Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

Anna Bruno – Ordinary Hazards

THE FINAL FINAL has been Emma’s and Lucas’ preferred bar for years. But on her 35th birthday, Emma isn’t anymore the woman she used to be. She is drinking alone, acknowledging the other regulars and thinking about what has gone wrong in her life during the last couple of years. Her professional choice which deeply annoyed her success-oriented father, her marriage with Lucas which was never easy but also not too bad, the happiness when their son Lionel was born. And now she is sitting in a bar drinking and ignoring the texts from her friend Grace who seemingly has arranged something for her birthday. The more the evening advances the more the tension in the bar rises and unexpectedly, she learns things which lead to a dramatic end.

What I liked most about Anna Bruno’s novel were first, the atmosphere of the bar and second, the development of the protagonist. On the one hand, we have a place where you typically do not find an average single woman drinking alone. At first, everybody is friendly, they have known each other for years but keep a natural distance, they are only bar acquaintances it seems with no further connection and know not to trespass the personal sphere of each other. Over the course of time, you learn more about the other guests and slowly the heat is rising. This comes quite as a surprise which only underlines how perfectly this has been developed.

The whole plot centres around Emma and her pondering. It does not take too long to understand that something important must have happened that lead to the separation and deeply impacted her psychological state. It is just those things that happen in life, evidently ordinary hazards.

I loved the structure of the novel, having two timelines interwoven which each other which culminate in a distressing climax. Vividly narrated at a moderate pace, I really enjoyed delving into it.

Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

Denise Mina – Conviction

denise mina conviction
Denise Mina – Conviction

Just like every day, Anna McDonald gets up in the morning and turns on a podcast to relax before the usual commotion of her family starts. This morning, however, will be completely different. First, she learns in a true crime podcast that her former friend Leon has been murdered on a boat off the French coast, then, her husband tells her that he’s going to run away with her best friend Estelle taking their two girls with them. When Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen, a famous musician, turns up and a photo of the two of them goes viral, her carefully built life crumbles and falls. It will not be long before someone will recognise her, before those people that she has hidden from for years will finally find her, before it all will start again. She needs to run away again, but before, together with Fin, she will find out what happened to Leon and if the person she supposes behind it all is still looking for her.

Sometimes you start a novel, expecting it to be entertaining and gripping, but then you are literally dragged into it and cannot stop reading. That’s what happened to me with “Conviction”, once I began reading, I was spellbound and fascinated and absolutely wanted to know what all this was about. Due to Denise Mina’s clever foreshadowing and the high pace of the plot, you don’t get a second to relax and breathe deeply, as the protagonist runs, you are tagged along and eagerly follow.

Denise Mina does not waste any time, the story starts like a bull at the gate and before you are even the slightest oriented, you are already in the middle of the mess that Anna is experiencing. Choosing a first person narrator was some clever decision as thus, we only get her perspective, only what she wants to share and which leaves the reader in the dark for quite some time. At first, she seems to be totally overreacting until you realise that there is much more behind it all. The good and dutiful housewife obvious is entangled in some unbelievably big conspiracy with powerful people far beyond any law enforcement.

A proper page-turner with unexpected twists and turns which also has some witty and comical bits and pieces to offer.

Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Stranger’s Wife

anna-lou-weatherley-the-strangers-wife
Anna-Lou Weatherley – The Stranger’s Wife

You should never underestimate a woman’s revenge. When her nanny and friend vanishes, Beth decides that – since it all will finally come out anyhow – she can also make the first step herself: she tells her husband Evan that she’s going to leave him for her affair Nick. Evan seems to accept this calmly, they have lived next to each other but hardly with each other for years now, calling this a marriage was embellishing the situation. But he warns his wife that she will be sorry for this step. At that moment, Beth doesn’t have a clue what he means, how powerful her husband actually is and first of all, WHO she has been married to all these years. With her decision to leave him, she has triggered a ball that will send her directly into hell. But Beth is a fighter, much more a fighter than Evan could ever imagine.

Anna-Lou Weatherley’s novel really deserves the title “page-turner”. From the first chapter when the nanny goes missing to the very end: it is a rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs that fascinatingly and almost addictively keeps you reading on. The author has created enemies who fight on a very high level – a wonderful read that I enjoyed throughout.

“The Stranger’s Wife” is a psychological thriller combined with some serious issues that make you ponder quite some time after having finished reading it. I totally adored the idea of a woman fighting back, not accepting fate and a bullying husband who knows all the important people and thinks that life runs according to his personal laws. Having his evil character slowly unfold was exciting and frightening at the same time since you always wonder how well you actually know the people around you and how much and what they might hide. Yet, the story also showed that marital abuse and physical as well as psychological violence happens in all social classes, the rich can be affected in the same way as the poor, money does not make a difference when it comes to aggressions.

A marvellous plot with interesting and multifaceted characters, thus I can easily pardon the fact that it needed a kind of coincidence to make everything fall into place. The novel literally absorbed me and I hardly could put it down.

