My Name is Lucy Barton: Elizabeth Strout

A woman in a hospital in New York turns from the window to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. Over the next five days they talk, remembering people they both knew and reestablishing forgotten connections. Then as abruptly as she came, the mother leaves.

The book is narrated by the daughter, Lucy Barton, a writer trying to find her voice. This is a book that does not spill all its secrets: mother and daughter find it hard to express their love for each other but they do not need to—they know. Lucy has obviously had a difficult childhood: her family were very poor, and her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from the war. There is some trauma in Lucy’s own childhood but we never find out what it is, just that it exists.

Lucy has made her life in New York with a husband and two children. She doesn’t go back home and hardly speaks to her family. Until one day when she finds her mother sitting by her bed, bringing with her memories of the past.

Reading this is like listening to Lucy’s thoughts moving back and forth in time. Sarah Payne, a writer who taught her, tells her that we all have one story that we tell in different ways. And that is what this book is really about: our memories, both the ones we return to and those we keep firmly locked away, the stories we tell and how we tell them.

My Name is Lucy Barton is beautifully written, with a deep understanding of how people deal with emotional pain. Elizabeth Strout has a way of using language to capture moments, whether it is a feeling or a physical scene. Lucy remarks how once in a while, she hears a child cry, not from tiredness but “with the deepest of desperation”, as she did when she was a child. “I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you can hear outside in the open air—when the conditions were exactly right—the corn growing in the fields of my youth.” I love the thought that a breaking heart or growing corn has a sound.

This book is a pleasure to read, both because of quality of the language and its insights into people. Strout doesn’t strike a false note. The story is moving without ever becoming sentimental; a clear-eyed look at how we deal—or don’t—with all the baggage we carry. The hurts of childhood run deep: “I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

I’ll end with a description about night falling in the cornfields which, like the best photographs, encapsulates a mood: “the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the cover crops already turned, the sky lingering, lingering and then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.”

Women travellers tell their stories

Think of all the travel books that you have read: how many of them are written by men? Almost all? And yet women have been travelling and writing about it for as long as men. As a reviewer for the website, Women on the Road, I have spent the last few years reading these books. And it has been a delight to discover their rich variety. Some women take off on solo adventures, while others travel with friends or partners; some explore far-flung places and others focus on where they live.

I would like introduce you to some of my favourites. They cover the five continents and are in a variety of styles. What the books have in common is that they go off the beaten track and try to capture the soul of a place.

Almost all the links lead to my reviews on Women on the Road. It’s been hard to pick just a few (I whittled them down to a baker’s dozen) but I hope this list will tempt you to not only read the ones I have recommended but to actively look for travel books by women.

Note: The reviews on Women on the Road are split according to regions. I have highlighted one book per page and listed a few more that can be found on the same page, indicating where they are relative to the highlighted book.

A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
This is one of my favourite kinds of books (you will find a few more like this on this list): an intrepid woman travelling on her own. In this case, Antonia Bolingbroke bikes the Ho Chi Minh trail, combining her experiences with its history. She follows the trail through Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, navigating through jungles and unexploded bombs.

Also on this page (scroll down for the first two; A Revolutionary Ride is at the top of the page)
Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
Pisani crosses the breadth of this country of 13,466 islands. She speaks the language and is therefore able to communicate with the people, even in remote areas.

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
This book is an attempt to understand Papua New Guinea, a country that is not a typical travel destination. Salak visits its interior, walking through almost impenetrable jungles and not letting trivial things like fever get in the way.

A Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran by Lois Pryce
Pryce rides her motorcycle from Iran’s border with Turkey to Shiraz during a time of tense relations between the UK and Iran. As a woman travelling alone in Iran, she worries about her reception but finds the people welcoming and supportive (except for the Revolutionary Guard, who are less impressed with her feat).

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter. After her father’s assassination, Saro-Wiwa swears that she will never go back to Nigeria, a promise she keeps for several years. Then she decides to give the country another chance and spends five months there, taking in the ancient Nok sculptures (1000 BC­–500 AD), meeting Nollywood directors and talking to ordinary Nigerians. A portrait of a country from someone who is an insider and an outsider at the same time (something many expats will identify with).

