Pascal Quignard: Villa Amalia (2006)

I’ve heard so many good things about Pascal Quignard that I finally had to read him. I had two of his books on my piles, Tous les matins du mondeAll the World’s Monrnings and Villa Amalia, which will be published in English later this month. I finally decided to read Villa Amalia because I wasn’t in the mood for historical fiction.

At the beginning of the novel, the musician and composer Ann Hidden follows her boyfriend because she suspects he’s being unfaithful. She’s right and it hurts her terribly. While she does confront him, she’s not really interested in hearing what he has to say. Her mind is made up, she will leave her house, and everything else behind. She sells her house and all of her belongings, telling nobody but an old childhood friend who helps her to disappear. At first, she wants to tell her mother when she visits her in Brittany but their relationship is so tense, she only tells her she will travel.

Even though her childhood friend Georges knows what she’s doing, she also lies to him about her voyage. He thinks she’s in Africa, but she’s actually travelling first to Switzerland, where she stays in the Alps for a while, and then settles on the seaside in Southern Italy, on the island of Ischia. Here, she takes long baths and walks and begins to compose again. Ann has long abandoned giving concerts, she now dedicates her time solely to her own music and the transcription and reinterpretation of old masters, whose music she simplifies.

One day, on one of her walks, she sees a house high up on a hill and falls in love with the place. It’s a love and a longing so intense it seems strange that she feels this for a place and not a person. Villa Amalia has been abandoned for years and it’s not easy to track down the owners. She finds them eventually and is allowed to rent the house and renovate it. For the first time in her life, Ann Hidden is not only happy but has a sense of belonging somewhere. Later, she finds friends, a lover, and lives with a woman and a small child in great harmony until something terrible happens and she begins her wanderings again.

Villa Amalia is an astonishingly beautiful book. Ann Hidden is unlike any character I’ve come across in any book recently. If anything, she reminded me a bit of the one or the other character in Japanese fiction. She’s cold and distant but with a depth of feeling and a sense of beauty that makes her appealing. She carries wounds from her childhood that run very deep and explain why she’s cold and why she abandoned everything to try to find freedom.

The book beautifully explores several themes. The most obvious is how we deal with loss and abandonment. Another theme is life outside of what is considered conventional/normal. Ann finds nontraditional ways to interact and live with people. Every choice Ann makes is surprising because it’s a free choice. Most of us do or have to consider consequences, other people’s feelings, the future etc. Ann never does. She chooses the way that feels right to her at a given time. Another theme that is extremely important is creation. Or, more precisely, the creation of music. Where does music come from? Ann is a taciturn person who loves silence, yet she seems to have a well in her from which one melody after the other pours out.

I liked this book very much but it took me ages to finally review it because it’s so difficult to put into words why this is so beautiful or why I liked it so much. It’s a bit like with an elusive scent. It’s hard to describe it to someone else and explain why you like it.

I would have liked to share quotes but I’ve read this in French and the translation will only be out at the end of the month. I always find it a bit futile to do my own translations, when there is or will be an English version available.

Like All the World’s Mornings, Villa Amalia has been made into a movie starring Isabelle Huppert and one of my favourite actors Jean-Hughes Anglade. I hope to watch it soon.

Best Books I Read 2017

The year’s not over and it is possible I might still read something I love, but I don’t want to wrap up in January. I want to leave this year behind. It was a difficult year. It started good and then went downhill from February on. I wrote about my eyes because that affected my reading/blogging the most but I had so many other unpleasant, weird, and other ailments. That’s why I was hardly present during German Literature Month and why I didn’t blog/visit in June/July, and most of November/December. Even so, I’ve read a lot of books I absolutely loved. Most of them during the first months of the year. Those are also the books I didn’t only like while reading, but still remember vividly. I’ve also read a number of books I didn’t review and while some were good, I would have forgotten all about them, if I hadn’t written down the titles in a notebook. I’m not sure why they were gone so completely, as some, like Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife, made an impression. I probably had too much on my mind.

