Category Archives: Fiction

Madonna in a Fur Coat: Sabahattin Ali

“All unions are based on falsehood.”

Madonna in a Fur Coat from Turkish author Sabahattin Ali, set partly in 1920s Berlin, is the story of a doomed love affair. The novel begins in Ankara when our narrator, a young unemployed bank clerk, meets an old classmate who offers him a job. Desperate, the young man swallows his pride and finds himself sharing an office with a German translator named Raif Efendi. Efendi is mild mannered, quiet and, in the eyes of the narrator, boring and uninteresting:

I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me, endlessly translating, unless he was reading the German novel he’d tucked away in his drawer. He was, I thought, too timid to ever dare to explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.

The narrator isn’t the only one to have a low opinion of Efendi. Efendi is treated badly by everyone in the office, and although Efendi is a good worker (managing to keep deadlines with frequent bouts of illness), even the boss picks him out for special ridicule, and then one day an incident occurs which causes the narrator to revise his opinion of Efendi.

From that day on, I took an intense interest in every thing Raif Efendi did, no matter how trivial or absurd. Eager to know more about his true identity, I seized every opportunity to speak to him.

Eventually the narrator is invited to Efendi’s home, but still Efendi’s secrets remain elusive. Just as Efendi is belittled and humiliated at work, he holds the same position at home, in spite of the fact that his wages support his large extended family. The narrator knows that there’s more to Efendi than meets the eye–there’s some deep sadness and yet Efendi seems somehow above the emotions of his humble circumstances.

Madonna in a Fur Coat

Part of the story is told through Efendi’s notebook, and this section takes us to 1920s Berlin when Efendi, as a young man, is sent by his wealthy father to learn the soap industry in Germany. Here Efendi, torn between duty and desire, meets and is bewitched by, Maria, the “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” a young artist who has very definite ideas about men and relationships.

This is a romantic story, and regular readers of this blog, know that I am not keen on romance. I struggled at times with two characters who seem determined to be miserable, but don’t let me put you off; I still appreciated the novel. Scrape away the doomed romance, and for this reader, the novel is about power. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, who’s in desperate need of a job, silently acknowledges that he must listen to his old friend wax on about his success as this is all a power play. Similarly, Efendi is a powerless person throughout the entire novel; he’s certainly not made of the sort of material we normally consider for a romantic hero. Efendi is ‘manhandled’ by his landlady and accepts whatever Maria demands

Artist/singer Maria sets the terms of her affair with Efendi from day one, telling him,

“This all ends the moment you want something from me. You can’t ask for anything … Anything-do you hear?” It was almost as if she were arguing with a faceless enemy, for now, as she continued, her voice was thick with anger. “Do you know why I hate you? You and every other man in the world? Because you ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right.”

It’s a painful affair with Efendi and Maria both feeling the lack of something they cannot define. Possession does not bring satisfaction but only distance:

How painful it is, after thinking that a woman has given us everything, to see that in truth she has given us nothing–to see that instead of having drawn her closer, she is farther away than ever!

In some ways Madonna in a Fur Coat reminded me of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. The novel was first published in Turkey in 1943.  Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) was killed trying to cross the Bulgarian border.

Review copy

Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

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Filed under Ali Sabahattin, Fiction

What You Did Not Tell: Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home is an exploration of his family’s lost past. The memoir opens with the death of the author’s father–an event which leads Mazower to dig through his father’s diaries. “I thought I knew my Dad well,” Mazower ruminates, “but the day he died I began to realize how much of his life was unknown to me. “ Thus begins the author’s journey which reaches back to his long-dead grandfather, Max, who died in 1952, 6 years before Mark Mazower’s birth. Ultimately this is a memoir that explores a family fractured by displacement and political upheaval–a family that was forced to transform, reinvent their lives and settle into a new, completely different social reality.

What you did not tell

The author’s research uncovers a remarkable history. Jewish Max Mazower, born in Grodno was a political activist in the Bund, an organizer working with a cover name. 1909 found Max living in exile, but he reemerged only to find employment with a British typewriter company. As a “continental manager,” he worked in Russia, but in 1919, Max was forced to escape St Petersburg when he was “tipped off” that arrest was imminent for the charge of espionage. Max had every reason to worry about his safety in Russia:

Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had run Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lódź. He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over, and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.