Also on this page (scroll up):
All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World by Zora O’Neill
O’Neill journeys to Egypt, the Gulf states, Lebanon and Morocco to practice her Arabic and understand their culture and customs. This is not just a travelogue but a linguistic journey and a glimpse into an ancient region that is now in flux.

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles
Coles moves to Venice with her husband and three children and writes about what it means to live in a major tourist destination. How do Venetians cope with the vast numbers of people trooping through their city? Funny and insightful.

Also on this page (scroll down):
Forward: Letters Written on a Trip around the World by Lina Boegli
Published in 1905, this is a collection of letters written by a Swiss woman, Lina Boegli, to her friend during her 10-year sojourn through Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii (an independent country at the time) and the United States. To support herself, Boegli works as she travels. It is inspiring to know that women had been doing this over a century ago.

Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Davidson—yet another intrepid woman—crosses Australia with her dog and three camels (actually four camels: one of them is pregnant). Everything you want to know about camels but were afraid to ask. I love her descriptions of the desert and her encounters with the Aborigines.

Also on this page (scroll down):
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler
Wheeler goes to Antarctica partly out of curiosity and partly to explore a “landscape of the mind”: a place that is desolate that you are forced to face yourself. Fascinating portrait of a region with no native people and scarcely any wildlife.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed loses her mother and as a way of coping with her grief and facing down her demons, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit with more determination than experience. She loses toenails and a hiking boot but makes it through—both physically and emotionally—with her trusty rucksack, Monster.

Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico by Isabella Tree
In this book, Tree brings together the country’s past and present, looking for the “hidden Mexico”. She visits floating gardens in Mexico City, participates in a peyote ceremony in Chiapas and finds a feisty matriarchal society in Juchitan.

Also on this page (scroll up):
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
And now for something completely different: this is not a travelogue in the strict sense, but a new way of looking at a city. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of New Orleans, ranging from carnival routes to where slave pens used to be, and the best places to eat oysters. Each chapter is accompanied by an attractive map. Beautifully produced, this book builds a multifaceted picture of the city.

Photo from Pxhere.com

City on Fire: Garth Risk Hallberg

An ambitious debut, City on Fire paints a portrait of New York in the 60s and 70s, following a group of people as they try to make (or unmake) their lives in the city.

The book begins during Christmas 1976/New Year 1977. It is the time of punk and there is revolution in the air. Mercer is a young black man come up from Alabama to take up a job as a teacher, hoping to break free of his family down South. His lover, William Hamilton-Sweeney, is an artist, also known as Billy Three Sticks when he played in Ex Post Facto, a punk rock band. The Hamilton-Sweeneys are among the richest families in New York, but William has broken with them, including with his beloved sister Regan. His band has been taken over by the appropriately named Nicky Chaos, who becomes obsessed by William. Sam, a young photographer, is a fan of Ex Post Facto and produces her own magazine (zine), which is part diary and part music review.  Charlie, a boy in high school, is in love with Sam and trying to come to terms with his father’s death. Richard Gosford is a veteran journalist writing a story on Sam’s father, a pyrotechnician (fireworks maker, simply put). Deputy Inspector Pulaski is investigating the shooting with which the first part of the book ends. And behind so much of the story is the master manipulator, the Demon Brother, Amory Gould—the brother of Felicia Gould, William and Regan’s stepmother—who is working slowly and surely to take over the Hamilton-Sweeney empire. Although, for me, it is the two creative spirits, Sam and William, who are at the heart of this book.

I will not try to summarize the plot: this is a sprawling book, teeming with characters and plotlines, many of which crisscross each other. The two defining moments are the shooting in the early hours of 1 January 1977 and the New York blackout in July that year. But the story ranges much wider than that: it keeps looping back in time, going over the 1960s and 1970s, stopping for “interludes”—a letter from William’s father, Richard’s article, Sam’s zines—and looping back again, with occasional glimpses into the 2000s as a “where are they now” device. The layering builds up the characters and their stories, sometimes narrating the same incident from different perspectives. This is a novel that sucks you into its world.

And the panorama is huge: from gatherings of the rich to junkies, from punk rock bands to the art world, from pyrotechnics to the corporate world, gay, straight, anarchists, corporate manipulators: you have it all. In its scope, it feels almost Dickensian, doing for New York what Dickens did for London, the city a character in its own right.

