Ali Smith: There But For The

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s There But For The. This is another original novel from Ali Smith, telling the tale of Miles Garth, who is invited to a posh dinner party in Greenwich (London) and subsequently locks himself in the spare bedroom, refusing to come out or to talk to anyone about it. We follow the stories of four people who had tangential connections to him but no-one seems to know him well. We also follow the publicity his actions generate and how people cash on his temporary celebrity. Hovering around it all is Brooke, a ten year old neighbour who tells terrible jokes, learns facts from the Internet and seems to be more of a voice of reason than any of the adults. It is clever, witty (and satirical) and most original.

Sayaka Murata: ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman). Murata did and, apparently, still does work in a convenience store. Keiko Furukura has never quite understand social norms since she was a child. When starting university she sees a new convenience store opening up and applies for the job. At the beginning of this novel she has worked there for eighteen years. She has found her place, her life governed by the convenience store and its manual of behaviour. She is very happy, knows her job well and does not want to change. To her parents’ chagrin she has never had a boyfriend, let alone a husband. Then Shiraha turns up to work at the store, looking as much for a wife as for a job. Murata tells her story very sympathetically, showing that finding your niche, even if it as a lowly as convenience store worker, is what matters, particularly if you do not fit in with the way society thinks you should fit in.

Yūko Tsushima: 光の領分 (Territory of Light)

The latest addition to my website is Yūko Tsushima‘s 光の領分 (Territory of Light). Tsushima was the daughter of the writer Osamu Dazai who killed himself when she was one. This novel tells the story of a woman, whom we know only by her married name, who, at the start of the novel has left her husband. She has found a flat on the fourth floor of a Tokyo former office building which gives her a lot of light and, during the course of the novel, she lives there with her two year old daughter. She has various problems, including her controlling husband who has no job, difficulties with the flat, difficulties with her daughter who is temperamental, attempts by friends to make her reconcile with her husband (who is living with another woman) and generally cooping with life as a single mother. It is not a happy novel.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile)

The latest addition to my website is Scholastique Mukasonga‘s Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile). The novel tells the story of an elite girls’ school in the highlands of Rwanda. We follow some of the individual girls and teachers, as well as the various events at the school. In particular, the school is located not far from the source of the Nile and there is a black Madonna overlooking the site, to which the school makes an annual pilgrimage. However, this is the period when the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is breaking out and one girl, Gloriosa, daughter of a powerful father, helps foment the conflict in the school, even as it is starting up elsewhere in the country. As the school has both Hutu and Tutsi girls, things become very unpleasant. One of the girls is based on Mukasonga herself, who had to flee the country, while many of her family members were killed.

Mieko Kawakami: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich)

The latest addition to my website is Mieko Kawakami‘s ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich). This is a charming novel about a ten year old boy, an only child whose father died when he was four, who is struggling with growing up. He takes a fancy to a woman he nicknames Ms Ice Sandwich, who works at the sandwich bar in the local supermarket, though he is too shy to speak to her, except to order a sandwich (which he often does not eat). It is a girl of his own age – nicknamed Tutti Frutti – who does more to introduce him to the opposite sex, when she invites him to her house to watch her father’s DVD collection and, in particular, Heat, with its frequent shoot-outs, which appeal to Tutti Frutti. Haruki Murakami praised Kawakami but while I found this novel a pleasant read, I cannot share Murakami’s enthusiasm.

Ali Smith: Hotel World

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Hotel World. This tells the stories of five women all associated in some way with the Global Hotel, located in an unspecified UK city. The story starts with the ghost of a chambermaid who was killed on the second day on the job when she got into the dumb waiter, which could not hold her weight. We also meet a homeless woman begging outside the hotel, a receptionist, a guest and the younger sister of the dead woman. All have issues, none seem happy and none seem to have any friend and none seem to be in romantic relationship. Their interactions and their struggles with life, told in a fairly post-modernist manner, are superbly portrayed by Ali Smith in this novel.

