Levels of Life: Julian Barnes

“You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”

This book is about coming together and moving apart, of soaring to the sky and slipping into the underworld. It begins with balloonists in the late 19th century, then moves on to a love affair between two of the balloonists before leading to the heart of the book: the death of the author’s wife.

Ballooning was dangerous but liberating, a way of breaking free from constraints, both physical and social. It was, however, a freedom that was subservient to the weather, to the direction and force of the wind, and could easily end in disaster. You could be floating in the sky one moment and flung down to earth the next, knee-deep in a rose bed.

The title of the first chapter, The Sin of Height, has echoes of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun which melted the wax on his wings. As the book begins, in Britain and France in the mid- to late 1800s, people are taking to the skies in hot air balloons. The author focuses on three of these balloonists: Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards in Britain, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and photographer Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, in France.

All the characters in this book are real. Nadar, one of the early portrait photographers, also combines photography and aeronautics. Unlike his contemporaries, he is more interested in “the vertical” than the horizontal. Even his portraits attempt to plumb the psychological depths of his sitters, which is what makes them so memorable. But images can be formed in other, more ephemeral, ways: such as when Burnaby and his companions in their hot air balloon notice that the sun is projecting their shadows onto a cloud, like a “colossal photograph”.

We come down to earth in the second chapter, On the Level, which is about the affair between Sarah Bernhardt and Fred Burnaby. Bernhardt has conquered the stage in spite of being too small, too pale and too thin (she claims to be able to “slip between raindrops without getting wet”). She is Jewish in an anti-Semitic country and also a bohemian, which appals the puritans. Burnaby is a well-travelled man with no time for conventions. The affair between these two misfits in their worlds feels inevitable and natural—until it ends when Bernhardt moves on to another lover. Burnaby is heartbroken but cannot be angry with her. After all, she had always been honest with him: “on the level”. He eventually marries someone else but never gets over losing Sarah Bernhardt.

This takes us to the third chapter, The Loss of Depth, which is the crux of the book. We are now in the subterranean depths of grief: the loss of love, but in a more final and devastating way. After 30 years of being happily married, Barnes’s wife dies. And this is what the book has been leading up to—the unbearable pain at the loss of a loved one. This chapter is hard to read at times because it is so close to the bone, especially if you have been through the death of someone dear to you.

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure how the author was going to lead up to his wife’s death. But it all fits together. The images of height and depth run through the book: “Life’s sonar is broken and you can no longer tell how deep the seabed lies.” Plummeting several hundred feet when a balloon collapses is not so different from the shock of losing a loved one. (I’m sorry, Julian Barnes, I know you hate the use of the word loss to describe death.)

This gem of a book is an elegant and beautiful tribute to Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh. I’d like to end with a line from the last chapter. Barnes goes back to the image of the three balloonists created by the sun: “And so it is with our life: so clear, so sure, until, for one reason or another—the balloon moves, the cloud disperses, the sun changes angle—the image is lost forever, available only to memory, turned into anecdote.”

Under Milk Wood: Dylan Thomas

“To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Thus begins one of my favourite books, a book of magical writing. It is a play for voices about a day in the life of Llagergub, a Welsh fishing village. Nothing much happens in terms of plot but it is buzzing with life, with people’s dreams and desires, with village gossip and children’s games. When it starts, the villagers are asleep, and the first narrator (there are two) takes the reader through the village. “It is night… in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.”

You are then introduced to the characters through their dreams, and each one of them is memorable. The old blind sea captain, Captain Cat, dreams of his long-drowned mates (“Dancing Williams. Still dancing”) and the one love of his life “that was sardined with women”, Rosie Probert. Myfawny Price “dressmaker and sweetshop keeper” dreams of her lover Mog Edwards. The couple write passionate letters to each other (duly steamed open by the mailman’s wife) but never meet, although they live in the same village. Then there is Butcher Beynon, who dreams of “sneaking up on corgis with my little cleaver”; Polly Garter with babies from several men (“Nothing grows in our garden but washing. And babies.”); Dai Bread the baker with two wives, “one for the daytime, one for the night”; and Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, a twice-widowed guesthouse owner obsessed with hygiene, who won’t rent a room to a man because he might “sneeze on her china”. And then there is the Reverend Eli Jenkins, whose sermons are poems about the village he loves.