Be it as it may, here are my “best books” of the year, including the links to my reviews and short excerpts from the reviews:

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

From my review:

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.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

From my review:

I loved the story, which is first sweet then bittersweet, but what I loved even more was the beautiful, luminous writing. In most of his sentences Kent Haruf uses the conjunction “and”. Not only once but often two, three, even four times. This gives his sentences a leisurely pace, a gentle, tone that works so well with the peaceful fictional small town, Holt, his favourite setting. I don’t think he would get away with the overuse of the conjunction, if he didn’t pair it with a very precise vocabulary. All of these elements are present in the first sentences already. That’s why I quoted them. If you like the opening paragraphs, there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest as well. He maintains this pace, the use of descriptions, the gentle tone and mood until the last paragraph. It looks so simple, but it’s very skilful writing.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

I didn’t review this. I read it right after Our Souls at Night and was surprised to find out I loved it even more. So much, in fact, that I wasn’t even able to write a review. That happens sometimes.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

From my review:

It’s not often that a title is so well-chosen or that it does double duty like in the case of Moore’s eponymous title. Yes, the book is about loneliness, and it’s about the last hope to find love. But it’s also a description of utter despair and suffering and that’s alluded to in the title as well. After all, “passion” is also a reference to the “passion of the Christ” or his final suffering and martyrdom. We find in this book the same doubts, the same “why have you forsaken me feeling”, only Judith Hearne, being human, has another fate awaiting her.

Magnus  by Sylvie Germain

From my review:

I’m afraid, I could only scrape the surface of this beautiful and complex novel. I’d say it’s one of the best books on war and memory and the importance to remember our own story and the history of our society. For such a sophisticated novel, Magnus is surprisingly captivating and suspenseful. There are two powerful twists that I didn’t see coming. Truly a tour de force.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

From my review:

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.

The War by Marguerite Duras

From my review:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

From my review:

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

From my review:

A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.

Crime Fiction

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

From my review:

This book is so eerie. It made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. The last thing I would want, is to share an isolated house with a brooding, taciturn stranger. Not even the descriptions of the beautiful fjord made me ever forget what this would be like. And in Allis’ situation at that. She’s really done herself a huge disservice in doing what she did back home. Her life is shattered and the things she did has left her very vulnerable. While she hopes things can only get better, the reader senses from the beginning that the house on the fjord might not be a safe haven. There are too many sinister indications that something’s wrong, and that Sigur might be hiding a secret of his own.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

From my review:

The Devotion of Suspect X is a very clever novel. It’s as subtle as it is complex, told in a cool tone and infused with a gentle, melancholic mood. I absolutely loved it.

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto

From my review:

I followed this character with great fascination and astonishment, but for the longest time I didn’t understand why this was called a crime novel. It’s clear from the beginning that Asai’s wife wasn’t killed. So why was this labelled crime? I can assure you, it’s labelled correctly but I won’t tell you why.

C’est toi le venin (not translated yet) by Frédéric Dard

From my review:

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

Non-fiction

I read a lot of nonfiction and some of the books I read were great (to name but a few – The Lonely City, The Things You Can see Only When You Slow Down, Pema Chödron’s books, The Curated Closet, The Cool Factor) but I didn’t review them, that’s why there’s only one title in this category.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

From my review:

I never thought I would love The Diary of a Bookseller so much. I discovered Shaun Bythell ‘s book on Jen Campbell’s YouTube channel. She knew him because she interviewed him way back when she wrote The Bookshop Book. Possibly he was also a contributor to her Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Shaun Bythell is the owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookstore. His shop has over 100,000 titles. He’s famous for being more than a little cranky, a bit like Dylan Moran’s character in the TV series Black Books (if you haven’t watched that yet, do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s so, so funny). If you read the diary, you’ll agree, that he has reasons for being cranky. My goodness. It’s unbelievable what some customers do or say.

While 2017 was a bit of catastrophe for me, it wasn’t such a bad year reading wise.

 

Should anyone wonder about the photo – it’s a view from my bedroom window and a total one-off as we hardly ever get snow, which surprises most people as they think snow is common in Switzerland, but unless you live near/in the mountains, it’s not that common. We get a day or two but not even every year. I took this picture early in the morning, one week before Christmas. I woke up to this view but a couple of hours later, it was already gone. The movie enthusiasts among my readers might enjoy knowing that the film producer Arthur Cohn lives in the high building you can see in the back in the middle of the photo. 

Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

When Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 for a trip to the UK and the US, he didn’t think that he would never return to his home country. While abroad, he said to people that “Hitler is over”. When Hitler then became Chancellor – Reichskanzler – in 1933, Feuchtwanger’s opinion changed considerably. “Hitler means war” he said to a journalist, a statement that was widely quoted in the American press. Soon after the Reichstags fire – Reichstagsbrand – Feuchtwanger’s house was searched, his possessions destroyed or confiscated. He knew he could never go back. The events shocked him, but what shocked him even more was that he, like so many other Jews and other Germans, had believed for so long that anything this barbarous would never be possible in the country of Goethe and Schiller. The realization of how wrong he was led him to write The Oppermanns, a book in which we find a lot of his own experience. What struck me, while reading this, was how prescient it seemed. I rechecked my edition twice, to see whether it was really published in 1933. Yet, Feuchtwanger was very had on himself for not having seen the whole thing coming sooner. I found that so interesting. I think we are so focused on the war that we tend to forget that Hitler’s ascent, his totalitarian regime, the horrors against the Jews, the communists and the intellectuals started so much earlier. Long before the war.

The Oppermanns tells the story of a rich Jewish family. There are three brothers and a sister. Martin is the head of the family company, a furniture house, Gustav who works with his brother, is also a publicist and does research on Lessing. Edgar, is a brilliant surgeon. The sister, Klara, stays in the background. It’s her American husband, Jacques Lavendel, who is another major character. Three of the Oppermanns have children. Martin’s son Berthold, Edgars’ daughter Ruth, and Klara’s son Heinrich.

There are many minor characters that are just as important. Teachers at Berthold’s and Heinrich’s school, people who work for the Oppermann’s in their furniture store and many more.

The story starts in 1932 with Gustav’s 50th birthday. It should have been a day of triumph but their company is in danger and this overshadows Gustav’s big day. Until now, Gustav wasn’t a political man. He was more interested in Germany’s culture, its literature and, like many, he believed that someone who produced something as badly written as Mein Kampf couldn’t be taken seriously. Surely, the Germans would see through this and shake it off. His brothers Martin and Edgar were slightly more aware of what was going on. The Nazi’s were gaining ground and Jewish businesses and Jewish people were more and more threatened. In order to save the furniture business, Martin suggests to collaborate with an Aryan business partner. That someone this rooted in tradition and family values would go this way, wakes up Gustav.

Edgar on his side is threatened to leave his hospital. Although he has invented a famous cure, the Nazis’ pretend he’s killing his Aryan patients.

The saddest stories focus on Berthold, whose new teacher is a fanatic Nazi and determined to humiliate Berthold, and the story of one of the Oppermanns’ employees who, like so many, is arrested and tortured.

Towards the end of the novel, after Hitler has become Chancellor, those Oppermanns, who survived, flee the country.

An omniscient narrator tells us the many stories, switching back and forth between the characters. A bit like in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, we get the feeling of being there, of reading a documentary, but the result is a more traditional novel with a plot.

Feuchtwanger deplored later that he wrote this without taking a step back. He felt this documentary aspect was a weakness of the novel. I don’t agree with him. I think this is exactly the reason why this book is so outstanding. It’s the first novel in which the Nazis and their ascent is criticized, in which the manipulations, the lies, the atrocities, the confiscations, the torture, the concentration camps are described in detail.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Feuchtwanger explores the different reactions to the Nazi’s rise. Many, especially cultured people, just couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a book that was as badly written as Mein Kampf could become Chancellor. Others just didn’t take the movement seriously because they thought they wouldn’t get in the line of fire, either because they were from old, rich and influential families or because they thought they were not important enough. Others, especially religious Jews, were planning on leaving for Palestine. I often wondered why not more left but I had no clue that not everyone was allowed in. Only those who could pay a certain amount, which wasn’t possible for everyone.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between race and religion. Reading this book, one becomes fully ware, that it was never really about religion but about race. Most of the characters in this book, probably like Feuchtwanger himself, were not religious. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as belonging to another race. They felt they were Germans just like anyone else. Germans first and then Jewish. Not the other way around. In a way, you could say that this self-image clouded their perception. They didn’t identify with being Jewish and therefore didn’t feel threatened.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote how prescient this book felt. But that is the perception of someone who reads this now and the longer I think about it, the more I feel, Feuchtwanger wasn’t so much prescient as just aware. Reading this, I really wonder why not more people saw it coming.