Triveni: ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Triveni‘s ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman). Triveni was a feminist Indian writer, writing in Kannada. This was one of only two of her novels published in English and was written shortly before she died in childbirth. It tells the story of Kaveri, a good-looking and intelligent woman who marries Satish, a good-looking and intelligent man. Initially, they have a very happy marriage. After the birth of her second son, she has a nervous breakdown and spends two years in a mental hospital. On her return, her children barely know her and she is rejected by her husband and most other people. Anything she does that seems slightly untoward (e.g. picking up a knife to peel some fruit) is seen as evidence that she is still mad, though she feels that she has fully recovered. It is a feminist novel but also a plea for better understanding of mental illness. It was made into a successful film in India.

Nora Ikstena: Mātes piens (Soviet Milk)

The latest addition to my website is Nora Ikstena‘s Mātes piens (Soviet Milk). This is a superb novel about three generation of women in Latvia, struggling with the oppressive Soviet system. The narrator, who shares a birth date with the author, struggles with a mother who is a brilliant doctor but a depressive and less than brilliant mother (there is no father), who declines to breastfeed her daughter. We follow the stories of other women who suffer, often being persuaded to abort by their husbands or needing assistance to become pregnant (the mother essentially invents IVF) but all too many people, the mother included, come up against the Soviet system and its controls. The Latvian title translates as Mother’s Milk and both titles give some idea of what this book is about.

Virginia Woolf and St Ives

This weekend we eventually got round to visiting St Ives to see Virginia Woolf An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings at the Tate. Before discussing the exhibition, a few words about Virginia Woolf and St Ives.

Godrevy Lighthouse

The Stephen family (Virginia Woolf’s parents, her brother and sister and herself) spent their summer holidays there, in Talland House, from 1881 to 1895 (Virginia was born in 1882 and she spent her first summer there.) It had a profound influence on her work as well as on the work of her sister, Vanessa Bell, who was a painter. The house has long since been converted into flats (you can read about that here). The house and, in particular Godrevy Lighthouse, were to play a role in her work, particularly in To the Lighthouse. Godrevy Lighthouse was quite some distance – the not very good photo to the left, above is taken from near where Talland House was.

Another famous resident of St Ives was Barbara Hepworth and her house is now a museum. Many of her works are on display in the small garden, like the one to the right. (There is another Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, where she was born. It is just a few miles from Leeds and an easy train or bus ride from there. More of her work can be seen at the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is accessible by bus).

Getting back to the Woolf exhibition, what made this exhibition so interesting is that it was not particularly about Woolf (though, clearly, in part it was) but that all the works were inspired directly or indirectly by Woolf and all were by female artists. Some of the artists I was familiar with. For example, there were several by Laura Knight who had had an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago we very much enjoyed. There were quite a few works by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, as well as works by Gwen John, Sandra Blow, Dora Carrington and other well-known names. There were also quite a few by artists I had ever heard of, including some very modern ones.

I will particularly mention Ithell Colquhoun. She is not so well-known as her work is surrealist, which was less popular, particular as regards women surrealist artists. She is also interesting as she wrote a strange novel, called Goose of Hermogenes. (I have a copy but I do not plan to read it any time soon.) (She wrote two others, one never completed. I Saw Water was published posthumously.)

The exhibition finishes this week but will be going to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in May and then to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in October. If you can get to either, you should find it well worth your time.

Mercè Rodoreda: La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring)

The latest addition to my website is Mercè Rodoreda‘s La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring). Though Rodoreda wrote this book at around the same time as she wrote La plaça del Diamant (UK: The Pigeon Girl; US: The Time of the Doves), it was not published till after her death. It is now considered one of her best works. It tells of a remote village with strange customs, rituals and behaviours and threats both from Nature and a shadowy group of people called the Caramens. The villagers have to die (essentially, be killed) in a strange and unpleasant ritual and generally have to follow other rituals and customs which seem to us cruel and/or bizarre. Our fourteen-year old hero is a victim of these rituals. Rodoreda clearly put a lot into this work as it is thoroughly original and, at least in part, is intended to condemn totalitarianism.