Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

Terri Windling: The Wood Wife (1996)

Terri Windling is an American author, editor, artist and essayist. Together with Ellen Datlow she’s edited numerous anthologies of fantasy/speculative fiction short stories. As a writer she’s famous for the use of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

Her second novel, The Wood Wife, which was published in 1996, is set in the Sonora desert and tells the story of the poet Maggie Black. Maggie Black has inherited the house of poet Davis Cooper who lived in the Rincon mountains, near Tucson for decades. Cooper was something like a mentor for Maggie and it was always her greatest wish to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this never happened. She’s surprised that Cooper, who was found murdered in the desert, chose her as his inheritor and travels to the Sonora desert with great trepidation. She hopes she’ll be able to write his biography and find out whether, as she suspects, he’s been writing secretly. Officially, Cooper stopped writing a long time ago. Possibly because he didn’t get over the death of his wife, Mexican painter Anna Naverra.

Maggie is used to big cities and coming to a place that’s as remote as Cooper’s house, is a huge challenge. Living there, even more so. Luckily, she finds the people living close by, former friends of Cooper, are very welcoming.

Soon after her arrival, strange things begin to happen. It’s as if the mountain and its fauna has a life of its own. All seems linked to Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems. Or is it the other way around? Did the paintings and poems come alive? Maggie embarks on a journey of discovery that is anything but safe.

The Wood Wife is such a haunting, beautiful book for many reasons. The way Terri Windling captures the desert, its flora and fauna is magical, even before she mentions any mythological creatures or folklore. The reader can feel how powerful it is and how it transforms Maggie from the beginning because she’s open to its beauty and wildness. Maggie has left behind a life that wasn’t all success and happiness. She was married to a famous musician who was unfaithful and cost her a lot of energy. In traveling to the Sonora desert, Maggie also hopes to return to her own writing. The connection of art and life and the theme of relationships between artists or between famous and less famous artist are some of the most important elements of this story. The book explores different possibilities and also different views of art.

Here’s Maggie:

I supported my ex-husband all through the lean years at the beginning of his career. I stopped writing poetry and hustled my butt getting every magazine assignment I could. Cooper was furious with me but I wouldn’t listen; I was in love, and ready to join that long tradition of the little woman behind the great man. . . I think I had this romantic vision of being The Artist’s Muse–but instead I was just The Hardworking Wife. And the muses were all the ladies that my husband had on the side.”

And this is Fox:

“You assume that what I want is what you would want: Success, Recognition. I’m not like you. I’m not like Cooper. That’s not what a good life means to me. Playing music is a high, for sure–but there’s other things that I like just as much. Carpentry, for instance; it’s honest work, it’s solid, it’s real, it pays a living wage . . . I give free music lessons to kids . . . I like having time for things like that. And time for my friends. And for myself. I don’t want to spend all my time hustling music. Just want to play it, enjoy it, and have a life.”

The Wood Wife tells, among many things, also a beautiful love story and stories of friendship. The strength of these stories stems from the wonderful, complex characters.

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Here’s what Cooper says:

I need a land where sun and wind will strip a man down to the soul and bleach his dying bones. I want to speak the language of stones.

The Wood Wife reminded me of a few European fantasy books, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service. They use European folklore and mythology, in the same way Windling uses North American Indian folklore. The juxtaposition of these two different, yet similar approaches is even addressed in the book.

“I’ve studied Davis Cooper as an English poet. Born and raised in the West Country. So when I read his poems I see English woods, I see the moor, and hedgerows, and walls of stone. And then I drive up here,” she waved her hand at the dry land around them, “and I realise that these are the woods he’s been talking about all along. These hills. This sky. Now I’m reading a whole different set of poems when I look at Cooper’s work.”

The illustration of the book cover shows artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork captures the spirit of Windling’s book. I’ve attached another example of her work above.

In the afterword, Terri Windling writes that she was inspired by the art of British artist Brian Froud. The picture above is one of his Faerie Realm series.

I discovered this book a while ago on Grace’s blog Books Without Any Pictures. You can read her review here.

Those who are interested in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, might love Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The essays are outstanding and the photos so beautiful.

Elina Hirvonen: When Time Runs Out (2017) – Kun aika loppuu (2015) Finnish Crime

I’m glad I stumbled across this book on Raven Crime’s blog at the end of last year because I liked it so much. One could say it’s less a crime novel than a novel about a crime and a study of the ways we deal with the many global problems we’re facing. Ultimately, it’s also an exploration of family dynamics and responsibility.