The magic is in the writing. Dylan Thomas used to agonize over every word, and you can see the result. Nothing is out of place. He is a master of language and uses it to immerse you, through all your senses, in whatever is going on. Take his use of sound and rhythm: the slow lilt of the night; the busyness of the day with “the clipclop of horses on the sun-honeyed cobbles of the humming streets”; the languid afternoon when the “sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town”; and the winding down of the day. When he describes old photographs as “the dickey-bird watching pictures of the dead”, you know exactly what he is talking about. I love the way he catches the women gossiping, with malice and humour in equal measure:

“Seen Mrs Butcher Beynon?”
“She said Butcher Beynon put dogs in the mincer.”
“Go on, he’s pulling her leg.”
“Now don’t you dare tell her that, there’s a dear.”
“Or she’ll think he’s trying to pull it off and eat it.”

My decades-old love of Under Milk Wood began when, as a teenager, I found the recording in my father’s collection. I had no idea what it was about, and it took me a while to get into—I kept waiting for a plot to develop. But repeated listening paid off, in which I was helped by my then boyfriend (and now my husband), a big admirer of Dylan Thomas. (I still joke that he dated me only because he found out that I had the record!) And the story doesn’t stop there but continues to the next generation. My nephew staged a memorable performance of the play at his university.

Under Milk Wood is funny, sly—Llagergub spells “Bugger all” backwards—and moving. And all these years later, when I hear or read the opening line, “To begin at the beginning”, I feel I’m being transported to a familiar and well-loved place that I will never tire of.

I cannot separate the book from the recording. If you have the time, I recommend buying the CD or downloading the recording (the 1954 one with Richard Burton playing First Narrator—please don’t see the film). I promise you won’t regret it.

Best books of 2017

Photo by Caio Resende from Pexels

I asked people what they enjoyed reading most in 2017. Their combined list is below, and the variety bears testament to their wide range of interests.

The books listed under fiction are about refugees, women power, slavery, dictators, relationships between women and between families, and a take on Sherlock Holmes. The authors are from around the globe: USA, Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria, UK, Finland, Italy, Japan and Australia.

Under non-fiction, books cover issues such as atrocities against Native Americans, the Roman empire, big data, the influence of media, travelling on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and animals such as the octopus, pig and human beings.

Some people picked series of books, which are listed at the end of the fiction list. Links, for the most part, are to reviews on this blog.

I hope you find books here that will make it to your reading list of 2018. If you want to add yours to this list or just want to share your list for 2017, add a comment to this post.

Here’s to another year of reading good books!

Contributions by David Dunkley, Jenifer Freedman, Jo Grin-Yates, Kristine Goulding, Orsolya Tóth, Usha Raman and Suroor Alikhan


4 3 2 1—Paul Auster (2017)

Exit West—Mohsin Hamid (2017)

IQ—Joe Ide (2017)

Little Fires Everywhere—Celeste Ng (2017)

Three Daughters of Eve—Elif Shafak (2017)

The Power—Naomi Alderman (2016)

Children of Earth and Sky—Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

The Underground Railroad—Colson Whitehead (2016)

The Dictator’s Last Night—Yasmina Khadra (La dernière nuit du Raïs) (2015)

Vanessa and her Sister—Priya Parmar (2015)

The Mountain Shadow—Gregory David Roberts (2015)

Station Eleven—Emily St John Mandel (2015)

Levels of Life—Julian Barnes (2014)

Everything I Didn’t Tell You—Celeste Ng (2014)

The Summer Book—Tove Jansson (2008)

Cloudstreet—Tim Winton (2002)

Plainsong—Kent Haruf (2000)

The Neapolitan Quartet—Elena Ferrante (2012­­–2015) (Review of My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series)

The Shardlake series—C.J. Sansom (2003­­–2008) (Note: there are two more books in this series. The dates cover the first four that I read. Review of Dark Fire, the second in the series.)