Nalini Singh – A Madness of Sunshine

nalini-singh-a-madness-of-sunshine
Nalini Singh – A Madness of Sunshine

After the death of her husband and a decade abroad, Anahera returns to Golden Cove, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand. Not much has changed there and vivid memories return to the young woman who was eager to escape the poor and violent home she grew up in. It is only days she is there when the beaming young Miriama does not return from running. The whole town is on their feet to search for the girl with the promising future that everybody loves. Police detective Will, an outsider to the Maori community, coordinates the search and quickly develops the greatest fears. In a town where domestic violence is a normal part of everyday life and where common secrets tend to be buried deep, it is not easy to investigate. When the inhabitants recollect a series of hikers missing over only a couple of weeks, they start to fear that a serial killer might be among them who now has started to go for women again.

Nalini Sing’s mystery thriller is a suspenseful story which lives from the atmosphere the author brilliantly creates. You arrive together with Anahera in the small town and feel like an outsider; she had been gone for so long that she is not a part of their life anymore, but the longer you stay there, the more you dive into the culture and get a feeling of the dynamics that drive a close community which is not very welcoming to people not belonging to them. Apart from the plot around the missing women, I found the description of nature, its forces and the old culture which lives in harmony with it the most interesting.

Anahera and Will first seem to be two opposing poles in the story, on the one hand, the woman who is a natural part of Golden Cove and who shares memories with everybody and knows to read and respect the nature she lives in. On the other hand, the police detective who is a double outsider due to his job people are highly suspicious of and since he is not of Maori descent. What they share are secrets they try to hide from the community and which quickly make them bond.

The case of Miriama starts with big questions marks, Nalini Sing has well dosed the information you get about the girls, but soon you see the discrepancy between the first picture of the girl and her other side which obviously was well-hidden. The more secrets are revealed the more suspense rises captivating the reader. “A Madness of Sunshine” is a slow burn that does not only rely on the mystery part but also offers a lot in psychological respects with interesting characters in a fascinating setting.

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

bernardine-evaristo-girl-woman-other
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.

“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”

What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.

What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.

The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.

Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

karina-sainz-borgo-it-would-be-night-in-caracas
Karina Sainz Borgo – It Would Be Night in Caracas

Adelaida Falcón has just buried her beloved mother and finds herself completely on her own, when not just her own life but the lives of all inhabitants of her hometown of Caracas crumble. Outside, protesters fight, looters take everything they can and leaving the apartment surely means an immediate death. When her small world is invaded, too, she tries to fight, but in vain, she not only has nobody to turn to anymore but also has to consider herself homeless. The fight for her life makes her do things she, the literary translator, would never have dreamt of. But these are not times to act morally, these are times of trying to survive only.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s debut is a work of fiction, but to anybody who followed the news of South America in the last couple of months, the question of how much truth and reality might be found in the novel inevitable comes to mind. In an interview, the author underlines the fictitious nature of the plot, yet, she also stresses that all the rioting, murdering, fraud and random acts of violence are true. They do exist and they certainly exist in fragile countries.

“Generous in beauty and in violence, two of the qualities that it had in greatest abundance.”

Not all is bad in Venezuela, Adelaida remembers the time of carelessness outside Caracas where she spent her childhood summers. But she also knows city life where all was welcoming for children, but simply a waste since going outside and enjoying the playgrounds was too dangerous. She finds herself oscillating between extremes, her country does not seem to know any state of moderation.

“Human beings transformed into meat, which someone else would turn into news items displayed on the newsstands the next day.”

At times, it is hard to endure what Sainz Borgo narrates. In particular, the report on situation in Venezuelan prisons under the watch of the paramilitary troops made me hold my breath. One does not want to read about it, does not want to know about it, however, you are totally aware that this is how it is.

“Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’.”

How can one live under such circumstances? One cannot. Dot. So, if the chance of escape presents itself, seize it. And that’s just what Adelaida does, though, not without a guilty conscience.

A novel full of brutality and misery, the portrait of a country on the ground. Corruption and violence dominate; humanity is hard to find. It is not an objective report, it remains a work of fiction and the first person narrator underlines the subjective point of view, which in this case, however, only renders the atmosphere gloomier and more depressing. A novel that goes under your skin and forces you to face what people have to endure day in, day out.

Edwin Hill – The Missing Ones

edwin-hill-the-missing-ones
Edwin Hill – The Missing Ones

Finisterre Island, a small isolated place off the coast of Maine, is normally a lovely and peaceful place. But a house with strangers annoys the locals as well as the summer guests since it seriously disturbs the idyllic atmosphere. When on 4th July a boy goes missing, suspicion rises. Just a couple of weeks afterwards, another boy vanishes. Is there a connection between these incidents and the newly arrived woman of the suspicious house? Annie seems nice enough, but she obviously has some secrets, not only her affair with a local policeman, but also her mysterious and sudden appearance in town.

The plot sounded intriguing to me, children going missing, a small island where everybody knows everybody, characters with secrets, but unfortunately, the novel didn’t really reach me. I found the beginning of the novel quite slow and it took me a lot of time to sort out the two lines of the plot. The toughest for me was the fact that I didn’t sympathise with any of the characters which makes it hard to really care for them and their fate. Additionally, what I really detested was how they all treated children. Just like some object that you thoughtlessly can move from one person to the next.

As I figured out much too late, this is the second instalment of a series. Maybe I just didn’t understand the crucial point of the novel since I hadn’t read the first book, there were actually some perplexing aspects that did not make too much sense to me. I also missed some kind of explanation for the characters’ really strange behaviour which unfortunately never came. All in all, a novel that I couldn’t really relate to.