Louise Kennedy – Trespasses

Louise Kennedy – Trespasses

In the daytime, Cushla Lavery teaches seven-year-olds in a small town near Belfast, in the evening, she helps her brother in his pub. And in between, she makes sure that her alcohol addicted mother is still alive. There is not much happening in her life until, one evening, Michael Agnew shows up in the pub. He is a lot older than Cushla, but nevertheless, something sparks between them. Times are hard in Belfast when the war is raging in the streets and the news report deaths daily. Michael’s job as a barrister puts him at risk, yet, with Cushla, political tensions are far away. Until they aren’t anymore.

Louise Kennedy captures a life that is determined not by the person who lives it, but by outer circumstances. “Trespasses” oscillates between awful news and being alert all the time and intimacy which cannot exist openly. Her description of what people in the 1970s in Northern Ireland endured is full of brutality – but, I assume, absolutely accurate.

The most striking aspect of the novel was for me, how the characters organise their lives around the raging war around them. Cushla’s teaching that starts with a news session every morning which shows that even her 7-year-olds are familiar with the war vocabulary and for whom an assassination is just another death, just another family without a father, just another random note on the radio. The bluntness with which the author depicts these scenes is brutal and therefore gets close to the reader.

It is unimaginable how you can live and love in those circumstances, on the other hand, Cushla’s care for one of the boys whose family is seriously struggling underlines that in times like these, love and compassion is the only thing that’s left.

Definitely not an easy read but without a doubt one I can highly recommend.

Bonnie Garmus – Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus – Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a famous cooking show host in the 1960s. People love the way she beings cooking to their homes which is quite different from what everybody else does. She explains the chemistry behind the food and the processes she operates in the kitchen because, well, cooking is simply chemistry. But this is not what the mother of 10-year-old Madeline had in mind. She wanted to work in a lab and do serious research. However, she was ahead of her time, women were supposed to marry and take care of the home and children but not taken seriously as scientists. Only Calvin Evans, one of her colleagues who is as passionate about chemistry as Elisabeth, recognises her potential and treats her as an equal. They quickly become much more than colleagues. As lovers, they are soulmates and have found the other part they have always missed. Fate, however, had other plans for them.

Bonnie Garmus‘ novel is a rollercoaster of emotions which first and foremost lives from the outstanding protagonist who is unique and exceptional in all respects, a feminist long before the word existed in the common knowledge, stubborn and intelligent at the same time. Life is so unfair to her that I wanted to shout at times, but, on the other hand, “Lessons in Chemistry” also highlights what a change a single person can make.

Elizabeth has chosen a highly misogynist environment, science labs in the 1950s were no places for women, except for the secretaries. Already the idea that she could have an equal – not to speak of a superior – mind as her male colleague seems unimaginable. But not only does she encounter men who look down on her, harassment and even assaults are normal parts of a woman’s professional life. When she encounters Calvin, things seem to have the potential to change, but he, too, despite being a prodigies and highly regarded, cannot influence his colleagues’ attitudes that much.

A female fighter who only briefly after the birth of her daughter goes down, but stands up again. She uses her cooking show to inspire others, to send out her messages ignorant of conventions and the risk of losing her job. She knows that things must change and that women need the same chances as their male colleagues. The fight she has chosen seems unwinnable und futile, but for her, it is worth every setback.

A wonderful novel, funny and tragic, oscillating between the emotional extremes, with amazing female characters who even today can inspire and motivate readers since the battle of equality still has not been won.

Anne Tyler – French Braid

Anne Tyler – French Braid

It is coincidental encounter at a station: Serena sees a young man and is not sure if he’s her cousin. Her boyfriend cannot believe this, how can she not know her own cousin? Well, family matters have never been easy with the Garretts. Robin and Mercy have married at a young age, their two daughters Alice and Lily could hardly be more different from each other and their son David, a couple of years younger than the girls, even as a boy, was rather withdrawn. As the years pass by, the kids get older and independent, have their own families, make mistakes, Mercy follows her artistic works and drifts apart from Robin. It is only rare events that bring the whole family together for brief moments, but then, they remain on the surface and the important things are left unsaid.

Anne Tyler has been writing books for almost six decades, but I have only come to detect her work a couple of years ago. What I liked from the start was her relaxed tone which takes life just as it is, acknowledging the ups and downs, knowing that the show has to go on. Her latest novel, too, “French Braid” is wonderfully narrated capturing the small but decisive moments. It is the portrait of a family, not the totally average one but nevertheless one that could just live next door to you. Again, Tyler finds the interesting points in those at the first glance totally average lives.

