Fowzia Karimi – Above Us the Milky Way

The latest addition to my website is Fowzia Karim‘s Above Us the Milky Way. Fowzia Karimi and her family – parents and five daughters – left Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet invasion and settled in California. This is their story – how and why they left, the problems of exile and reports of the continuing horrors they left behind. But Karimi is an artist by profession and this story is told by an artist as well as by one of the daughters. She illustrates it herself, both with her own paintings and family photos, but also with her words describing in a poetic/artistic way the joys of pre-Soviet Afghanistan and their family life. Indeed, they are such a close-knit family that she often describes the five sisters as one, even though all five have their own personalities. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, one for each letter of the alphabet, with appropriate themes from Afghanistan (for A) to Zenith (for Z), though her approach is more kaleidoscopic, jumping around with her images, both visual and verbal and her telling of the story in a non-chronological way. The result is a beautiful book, a story of the horrors of war and exile but not by any means a conventional one.

Olga Tokarczuk: Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob). When you are self-isolating from a virus, a nearly one thousand page long novel by a Nobel Prize Winner written in a foreign language is the best way to distract yourself. It is availabe in Czech, Dutch, French, German and Swedish but will not appear in English till March 2021. The novel tells the story of the historical Jacob Frank, a false Messiah in 18th century Poland and surrounding areas, who attracts many followers and many enemies, who converts to both Islam and Christianity and becomes very involved with the rich and powerful in Poland, with Christians as well as Jews and moves around between what is now Turkey and Eastern Europe. Though the main characters are male, Tokarczuk portrays many strong women who play a key role behind the scenes. It is a brilliant but highly complex novel, with a cast of hundreds and lots of historical and religious issues.

Agustina Bazterrica: Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh)

The latest addition to my website is Agustina Bazterricas Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh). This is a novel about cannibalism, not occasional cannibalism but official, world-wide cannibalism. A virus has led to all animals being wiped out (though it may have been fake news) and eating human flesh is the norm. Certain groups (the poor, immigrants, the marginalised) have been bred for their meat. We follow the story of Marcos Tejos, manager at a processing plant, i.e. one which takes humans, kills them and sells them to butchers as meat. We follow Marcos as he makes his rounds, visiting the breeding stations, the butchers, even the hunters, though he has his own problems (wife gone back to her mother after death of their young son, father with dementia). Bazterrica spares us no details and she gives us full details of, for example, the slaughtering process. Not a novel for the squeamish but she makes her point about overpopulation, carnivores and human hypocrisy.

Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season)

The latest addition to my website is Fernanda Melchor‘s emporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season). The novel tells the story of a small Mexican town, La Matosa. At the beginning, the body of a woman known locally as The Witch, is found dead in a stream. The novel tells her story and that of her mother, also called The Witch as well as the story of the people associated with her death. Her mother had married a man with fields that brought in rent. He died in mysterious circumstances and his sons by a previous marriage were killed in a car accident when they came to claim what they considered their inheritance. The daughter appeared some years later. No-one knows who her father was. After a huge hurricane destroyed much of the town, the daughter survived and continued her mother’s work, adding sex and drugs to her repertoire. However, the main theme of the novel is how these women and, indeed, all the other women in the book are badly treated by the men: violence and sexual abuse, as we follow the stories of those associated with the death of the Witch. The book is a superb indictment of the violence committed every day to women in Mexico and, of course, everywhere.

Hilary Mantel: The Mirror and the Light

The latest addition to my website is Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the brilliant conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the adviser to Henry VIII. The novel starts and ends with two beheadings. It opens with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and ends with Cromwell’s own beheading, some four years later. In the meantime, we have seen Cromwell, a mixture of kind-heartedness towards to those in trouble and ruthless antagonism towards his and Henry VIII’s enemies, show cunning and skill in manoeuvring to make sure Henry’s will is observed but, at the same time, making numerous enemies, including being hated by many of the ordinary people, as well as the powerful lords, the latter taking full advantage of his weakness when the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves goes very wrong. Mantel gives us a superb and complex portrait of a man whom history has not looked upon favourably but whom she clearly respects and admires, despite his many faults.

