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.
A cantankerous Parkinson’s sufferer is the unlikely heroine of International Booker Prize short-listed novella Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro. Elena is crippled by Parkinson but that doesn’t stop her from travelling across Buenos Aires to find out if her daughter Rita’s death was murder or suicide. Elena Knows is not a murder mystery, rather, it’s a story about determination, ageing, religious hypocrisy, illness and most of all, women’s bodies. I’ve rarely read a more convincing portrayal of debilitating illness which in this book becomes the very symbol of who controls women’s bodies.
With the most English sounding of titles, Egyptian 1964 classic Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali portrays Ram, a penniless and charming Egyptian Copt who lives well off his wealthy aunts, his own father having lost a fortune on the ‘bourse’. Seduced by the sophistication of Europe, Ram and his friend Font travel to London to immerse themselves in the political and cultural ideas of the time. Meanwhile, Egypt is going through its own political upheaval with the end of British imperialism, Nasser’s revolution and a burgeoning Communist movement. Which side, if any, will Ram come down on?
If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
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.
There are voices we don’t hear from often enough in literature. Shuggie, the young son of an alcoholic in Shuggie Bain, is one example; Kristina, or Inni, in The Antarctica of Love by Sara Stridsberg, another. A drug addict and prostitute about to be murdered in the most gruesome way imaginable, invisible to society until, for a fleeting moment, she grabs the public’s attention as a victim of a horrific crime. Inni, talks to us from the afterlife, taking us through the day of the crime and how she got there. It’s a tough read this book, mainly because of the graphic violence but perhaps even more because it holds up a mirror to ourselves and our society’s failure to see people like Inni. Shell shockingly good.
Winner of the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is currently cresting the wave of novels by en vogue female Japanese writers. Set in an unnamed city in Japan, it tells the story of a narrator who refers to herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. Leading an isolated life, her only diversion appears to be a fascination with a neighbourhood local, the aforementioned Woman in the Purple Skirt. What initially appears to the reader as no more than an odd girl crush, becomes much darker, as our becardiganed storyteller decides to play puppet master with Purple Skirt’s life.
Leo Gazzara is hovering on the brink of both turning thirty and plunging into an existential crisis. Keen to avoid respectability, his days are spent avoiding hard work, his nights indulging in the hedonistic thrills of city life. Originally published in 1970, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich is an Italian cult classic. Here translated into English for the first time, it captures those heady days when Rome was the capital of glamour. A boozy, smoky and intoxicating novel, it tells the story of the year Leo’s dolce vita turned sour.
A punch in the stomach is the best way to describe International Booker Prize 2021 winning At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. We’re dropped right onto a WW1 battlefield where the narrator watches his adopted ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba as he dies a violent, agonising death. The ‘I’ is Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting on behalf of France in a war that makes even less sense to him that the ‘blue-eyed’ French soldiers. When war gets the better of him, the racist stereotype of the black man as a savage rears its ugly head.
Stefan Zweig – Diaries by Stefan Zweig, covering the period from 1931 to 1940, has just been published in English for the first time. Die-hard fans, like me, will want to read this but if you’re new to Zweig’s writing, I’d start with his books or short-stories instead (The World of Yesterday, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman or short-story collections). As a companion to his other works, I found this an interesting peek into the author’s mind; as much for the things he doesn’t say as for what he says.