While part of the book is Max’s story, other chapters spread to other family members, including the author’s grandmother Frouma. One of the most fascinating sections concerns André, a child Max may or may not have fathered.

The story that had come down in the family was that when he was a baby, André had been brought by Max to London shortly before the First World War after André’s mother, Sofia, a fellow revolutionary, had died. In the absence of a birth, marriage, or death certificate, it was hard to be sure. Max had preserved an almost total silence about how or why this had come about, and he never mentioned the subject to Dad.

André reinvented himself several times and clearly saw his life in opposition to Max’s beliefs. The author recalls how his father was drawn, sometimes rather unhappily, into André’s life.  Another of my favourite sections concerns Max’s wife, Frouma and her child Ira from an earlier union.

While in many ways this book is a testament to the author’s love for his father, it spreads to an appreciation for other family members and the many hardships they endured. This is a very personal memoir, but it also offers a panoramic view of a world of revolutionaries, party affiliations, and countries in flux. Because the memoir is so personal the unknown fates of many relatives seem especially poignant. While Max built a new life for himself in England, one brother, Zachar, was in Vilna while another, Semyon, was in St Peterburg.

“Three brothers and three choices, or better-since choice does not feel quite right–three wagers on fate is how it might seem.”

Frouma had some relatives who survived occupied France while others survived in Russia, so while the fate of some relatives is known, others simply vanished. What conclusions can you come to when you realize that your relations were in a city that became a ghetto with all of the inhabitants carted off for death? Common sense leads to the obvious conclusion, and yet there’s no definitive knowledge. People just vanish. Relatives disappear forever, and the obvious conclusion just doesn’t seem enough. Reading the memoir brings the thought that  life is a very fragile thing. Max made the right choices at the right time; plus he was lucky while so many others were not.

Maps and photographs magnify this memoir, and of all the photographs included, for this reader, the most meaningful is the photo of the author with his father on Hampstead Heath. This photograph says a great deal about the man whose life was impacted, indirectly, by revolution, upheaval, uncertainty and danger.

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Filed under Mazower Mark, Non Fiction

After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Filed under Fiction, Mankell Henning

Three Floors Up: Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up from Israeli author Eshkol Nevo takes a look at the lives of three residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. The novel is split into three sections, each told by a first person narrator. While it may seem that the commonality here is proximity, gradually it becomes clear that all three narrators live on the fault lines of a fractured family. Each of the three characters are drawn, unwillingly, into moral dilemmas that will change their lives.

Three floors up

Arnon, a retired officer tells his tale to a writer, an old friend from the army. Arnon is married to lawyer Ayelet. There’s the sense that Arnon’s professional life hasn’t quite worked out as he planned, and he often recalls his time as a soldier. Tension exists and simmers in the marriage between Arnon and Ayelet. They have two daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. There are already indications that there were personality clashes between Ofri and her mother before Yaeli’s birth, but Yaeli’s ill health seals the divide in the family. Ayelet favours Yaeli, or at least Arnon sees it that way. Before long, the family unit is subtly divided into two, with Arnon and Ofri on one side and Ayelet and Yaeli on another.

Arnon and Ayelet are in the habit of leaving Ofri with their elderly neighbours, Ruth and Herman. Arnon has indications that perhaps this isn’t the greatest idea, but he goes ahead anyway, and when a crisis occurs, the fault lines in his family explode.

In every fight, there’s a moment when you say something you shouldn’t and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean? So that’s what happened. And what did I actually say to her? “If it was Yaeli, you wouldn’t be so calm.”

It isn’t a state secret, right? Just one of those little kinks that families have. Even in the bible, in the story of Jacob and Esau, it’s obvious that Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Esau was his father’s. The point is that it’s natural for a parent to prefer one child over the other. Even love him more. What isn’t natural-it turns out-is saying it out loud. Those little kinks are supposed to be transparent, invisible. But I just couldn’t control myself. She was sitting there in her prim lawyer’s outfit with her hair pulled back, talking to me in that patronizing way, like she was civilized and I was a savage. So I had to put her in her place. Every once in a while, you have to put them in their place.