Garth Risk Hallberg writes well—some of his writing is like photography, capturing a moment in time. Regan in her father’s study: “At sunset, the south-westerly light, unobstructed by any higher building between here and the river, poured through the jewelbox windows. It has made her feel like a passenger on the Titanic: the vessel was doomed, but the memory would be extravagant.” And I love the way Hallberg describes people: Amory tries to persuade Keith, Regan’s husband, to join the family firm. “Amory’s gestures grew somewhat quantitative, like the gestures of a man trying to purchase fabric in a language he doesn’t speak. The Quanto costa gesture, the No, I couldn’t possibly, the Lachesis gesture of measuring something out to have it cut off. … Keith nodded, like a bird following a bit of waved seed.”

As a debut book, this is impressive. It really captures the 60s and 70s in New York, the social mores and what it must have felt like. The book’s weakness is that it is way too long. There were times I got a impatient with the level of detail, which is really not necessary. Pared down, it would have been a more powerful book.

Listening to the Writer’s Voice

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writer's voiceI’m looking at close to half an hour of standing over the stove, staring into a pot as I stir, maybe stepping away for a few seconds at a time to check on this or that, open the refrigerator and put something away, or just look out the window. I block out the impatient honks from the main road and the rushing motorbikes going way too fast for the narrow streets in my residential area. I put on my newly acquired air pods and flip through my list of podcasts. I really don’t feel like the news, or even news-spinoffs right now. Nor am I in the frame of mind for smart social science. I just want to be told a good old story.

And even better if the story is told by the one who made it all up.

The Writer’s Voice, a podcast from The New Yorker features new fiction read aloud by authors. Curated by the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, the series is a little over two years old, and now offers a cache of 95 audio stories, with a new reading added every week.

I’ve often caught stories on the podcast that I had passed over in the magazine, or have listened to stories that I had already encountered on the page, and both experiences have been interesting. A story in the June 25, 2018 issue of the magazine, “The Luck of Kokura” for instance, did not grab me in the first few sentences, but I chose to listen to the author,  Gary Shteyngart, reading it for the podcast, and where the I had been unable to turn the page of the printed magazine, I did keep my ear–and my mind–on the reading. Maybe it’s a commitment one makes to listening, especially when it’s the writer’s voice calling, or maybe it is just that one is in any case not doing anything else with the time (remember, I am in the kitchen staring at simmering sambar), but I was fascinated by Shteyngart’s account of a hedge fund manager gone rogue, a sort of between-the-lines psychological study of this peculiar demographic I’ve never been able to understand: Young, Ivy-League educated, highly driven, materially-invested number-crunchers on Wall Street. A story that I had enjoyed in the magazine, “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (October 3, 2017), came alive in a different way when I listened to Bynum’s reading, making me feel the father’s yearning to be part of his tween daughter’s world, looking for clues to it on her Instagram feed and on the drive to physiotherapy after ballet class. And of course, who would not want to hear old favourites like Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri read their work, rendered doubly lyrical by word and voice?

Of course, authors are not always the best readers, and a well-written story can become a little less than it is when rendered in an unremarkable voice (there’s a reason why Books on Tape gets actors to read!). But most readers would be willing to cut the writer some slack in this regard–and in some ways, it makes the author something of a “regular person”.

If truth be told, I’ve never been one for audiobooks. I had always assumed that listening would never quite be the same as reading, firmly believing that my seeing eye soaked in more meaning than my hearing ear ever could, that writing needed to be pored over for its elegance and power to really be felt. And yes, give me a book to hold any day over a pair of earbuds and a listening device–there is a definite pleasure in letting one’s eyes travel over a page full of well-written prose. But The Writer’s Voice gives me stories in spaces where I would otherwise not find them, and lets me bring stories into places that otherwise become tedious to occupy–like my car on an hour-long commute.

 

Paper Towns: John Green

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. … My miracle was this: in all the houses of all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

The book is narrated by Quentin Jacobsen, a 17-year-old close to finishing high school in Orlando, Florida. Quentin is a little in love with the free-spirited girl next door. The difference between the two is demonstrated by an incident when they were children. They come across a dead man by a tree. Quentin is horrified, wants to run back and inform the adults, but Margo moves to the corpse to have a closer look. That night she climbs into Quentin’s room through the window. She has been doing a bit of detecting and tells Quentin that the man committed suicide. “Maybe all the strings inside him broke”, she says.