The Tom Thorne series—Mark Billingham (2001­­–2013)



Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI—David Grann (2017)

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire—Kyle Harper (2017)

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World—Catherine Nixey (2017)

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States—James C. Scott (2017)

The New Paris: The People, Places and Ideas Fueling a Movement —Lindsey Tramuta (2017)

A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle—Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2016)

The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data—Michael Patrick Lynch (2016)

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness—Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

The Well-Tempered City: Jonathan F.P. Rose (2016)

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig—Mark Essig (2015)

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch—Nick Davies (2014)

Sapiens—Yuval Hariri (2014)

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What You’ve Lost in a World of Constant Communication—Michael Harris (2014)

The Arrival of the Fittest: Andreas Wagner (2014)

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster—Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Keeping company with ghosts


Today is Christmas Eve: the perfect time for pulling our chairs closer to the fire, virtually speaking, and telling stories about ghosts.

Ghosts have fascinated me ever since I was a child and was on the lookout for beautiful churels (female ghosts or demons) who lure away wandering children. (You could tell them by their feet—they were the wrong way around.) As a nine-year-old in Chile, travelling with my parents on a boat from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, I used to scan the moonlit sea for a glimpse of a phantom ship that was said to spirit away fishermen sleeping in their boats.

Then there were my mother’s close encounters with ghosts—my mother, who was one of the most unsuperstitious people I’ve known. As a young couple, my parents lived briefly with my grandfather in an old house that belonged to the Indian Railways in Hyderabad. My mother said she had a constant feeling of being watched. She heard inexplicable sounds like a drunken Englishman singing or even, once, maniacal laughter. Four decades later, my parents were in the area on their way to dinner with some friends and drove past the old house. It had been abandoned—the garden was overgrown, the paint was peeling and the windows shattered. They mentioned it to their host, who said “Oh, the haunted house? No one wants to live in it. An English officer committed suicide there, and they say his spirit haunts the house.” The officer had killed himself in the room my parents were staying in.

My fascination with the spectral didn’t disappear as I grew up—quite the opposite. So when I found Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, I couldn’t resist it. Apart from writing for children, Dahl has written several very disturbing stories for adults. I was curious to see which stories he would pick.

In his introduction, Dahl says that he read hundreds of ghost stories but dismissed most of them as badly written and not spooky enough. According to him, the 14 stories collected here were the best he found. This is just the kind of statement that sets an editor up for a fall—saying these are his favourites is one thing, but saying they are the only good ones is, in my opinion, rubbish. I can’t believe he dismissed the master of ghost stories, MR James, Dicken’s The Signalman and so many more (for example, Susan Hill, whose novella The Woman in Black is terrifying).

What I enjoyed about this collection was that I hadn’t read most of these stories. And that’s saying something! As in any collection, the quality varies. There are some excellent ones: W.S. by LP Hartley, about why writers should think very carefully about what they write; Harry by Rosemary Timperley, about a child and her brother; Edith Wharton’s Afterward about a man whose sins catch up with him; and The Ghost of a Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu, which is downright creepy. But equally, there are a few that aren’t very spooky and quite ordinary, which is why I took issue with Dahl’s sweeping statement.

But Dahl’s persnicketiness has resulted in exposing readers to tales that don’t often make it to standard collections of ghost stories, and for that alone, this book is worth a read.

An evening (or two, or many) with the Bloomsbury Group: Vanessa and her sister by Priya Parmar

E M Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, and most importantly, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf… a bunch of undeniably privileged, smart social and cultural radicals who gathered over pastries and coffee most evenings in [what is now] Central London to discuss art, literature and life, and of course, to gossip. You are invited into that small circle, become privy to the conversations, the flirtations, the intellectual repartee and the creative energies that flow through those evenings. You get to feel the thrill, with these insiders, of reading through drafts of “Morgan’s new novel” even as you realise that it is Howards End that is being discussed. You feel the blustery winds and blue skies of the Cornish summer as you walk those paths with the Stephens women–Vanessa and Virginia–and can discern the origins of To the Lighthouse. 