The second narrative takes the form of a letter from housewife, Hani to her friend in America, Netta. Hani is known as “the widow” by her neighbours due to her husband’s continual absences. Hani, at home alone with the children, remarks to Netta that she married her husband thinking he would be a good father, but even when he’s home, he doesn’t get involved in family life.

Hani’s letter recalls the events that took place when her estranged brother-in-law showed up at her apartment. As a major embezzler, he’s on the run from the police, his former clients and even loan sharks.

The third narrative is told by a retired judge, Devora, whose husband, also a judge, died the year before. Devora’s tale is told by her to her dead husband, and she relates how she became involved in local demonstrations.

Of the three sections, Arnon’s is the strongest, possibly because we’re not quite sure how much is reality and how much is guilt. Plus an undercurrent of suppressed violence flows under his words, and this makes his side of things more complex (and epic as it turns out.)  Hani’s letter to Netta is also slippery, and the actions of her brother-in-law are highly suspect. Devora’s tale also presents a moral dilemma as she recalls a decision she and her husband made regarding their son.

The skill here is in the narrative, and the way each creates an intimacy with the reader, so that we become the listener to these confessions involving the most private moments. But even beyond that, as each story evolves, we ask ourselves what we would have done? What choices would we have made?

review copy

translated by Sondra Silverston

Marina Sofia also read and reviewed Three Floors Up

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Smile: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s novel Smile explores the disappointments of middle age through its first person narrator, Victor. When we are first introduced to 54-year-old Victor, he’s in Donnelly’s, a pub he’s decided is his local. We know right away that Victor’s life is in transition. Gradually, through Victor’s reminiscences and a bizarre relationship he strikes up with another pub denizen, we discover that he was married to TV personality Rachel, the founder of Meals on Heels. They met years earlier when they were both on their way up. She was a one-woman catering business, and Victor wrote for magazines, planning to write a book in the future.

SMile

Victor was “happy pretending to be Dublin’s Lester Bangs,” but we know that Victor’s life hasn’t gone the way he planned.  He’s no longer with Rachel. Although the details are vague, there’s the implicit idea that as a highly successful woman, she’s moved on, while Victor admits he’s “between things.”

I was used to being alone. I don’t think I felt lonely. I missed being married but I’m not sure that I missed Rachel. The aloneness was cleaner now. I wasn’t surrounded by her world. I didn’t have to hide. 

Victor spends a lot of time in denial: he’s not lonely (hopes to be included in male friendship at the pub), doesn’t miss Rachel (stalks her Facebook page), and thinks it would be “sad, a man of my age going back to some wrinkled version of his childhood. Looking for the girls he’d fancied forty years ago.” And yet he obsesses on the sister of fellow drinker, Fitzpatrick wondering what she’s like, if she still fancies him.

It’s a sad situation: where did Victor’s life go wrong? Why did his career never take off? Rather pathetically, he lives just a couple of miles away from his old primary school. He’s lost Rachel, their life together, the home they shared abroad. This is a life in transition, and where it’s headed looks bleak.

Buried underneath the narrative, there’s a strain of something peculiar. Victor tries to avoid Fitzgerald, an unpleasant man who claims to know him from the school they both attended which was run by priests. Victor has no memory of Fitzgerald, and yet Fitzgerald remembers Victor all too well, frequently bringing up incidents that Victor would prefer to remain buried:

-What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you? he said.

He patted the table.

-What was his fuckin’ name?

His shirt was pink and I could tell that it had cost a few quid. But there was something about it, or the way it sat on him; it hadn’t always been his.

-Murphy, he said.-Am I right?

-There were two Murphys, I said.

-Were there?

-History and French.

-Were they not the same cunt?

I shook my head.

-No.

-Jesus, he said.-I hate that. The memory. It’s like dropping bits of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?

The sad, lonely reminiscences of Victor as he spends nights at the pub are well done. Victor is accepted by a small circle of other men as long as he buys rounds, and these rejected middle-aged men perk up when the women in their 40s enter the pub. These wonderful scenes evoke the teenage equivalent–one side aware of the other but desperately appearing to be oblivious of the opposite sex. This time the game is minus impetuosity, minus energy–just imagine a deflated, wrinkled balloon.

