Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.
Argentinian author and stay-at-home dad Lucas Pereyra has found a clever way to import, tax-free, the advance for his next book. Both Lucas’ flat and his marriage have seen better days and smuggling in the advance from Uruguay will leave him with some sorely needed cash and, hopefully, some forgiveness from his hard-working wife. There’s also an ulterior motive for going. Lucas has long fantasised about hooking up with the 28-year-old, beautiful woman he flirted with at a literary festival last time he visited. The Woman From Uruguay by Pedro Mairal is an intense and often comical account of what happens when hormones and the desire to escape from it all take over.
There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book which has just come out as a film on Netflix.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, which has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. The author Tahar Ben Jelloun traces the experiences of political prisoner Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan ll of Morocco. With sixty others, at the whim of the king, Salim was incarcerated in a secret prison complex deep in the Moroccan desert. He was to remain in this hellhole, known as Tazmamart, for nearly twenty years.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
In Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, France’s most celebrated memoirist and newly minted Nobel Laureate, distils her two year long, passionate affair with a married man into a punchy 48 pages. Those familiar with Ernaux’s writing will know she’s the master of dissecting emotions, condensing them into something almost clinical which has the unexpected power to make you cry. I challenge anyone not to recognise some part of themselves in this book. An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire.
The Years by Annie Ernaux is an unusual book, a sort of communal memoir mapping the personal story of Ernaux alongside the social and political history of France (and the world) between 1940 and 2006. This might sound a bit dry and academic, but The Years is strangely compelling, mainly because it speaks our own memories, of time passing and things changing. There were references here that went above my non-French head and I’m sure a native French would find this book even more poignant. It didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it though. The experience of time passing seems as universal as anything.
A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past.’
When 34-year-old Fuyuko Irie catches a glimpse of herself in a shop window, the drab and defeated figure she sees reflects her shrunken spirit. The only thing that sparks joy in this sad young woman’s heart is the luminosity of Tokyo at night, its dazzling lights a bitter irony when she considers how the monotony of life has extinguished any glimmer of brightness within herself. In All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, we join Fuyuko as she reaches crisis point and a chance encounter shows her the potential for change.