Vanessa and her Sister is a fictionalised account of the early days of the Bloomsbury Group as told through in the voice of painter Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen), Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Her account reveals the tensions and the joys of the relationship between the sisters: Vanessa the sensible, grounded older sibling and the mercurial and brilliant Virginia, who veers dangerously and inescapably between sanity and madness. The intense equation between the two, marked by Vanessa’s protectiveness and Virginia’s possessiveness, is disrupted when Vanessa marries Clive Bell. Virginia, fiercely resentful of what she sees as her sister’s betrayal, begins to drive a wedge into the marriage by flirting and then successfully hijacking Clive’s affections.  Although the affair is never consummated and eventually peters out, it leads Vanessa to gradually become free not only of her marriage but also her sister’s demands. She recognizes that “Marriage is a binding, blending thing that runs on a low-burning fuel of habit and faith. Love, on the other hand, is unanchored and lissom in its fragility.” And unanchored from this marriage that has become nothing more than habit, Vanessa finds love in and with others, and of course, in her own art.

Vanessa and Virginia are no ordinary sisters; they are the heart and soul of this bright set, hosting evenings that attract some of the brightest minds of the time. Vanessa’s diary, therefore, not only takes us on a personal journey but one that gives us an intimate sense of an intellectual moment that produced some remarkable literature and art. Interspersed with Vanessa’s diary entries are letters (many from actual archives) and telegrams from members of the Group. From Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf (who eventually marries Virginia), from Virginia to her friend Victoria, and several intriguing notes from art critic Roger Fry to his mother. There are mentions of liaisons with Bertrand Russell and interactions with Gertrude Stein and J P Morgan, and the emergence of a post-impressionist artistic sensibility. And in the middle of all this, Vanessa makes her art and Virginia, her writing.

Priya Parmar’s book is a work of great affection and attention to detail. Walking the fine line between fact and imagination, she paints a picture that is vivid and thoughtful, in prose that speaks lightly yet with an artistry that makes you want to re-read sentences. She says, in her author’s note: “It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. For me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind.”

She has found that room and has used it well.

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch—Nick Davies

“If you shut up truth and bury it in the ground, it will grow and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through, it will blow up everything in its way.” Emile Zola

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The first sign of trouble was a report in 2007 about the hacking of the telephones of three people working in Buckingham Palace. Four years later, the avalanche started by that seemingly insignificant story buried major figures in media, politics and policing. Nick Davies was the Guardian reporter at the heart of the exposé, and this is his account of how it happened. His book lays bare the extent of the power wielded by one man over British politics—a man who was not elected but who happened to own the biggest media conglomerate, News International. And given the time we are living in now, where fake news plays a significant role in shaping politics, this is a book worth reading.

It is a riveting tale—and sickening. Sickening in the way News Internationalist’s publications, especially the tabloids like the News of the World—the publication at the heart of the scandal—used any means to get a story, legality be damned. That is nothing new, but what made it different was that the News of the World journalists were accessing people’s phones and voice mails and then using quotes from those voice mails to write their stories. And this with the full knowledge of the editors.

Parallel to the phone-hacking scandal was the bid by Murdoch to buy the remaining share in the satellite TV channel BSkyB. News International already owned 39% of the channel, and Murdoch wanted to buy the remaining 61%. There were regulatory problems with the bid, which was the only thing Murdoch really cared about. He and his associates dismissed the hacking scandal, saying that the two had nothing to do with each other. They could not have been more wrong.

