some playful absurd moments that I found very impressive and convincing. Many authors who write about horrible things, like Kafka, to name one of the most famous, used the absurd to describe what’s too awful to name. And Emma Glass does just that.

To give you an impression of her stellar writing, I’ll leave you with a few quotes. Nothing captures this book as well as quotes.

The first sentences:

Thick stick sticky wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hand against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin.

Page 39

My legs feel heavy and I’m dragging my feet. Shovelling snow with my shoes. Leaving lines behind from my lead legs.

Page 72/73

I lie down on the sofa and shut my eyes. My hands fall straight down to my tummy. Strange. How strange it is. Naturally grasping the firm mass doesn’t feel so strange any more. The lump I have been lugging though loathsome heavy hurting full, it feels like me, like part of me. Ingrained. Embedded. I think about cells, multiplying, millions, every second, every millisecond for millions of seconds how big can I get? How big will I be before I burst? Cells linking, holding hands, making chains, chains winding, chains winding around my core. Spores sporing, pouring.

One more element I’d like to mention are the chapter headings which are equally artful and playful. Here are just a few:

Seam Stress

Sun Screen

Forest for Rest

Final Pieces, Final Peace

Emma Glass was born in Swansea. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent, then decided to become a nurse and went back to study Children’s Nursing at Swansea University. She lives and works in London. Peach is her first book.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for a review copy

This year’s longlist of 12 books comprises eight novels, two short story collections and two poetry collections:

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US) and Riverrun (UK))
  • Michael Donkor, Hold (4th Estate)
  • Clare Fisher, How the Light Gets In (Influx Press)
  • Zoe Gilbert, Folk (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Emma Glass, Peach ((Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City (Tinder Press, Headline)
  • Louisa Hall, Trinity (Ecco)
  • Sarah Perry, Melmoth (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber & Faber)
  • Richard Scott, Soho (Faber & Faber)
  • Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone (Atlantic Books)
  • Jenny Xie, Eye Level (Graywolf Press)

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Before reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I could have sworn I’ve read it already. It’s one of those tales most of us are so familiar with that it’s easy to understand why I thought so. It’s always interesting when we then finally read one of these books, to see how much of what we thought we knew corresponds to what the book is really about. In this case, funny enough, hardly anything. Yes, there’s a doctor, Dr Jekyll, who experiments with a substance that turns him into his evil alter ego, Dr Hyde, but that’s it. The finer details were completely different and so was the structure. I’d expected a first person narrative, from beginning to end, a bit like some of Edgar Alan Poe’s tales, but what I found is a rather diverse structure. At first some acquaintance of Dr. Jekyll tells the tale or rather, how he meets Mr Hyde and how revolting he finds him. Then there are other people’s stories and finally letters from Dr. Jekyll.

The most interesting bit however is the psychological dimension of the story. I had thought that it was a bit of a black and white tale. Good Dr Jekyll turns into evil Mr Hyde, which isn’t entirely the case. Dr Jekyll is far from a good person and at first, he relishes Hyde’s evil deeds. It’s a lot as if his repressed urges surface and he can finally do what he always wanted. Initially what he does is merely shocking, but then he becomes truly murderous.

I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

I’m not going to say much more, I’ve already revealed a lot.

I liked reading this very much. Not because of the story as such and definitely not because of the structure which I felt didn’t work so well, but because of the atmosphere and the writing. The descriptions of foggy London at night are eerie and atmospheric. Although, one might question, if its really London Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind. My foreword tells me that the descriptions match Edinburgh far better than London.

The writing is not only excellent when Stevenson describes the city but also when he characterises someone like here:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. . . . He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove. . . . [I]t was frequently his fortune to be the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.

While I liked large parts of this novella for the descriptions and the psychological and philosophical aspects, I think that for us, today, it’s also a problematic tale because of the description of Hyde. Hyde is evil and that’s easily detected by people who see him because he’s ugly and deformed.

Here’s one of the quotes that describe him:

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

Nowadays, in speculative fiction, nobody would get away with describing an evil person in the way Hyde is described. It’s not only that he’s ugly and deformed but it’s said that one could easily sense that he was evil because of the way he looked.

The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of Victorian literature and now that I’ve finally read it, I can see why. What it says about the duality of human nature is interesting and still valid.

If you’d like to read another review of the novella, here’s a review on Brian’s blog.