“What’s the name of that braid that starts high up on little girls’ heads?” David asked Greta one night (…) “Oh a French braid,” Greta said. “That’s it. And then when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterwards. “ “Yes…” “Well,” David said, “That’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

None of the Garretts have ever been close, not even the married couples, but nevertheless, they are family and therefore gather from time to time. They may not even like each other, but they like to stay informed. Some of them try to break out, especially the women, but just like the French braid, they cannot really free themselves, some things just stick.

Anne Tyler surely is a most accomplished writer, how else would it be possible to totally enjoy a novel and at the same time feel a little bit uncomfortable due to the extent you can recognise yourself in her writing. She does not focus on the exceptional, the outstanding, but finds the aspects worth mentioning in the ordinary, in the well-known and hardly ever actually noticed. It is with her soft voice and quite narration that she hints at what you should look at and think about. Another though-provoking, simply marvellous novel.  

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

Antoine Wilson – Mouth to Mouth

The narrator, an unsuccessful writer, is on his way to Berlin when he coincidentally meets a former fellow student at JFK airport. Jeff, too, remembers him immediately even though they haven’t seen each other for two decades. As their flight is delayed, they decide to spend the waiting time together and update each other about what they have done in the last twenty years. Jeff’s life was marked by an incident on the beach, when he saw a man drowning. He could save him but not forget the occurrence. He starts enquiring about him and soon finds out that Francis Arsenault is a successful art dealer. Jeff becomes more and more fixated on the man, wondering if he remembers that he was his saviour. When he gets to work at Francis’ gallery, this is the beginning of a major change in his life – yet, will he ever get the chance to reveal what brought him there in the first place?

Antoine Wilson has chosen an interesting framework for his story which puts the reader in the same place as the writer who mainly just sits there and listens to Jeff’s account. You know that what he tells is highly subjective, only one side of the story is presented in a way that Jeff wants to put it, but nevertheless, quasi as a former friend, you are willing to believe him not knowing where all this is going to lead to. “Mouth to Mouth” is highly intriguing from the first page, due to a very clever foreshadowing, you are aware that there must be something behind Jeff’s need to tell his life story, but you keep wondering what that could be.

“’Who better than someone who was there at the beginning?’ – ‘You said that before. Only I’m not sure why it matters.’ ‘You knew me then. That I had a good heart.’“

Repeatedly, Jeff stresses that he has a good heart, that he only wanted the best for others, that he did do nothing wrong and just like the narrator, you wonder why he keeps on stressing that point. Saving somebody from downing is surely an admirable act, selfish and courageous. That he started following Francis then and slowing crept into his life is not that honest but he didn’t do no harm. So you keep on reading eager to figure out what will ultimately make Jeff appear in a totally different light.

“Just think, if I had somehow not saved Francis’s life, if instead he’d died on that beach, everything that came after would not have happened like it did.”

The novel raises the big question about what might have happened if just one incident of your life hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. Many things of our everyday life do not have life changing consequences, but some do. And everybody knows this pondering about the “what if”. Connected to this is inevitably the question of necessary consequences, of a bigger plan behind it all.

In Francis’s case, he was granted more time on earth due to Jeff’s intervention, but did he use that time wisely? He is a reckless art dealer and the closer Jeff gets and the more he learns about him, the more he wonders how that man deals with the big gift he was given. At the same time, he gets insight into the shiny art’s business which is all but shiny behind the facade and which is, well, just a business where money is made.

A brilliantly plotted novel which is thought-provoking and play well with the reader’s expectations and emotions.

Marcial Gala – Call Me Cassandra

Marcial Gala – Call me Cassandra

Raul is nothing like the other kids. The ten-year-old boy can see dead people and he knows when those he meets will die. Of course, he cannot be understood by his peers or family and with his love for dresses and his very small body, he frequently becomes the victim of bullying and is called all sorts of names. He himself knows who he is, Cassandra, the ancient goddess who could predict the future but wasn’t believed. So is he. He grows up in his hostile Cuban surroundings and has to train for the military service which will lead him to Angola, a sister state of the Leninist-Communist era of the 1970s. His gift is a burden he cannot share with people, only with the gods he sees and whom accompany him.

Fiction that transgresses the border between fictional reality and fantasy are not necessarily my favourite genre, yet, Cuban born author Marcial Gala cleverly integrates both and thus creates a wonderful protagonist for his novel “Call me Cassandra”. Raul is gifted and cursed at the same time, not necessarily the best combination in a hostile world where he has to prepare for fighting in a war. Fantasy is a way to escape and maybe the only one to endure the world around him.