The Oppermanns is a very readable, entertaining book. The characterisations are wonderful. Feuchtwanger brings even minor characters to life and makes the reader care for them. The strength of the book however lies in its immediacy and documentary character. Reading it, one feels transported in time. And, for the first time, I understood, not only how early it all began, but why people didn’t or couldn’t react the way they should have. Some embraced Nazism, but many just couldn’t believe it. Not even when they saw or heard about the atrocities. Only when they or their loved ones experienced them first-hand did it fully sink in.

If you’re interested in the rise of Nazism or like a well-told family story, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s outstanding.

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Winner Announcement – German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

The following two of my readers have each won a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

TJ (My Bookstrings) and

Brian from Brian’s Babbling Books.

Congratulations, TJ and Brian. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Please send me your addresses via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com or via Twitter DM.

Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring this giveaway.

German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Today I have a special treat for fans of W.G Sebald, László Krasznahorkai, and the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring a giveaway of two copies of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

Hilbig was born in East Germany but emigrated to West Germany in 1985. He received all of Germany’s major literary prizes.

I was familiar with his name but had never picked up any of his books. As soon as I was contacted by Two Lines Press, I browsed a few of his books and was stunned. The imagery reminded me so much of a Tarkovsky movie. And Tarkovsky is one of my favourite film directors. Abandoned houses, desolate landscapes, solitary people. I was captivated.

If you’d like to read a great review of the book here’s a post by roughghosts and his review in The Quarterly Conversation.

Here’s what you can find on the website of the Center for the Art of Translation:

“[Wolfgang Hilbig] evokes the luminous prose of W. G. Sebald.” — The New York Times

What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies—possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone worthy of Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

PRAISE

“Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature.” — László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and author of Satantango and Seiobo There Below

“Out of the ugliness of history and the wasted landscape of his home, he has created stories of disconsolate beauty.” — The Wall Street Journal

“Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused.” — Electric Literature“

“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

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If you would like to win a copy of Hilbig’s novella, leave a comment, telling me why you’d like to read it.

The giveaway is US/Canada only. The winners will be announced on Wednesday November 22 2017, around 18:00 Central European time.

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The Giveaway is now Closed.

The Nameless Day – Der namenlose Tag by Friedrich Ani (2015) Jakob Franck Series I

Last May I read my first Friedrich Ani and was extremely impressed (here’s the review). I knew I would read another one of his novels before long. This time I chose the first in the Jakob Franck series, The Nameless DayDer namenlose Tag. The novel was published in Germany in 2015. The English translation will be published by Seagull Books next month. This is Ani’s fourth series. He also writes standalone novels.

Jakob Franck has been retired for two months. He’s lonely and can’t shake off the dead. They haunt and visit him. When he was still working, Franck used to be the bringer of bad news. Most other police men hated nothing more than telling people that a loved one had died in an accident or been murdered. Ani never thought about it. He did it and he was good at it. He knew how to calm people, knew how to say the right words or was just there for them without saying much. In one case, the suicide of a seventeen-year-old girl, he even held the dead girl’s mother for over seven hours without speaking.

Holding the relative of a dead person for seven hours was unusual, even for Jakob Franck, and so, even twenty years later, he has never forgotten the death of Esther Winther. Still, he’s surprised when the father of the dead girl contacts him. Esther had been found hanging from the branches of a tree. Why the secretive teenager had killed herself had never been found out. There were many rumours. Rumours of an affair with an older man, rumours of abuse, rumours of depression. The father never believed it was a suicide. He always suspected foul play. The mother, the woman Franck had held, killed herself exactly one year later.

Winther knows that Franck wasn’t the investigator at the time and he also knows that he isn’t working anymore, but because he knows that he’s a compassionate man, he hopes he’ll help him find out the truth, track down the murderer.

Franck embarks on a journey of darkness and loneliness. He goes through case files, interviews people, friends and relatives, travels from Munich to Berlin and finally applies his own special method of “Gedankenfühligleit” – which can best be described as some sort of sixth sense analysis. What he uncovers is a web of dark secrets and many lonely people who would do anything for attention and possibly love. Many of the people he meets remind Franck of his own loneliness and trigger profound feelings of empathy and compassion. The ending is surprising.

