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.

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Jivan has seized her chances in life. Having grown up in one of Kolkata’s slums, there was not much to expect, but an NGO enabled her to go to school, learn proper English and see how the middle classes live. Yet, after grade ten, she decides to get a job to support her old and ill parents. The newly earned money also offers luxuries she has never known, cigarettes and even a smartphone. One evening, she witnesses an attack at her local train station and soon after, leaves a comment on Facebook which is widely ignored. Yet, when the culprits cannot be traced, somebody else is needed to pay for the victims and thus, Jivan suddenly finds herself in prison. This can only be a mistake, she is innocent and will soon be free again. But she is totally mistaken there.

Megha Majumdar’s novel is a story about dreams and a better life. Her three protagonists, whose stories are told alternatingly, all have their respective dreams: Jivan wants to live like the middle classes, be able to afford enough food and offer herself some small luxuries. Her friend Lovely, a hijra, dreams of a career in film business and is willing to do everything to promote her career. Jivan’s former teacher PT Sir dreams of power which is unexpectedly provided to him – at the cost of somebody else, but who wouldn’t look for themselves first?

“All of them are ignoring me. The public is wanting blood. The media is wanting death.”

The novel works on several levels, at one end of the scale, there is the personal point of view, at the other end, the political. Looking at the first, we have Jivan and Lovely from the very bottom of the Indian society. They are both working hard and so do Jivan’s parents, nevertheless, they depend on the mercy of others to advance a bit in life. More often than that, they are hit by injustice and at times, beaten in the very sense of the word. It is a highly divided society in which everybody’s place is fixed, upwards mobility is not something to be achieved easily.

On the political level, we see PT Sir and the next big party who have perfected the election campaign in telling people what they want to hear and framing incidents for their own benefit. The individual does not play a role, only in so far as individual politicians want to gain more power and money. One corrupt party is replaced by the next and the novel does not provide the slightest hope of any improvement of the situation.

For the reader, it is quite obvious from the start where all is heading, nevertheless, it is heart-wrenching to follow the unfairness and injustice which are done to Jivan. A great development of the protagonists who are not fully to blame, their behaviour cannot simply be explained by the flaws of their characters, it is the society they live in and to which they simply have adapted to survive. A strong novel which is surely not to be missed.

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings

Natsuki has never really fit in, her mother favours her sister and tells her constantly that she is a nuisance and good for nothing. When her teacher first touches her inappropriately, her mother does not only not believe her but accuses her of falsely allege misconduct. Thus, she keeps quiet, even when she is assaulted. Her way of coping with the situation is getting mentally detached, she has the impression of leaving her body which helps her to cope. Only her cousin Yuu can understand her, just like she herself, he lives in a complicated family and is convinced not to be an earthling since all the people around him behave strangely and don’t understand him. An incident forces this relationship to break up and to isolate Natsuki and Yuu, only after more than two decades will they meet again and their childhood experiences clearly left their marks on them.

“It’s handy having a dumpster in the house. In this house, that’s my role. When Dad and Mom and Kise get so fed up they can’t bear it any longer, they dump everything onto me.”

Reading Sayaka Murata’s novel really brought me to my emotional limits. Even before the actual abuse by her teacher, seeing the dysfunctional family and the mother’s inhuman behaviour towards her daughter is hard to endure. Also her sister who not only does not show any empathy but quite the contrary, actively contributes to Natsuki’s poor state. She is the typical vulnerable child highly at risk of falling prey to molesters. Being beaten by her parents, not experiencing any love or physical attachment, the fact that she is not believed and does not get any help when in need, sadly fits perfectly into the picture.

“Before I knew it, I had turned thirty-four, (…) Even after all the time, I still wasn’t living my life so much as simply surviving.”

It might seem strange that Natsuki as well as Yuu come to believe that they must be aliens and that they increasingly estrange from the humans around them. However, this is just a psychological trick played by their brain to help them to cope and quite understandable. From a psychological point of view, this is extremely authentically narrated.

“It was the out-of-body power. Before I knew what was happening, I had left my body the way I had the day of the summer festival and was watching myself.”

There is no relief when they grow up. The society they live in does not allow individuals to live according to their own conception but expects them to function for the majority’s benefit and not to step out of line. Finding a matching partner first bring Natsuki the possibility of fleeing her family, yet, it was to be expected that their small bubble was not meant to last.

An extremely sad read which definitely is not suitable for everyone. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend it due to the authentic portray of the effect such experiences can have and to show that quite often victims do not find any help but are even blamed for what happens to them.

Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

garth-greenwell-cleanness
Garth Greenwell – Cleanness

An American teacher comes to Sofia, Bulgaria, to teach his mother tongue to students who hope to find a better life abroad with a good knowledge of the world language. While the work is satisfying, his love life has become a lot more complicated since homosexuality is not something that is openly shown in the eastern European country. In a Portuguese exchange student, he finds his love, but things are complicated with the countries’ economies struggling and offering not much to foreigners.

The narrator finds himself in a surrounding which differs a lot from his life before, he roams the streets of Sofia discovering and re-discovering old and mysterious places, being lost physically and emotionally. The political and economic situation aren’t easy either which makes it hard for him to fully enjoy his time in this country of wild nature and rich history.

Greenwell definitely has an eye for the details, e.g. the wind playing outside or hitting the windows and smoothly running over his characters’ backs and brilliantly captures his protagonist’s emotional state. Even though the chapters are often like independent episodes, together they form a complete picture. Just like them, all the narrator experiences are pieces of a mosaic that are unique when look at closely, but you have to take a step back to get the full picture.

Some very interesting observations put in a beautiful language, yet, the mass of explicit scenes annoyed me a bit, a lot of it could have been left to the readers’ imagination.

Jo Baker – The Body Lies

jo-baker-the-body-lies
Jo Baker – The Body Lies

After having been assaulted on her way home a couple of years before, a young writer never feels secure in her London house anymore. When she is offered a job by a remote university, this could not only solve the small family’s financial problems but also bring her away from the bad memories. She is supposed to take over a creative writing course and soon figures out that she is completely left alone since her colleague who was supposed to mentor her is on a leave. The trimester starts slowly but she gets along well with her students even though they seem to be quite unique. When they read out their first writing attempts, the situation becomes complicated since one of them, Nicholas Baker, insists on only telling the truth and not inventing anything which is not taken very well by his fellow students. As the time advances, the professor feels more and more uncomfortable around him and his texts as they become increasingly more personal and Nicholas develops into a real stalker who is ready to turn his bizarre fantasies into reality making her the protagonist of his weird story.

“The Body Lies” is completely different form Jo Baker’s novel “Longbourn” which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago. Reading it was not easy at times since, due to her vivid style of writing, you can imagine the event narrated without any problem and some of the violence really gets under the skin. This is really a psychological thriller as you follow the invasion of the protagonist’s private life and you are not sure if there could actually be a happy ending.

What I liked most about the novel was that, apart from being suspenseful and entertaining as a psychological thriller, it also conveys an authentic picture of reality and an important message. The unnamed professor is exposed to violence and does not really have a chance to fight the men who assault her. Defending herself would have led to more injuries in the first case and in the second, she feels ashamed for what happened to her which, unfortunately, is quite common. But not only the physical violence hurts her, it is first and foremost the psychological threat that slowly hurts her and the fact that she has nobody to believe her version of the story makes it even worse. Sadly, I have no doubt that the story told could happen anywhere everyday.

A great read even though it is at times hard to support.

Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

johannes-lichtman-such-good-work
Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

After losing his teaching job at a college because of his very peculiar assignments, Jonas Anderson moves to Sweden to change perspective and to have a fresh start. Even though he is some years older than the students there, he socialises with them easily and leads the life he had in his early 20s. After the break-up with his German girlfriend, he moves from Lund to Malmö, the town where 2015 masses of immigrants from the Middle East arrived. Seeing the hottest political topic in front of his own door, Jonas decides to get active and to volunteer in the work with the migrants, too. He soon realises that all that is meant to be supportive and good, doesn’t necessarily turn out to be such a good idea in the end.

Johannes Lichtman’s novel isn’t easy to sum up or to describe since his protagonist goes through tremendous changes throughout the novel which also affect the plot and the tone a lot. I really enjoyed the first part a lot when we meet Jonas trying to be a creative writing teacher. The tone here is refreshing and the character’s naiveté makes him sympathetic and likeable. With moving to Sweden and becoming a stranger and outsider, his role changes, yet, he still needs more time until he actually grows up and does something meaningful with his life.

The last part, his work with the unaccompanied minors, was for me personally the most interesting because I could empathise with him easily. Having myself worked with those youths when they came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, I went through the same emotions that Jonas went through. And I had to do exactly the same learning process: you want to help and you have good ideas, but actually they sometimes go past the needs of the refugees. The struggle between the news where all the immigrants were treated as a homogeneous mass and where the focus was put on the danger that came with them, and the everyday experiences with real people made it often hard to cope with the situation. In this respect, Lichtman did a great job because he depicted reality as it was back then.

All in all, a novel that addresses so many different topics with a lively and highly likeable style of writing, a great read not to be missed.