There are two fascinating aspects about the novel, first of all, Raul’s way of escaping his father’s virile expectations which he knows already as a small boy, he will never be able to fulfil. Thus, he can only find likeminded persons in the women around him, most of all his father’s Russian lover. Literature opens different ways of thinking where Raul can find alternatives to his life that he can only live behind closed doors as boys dressed in women’s clothes are nothing for the Cuban world of the 1970s.

The second, much more horrifying is what the transgender boy has to go through, first at school and later in the army. He is not only bullied but repeatedly the victim of violence and abuse. Yet, nobody seems to care, it seems as if it is ok since Raul does not fulfil the expectations and this does not belong.

Gala elegantly conveys Raul’s different realities and allows a fascinating insight in the boys unique thinking.

Pedro Mairal – The Woman from Uruguay

Pedro Mairal – The Woman from Uruguay

Lucas Pereyra has a plan to finally pay back all the money his family and friends lent him. The writer has asked to transfer the advance for his next book to an account in Uruguay where the exchange rate is simply better than in his home town of Buenos Aires. One morning, he takes off to Montevideo to collect fifteen thousand dollars. He knows that he is not allowed to cross the border with such an amount but he does not have any alternatives. And, spending a day in the Uruguayan capital allows him to see Guerra again, a woman he met at a conference some months before and whom he cannot forget. Yet, his idea does not materialise as planned, quite the contrary.

Pedro Mairal narrates the decisive day in the life of his protagonist, it is just a couple of hours which change everything, which turn a man on the winning track into somebody who is cruelly brought back down to earth. “The Woman from Uruguay” has quickly become a bestseller in Argentina and Spain and was awarded the Premio Tigre Juan in 20217, a prestigious Spanish literary award.

The novel is constructed like a classic tragedy respecting the three Aristotelian unities: the principal action takes place over a period of only a couple of hours in only one location. The dramatic structure also follows classic principles with the protagonist’s expectations of ultimately turning his life, then looking forward of meeting the woman he is in love with the climax of their encounter and then the tragic turning point after which Lucas has to bury all hope and realises what a fool he has been and that he has to cope somehow with the consequences of his stupid behaviour. He can be classified as some kind of tragic hero, on the one hand, he himself is the reason he is in the state he finds himself in the end, on the other, however, he became a victim of circumstances innocently at least to a certain extent.

I liked how the story unfolds even though the protagonist is not actually a sympathetic character. Not just the composition is convincing but also the author’s poetic writing is vivid giving insight in Lucas’ thinking. A compelling read which makes me want to read more of the author.

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Kristina is waiting to die, finally. She does not live anymore, she has been murdered and dismembered in the woods outside Stockholm, but she only really dies forever when her name will be spoken for the last time. So she floats in between the world and eternity, sees how her parents bury what has been found of her. She also visits her kids in their dreams, kids for whom she so hard wanted to be a good mother but unfortunately couldn’t be. Her life with Shane has always been a struggle and she somehow has always known that growing old wasn’t meant for her.

Sara Stridsberg’s novel is – despite the cruelty of the topic – wonderfully written and a poetic masterpiece. It opens with a description of what Kristina feels last, how she perceives nature during her last minutes when she is to become a part of the lake and the earth. It is also the story of a drug addict, a young woman who comes from a struggling family and does not find herself a place in the world and quickly relies on diverse substances to help her forget the darkness she finds outside and inside herself. It is a life lost, a life which could have become so much but didn’t.

It is heart-breaking to read the young woman’s account. How casually she tells the reader that at first, nobody misses her, neither her mother, nor her father who hasn’t seen her for years, nor her children. Yet, the later live a new life and her daughter might hardly remember her, too early in her life was she taken away and put into a foster family. Yet, this was the best Kristina could do for her, at least once in her life she did something right despite the feeling of loss.

When she was pregnant, she wanted to get clean, to be a good mother, to care for Valle and Solveig. However, the craving was always too strong, harshness of life always brought her back to the drugs. She feels ashamed for not having been able to care for the kids. But she has always lived in the darkness and the rare rays of light couldn’t lead her to another life.

A life not lived and yet, as humans, we are just a blink in eternity. In 2019, “The Antarctica of Love” was awarded Sveriges Radios Romanpris, a Swedish literary prize for the best novel of the year. It wasn’t the first time Stridsberg’s work was highly appreciated. She uses language in a unique way which does not only touch you profoundly but goes deep down into you and reaches you at your core having the novel make a deep impression that stings.