Initially, when the first story about the hacking came out, it was dismissed as the work of a rogue reporter at the News of the World. But Davies pursued it and uncovered a rot that went through the paper and touched those at the top, including the editor Andy Coulson whom David Cameroon appointed as his communications director (Coulson later resigned because of the phone-hacking scandal). But the most worrying thing about these revelations was just how much power News International had—many politicians cosied up to Rupert Murdoch and his associates, including his son James and Rebekah Brooks, who became editor of News of the World after Coulson. After all, they could make or break the politicians’ careers. That’s why the BBC had its funding cut—it was the only serious contender to BSkyB. Murdoch pushed, and Cameron did his bidding.

This cozy relationship between Murdoch and top politicians goes back all the way to Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, she helped Murdoch buy The Times and The Sunday Times by not referring his bid to the regulator, the Monopolies Commission, which would have blocked it. In return, Mudoch’s papers supported Thatcher.

How the story developed from something minor to an earth-shattering revelation that resulted in the Leveson Inquiry is riveting. The Guardian was the only paper that pursued the lead. The rest of Fleet Street either kept quiet or poured scorn on the paper, even when Davies found evidence of a massive cover-up by the Metropolitan Police. The turning point was the revelation that the phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, was hacked. This provoked public outrage and led to the closing of News of the World and the defeat of the BSkyB bid.

Davies alternates chapters about the investigation itself with chapters giving the background, building up to the hacking scandal. I liked this because there is only so much of the power play and low behaviour I could stomach at one go. Davies uses special words for some of this behaviour: blagging (calling up companies pretending to be staff to get information) and monstering (destroying someone by publishing stories that are a mix of lies and stolen personal details). He paints a grim picture: anything goes, as long as you get the story. “In the newsroom without boundaries, there was one thing which was not tolerated: failure.” The book encapsulates the worst—and the best—of journalism.

There is victory at the end—sort of. But eventually, time passes and things go back to normal. Davies’s conclusion is sobering: “For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.”

The Sad Part Was: Prabda Yoon, translated by Mui Poopoksakul

A man is intrigued by the spaces between the words a schoolgirl is writing in her diary, a couple discover a corpse on the roof crushed under the fallen letters from a neon sign, a group of men meet to mark the death of the woman they loved with alcohol and chillies, and a she-vampire and her son go missing.

These are some of the odd situations and people you meet in this collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, a Thai writer. His protagonists are young people, and the stories have a strangeness to them that is intriguing. They tend to end inconclusively. And this refusal to have tidy endings works—I found myself thinking of the characters, wondering how they ended up.

Yoon plays with concepts and punctuation. The story about the schoolgirl is clarified in the note from the translator at the end—in Thai, there are no spaces between words, so the words have meanings of their own but also form compound words that mean something different. The protagonist sees the girl writing on a bus and tries to understand why she leaves so much space between her words, providing “breathing room, so each letter can inhale and exhale comfortably”. Here Yoon’s humour comes through: the man asks the girl why she writes like that and before she can answer, tells her what he thinks (yet another example of mansplaining!) until she misses her bus stop. And every time he meets her on the bus, he does the same thing, so he never actually finds out why she does it, but she knows all about his theories. In a post-modern story, Marut, a character created by Yoon, is scathing about the writer who is gave the character life.

I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this collection, but I did. It’s different—the world Yoon creates is just a little off-centre, making it interesting and unusual. The book is published by Tilted Axis Press, which publishes books that might not otherwise be translated into English, so if you’re looking to widen your reading, geographically speaking, have a look at the website. It’s not a huge selection, but has some interesting titles.

Cloudstreet: Tim Winton

“The door opened. A dozen cramped smells blew in their faces: lilac water, rot, things they didn’t recognize. Sam found a switch and a long, wide hallway suddenly jumped at them.”

Meet the central character in this book—the old house at 1, Cloud Street, in Perth. The house is almost alive: “a big, sad, two-storey affair in a garden full of fruit trees” with “iron lace in front and a bullnosed veranda. Some floors sloped and others were lumpy and singsong as you walked on them.” It can accommodate 20 people (but has only one bathroom).