I know that there are several film versions of this story, but I’ve never watched any. Which one would you suggest?

Announcing German Literature Month VII

Doesn’t time fly?  It seems like only two minutes ago since we were celebrating GLM VI.

Just like in previous years, I will co-host this event with Lizzy’s Literary Life. During the month of November, both our blogs will be dedicated to literature written in German.

Will you be dusting down some neglected tomes from your bookshelves? Reading more from a favourite author or treating yourself to some newly translated works?  There’s a lot to celebrate in German Literature this year: the Theodor Storm bi-centennial, the Heinrich Böll centennial, or the three German titles on the longlist of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

It’s hard to know where to start, and impossible to fit it all in. So Lizzy and I have decided to let you meander through the trails of German literature wherever and in whatever fashion you may wish (and perhaps, between us, we’ll cover it all.)

The whole month will be read as you please, with two readalongs for those who enjoy social reading.

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, Lizzy will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, I will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

There is no obligation to participate in the readalongs.  As ever,  the only rule for German Literature Month is to simply enjoy reading something originally written in German.  A novel, a play, a poem. Literary non-fiction, even.  Blog about it. Tweet about it. Review on goodreads or any other review site of your choice.  Just let the world know about the treasures to be found in German Literature (and let us know about it also on a special link that will be made available on November 1st).

In years past support for German Literature Month has been phenomenal, and the event is now a true highlight of our reading calendar.  Will GLM VII match its predecessors? It will if you join us. Will you?

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (2017)

Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths is among the novels on the Baileys Prize Long List 2017. The Baileys list is one of only a few prize lists I’m interested in. Usually I read three to four of the novels on the list. I hadn’t heard of Emma Flint’s book before seeing the list and it immediately caught my attention.

Set in 1965, in New York, it tells the story of Ruth Malone whose two children, Cindy and Frankie, disappear and are found dead a few days later. The book begins with Ruth’s voice. She’s in prison, thinking back. This is the only part written in present tense, from then on the book stays in past tense and is told by Ruth and Peter Wonicke, a journalist.

We know from the beginning that Ruth is found guilty of the murder of her children but we will only find out at the end how that happend and whether she did it. In a way it’s not even that important because this book isn’t as much about whether Ruth is guilty or not as it is about the vilification of women.

Ruth Malone is glamorous. She loves to dress up, uses make-up, is separated from her husband, has affairs and lovers. She dresses provocatively, loves sex, and drinks too much. Not the way the other women in the neighbourhood behave. Definitely not the way the policemen’s wives behave. Everybody seems to have an idea of how a woman and especially a wife and mother has to be and that definitely hasn’t anything to do with the way Ruth conducts herself.

What follows is less an inquiry than a witch hunt. A witch hunt that leads to a trial. People – the neighbours, the police, the press – want Ruth to be found guilty. They want her punished for her life style and would do anything to break her and see her in prison.

I guess it’s easy to understand that this was an upsetting book. Two children are dead but what people really seem to be interested in is seeing their mother behind bars, just because she’s different. It made me think of the last book I reviewed here, Asking For It. While the two books are very different, they have one thing in common – women are punished for their behaviour.

I think it was a good idea to tell large parts of the story from the point of view of a journalist. Like everyone else, Wonicke wants Ruth to be guilty at first because that would make a great story. He writes a few short pieces about her and they all make her look suspicious. Why would a mother whose children have disappeared bother to dress up and put on make up? Why would she buy a new dress after finding out her kids were murdered? And since sex sells, Wonicke emphasises that she’s  very attractive. Ultimately though, Wonicke is a good guy and after a while he realizes that he doesn’t help finding the culprit. On the contrary, he helps clouding people’s judgement and enforces their belief in Ruth’s guilt.

By the time he realises what he’s done, it’s already too late. Not because of his articles but because the police and the neighbours have seen to many things they consider suspicious and because Ruth is withdrawn and haughty. People expect her to be broken, to stay in, but she goes out, drinks, and has sex like before.

Wonicke falls for her and swears he will help her find the perpetrator. Thanks to his sympathetic look, the reader interprets Ruth differently.

He felt like he was seeing her in a different light today. However this played out—whether Devlin made an arrest or not, whether they got a conviction or not—how could this ever end for her? Surely she’d never be the same woman again. She’d never be able to sit in the sun for the sheer pleasure of it, or walk into a store and pick out a dress just because it was pretty. No one would ever be able to look at her and not remember.