The story is set in contemporary Helsinki and Mogadishu and told from several different points of view. Laura, an expert in climate change, Erik, her husband, and their son Aslak live in Helsinki. Their daughter, Aava, is a doctor in Mogadishu, where she’s helping the poorest of the poor.

Right from the beginning we know that something’s wrong with Aslak. He hardly talks to his parents, doesn’t always show up when he’s invited, doesn’t seem to work. He’s drifting. While it worries his mother, it doesn’t come as a surprise as he’s always been difficult. Laura isn’t sure, where that comes from and in several chapters, telling the back story, she tries to analyze why Aslak is the way he is. Should she have stayed a single woman and not had children, like she originally intended? Was Aslak born different? Or is his character the result of a traumatic experience? As a young boy, he vanished for several hours and nobody ever found out what happened to him.

When a young man begins to open fire on passers by, in the center of Helsinki, there’s no doubt who the shooter is.

While the book is about the reasons for such a drastic act, it’s also about more than that. Each of the three major narrators – Laura, Aslak, and Aava – respond to the world around them, to consumerism, overpopulation, animal abuse, climate change and many other global problems in a very specific way. I absolutely loved the way Elina Hirvonen explored the very different ways to find solutions to global crises.

The character I found most interesting was Aava. In an attempt to help the poorest people of Somalia, she risks her life and health. Very often with very little success. At times, she manages to save a child, only to see it die a few weeks later of some ailment that wouldn’t be of any consequence in Europe. The struggle and futility of it all often lets her lose faith. According to a short biographical notice I found online, Elina Hirvonen has travelled a lot and knows Africa very well. One can sense that. The parts set in Africa felt just as authentic as those set in Finland.

As I said before, the book is about a crime. About why a young person would commit it and how this will end for him and his family. One of the central themes is responsibility, responsibility for children, other people, animals, the planet. It shows the many contradictions we face, how, even when we try to do well, we might still fail on some level. And, it also shows that it’s often easier to help strangers than your own family members, easier to communicate with someone one hardly knows than with a brother, mother, sister or husband.

When Time Runs Out is an engaging, thought-provoking book that tackles major themes of our time and looks at them from different points of view. And it’s also an analysis of the struggles of family life, missed communications, missed opportunities. It’s biggest strength however, is that it allows us to understand people whose choices are very far from those we make. Another reason this was so engaging and readable is the structure and the narrative techniques. It’s so well constructed and balanced.

It’s not often that a crime novel would make an excellent choice for a discussion group – this one certainly would.

 

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

Would you believe it – there’s finally a psychological crime novel whose premise is so original that it isn’t constantly compared to Girl on a Train/Gone Girl  . . . The book in question is Laura Marshall’s début Friend Request. I’d been aware of the novel since last year when it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2016, and was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2016. The premise sounded so great, I knew had to read it as soon as it was out, even though I’m a bit tired of psychological crime with a major twist. I’m certainly glad that didn’t keep me from reading it because I thoroughly enjoyed Friend Request. The premise, which you see summarized on the cover, is pretty simple but arresting—Louise gets a friend request on Facebook, from a former classmate, Maria. But Maria has been dead for over twenty years. Or hasn’t she? Fact is, nobody really knows. All they know is that she disappeared at the end of the leavers party and was never seen again.

Louise is shaken by this request. Not only because Maria is said to be dead but because Louise has done something very bad, something that seems to be linked to Maria.

As the novel unfolds, more requests are sent and Louise even feels that she’s followed. We learn who Louise is and who Louise used to be and why she’s so guilt-ridden. In 2016, Louise is a self-employed interior designer. She’s divorced from her highschool crush, Sam, and has a little boy of four. Back in 1989 Louise was an insecure schoolgirl who desperately wanted to be friends with the cool kids. So much in fact, that she wouldn’t shy away from letting others down or even betray them.

After Maria receives the friend request, she receives an invitation to a school reunion. Scared and intrigued, she contacts a former friend, who was the center of the group of cool kids, Sophie. She too has received a friend request and an invitation to the reunion. I’m not going to say much more or the book would be spoilt.

