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.

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Sisters Ida and Marthe have planned to spend some days together at their cabin close to the sea where they will be joined by their mother and her partner. Ida is reluctant to go there, with her 40th birthday only a couple of weeks ago and still no father for prospective children in view, she knows that her window of becoming a mother is getting closer and closer. This is why she decided to freeze some of her eggs. Yet, it does not hinder her from negative feelings towards Marthe who, now pregnant and stepmother of beautiful 6-year-old Olea, seems – as always – to get everything she wants. Hard feelings accompany Ida and slowly turn their holiday together into a catastrophe.

I totally enjoyed Marie Aubert’s novel as I could easily sympathise with her narrator and protagonist. Additionally, there is some fine irony and humour in the text which make it a great read. The relationship between sisters quite often is all but easy and even as grown-ups, hard feelings and emotional injuries from the childhood can sit deep and hinder them from ever having a healthy bond.

Ida obviously is envious, her sister not only has a living husband but also a lovely stepdaughter and she’s pregnant. Even though Ida is a successful architect, she has never managed to establish a functioning relationship with a partner and feels lonely and somehow failed in life. Always being second, this is how she has grown up, no matter which achievements she reached, there was always Marthe who was ill and thus spoilt those rare moments of joy for Ida. Their mother does not seem to be aware of the difference she makes between the girls – yet, one has also to take into account that we only get Ida’s point of view which quite naturally is not only limited but highly biased.

“It’s not right That it should be so easy for others and so hard for me, I don’t get it, if there’s some sort of formula, a code that others know about, one they’ve known since they were young but which I’ve never quite grasped.”

Ida gets worked up about her sister and is willing to destroy her sister’s life when she is drunk one evening. This is rather tragic to observe and Ida turns into a pitiable character who does not realise that she will be even lonelier if she loses these last persons around her. She is aware of this but cannot act differently.

Marie Aubert’s debut is elegantly narrated, yet, the story leaves you with mixed feelings. It is joyful at times but the dysfunctional family is also an emotional challenge.

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Phoebe Wynne – Madam

Rose Christie cannot believe it when she is offered a job at the prestigious boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, set on a recluse peninsula above the Scottish cliffs. They haven’t hired new staff for more than a decade and the Classics teacher is a lot younger than her colleagues, much closer in age to her students. School does not only cater for her, but also for her mother whose health is deteriorating and who thus can get the best medical care. The rules at the institution are strict and not easy for Rose to figure out, too different is her new work place from the schools she worked before. Yet, she soon gets the feeling that what is advertised as tradition is much more an overcome idea of the world in which women are reduced to being pretty and just longing for being married. Only in her classroom can she talk about the female heroines of the ancient world that have always fascinated her – yet, this is not a way of thinking which is tolerated there and soon Rose finds herself deep in trouble.

Phoebe Wynne’s debut novel “Madam” combines the classic boarding school novel with elements of Gothic fiction and also classic literature. She sets the story at the beginning of the 1990s thus offering a world without the world wide web when it was still possible to keep young women secluded from the outside and thus possible to control what they have access to. Free spirits just like Rose, taking feminist standpoints, were not part of the school’s personnel and it becomes quickly obvious why.

At the first glance, Caldonbrae Hall is a highly admired and impressive institution. The girls come from the noblest families and seem to be well-educated in their manners. Yet, Rose soon detects that there is also something lacking, an aspects she considers crucial in her teaching: free thinking. The pupils all seem to follow are a very limited view of the world and do not develop any aspiration for themselves. Most astonishingly, it seems as if they are happy with the choices that are made for them.

The Gothic novel elements – the virginal maidens, the castle like school with its old walls, a threat which is difficult to locate, the gloomy weather with frequent storms, people hiding crucial information, and most of all, the story of some girl’s mysterious death the year before – all contribute to an unsettling atmosphere which can be felt throughout the novel. Rose quickly realises that she needs to flee but is successfully kept from doing so.

Rose’s heroines, the stories of ancient goddesses and nymphs like Daphne, Antigone, Dido or Lucretia, are wonderfully integrated into the novel and a stark contrast to the girls’ views. This is what I liked most about the novel since it nonchalantly underlines that you still can learn something from these old stories and find role models even though times have changed a lot.

A novel I totally enjoyed indulging in which combines classic literature with a bit of mystery.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Mona, a Peruvian writer who has been living in California for some years, is invited to Sweden as she has been nominated for the notable Basske-Wortz prize, one of the most renowned literary awards of Europe. Together with other authors from diverse countries, she is to spend a couple of days in a remote resort where they have talks and give presentations. Rivalry starts immediately, some of them Mona has known for years and met at literary festivals before, others she admires for their work. However, the young woman is not too much concerned with the possibility of being awarded a famous prize, it is her life that matters most at the moment. Her body is covered with bruises and she cannot recollect where they stem from. Also her abuse of diverse substances follows her to the Swedish secludedness – travelling to the end of the world does not mean you can escape your demons.

The setting the Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac has chosen for her third novel is perfect for a small community under a magnifying lens. None of them can escape and they have to face each other – as well as themselves. For the protagonist Mona, she herself comes to scrutinise her very own situation: where does she stand as a writer and why does her current novel refuse to advance; where do these bruises come from which hurt and yet do not give a clue of what might have happened; how to people perceive and classify her as a woman of colour who, as a doctoral candidate at one of the most prestigious universities, penetrated into an area which normally is closed to people with her background.

Even though I found the ending rather confusing, I totally enjoyed reading the novel which is remarkable due to its strong protagonist and quite a unique tone of narration with strong images and brilliant use of language.

Danielle McLaughlin – The Art of Falling

Nessa McCormack and her husband Philip have just sorted out their marriage after Philip’s affair when ghosts of the past reappear. Her former best friend’s son Luke and his father Stuart appear out of nowhere after almost two decades without any contact. After Luke’s mother’s suicide they did not stay in touch, not only because times where difficult but also because Nessa and Stuart had a brief affair. Also at work things become complicated when Nessa is curating an exhibition of sculptor Robert Locke and a mysterious woman appears who claims to have created the most impressive piece of the exhibition. Yet, Locke’s widow and daughter claim to have provided all materials and never to have heard of the woman. However, she has set her mind on finally being recognised as an artist.

The most striking about Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is the protagonist and her development throughout the story. Apart from this, the dynamics between the characters is also remarkable, set in motion by the classic sins which you can find almost all in the novel: pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth – you name it. They have always belonged to mankind, so why not to 21st century characters, too?

At the beginning of the novel, Nessa is on the one hand disappointed and fells devalued by her husband since he not only had an affair but chose a woman who isn’t even the slightest attractive in her opinion. On the other hand, her husband’s misconduct brings her into a morally superior position which she quite unashamedly exploits. She has got a big project in her job which will automatically come with a lot of kudos, undoubtedly, she is good at what she’s doing and an expert of the sculptor she curates. But small lapses leave cracks and with the appearance of the mysterious woman, the cracks start to deepen and threaten her reputation. At the same time, her daughter first seems to be on her husband’s side – the cheater! – and then openly opposes her mother to take sides of the other woman. There is not much left in her life which works according to plan and Nessa becomes increasingly irritable – until a secret, well-kept for many years – suddenly surfaces and threatens to destroy it all.

A lot of moral questions are addressed in the novel without providing simplistic answers or role models. The dramatic structure also creates the suspense that keeps you reading on.  A compelling read I thoroughly enjoyed.