Kim Sagwa: 나b책 (b, Book and Me)

The latest addition to my website is Kim Sagwa‘s 나b책 (b, Book and Me). The novel tells the story of three Korean misfits, b, Book and Rang (the me of the title). Rang is badly bullied at school by the baseball boys. b’s family is very poor and she and Rang become friends till they have a falling-out. When Rang disappears from school, the boys bully b till she lets the leader fondle her. Meanwhile both girls join Book, a young man who lives in a hut on the forest and spends his life reading books. He and many other people from the seamy side of town seem to be having treatment at the local mental hospital. Above all, this book is about the misfits of Korean society: the poor, those whose parents are too busy working hard to pay attention to their children and those that just do not fit in.

Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea)

The latest addition to my website is Mercè Rodoreda‘s Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea). This is a beautiful book, narrated by the gardener to a summer residence, serving successive families. We follow him as he carefully and lovingly tends the plants and garden while the well-to-do – the owner and their guests – come up from Barcelona for the summer. They and, indeed, the
other staff, have their various problems – love and romance, mental health, family – which he quietly observes and, on occasion, is called in to advise and assist with. However, he is at his happiest tending his plants or sitting in his small cottage, reminiscing about his late wife, while around him problems increase and even turn tragic.

Hilda Hilst: A obscena senhora D (The Obscene Madame D)

The latest addition to my website is Hilda Hilst‘s A obscena senhora D (The Obscene Madame D). Our narrator is Hillé,a sixty year old Brazilian woman. Her husband, Ehud, has died and she has now become even more reclusive than she was when he was alive. Ehud was always interested in sex and a normal life, while she was more concerned with metaphysical speculation on life, death, God and her body. Much of her discussion is with Ehud, even after his death. The locals try to comfort her after Ehud’s death but she rejects them, keeping the blinds down and hiding out in her cupboard under the stairs. There are a lot of questions but few answers.

Helena Parente Cunha: Mulher no Espelho (Woman Between Mirrors)

The latest addition to my website is Helena Parente Cunha‘s Mulher no Espelho (Woman Between Mirrors). This is a feminist, modernist novel. The author and the main character are seemingly two sides of the same coin, with the character, who pushes against the author, but does not push against the patriarchal society in which she has been brought up. We see her both as a child and young woman, bullied by her father and expected to conform to his rigid rules and later as a wife and mother, dominated by her overweight, drunk, unfaithful, bullying husband and even by her wayward sons. Meanwhile there is continued antagonism between the author and character, with each woman defending her approach to life and the patriarchal society. Only towards the end, when her husband and sons have gone off, does the character finally break out…somewhat.

Heloneida Studart: Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]

The latest addition to my website is Heloneida Studart‘s Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]. This is a grim feminist novel, which starts with the suicide of a woman, Maria das Graças Nogueira de Alencar, from a distinguished family. She leaves her eight notebooks to her niece, Mariana and we follow the content of the notebooks during the course of the book, as well as following the stories of Mariana, Leonor, her younger sister, and Mimi, their mother and sister of Maria das Graças. The three women have all had miserable marriages, boring in the case of Mariana, who is a lawyer but much worse for the other two. We also learn that Mariana and Maria das Graças were both, in family tradition, intended to remain old maids so that they could look after their mother in her old age. Both rebelled. All the women in the book have a miserable time, from being sent to a convent or even thrown out on the street for those who had dared to have pre-marital sex to controlling and often brutal marriages or, in the case of Maria das Graças, being denied any love. Studart does not mince her words, though she herself was married with six sons and and an adopted daughter, saying, for example there is no hate that can compare to that between a husband and his wife.