In high school, they drift apart. Quentin is still fascinated by Margo, but she has other friends—Becca and Lacey—and is dating a guy called Jason, while Quentin hangs out with the guys in the band, Ben and Radar. Until one night when Margo taps on his window, talks him into “borrowing” his mother’s car and takes him off on a night’s adventure. She is out for revenge and a bit of fun: Jason has been cheating on her with Becca. The night involves dead fish, paint, Vaseline, and breaking into SeaWorld in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning, Quentin cannot wait to get to school and see Margo. But she does not show up, either that day or the next. Margo has run away from home before, leaving clues to her whereabouts—she does not get on with her parents. Although her parents dismiss her disappearance as an attention-grabbing tactic, they eventually call the police.

But Margo is battling her own demons and is more fragile than any of them realize. Looking down at Orlando on that eventful night, Margo calls it a paper town: “All those paper people in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. … Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All things paper-thin and paper-frail.” In an echo of what she said about the dead man all those years ago, she says of Jason’s and Becca’s betrayal, “It was the last string. It was a lame string, for sure, but it was the only one I had left, and every paper girl needs at least one string, right?”

This image of strings being cut, leaving children adrift, runs through the book. Detective Otis Warren, who is investigating Margo’s disappearance, tells Quentin about kids like Margo: “These kids, they’re like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and they strain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. … Once that string gets cut, kid, you can’t uncut it.”

Quentin is convinced that, this time, instead of leaving clues for her parents, she has left them for him. With a bit of help from Ben, Radar and Lacey, he tries to decipher them, and the trail leads them on a road trip in search of Margo.

The book is really about finding someone you love—not just physically but in the sense of really seeing them for who they are. Quentin only starts to see Margo as a real person after she has been gone for a while. He had idolized her for so long that he only saw the daring, larger-than-life person he had created. Everyone had their own version of Margo, and none of them encompassed the complexity of the whole person. But the search for Margo brings Quentin closer to understanding her—and himself. At the end of the book, he says: “I could see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”

I loved this book. I have to say I grinned through the first couple of chapters. Margo dominates the book although she is only there for a short time—she is present in her absence, so to speak. It takes you back to what it was to be 17 again, when the world was open with possibilities. John Green mixes the humour, the ups and downs of being a teenager with insights on how we relate to one another.

Des ailes au loin: Jadd Hilal

Loosely translated as Away on Wings, this is a story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life. For the moment, it is available only in French, but there is a good chance that it will be translated into English.

The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of four women in Jadd Hilal’s family: his grandmother, Naïma, his mother, Ema, his sister, Dara, and his niece, Lila. (Disclosure: Jadd Hilal’s sister is my colleague, Zeina Hilal.) The book moves between the women, who narrate their lives. Their journeys weave back and forth over Western Asia and Europe. Through the voices of these four strong women, Hilal builds up a picture of how wars and insecurity reverberate on the lives of ordinary people.

The story begins in Haifa, the then capital of Palestine, with Naïma as a young girl. In 1937, she narrowly escapes being killed when the Haganah bomb a marketplace, and her family leave for Shefa Amr in the north. When she is 10, a young man, Jahid, comes to their house and asks for her hand, and by the time Naïma is 12, she is married.

During the civil war in Palestine in 1947, Naïma and Jahid were forced to leave Palestine, so they move to Baalbek in Lebanon—not to the historic city she had imagined, but a refugee camp on its outskirts. Jahid gets a job at UNESCO, Naima is pregnant and the growing family stays on in the city. Until they move again, this time to Damascus. Their daughter, Ema, does not want to leave (like her daughter Dara many years later). For her, airports are “places from where people leave when they stop caring… where the others, with chains of their feet, watch them”. [1]

The family move back to Lebanon. Ema goes to the University of Beirut and marries Zahi, a fellow student, to escape her father’s domination. In June 1982, the war comes to Lebanon. Ema is by now working with the ILO and Zahi with ESCWA (the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and they have two children, Dara and Majid. When ESCWA moves its offices from Beirut to Baghdad, the family moves too. But as soon as she can, Ema returns with her children. It is not for long. In 1983, civil war breaks out in the country, and Ema and the children have to leave again, this time for Geneva, the ILO’s headquarters. Dara does not want to leave—she sees leaving as abandonment, much like her mother did.

