OUT by Natsuo Kirino translated by Stephen Snyder ★★★☆☆ Vintage, 2005
What Out does successfully is depict the utter exhaustion and desperation of the working class (focusing on a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in the outskirts of Tokyo). This book is as bleak and gritty as it gets, but I liked that; I liked that Natsuo Kirino had no interest in shying away from the horrific realities that drove these characters to make the decisions that they did. It’s also hard to come away from this book without admiring Masako Katori, its central character; she’s a brilliant creation and a fantastic focal point.
The entire time I was reading I was planning on giving this 4 stars – 1 star deducted for Snyder’s egregiously clunky translation. Just one example among many passages that caused me to roll my eyes into the back of my head:
“Why?” “Because you’re a smart-ass. I’m going to teach you about the big, bad world.” “Thanks, but no thanks,” she said. […] ‘Because you’re a smart-ass,’ he’d said. She couldn’t let him get away with that.
So reading this was not entirely smooth sailing, but for the most part I found it admirable and compelling enough to compensate for the fact that it is not ostensibly a page-turner.
But then we got to the end, which… oh boy. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but, in essence – this book starts to lead toward an inexorable conclusion, and it does arrive there, so that isn’t the issue. The issue is how it unfolds, which… I personally found more offensive than I can even adequately describe, lol. Ok, fine, spoiler: it involves a rape fetish that we got to experience through two (2) different perspectives in excruciating detail. To say this served no purpose, was tonally incongruous, and bastardized Masako’s character – would all be an understatement.
I’m glad I finally read this as it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but it also felt like a shame that I decided to pick it up for Women in Translation Month (I’m reviewing it rather belatedly) when it ended on a note that I found to be so fundamentally antifeminist it kind of cancelled out the brilliant character work that had come before.
TOKYO UENO STATION by Miri Yū ★★★☆☆ Riverhead, 2020
Tokyo Ueno Station is a short, sparse book which follows the life of Kazu, born in 1933, the same year as the Emperor. Kazu’s life (mostly characterized by tragedy and poverty) is thematically entwined with the Emperor’s through a series of coincidences that tie their families together – and it’s also closely connected to Ueno Park, a historically significant site in Tokyo that Kazu’s spirit now haunts after his death.
This is a mournful, elegant book that ultimately didn’t leave much of an impression on me. In fact, I’m struggling to write this review because I finished this a few days ago and it’s already slipped from my mind almost entirely. I don’t know what it was, because I didn’t find a single thing about this book to be overtly objectionable; it just didn’t fully come together for me. I think the fragmented, vignette-style structure paired with its incredibly short length left me wanting more.
Also – in some ways this comparison seems absurd but I also can’t get it out of my head – this reminded me so much of When All Is Said by Anne Griffin (a book I really didn’t care for), which follows an elderly Irish man looking back on his life and the people who shaped him the most. In both cases I felt like I was being spoon-fed these tragic stories on a very surface level without organically feeling any of it. I do think Tokyo Ueno Station is the more accomplished book, but I guess ‘old men mournfully looking back on their sad lives-lit’ is not for me?
Thank you to Netgalley and Riverhead for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
As I mentioned in this post, the lovely Jennifer asked you guys to submit Women in Translation recommendations, which we’ve compiled into this post here. We got some really incredible submissions – so enjoy, and read Women in Translation year round! 🙂
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić (translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth)
If one looks up a definition of a museum, one will get an explanation on the lines of a building containing artifacts of importance. However technically, going by that definition, every dwelling is a museum of sorts. In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender Ugrešić takes this concept to interesting territories.
Throughout the novel we readers are presented with pictures and artifacts while the narrator of the book explains their significance to her own personal history , these memories and objects range between quirky to bleak. By the end of the book the reader learns how a personal history, encapsulated in objects, has a way of contributing to events in world history. I’m a fan of playful narratives and this does not disappoint.
Rachel Matthews, Nottingham, England
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (translated from Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait)
In Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich manages to create beauty out of devastation. She brings together a series of monologues from the people of Chernobyl affected by the 1986 nuclear power plant accident. The choices she makes in how the monologues are structured elevate this from being a simple record of events to something closer to poetry with themes of hope, duty and uncertainty running throughout. The reference to prayer in the book’s title is fitting as those sharing their stories do so without confirmation they will be read, some will die before the book is even published, but they speak anyway in hopes that their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Alexievich has immortalised their words in this wonderful book and it was a truly humbling experience to read.