Ruth’s story is inspired by a true crime – the Alice Crimmins case. I didn’t know that when I bought the book. I found out when I started reading because Emma Flint mentions in the bio section that she’s always loved true crime. I then skimmed the acknowledgement section where she mentions which case inspired her. I’m not so keen on books inspired by true crimes because I can’t stop wondering how much is really true.

While it’s not a depressing book, it’s extremely upsetting. To think that something like this happened. For some reasons it made me think of the poet Anne Sexton. Ruth stands for all of those women, like Anne Sexton, who didn’t have a lot of choices. Who got married and had kids and felt trapped. It’s never said but Ruth’s behaviour lets us assume that there’s at least a masked depression underneath it all.

I liked this book a lot. I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly because it has many amazing passages. The writing is so strong. It’s definitely more literary than crime. The focus is on the way Ruth is hunted, not so much on whether or not she did it. Highly recommended.

Banana Yoshimoto: Moshi Moshi (2016) – Moshi-moshi Shimokitazawa (2010)

Book Cover Moshi Moshi

A few years ago, I used to read every book by Banana Yoshimoto. With the exception of Goodbye Tsugumi, I liked or loved them all. Why did I stop reading her you may wonder? Because her best books are very similar. She returns to the same topics and themes again and again and while these are themes I’m drawn to, I still felt I needed to wait a little before returning to her.

Moshi Moshi tells the story of twenty-year old Yotchan whose father, a musician, has committed suicide together with another woman than his wife. Yotchan and her mother are devastated and trapped in their grief. Yotchan had just graduated from a culinary school and wanted to open her own restaurant. Grief and the realization she might not be ready makes her rethink her plan. Watching Ichikawa Jun’s film ‘Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa, she decides that changing the neighbourhood and moving from Tokyo’s posh Meguro district to the colourful Shimokitazawa neighbourhood might help her.

During the day, Yotchan works in the bistro of a friend, in the evenings she explores Shimokitazawa. One day, her mother stands in front of her door and tells her she will move in. Yotchan isn’t happy about this but she agrees anyway. Yotchan is afraid that her mother might interfere with her life but she shouldn’t have worried. Her mother too, wants to change, shed her old self, find new meaning.

Both women begin to enjoy life again, but the dark mystery surrounding her father’s death still weighs heavy on both. Without telling her mother, Yotchan investigates and finds out that he woman with whom he committed suicide was a very dark person. Charismatic in a destructive way.

It takes Yotchan and her mother the whole book to come to terms with the suicide of their beloved father and husband, but when they do, they have found a way to integrate him into their life and, at the same time, leave their old life behind.

I loved this novel. It’s beautiful and melancholic, a celebration of the transitoriness of life and of what the Japanese call “exquisite sadness”. Shimokitazawa is described as a very lively place. Full of bistros, cafés, restaurants that attract artistic, bohemian people. Since Yotchan is a chef, she’s particularly attracted by the culinary side of this neighbourhood. It was fascinating to read about her trips to restaurants and cafés which included the descriptions of the places and the food. There’s such a wealth of food in this book, none of which I’ve ever tasted. All I know of Japanese cuisine is Miso soup, Sushi and Ramen. Not one of these is ever mentioned. I loved that because it introduced me to what the Japanese really eat.

Yotchan, who is the first person narrator of this novel, is a lovely character. She’s enthusiastic and keenly aware of the people and places around her. Her appreciation of beauty and the fleetingness of things infuses the story with a bitter-sweet mood.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t go into any details, but there a few very beautiful descriptions of locales, places and trees which by the end of the book will not exist anymore.

Banana Yoshimoto has a knack for capturing fleeting beauty, for using unusual, eccentric characters and situations. She’s also known for writing about death and the influence of the dead on the living. This book contains all of that and more. Because it is longer than most of her other books, the reader has time to get fully immersed in this world. I was sad when I finished the book. It reminded me of a time when I was twenty and, like Yotchan, knew that many of the people and places I loved would possibly not stay in my life forever. It’s peculiar to look back and remember this odd clarity. Maybe this happens to most people at that age. Like Yotchan, I enjoyed the company of some people and at the same time I knew, I would move on.