Friend Request is told in chapters that alternate between 2016 and 1989. A lot of the suspense comes from the first person narrator’s withholding information. That’s a narrative device I’m not too keen on and it annoyed me here as well. It just feels a bit artificial and not always believable psychologically. That said, the novel still works and feels realistic. Anyone who has gone to school was either part of the cool crowd, despised by them or just a neutral bystander/observer. In any case, we’ve all experienced or witnessed similar things – bullying, shunning, shaming -, so this was very relatable. Louise is a likeable, interesting character and to some degree I could understand, why she kept what she did a secret.

The final twist was surprising but not far-fetched. It really worked for me. Yes, I would have wished that the writing had been a bit less manipulative, but overall it was gripping and so entertaining that I was sad when it was finished.

Laura Marshall’s certainly an author to watch and while her début has a few flaws, it also has a killer premise, a lot of suspense and a very satisfying ending. That’s more than one can say about most contemporary psychological thrillers.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2017

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.

The two novels included in Suite FrançaiseTempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.

The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.

Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.

Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.

Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.

The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.

Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.

Other Review

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (2006) The Shetland Series 1

Raven Black is the first in Ann Cleeves Shetland Series. It has been on my piles for ages and when the first cooler days arrived – they are already gone again, temperatures are back to 20° – 25° C – I felt like reading it finally. I always meant to read Ann Cleeves as I had heard good things about her. While I wasn’t blown away, I still enjoyed it very much and can see why people praise her.

On a morning walk, back from school, where she dropped off her daughter, Fran Hunter discovers a dead girl in the snow. Fran has moved to Shetland because her ex-husband lives here and she wanted to give her small daughter the opportunity so see him more often. She doesn’t really fit in, and if it wasn’t for Cassie, she’d rather live in London. Cassie has adjusted better but she has some difficulties with her teacher who doesn’t like that she’s so self-assured. The teacher’s daughter, Sally, is the opposite—shy and submissive. At least until Catherine Ross arrives in Shetland. The two girl become unlikely friends. Catherine is confident and rather rebellious. And now she’s dead. Someone murdered her.

Years ago, a young girl disappeared. Her body was never found but the community suspected that the loner Magnus Tait had something to do with her disappearance. He was never convicted, but with Catherine’s murder, the old suspicions reawaken.

The two detectives in charge of the case, local Perez and Taylor from Yorkshire, aren’t convinced of Magnus’ guilt. At least not in the beginning.

Raven Black is suspenseful but the suspense wasn’t the book’s chief appeal. I really liked the characterisations and the sense of place. Ann Cleeves takes a lot of time to introduce us to her characters. Most chapters are written from a different perspective. That could have taken away a lot from the suspense but it didn’t. We got to know the characters well, but most of them still stayed suspicious.

Perez was by far one of my favourite characters. He’s become a bit of loner after his divorce, possibly always was, since his family, as the name indicates, isn’t from Shetland originally. He used to be Fran’s ex-husband’s best friend but nowadays, they don’t really see eye to eye.

As I said, this was my first Ann Cleeves novel. I wouldn’t mind reading her again. I liked the care with which she described her characters, the plotting is well done, and the writing is assured. The reader senses immediately that this is an experienced writer.

I could also imagine, that this series gets better because the main character, Perez, is interesting and likable and he’s left at a point in his life where a lot of changes could be expected.

The Shetland Series has been made into a BBC 1 TV series. It’s available on YouTube.

Have you read Ann Cleeves? Which books would you recommend?

 

 

Literature and War Readalong October 2017: Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

 

Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published book Suite Française has been on my pile for ages. I bought the French edition when it came out in 2004. The book consists of two fifths of a novel that was planned to have five parts. Irène Némirovsky wasn’t able to finish her work.  The author, who was of Ukrainian Jewish origin, was deported by the Nazis and killed in 1942.

Usually I start my readalong books later in the month but given that this one is over 500 pages long, I started early. That’s why I can do something, I usually can’t do— urge you to pick this up. I haven’t finished yet but I can already tell – this is fantastic and will make my end of year list.

Most WWII novels we’ve read for the readalong were written either with hindsight or as contemporary historical novels. Not this one. It was written while things happened, which gives it a poignancy, many other books lack. In that it reminds me of Duras’ La douleur.

Here are the first sentences:

Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily. Those still asleep dreamt of waves breaking over pebbles, a March storm whipping the woods, a herd of cows trampling the ground with their hooves, until finally sleep was shaken off and they struggled to open their eyes, murmuring. “Is it an air raid?”

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 October 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.