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell)
Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a beautiful and chilling short story collection which most definitely warrants a read. Under the shadow of Argentina’s former dictatorship, characters must undergo constant challenges to their values and must negotiate between their morals and their survival. The horror in these stories succeeds because it strikes a balance between the violence visited upon the characters’ bodies and the psychological terror that comes with self-knowledge and experience.
Father Maybe an Elephant, and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… by Gogu Shyamala (translated from Telugu by Various)
Shyamala’s stories, written in Telugu which is a prominent Indian regional language, are cut from the fabric of her own life and seek to depict the complexity of Dalit experiences. Even though each story has a different translator, overall it’s a translation that mimics and retains the unique flavours of Shyamala’s Telugu, quite distinct from the more standardized version. These stories deal with serious themes like discrimination, caste violence, and emancipation, yet are never pedagogic or heavy-handed. The prose is simple but sensuous, especially in its lush descriptions of nature. Published by an indie press that prides itself on its anti-caste focus, this collection creates marvels out of the mundane, distils the essence of life, and leaves a bit of itself inside the reader.
Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
Mahasweta Devi focused on women’s lives in her writing and explored how a female subaltern is doubly marginalized, first for being female and second for being subaltern (here meaning belonging to a lower caste or class). This micro-collection of three stories centres around the image of breasts to highlight the callous oppression and gross objectification of women through their bodies. During any conflict or war, a woman’s body becomes the primary target of an attack as she is seen as a receptacle of honour and shame by a patriarchal society. Devi explodes this extremely twisted notion in these three stories and shows how a body, especially the female body, can become a site of exertion of authoritarian power as well as of gendered resistance against that power.
Emma Wilson, Canberra, Australia
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from German by Susan Bernofsky)
In this slim and eerie novel, Erpenbeck tracks the fortunes of one lakeside house in Brandenburg. At first I couldn’t be fully immersed because of how removed the perspective seemed, as the different inhabitants over the course of a century come in and out of focus. But in the end I think that’s the book’s strength: its wider view of a century of massive change for Germany. I loved the idea that places are haunted by disappearances, dispossessions, and repossessions, and how the house itself remains both stoic and affected throughout.
There’s an aching feeling of loneliness as well as a foreboding sense of danger throughout Hanne Ørstavik’s short, razor-sharp novel Love. The story concerns Vibeke and her adolescent son Jon who have recently moved to a small town in the north of Norway. Jon is about to turn nine years old, but rather than prepare to celebrate they embark on independent journeys deep into the night meeting strangers and travelling through the freezing near-empty landscape. The narrative continuously switches focus between the mother and son’s points of view without any line breaks or indications that it’s changing. This produces the curious effect of a synchronicity and connection between the two, but, as the novel continues, it becomes apparent there’s a dangerous disconnect between them. Although there’s little plot, a quiet tension hums throughout each section making this a deeply meditative, haunting and curiously mesmerising novel which captures an eerie sense of estrangement from the people we’re supposed to be closest to.
Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis)
Soviet Milk alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and deeply poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.
Elena Faverio, Smithtown, New York, United States (Elena Faverio)
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya (translated from Japanese by a few different companies and a lot of hardworking fans!)
Fruits Basket is about a young orphan, Tohru Honda, who gets involved with the mysterious Soma family who are suffering under an ancient family curse. Whenever one of the family members is ill, stressed, or embraced by a member of the opposite sex, they transform into one of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. This was the first ever manga I read (way back in 2007) and it has recently come back into mainstream popularity with a reanimation of the 26-episode anime series (it was first animated in 2001)! It is one of the most popular Japanese manga of all time, with over 18 million copies sold. Fruits Basket is light-hearted, tender, heart-wrenching, and funny in turns–and it’s a great read for young and mature readers alike!
Shielding the Flame by Hanna Krall (translated from Polish by Joanna Stasinska & Lawrence Weschler)
Shielding the Flame if translated word for word from Polish would be titled “To make it before God,” which doesn’t sound as smooth as the former, but illustrates more clearly the doomed fight Krall’s reportage describes.
In the seventies of the last century, Hanna Krall published a series of interviews with Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Edelman, a man reluctant to talk about the past in a myths-creating manner, in Krall’s reportage, commemorates the ghetto’s insurgents, but he also exposes everyday life during the most dehumanising circumstances.
Those who have never read Holocaust literature, fiction or non-fiction, need to brace themselves for the inhumane imagery of that period. Additionally, this set of interviews alternates between the Ghetto Uprising and the post-war life of Edelman, who became a well-known cardiac surgeon, which might make it a bit harder to follow. However, even though it’s a gut-wrenching read, it is gripping and extremely current too, due to its overarching humanism.