I liked this novel very much. Ani is the kind of writer even people who don’t normally read crime novels appreciate. His writing and his characters are unusual. He always tries to say things in a fresh, original way. Occasionally that goes wrong. There are a few wonky metaphors and expressions that were a bit odd, but at least the writing’s never tired, always fresh.

While I liked this book, I still found it could have benefitted from a few cuts and more editing. There are some repetitions. And while I love ghost stories, I didn’t feel like it was necessary or brought anything to the story that Franck talks to ghosts of dead people and sees them in his living room. There are only a few instances of those and they are meant to underline how emotional and empathic he is, nonetheless, the book would have been stronger without these element.

The biggest strength of the novel is the exploration of its main theme. There is more than one suicide or suspected suicide in this book, and so it’s fair to say, that suicide is the main theme of the novel. The book shows how devastating it is to lose someone this way, how hard it is to move on, especially when the reasons aren’t clear. And also how cruel it is when someone goes without forewarning. Ani describes both sides well— the side of the person who finally sees no other way and the side of those left behind.

If you like literary crime that uses innovative language, crime that explores the darker aspects of the human condition – suicide, loneliness, guilt, family secrets, resentment, hate -,  crime that’s very character-driven, then you’ll like Ani’s book.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.

Rave reviews of Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone caught my attention and I decided I had to read it. I’ve read two of her earlier novels, Cold Earth, a stunning ghost story, and Bodies of Light, a mesmerizing historical novel. I enjoyed them very much and was pretty certain I would love The Tidal Zone as well. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I liked it but didn’t love it. I’m not exactly sure, why I didn’t warm to this ambitious book. It offers so much. Meditations on life and death, gender, politics, family life, illness, the NHS . . . I could go on.

It’s the story of a family that almost unravels when the heart of the 15-year-old daughter, Miriam, stops. Miriam survives the episode but has to stay at the hospital for a long time as it’s not clear what brought on this reaction. She seems to suffer from some type of allergy. Adam, a stay-at-home dad, spends most of his time at her side, only occasionally replaced by his overworked wife, a doctor, who works for the NHS.

Many reviewers called this a “state of the nation” novel and that’s accurate. It definitely looks at the way people live in Britain now. Or rather, the way middle-class, white people live in England. Adam’s a bit of a failed academic and is working on writing something about the Coventry cathedral. The book alternates between reflections on the cathedral, which was, along with most of the city, destroyed during WWII. Like Miriam’s incident, the stories that are told in these parts are about human frailty and the unpredictability of life. But they also help to illustrate the family history as Adam’s Jewish dad was born in the US. The family fled Europe during the war.

Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm.

While I didn’t warm to this book, I enjoyed many of its parts. This is a family of intellectuals who seem to love a good argument. The descriptions of family life are often hilarious. Miriam’s a great, great character.

Here’s  her answer to her dad’s question whether she’ll go with him to Coventry cathedral:

It’ll take more than coloured glass and old music to make me sign up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions.

She’s bright, very political and engaged. She will never let anyone get away with bullshit. It was so refreshing to read their repartees.

She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?

Obviously, this isn’t your every day family as Adam’s a stay-at-home dad. While it does sound like hard work at times and he makes huge efforts to ensure that the family always has clean clothes, nourishing, healthy meals and that the house is clean and tidy, we never hear it mentioned that he struggles. I found that interesting because I can’t remember every reading a novel about a stay-at-home mum who also was an academic and tried to get work done and it sounded so harmonious. I wonder if that was a conscious choice and if so, why. I remember that the mothers in Sarah Moss’ earlier books struggled quite a bit with motherhood.

As you see, there’s a lot to love here. So why didn’t I warm to this? The book had the misfortune of reminding me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. None of the characters is even remotely as obnoxious as those in Saturday, still, there’s a similarity. Probably because the characters both occupy the same social territory. Or maybe I didn’t warm to this because Sarah Moss tried hard to show us another side of her talent. While the other novels I read were very atmospheric and spoke to the senses, this one speaks purely to the mind and – depending on the reader – to the emotions. Since I had no emotional reaction to this, it spoke only to my mind, which wasn’t enough for me to love it.