It takes a lot of skill to write about the sad aspects of life but to do so in a way that is uplifting, that doesn’t shy away from describing futility but in doing so guarantees that what is gone is not forgotten but won’t trap you in the past.

Since I liked this so much, I was glad to discover that I had another one of her novels, Amrita, on my piles.

I read the German translation of Moshi Moshi that’s why I didn’t add any quotes. I wonder if the English edition contains as many footnotes as the German translation. I was thankful for those footnotes as they explained the food that was mentioned and some expressions I wasn’t familiar with.

Until now, Kitchen was my favourite Yoshimoto novel, but I liked this one just as much.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

This review is my second contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

On Book Buying Bans and Other Futile Attempts to Tackle Mount TBR

libreria-acqua-alta-venice

It’s the beginning of the year and like every year I think I need to change my book buying habits. At the end of last year, for the first time, I went over my book shop purchases and online orders of the last three years and counted every book. And while I was glad to find out that I had bought less in 2016 than in the previous years, I also had to find out that I bought at least three times as many books as I read and that of the books I read in 2016 only 50% had been bought that year.

In the past, I often decided not to buy books for at least three months, participate in TBR dares and double dares and every time I broke the ban within a week, sometimes a day. It just felt like too much of a punishment and I simply couldn’t stick to it. One year, I decided to fix an amount. I decided that I wouldn’t buy for more than X$ every month. You’d be surprised how many books one can buy with even a small amount of money. Suddenly second-hand books became super interesting. So that didn’t work either. Then I decided not to buy more than two books a month. That too, didn’t work because by February I’d already bought the books for March and April too. It’s amazing how one can bend one’s rules.

In the end, I had to admit that restrictive rules that only limited the amount of money spent and/or the amount of books I can buy don’t work for me. I need more than that. I need rules that make sense. So I went back to the piles and purchasing lists and analyzed these in more detail. That’s when I understood that the real problem was buying too much of the same thing.

  • Too many hardbacks published in the current year
  • Too many books by the same author, especially when I’d never read the author in question
  • Too many of the same genre

Of the above, the first annoys me the most. For one, hardbacks are more expensive. Then they are bigger and I have a hard time holding them, so will not be so keen to pick them up. And as soon as the year ends, they feel stale. Everybody has read and reviewed them and it takes awhile until you’re interested again.

Buying too many of the same author is annoying as well. And silly. When I know I like an author, it’s fine but when I’ve never even read him/her . . . Chances that I don’t even like the writer are huge.

The last category is to some extent linked to the first because I tend to buy huge piles of new crime/thriller and sci-fi/fantasy. But there are other genres/types of books that I don’t want to buy too many of. Last year I bought about at least twenty short story collections. Typically they take longer to read and I hardly ever read more than five or six. That makes fifteen for the piles. The same goes for essay collections. I try to read one per month but buy twenty a year. I could add other examples.

Looking at my book buying habits in detail was sobering but I needed it.

Clearly, I need new rules. I want to read more from my piles but I also wan t to stop buying another book published in 2017, as long as I’ve still got an unread book from this year. I don’t want to buy more than one genre novel at the same time and definitely not more than one book from the same author, unless I decide, like last year in the case of Richard Yates, that I’m going to dedicated a whole month to an author.

Additionally, I don’t want to buy more than one book per week. Preferably, I’ll buy more books in book shops. Normally, I read 80% of the books that I buy in book shops, while I only read 30% that I order. There’s a good reason for that. Often I urgently want to read something but it takes almost two weeks to arrive, so by the time I get it, I’m reading something else. However, when I go to a book shop, I pick exactly what I want to read. Since I live in Switzerland, the choice of books in English isn’t big and they are a way more expensive than online (6$ for paperbacks and up to 15$ for hardbacks).

One of the reasons why I buy so many books is that I quickly lose interest in my own piles. In the past, I found that themed reading helped me rekindle my interest in my piles. At the end of last year, when I felt like reading Japanese literature, I went over my piles and discovered so many books, that I got really enthusiastic. Mini-projects like this will help me stick to my piles. I’m not making an annual plan yet, but possibly, I’ll dedicate every month or at least a week per month to either the literature of a country, an author, or a genre.

To cut a long story short – I want to cut my book buying but I’m doing it through “mindful” buying, not through any drastic bans or challenges. The latter don’t work in my case. I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

What New Year book buying resolutions do you have?