So far so great, but the novel’s denouement was disappointing. The rug was pulled out and instead of a lonely middle-aged loser, we have something entirely different. I wouldn’t have minded the general idea, but in its entirety, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. Looking at other reviews, I seem to be in the minority opinion on this.

Review copy

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Filed under Doyle Roddy, Fiction

Verdict of Twelve: Raymond Postgate (1940)

Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve is an excellent, unusual book from the British Library Crime Classics series. The plot centres on a murder trial, but in essence the book takes a subversive look at the justice system and questions the entire jury process.

On trial for murder is Rosalie van Beer, a money-grubbing, cruel unpleasant woman who married into money and after various deaths in the family, she took over the guardianship of the family heir, an orphaned boy. Before the trial begins, and before we know the details of the crime of which she’s accused, we are introduced to the jury. As you’d expect, these twelve people come from various walks of life, and each person brings their own belief system and emotional baggage to the trial.

verdict of Twelve

These days, potential jurors are asked various questions: have you ever been the victim of a violent crime, etc, and while the jurors in this trial aren’t asked those questions (the book was published in 1940), nonetheless the prejudices and beliefs these fictional jurors possess impact their judgement.

For example, one juror, Miss Victoria Atkins,  murdered a relative for financial gain years earlier. Although she was a suspect she slipped the noose, so while we readers know that this act is in the back of her mind, we understand that it will influence her decision. Will she be more less or lenient towards another woman who is accused of the same type of crime? Another juror, is a Greek immigrant with a shady past, while another juror was left a widow after her husband was beaten to death by a handful of anti-Semitic yobos. Adding to the mix, there’s also a Socialist/Communist (he can’t quite decide whether or not to join the Communist Party, a Conservative, an actor, a travelling salesman, and a religious nutcase.

While it’s perhaps pushing credulity to add a murderer to the jury of a murder trial, it’s easy to see that the other 11 people are the types you might expect to find facing the accused. The novel’s structure shows how each juror approaches the crime and applies their experience, prejudices, and belief system to the case. One juror dislikes animals and so sees a slice of testimony in a different light from the others, and yet another juror “had been patiently assembling as far as he could a Marxist interpretation of the evidence.” That said, the big question is: will justice prevail?

With only two women on the jury, it was interesting to see that they were harder on the accused (I read somewhere that this is true). The two women catch details about the accused that the men miss:

They saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in black, with a white collar. The women noticed that her nails were not coloured, but had nail polish on them. The hands were rather fattish and had not done housework for many years.

Verdict of Twelve offers an intriguing approach to a crime novel and has a phenomenal ending.

Note: animals do not fare well in this book.

review copy.

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

Review copy

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To The Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm

I’ve read a number of novels this year which explored the stress of married life: juggling bills, childcare, commuting, and Swiss author Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond slots into those earlier reads. This is the story of a seemingly happily married man who one day simply …. walks away.

To the back of Beyond

The book begins with married couple, Thomas and Astrid putting their children Konrad and Ella to bed. It’s mid-August and they’ve just returned from holiday. Astrid and Thomas are enjoying a glass of wine in the garden when Astrid goes to soothe Konrad. Thomas is left alone. He imagines the house was hot and stuffy in their absence, and then his thoughts turn to Astrid:

Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes She carried the dirty things down to the utility room in the basement and put the clean ones away in the closet in the bedroom; the kids’ things she folded neatly and left in a pile on the stairs to carry up tomorrow. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps and listened to a few quiet sounds from upstairs, the children getting comfortable in their newly made beds, in thoughts or dreams they were still at the beach, or maybe already back in school.

Thomas folds up his newspaper, walks out of the garden and out into the town. From there he slips into the woods and disappears from Astrid’s life.

Part of this short book follows Thomas while other sections follow Astrid as she tries to adjust to his absence, initially covering for him at work, until she can no longer hide the reality of Thomas’s absence.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to the book. The author very quickly establishes the idea of how life goes on in our absence: for example, the house still exists when Thomas and Astrid are on holiday, so when Thomas leaves, Astrid and his children carry on both in reality and in his imagination.

When Astrid realized that Thomas wasn’t lying beside her, she would suppose he was already up, even though she invariably got up first. She would go upstairs half asleep and wake the children and go downstairs again. Then minutes later, freshly showered and in her robe, she would emerge from the bathroom and call the children who were bound to be still in bed.