Dara’s years in Europe only make her more determined to return to Lebanon. At 18, she returns and marries Lotfi, a mason. For some years, she lives a simple and contented life in a village with her husband and children, Lila and Riad. Then in 2006, the Hezbollah capture Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliates with bombs. It is no longer safe, and Dara manages to escape with her children, heading back to Geneva.

Hilal’s writing is lyrical, and brings the women to life: Ema, caught between home and university, without a space to be herself. “I lead two lives,” she says, “but not one in which I feel I can breathe freely.” Dara, with a strong maternal instinct to compensate for her own mother; Lila, annoyed that she won’t be listened to until she is an adult when she has so much to say. And Naïma, dealing with the grief in her life: “I am used to pain. … Suffering becomes a shadow. It lengthens. … But it is always there, waiting for an image, a smell or a taste to show itself.”

The book ends with a sense of calm, of journeys winding down. But the new generation is getting ready to take off. Lila was a child when the bomb that killed the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri went off. But that is not what she remembers from that day. It is seeing three birds flying out into the distance and thinking that if she closed her eyes tight she would find, on opening them:

“I will find myself flying.
“I will have the one thing that no one else has.
“I will have wings.”

[1] The translations are mine.

The Golden House: Salman Rushdie

The 2000 elections in the US are underway. A man and his three adult sons move to New York from an unnamed city in an unnamed country. Armed with new, classical names—Julius Nero Golden and his sons Petronicus or Petya, Lucius Apuleius or Apu (a nod to his origins) and Dionysus or D.—they decide to rid themselves of any connection with their past. Or, at least Nero does, and his word is law. When asked by his youngest son what they should say when asked where they are from, Nero says, “Tell them we are snakes who shed our skin. … Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters…. Do not tell them the name of the place we left. Never speak it. Not the street, not the city, not the country. I do not want to hear those names again.”

The family settles down in the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, or the Gardens, “a place of happy retreat from the disenchanted fearful world beyond its borders”. The book is narrated by one of their neighbours, René, a young budding film director. Through him, we get to know the Goldens: Petya, who has Aspergers and is terrified of going outside; the artistic Apu, a man about town; and D. who is going through a gender identity crisis. And Vasilisa, a beautiful young Russian woman, who comes into Nero’s life, moving in and slowly taking over, playing her game with the skill and patience of a chess master. René thinks that they would be a good subject for a mockumentary and makes it a point to get close to them. Before long, he is drawn into their make-believe narrative and their tangled lives.

But the past seeps in through the cracks, and the family starts to unravel. The place of which they never speak is India, and the unnamed city Mumbai. Ostensibly, the Goldens left because Nero’s wife was killed in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. The truth is a lot more complicated, as Apu finds out when he goes back looking for his roots.

The story of the family plays out against the backdrop of the twists and turns of American political life, from the Obama years to the beginning of the Trump administration. Trump is the Joker, ushering in a time when “knowledge was ignorance, up was down and the right person to hold the nuclear codes was the green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”.

Rushdie creates a rich world teeming with characters: Ubah, the Somali artist with whom both Apu and Petya fall in love; Murray Lett, an Australian hypnotist with a bouffant hairstyle who comes to help Petya deal with his fears; Riya, the young woman who helps D. figure out his identity; and U Lnu Fnu, the Burmese diplomat who lets René use his flat to access the Gardens after René moves out. I love Rushdie’s way with words. When Petya tries to go outside, he panics and ends up in a police cell. “Only Nero’s arrival in a large, grave, apologetic limousine saved the day.”

My quibbles with the book are that it takes a while to get started, and there are way too many references to film, which can get a little distracting. But it’s a great story and well worth reading.

Rushdie’s main preoccupation here is identity, whether it is D. trying to understand who he really is, Nero trying to shed his skin or Vasilisa forging a new life for herself. Or for that matter, America itself, swinging from a president who embodied certain values to another who made nonsense of them. But in the end, you cannot escape your past: it is never dead—merely dormant, waiting for an opportunity to strike. And in the case of the Goldens, that is exactly what happens.