1, Cloud Street, was left to the Pickles, Sam and Dolly and their children Rose, Ted and Chub, by Dolly’s brother. But the Pickles need an income so the Lambs—Lester and Oriel and their children, Fish, Quick, Elaine, Lon, Hat and Red—move in, renting half of Cloudstreet. “It’s gunna sound like a counter lunch—Lamb and Pickles, ”says Sam.

The book begins with disaster (what Sam calls “the shifty shadow”) striking both families. Sam loses four fingers on his right hand in a fishing accident. The Lambs are picnicking by the river, when the irrepressible Fish jumps in and almost drowns. He is never the same again, growing into a man-boy.

The two couples are very different. Sam and Dolly don’t do much about the bad luck that dogs them—neither of them is good with money, which doesn’t help. Sam is a compulsive gambler, spending his weekends at the race track, and Dolly is an alcoholic. It’s ironic that Sam finally gets a job at the mint.

The Lambs, on the other hand, see bad luck as something that can be beaten with hard work. They’ve barely moved in when Oriel sets up a grocery story on the ground floor of their half of the house. She is a force of nature, and the grocery store thrives, seeing off any competitors that dare to set up near her.

And the river runs through the story. Many life-changing moments, happy and sad—like Fish’s near drowning—happen on the river. But, for me, the river is in the fabric of the book. It is in Tim Winton’s writing, which echoes it: exuberant and unstoppable at times, and slow and gentle at others. The book hums with life, as the characters grow up, grow old, fight, leave, return and finally come to a sort of reconciliation.

Winton draws characters you care about, although with 13 of them, some are bound to be relegated to the sidelines. But Fish, Rose and Quick and their parents are vivid—I almost felt I knew them. Winton also throws in a touch of the otherworldly, which add to the rich tapestry he weaves—a mysterious and silent aborigine man appears at key moments; Fish has long conversations with the pig in the yard; a strange old woman is sometimes seen in the house; and no one can explain why one of the rooms smells of rotting meat. The house has its secrets and its ghosts.

Cloudstreet is about very different people learning to live together (and not always succeeding). Some of it is based on people from Winton’s family: his grand-uncle had a butchered hand, his grandmother lived in a tent in the yard (like Oriel), and there really was “a racehorse with a brief tenure in smallgoods haulage” (one of Sam’s crazy schemes). Winton wrote the book to keep alive the memory of a certain place and time, especially in today’s rapidly changing world. And he has succeeded. 1 Cloudstreet and its residents will live on. This is not the usual family saga: it is an unusual book, both in the way it’s written and the story itself. I loved it.

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey—Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

How much do you need to know about the writer to be able to enjoy their books? Nothing at all, according to Elena Ferrante, author of the Nepolitan Quartet and other books. She writes under a pseudonym and refuses to reveal her identity, insisting that her books can speak for themselves. The media hates a mystery and has turned this into a circus, with an Italian journalist claiming to have tracked down the real Elena Ferrante. Rumour even had it that she was really a man—how could a mere woman write these brilliant books? But while journalists fretted over her identity, people kept reading her books: the sales figures speak for themselves.

In this book, she reveals something of the woman behind the books. This frantumaglia (a jumble of fragments) is a collection of her interviews over the years—always by email—and her correspondence with film directors.

The interviews form the bulk of the book. Journalists keep asking her why she conceals her identity, wouldn’t it be better if she didn’t, what does she hope to achieve by it and so on, ad nauseam. I found the repetitiveness annoying and could only imagine how frustrating it must be for her. But Ferrante is very clear: once the book has been sent off to the publisher, it’s done. “I would like to think that, once my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey. … I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by a success of the written page.”

But there are rewards for those—both journalists and directors—who engage directly with her writing. This is where she shines, describing how a story comes into being and takes shape. Ferrante is a perfectionist—until she is entirely satisfied, her writing stays private. This means that she has written more than she has published. Good writing, she believes, should say “the unsayable”, tackling issues that are often swept under the carpet. She has no time for “correct” stories, especially by women: “Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside…than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds”.