Rabih Alameddine – The Wrong End of the Telescope

Rabih Alameddine – The Wrong End of the Telescope

When her friend calls her, Mina Simpson comes to Lesbos to help. The doctor can assist the refugees who land on the island not only physically but, since she is of Lebanese descent, she also speaks the language of the Syrians who risk their life to flee the war raging in their home country. For Mina, the Greek island is the closest she has been to her family for decades, as a trans woman, she never found her place there, only when she came to the USA could she live freely. With the first boat she sees lands the family of Sumaiya who first refuses to be examined by the doctor. But somehow, there is a spark of understanding between the two and Mina quickly understands why the other woman refuses any treatment: she knows already that she is terminally ill and the only thing she wanted to make sure was to bring her family to a save place.

“The Wrong End of the Telescope” is the third book I read of the author and again, he did not disappoint my high expectations even though it took me some time to figure out who the narrator is talking to. Just like in “An Unnecessary Woman”, we find a strong heroine who follows her ideas and yet is not totally stubborn and ignorant but sensitive to what her actions do to others. The plot centres around the refugee crisis which has been the top news for some years now and cleverly mixes fact and fiction by also integrating actual incidents.

Mina comes to the island with a clear aim: she wants to help. She is trained and thus qualified to do the work. Apart from her, there are many young people who have been attracted by the news, their situation is a bit different. Most of them arrived well-meaning, yet, taking photos of themselves helping and documenting the disastrous situation in the refugee camps seems to be their top priority, actually helping only comes second. Most of them seem to be unaware of their inadequate behaviour; the sensation seeking journalists, on the contrary, know exactly why they are there and that they prof from other people’s sufferance.

The protagonist differs strongly here, well, she differs from most people and her personal story is also not without traumatic experiences having grown up in the wrong body in a country where such a concept simply does not exist. She, like the refugees, knows what it means to lose home, to lose the people you love and to start anew in a different country, a different culture not knowing what the future might bring. She is well respected and her knowledge of both cultures allows her to critically comment on the flaws that both exhibit. As an outsider here and there, she is like an unrelated observer who thus can also highlight common traits members might not see.

Depending on the side of the telescope you use, you can get a closer or a more distant view of what you are looking at. Alameddine does both in his novel, on the one hand, he closely portrays the fate of one family, one mother, on the other hand, he also widens the frame of the refugee crisis. In addressing Mina’s narration to an unnamed and disillusioned writer, we also get both perspectives: looking at the world’s state on a wide you, you can simply despair, on the other hand, on a more personal level, there is still hope and so much good the single person can do.

Without a doubt, Rabih Alameddine is a wonderful narrator with a genius for integrating food for thought into brilliant narration.

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Mrs March leads the classic life of a New York upper class housewife and mother. Her husband George is a successful writer whose latest novel has catapulted him to the top of the bestseller list. Mrs March was raised to this life, from her childhood on, she has learnt how to behave in society and how to present herself and her family in an adequate way. Yet, her whole life has somehow become only a scenery of a life and she has lost herself. When a young woman’s body is found, she is intrigued and soon she finds more and more evidence that her husband’s inspiration might not just come out of himself and his imagination but might actually stem from actual experience. Is she sharing her bed with a murderer?

Virginia Feito’s debut novel “Mrs March” is an intense psychological study of a woman who has lost connection to reality and is gradually plummeting into an abyss. Brilliantly the author shows how a strongly self-controlled character more and more loses power over her life and in the end can hardly distinguish between what is real and what is only imagined.

It is quite clever how the protagonist is presented to the reader, she is only ever referred to as “Mrs March” thus defined by her status as a married woman and without a first name. She is not given anything that she brings into the marriage from her childhood. From her flashbacks you learn that her parents treated her rather coolly and that she has always felt like not doing anything right, not being the daughter they had hoped for, not fulfilling the expectations, until, finally, they can hand her over to her husband. The only persons she could bond with was her – rather malicious – imagined friend Kiki and a household help, yet, she couldn’t cope with positive feelings since this concept was totally alien to her.

Behind the facade of the impeccable woman is a troubled mind. First, it is just the assumption that people talk behind her back, compare her to her husband’s latest novel’s protagonist – not very flattering since this is a prostitute who is paid out of pity instead of for good service rendered – then she sees cockroaches and finds more and more signs which link George with the murder of the young woman the whole country is talking about. From her point of view, it a fits together perfectly, but she does not see how she herself increasingly fractures. Most of the plot happens behind closed doors, she does not have friends or family she is close to, thus, there is nobody to help her.

As readers, we know exactly where she is headed to and then, Virginia Feito confronts us with an unexpected twist which lets you reassess what you have just read. The distinction between reality and paranoia sometimes isn’t that clear at all.

A wonderfully written, suspenseful kind of gothic novel set in New York’s upper class whose signs of class affiliation are repeatedly mocked while also showing that not all is well just because you live in a posh apartment and can wear expensive clothes.

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.  

With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.

“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.

The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.