No sweet song, this

book coverLullaby by Leila Slimani

Translated from the French Chanson Douce (2016) by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2018)

I encountered Leila Slimani and her work in the New York Times Review of Books, months before the English translation came to market. My fingers raced across the keyboard to Amazon, only to find I had to wait four months before copies would become available, and for the first time ever (okay, outside of pre-ordering the Harry Potter books for my daughter) I placed an order and held my breath.

The opening sentence, which plays on the book jacket above the title, and repeated in multiple reviews in multiple papers around the world, is a bare, unadorned statement.

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

So you have the grisly end to the story, which is the beginning of an exploration of the multiple complexities that structure our lives and the dynamics that ensue when people from different worlds come together. A young couple, intelligent, ambitious, and aware in the manner of the urbane liberal middle class, wish to hire a nanny to care for their two children when the mother, a brilliant lawyer, goes back to work after a baby break. “No illegal immigrants, agreed?….to look after the little ones, it’s too dangerous.” Says Myriam to her husband, Paul, as they stage their small apartment to convey an assurance they barely feel, to receive the applicants for the post. “She is awaiting this nanny as if she is the Savior.”

Louise is perfect (the title of the North American edition is The Perfect Nanny), with a face “like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” She brings the much-needed order to their household, coaxing the children into good behaviour and rustling up delectable home-cooked meals that win the work-worn hearts of the parents who return from their demanding jobs, tired and grateful. Most importantly, she gives them back their time with each other, allowing them to rediscover an intimacy they had lost to parenthood.

But Louise’s own life is cold and empty, one of rejection, deprivation, and a million broken dreams and as she fills it, more and more, with the lives of Miriyam’s children, Mila and Adam,  “The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.”

Lullaby is a thriller told in reverse, a deliberate forensic examination of how something comes to be. The deliberate distance maintained by the narration, as if you are watching it all unfold through a six-inch thick pane of glass, in slow motion, makes it all the more powerful. Slimani takes us deep into the emotional labyrinth of motherhood, where it is not all sacrifice and smiles, but also resentment, rage, regret, confusion. She carefully dissects the hypocrisies of class difference, complicated as it is these days with carefully hidden attitudes to race, ethnicity and gender. She explores what it means to nurture children that are not your own, who unhesitatingly betray your love by running into a parent’s arms the moment you set them down. Miriyam and Paul love Louise, but they are also a little frightened of her, and at times, hate that they are reminded that they have so much, and she, so little. After all, they live in a fashionable part of Paris, a neighbourhood where people “offer friendly greetings even if they don’t know each other” while Louise escapes every day from a bare one-room apartment to fulfil Miriyam’s “guiltily nursed” fantasies of an idyllic family life.

We know how it all ends, but the fascination with the question of why keeps one reading. Apart from the central characters—Louise, Miriyam, Paul and the children—there are others, bit players in this drama that shapes people, shapes events.

Slimani’s style is one of short, sometimes even brusque, sentences that allow the scene to unfold, but don’t let you linger. The novel moves forward in tension-filled bursts, told almost entirely in present tense, giving the reader the sense that you can’t tarry or you might be left behind as the narrative moves relentlessly towards its end.

It’s no surprise that the novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016. It is nothing like your regular whodunit; after all, we know who did it right from the start.

Are book reviews important?

Book reviewsGiven the content of this blog, it’s pretty clear where I stand on this. But there are writers who question the point of a book review and can be scathing about reviewers.

In this article in The New Statesman, Chris Power defends the point of the review.

“Reviews don’t matter. ‘I never really trust reviews,’ said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. … When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’.

“Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes ‘book reviews, not books’ as ‘the principal engines of change in the history of thought’; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign? …

“Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points.”

Read the full article, What’s the point of book reviews?.

Photo: Thad Zajdowicz

Recognizing the Talent of the Translator: The Subtle Art of Translating

From time to time, this blog showcases books in translation to tempt readers to explore writing from countries that do not always make it to the bestseller lists. But we often overlook the work of the translator, who has not only to be fluent in two languages but has to be able to write. The fact that we read books written in other languages is not simply because they have been rendered into another language (English, in this case) but also because the translation does justice to the original.

Rachel Cooke in this article for The Guardian, says that the quality of the translation is paramount.

“Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.”

Read the full article on The Guardian website. Cooke’s article is followed by short pieces by translators of some well-known foreign writers.