The interviews are wide-ranging, and I cannot really do justice to them in this short piece. Ferrante speaks perceptively about Berlusconi (this was when he was Prime Minister), and how and why people engage with politicians like him—an issue that is still relevant today with the rise of populists. She discusses psychoanalysis and women writers, and her difficult relationship with her mother. The often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme she keeps coming back to in her books.

Because her responses to questions are in writing, the portrait that comes through is not filtered through the eyes of another person, and you get the full force of her writing. Here is Ferrante describing her mother, a seamstress, work: “The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body”. Not very different from what a writer does.

Elena Ferrante comes across as fiercely individualistic, thoughtful and eloquent—all the characteristics that make her novels such a pleasure to read. I read this book cover to cover, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to read it. As I said earlier, some of it can be a bit repetitive because journalists tend to ask similar questions. And some of it can feel a bit long when you haven’t read the book she is referring to. But she is a pleasure to read, and I would recommend this book especially to writers.

To end with the big question: how much does a reader need to know about the writer to enjoy a book? I think Ferrante is right: good writing does not need the author to promote it. After all, we can’t really “know” an author—all we get are a few fragments of their lives upon which we build our image of them. So why do we need to know anything at all? I remember reading Wilfrid Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est for the first time when I was 15. The power Owen’s words stunned me, although I had never heard of him. Nothing I’ve learned about him since has changed the way I feel about that poem.

Any thoughts?


The Glass Palace: Amitav Ghosh

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

“The Glass Palace” is, for me, a beautiful title for a novel. I love the image it creates of fragility, beauty, brilliance, and utter vulnerability. For years I have reached for Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, and until a few days ago, the sweep of the history it promised daunted me. I know how meticulous and learned Ghosh is as a historian, a landscapist, and a documentalist from reading his Sea of Poppies, Hungry Tides, and In an Antique Land. Much of the action in The Glass Palace is set in Burma, a land about which I know very, very little. I wondered if I could enter Ghosh’s immense erudition, encumbered as I am by my bottomless ignorance.

Well, what do you know? Ghosh’s protagonist –who is only 11 years old, alone, a stranger in Mandalay—took me through the tragic history of Burma’s last monarch, King Thebaw, and gave me a visceral sense of that precarious moment when beauty is about to be destroyed and stillness is about to be shattered. The hostile roads, the terrified crowds, the hitherto unattainable palace interiors, the crunch of British boots on crystalline gems, and the impending ruin of the golden land imprinted themselves in unforgettable images in my mind, thanks to Rajkumar, the urchin through whose eyes I saw it all.

Ghosh’s novel is at its best when it draws character portraits, speaks of love, loss, and pain, and puts you in places where you can touch the tendrils on vines and smell the sap on a tree. The man’s genius for evoking atmosphere is only a part of his gift. His extensive historical documentation underpins the story he tells, letting you experience through the lives of fictional characters the impact of events that changed an entire culture.

When I was reading the middle parts of the novel, I felt that my total engagement with its narrative flow and its plot was loosening. As Ghosh got more and more involved in describing social changes through technological curiosities and novelties, I got less and less interested in learning about the cars, the cameras, and the aircrafts that he documented with (for me) needless detail. It felt almost like he might have wanted to insert photos of those mechanical marvels, whose timelines conveyed what I thought was at best a tangential story.

The last sections of the novel galloped through times, places, and destinies. In one particular instance, Ghosh definitely wielded a pen that was clearly mightier than any sword. He quickly killed off characters, who were suddenly unessential to the storyline. In spite of that, this last section was profoundly affecting and I thought that is the mark of an accomplished story-teller, who can hold you in thrall even if he is madly upping the pace.

Reading this novel is highly rewarding, but I found it to be uneven in its literary quality after the first half. But so what? “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius is supposed to have said.

The Glass Palace shines and glitters, inviting in its allure. I have refrained from outlining the plot because the publisher’s blurbs do that very well. It offers riches to keep you riveted. There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s adventure, and there’s a whole world that can absorb you for days of binge-reading. For me, a book like that is always a sure bet.