There’s a whole ‘Sliding Doors‘ membrane over this subtle tale: did Thomas really leave Astrid or is he imagining a life without her? When we know someone, a life, a routine well enough, we can predict that person’s day, is that what Thomas does? Does he play with the idea of leaving or does he actually go? When does a marriage condense down to a routine? There’s nothing more real than a routine; schedules and routine can so easily replace living. What’s real here and what is fantasy? But this is not just male fantasy (and what happens to Thomas could certainly be construed as male fantasy,) there’s also fantasy taking place in Astrid’s mind. But then again, is this just Thomas’s ego-centric wish-fulfillment of the faithful little woman longing for her absent husband’s return? This is for the reader to decide.

Review copy

Translated by Michael Hofmann

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Filed under Fiction, Stamm Peter

City Folk and Country Folk: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk was a pleasant, unexpected surprise. Published in 1863, this gentle satire, play-like in its presentation, is a far cry from the usual 19th century Russian novel. The story takes place in 1862, a year after the Emancipation of the serfs. A note in the novel explains “the ensuing reforms required the landowners and peasants to agree which lands the former would make available for purchase to the latter. Until this arrangement was finalized, peasants were considered ‘temporarily obligated’; and continued to pay their landowners (in money or in kind) whatever they had been paying as serfs.” 

The plot is simple: Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a man in his 40s who has ruined his health with his hard living, wants to holiday abroad and “take the waters” for his rheumatism, but short of funds. he decides instead, and especially in light of reforms, to spend the summer at his country estate, Beryozovka. When he arrives, he finds the place a wreck. Taking a walk, he stumbles across the well-ordered, much smaller, Sneki estate which belongs to Nastasya Ivanovna, a fifty-five-year old widow, “mistress of fifty souls,” who lives with her 17-year-old daughter, Olenka. Erast, who has pleasant childhood memories of Sneki, decides to ask if he can spend the summer there.

He was of modest height, stooped, and had a sunken chest; his long face had sunken cheeks and thin lips; he had thick sideburns and very sparse hair on his forehead, as well as bony hands with almost transparent skin, and eyes that were a bit dull, although they appeared to be very large due to the thin skin of the eyelids and pale forehead. Nastasya Ivanovna was not aware that many find a certain beauty in this sort of semi-decrepitude, as the loss of freshness in a man attends the formation of what is called une physionomie. She failed to realize how highly valued and how highly Ovcharov himself valued it. Ovcharov believed that he had une physionomie de penseur and would not have exchanged it for any other. 

Erast, the owner of 500 souls, is socially, much higher class than Nastasya Ivanovna, and his request to stay at Sneki, is socially awkward for the widow. She does not have a spare bedroom, as she already has a surprise guest in the form of her second cousin, a fossilized spinster, the pious, well-respected but nosy and nasty, Anna Ilinishna Bobova.

city folk and country folk

Erast asks to stay in the newly constructed bathhouse, and while the widow accepts him as a guest, he insists on paying especially for the whey he demands daily for his health. An awkward dance of politeness then takes place between the widow and Erast, but finally a deal is struck. The widow is incredibly stressed by this but Erast is happy. The novel then follows the events of the summer:

new currents of education had blown through in a gust, that same education that is wafting from every corner of our native land; second, her home had been the site of a struggle between old and new ideas, and Nastasya Ivanovna had taken part in this struggle and, without realizing it, had even achieved a victory; and third, to her own amazement and the envy of the ladies of the neighboring small estates, she had come within a hair’s breadth of developing into an enlightened woman herself. 

While the novel’s initial premise is Erast’s insistence of becoming a guest at Sneki and the widow’s subsequent dilemma (is she a host or a hotel keeper?), the novel spins on class, and this is where the city vs country fits in. The country widow is lower in the class system than Erast, and yet his home is in such a state of disrepair, he cannot stay there. Instead he relies on the widow who runs a well-ordered estate (even if Erast looks down on the decor). There are two other Muscovites who look down their noses at the widow and yet view her as a resource for whatever they need: Anna and Katerina Petrovna. While in reality Katerina is impoverished, her social position places her above the widow and the widow’s daughter, Olenka.

When Katerina who has become a matchmaker, decides, for convenience, to make  a match between her impoverished lover, Semyon, a man she calls “mon protegé” and Olenka, she expects everything to go smoothly. The novel’s humour is definitely directed towards the three Muscovites who descend upon Sneki. These three represent the respectable pillars of Moscow society with Erast as the intellectual, Anna almost an institution of religious respectability, and Katerina, the matron who arranges marriages but can’t keep her own house in order. Katerina is a neglectful mother whose children are so ill-fed, they get food from the peasants, and son George can be found singing vaudeville songs. The ‘pious’ Anna is in reality, spiteful, manipulative and cunning. There’s plenty to find amusing in Erast, a man who thinks rather highly of himself, and while he’s a perfect example of the neglectful owner of a country estate, he amuses himself  with writing poems, sketches, reviews and rants about the state of the country:

It is time, however, that we-those of rank, the decrepit aristocrats-realized that we won’t be around much longer. Very soon, we will die off. I’ll put it bluntly: there is no need for the upper crust to go on. 

City Folk and Country Folk is a 19th century Russian novel of manners. If you’ve read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novels , then you are used to complex, multi-plot novels with many characters who wrestle with massive moral dilemmas. City Folk and Country Folk is completely different. The novel, which is gently comic, has very few characters, and feels like a play. Characters enter and exit in very specific scene sets.

The author, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, is one of three sisters who were Russian writers. Sofia died at age 41 of abdominal tuberculosis

Review copy

Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

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A Justified Bitch: H. G. McKinnis

The crime novel, A Justified Bitch from H.G. McKinnis is set in Las Vegas. It’s not a cozy, and it’s not dark and gory. Instead, it’s a look at mental illness and how two very different sisters are swept up into a murder case.

a Justified Bitch

Helen Taylor, a widow, who makes a marginal living at a local swap meet, lives in a quiet Las Vegas neighbourhood. Helen has mental health issues which started after the climbing accident that killed her husband, Bobby. Now Helen lives alone in squalid conditions, and she shares her hoarder home with innumerable cats. Helen still ‘talks’ to Bobby, and in spite of her unkempt, dirty appearance, Helen manages, barely, to function. Helen’s life comes crashing to a halt when her prostitute neighbour, Bebe, is murdered right next door.

The police think that Helen holds the clue to the identity of the murderer, but can’t get a sensible word out of her.

She wished she could remember what happened, but as usual, when she absolutely needed to recall something, it hid away inside the cracks and fissures of her brain.

Helen’s functioning sister, Pat, arrives from Arizona to help Helen, and what was supposed to be a short few days stay, turns into something else. Pat is horrified by Helen’s condition and so with the help of her teenage son, Jordan and Helen’s son Marc (who has lived with his Aunt Pat for years), they clean out Helen’s house while Helen stays at a mental health facility. But when Helen goes AWOL, another body turns up….

I liked the Vegas setting, and the ambiance of Helen’s neighbourhood where the dress code was “worn and tatty.”

The Las Vegas heat shimmered off the patched asphalt, giving an opaque and eerie quality to the air. Sitting on her porch, Helen stared into the afternoon sky, rocking and humming quietly. The corner lot gave her an exceptional view of the neighborhood. Through the wire-enclosed backyards, she had an unobstructed view of the cluttered expanse all the way to the next corner. In the opposite direction, long-abandoned treasures lay baking in the sun: old cars. worn-out furniture, and less-well-defined objects–maybe toys, maybe tools–all of them showing signs of exposure to the harsh desert environment. 

Across the street, beyond a car tagged with an orange tow-away sticker, she tried to decipher the hieroglyphics of the new graffiti spray-painted across the front of the Sanchez house. No message there. 

While I was initially annoyed by the whole Helen-talking-to-her-dead-husband thing, I warmed to Pat and the dilemma she faced when she came to Vegas. Helen was not going to be an easy, quick fix, and the author nailed Pat’s situation, and the difficult choices she had to make.  Yes, it’s a murder mystery, but it’s clouded and complicated by mental illness. The title seems a misnomer, but it is attention grabbing.

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Filed under Fiction, McKinnis H. G.