Marek Veselý, Czech Republic
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers)
This book was intense but so good! Aliide is an old woman living alone in Estonia when a Russian girl named Zara shows up on her door, running from some kind of trauma. You learn about both their (very traumatic) backstories, but probably the most memorable thing is the atmosphere. There’s resentment and unspoken pain behind every interaction. And the more you learn about both (especially Aliide) the more sympathies change. Not a book for the faint of heart but definitely well-written and impactful.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel)
Set in Central Africa, this coming-of-age novella follows the orphan Okomo whose grandmother has warned her away from befriending a group of young women she considers “indecent and mysterious.” Naturally, Okomo begins spending time with them. When she finds herself falling in love with their leader, she has to decide whether to follow the strict conventions of her Fang culture or rebel and become an outcast alongside her gay uncle. La Bastarda subverts all kinds of cultural norms and western ideas about queer love, community, and identity, which scholar Abosede George does an excellent job of contextualizing in the afterword. It’s also worth noting that this is the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English, making it a landmark addition to the canon of translated literature.
Vagabonds by by Hao Jingfang (translated from Chinese by Ken Liu)
Set in the year 2196, Vagabonds follows a group of young delegates returning to Mars after a five-year cultural exchange on Earth. Mars won the war for independence a hundred years prior, but now escalating tensions between the two planets threaten the peace. After her return, Luoying, a Martian dancer, struggles to reintegrate to her homeland’s collectivistic society after experiencing the independence and creative freedom of life on capitalist Earth. Meanwhile, Eko, a documentary filmmaker from Earth, experiences opposing internal conflicts over his surprising appreciation for Martian society, with its open access to information and non-existent intellectual property laws. The two are vagabonds, stuck between cultures, never to be fully at home again on either planet. It’s easy to think of Mars as representative of China and Earth as Western society, but this meandering, philosophical novel cracks open readers’ assumptions and veers away from simple metaphors. It’s a lengthy tome, but well worth the investment.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles)
Tokyo Ueno Station paints a picture of life in modern-day Tokyo as if observed from a crowded train platform. You may only catch snippets of conversation, the call of a bird as it passes overhead, or a glimpse of an umbrella dripping with rain. These observations are woven together with reflections and ruminations of an unhoused man who later becomes a ghost. Both in life and death, he occupies a park near the Ueno train station and reflects on his life and his surroundings. There is so much to consider in this novel about Japanese history, our legacies, death, and how we treat one another. I really loved it for its brevity and thematic complexity, although its style may deter some readers.
Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica (translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses)
This is a novel about a near-future in which people begin breeding and raising humans for consumption. The normalization of cannibalism is blurred and ambiguated through carefully controlled language and a redefinition of what it means to be a person. What makes this novel great is how it goes beyond its premise to examine the power of language, the danger of individualism, and the lengths people will go to in order to get what they want. I don’t consider myself to be a squeamish person, but this novel had my stomach fluctuating between queasy churning and a knotted pit of dread. Tender is the Flesh is a visceral, often unpleasant read that will not appeal to everyone, but I found it quite impactful. I was also grateful that it was relatively short, as I do not know if my constitution could have handled much more body horror.
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (translated from the French by Barbara Bray)
This novel is about the end of slavery on the Caribeean island Guadaloupe and the end of a family line, Télumée being the last of a long line of mothers and daughters. But of course it’s not really the end; the effects of slavery are ongoing, and Télumée is such a vivid, arresting presence that it’s impossible to believe she’ll leave no trace. You may have gathered that this is not a light novel, but the writing and the translation is light, as in airy, and dreamlike. The prose is so effortless and perfect, it’s easy to forget this is a translation, but it’ll also make you want to read in the original French, if you can.
The International Booker Prize isn’t always the most accessible place to start diving into translations. They tend to favour the experimental. This 2020 shortlister probably qualifies, but it’s actually accessible at many levels. Are you familiar with the foundational Argentinian epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro? Perfect, this is a satire and you’ll love it. Not so much? That’s fine too, you can relax and enjoyr a drug-fueled romp across the pampas, or get serious and appreciate the sharp post-colonial and feminist critique. Oh, and if you need a 19th century lesbian romance to hold you over till Ammonite is released, China Iron‘s got you covered.
Four by Four by Sara Mesa(Translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore)
Insular communities are an excellent setting for gothic stories, and Four by Four is no exception. Set at Wybrany College –– only allegedly established in 1943 –– is an “elite alternative to the orphanages and shelters of the day,” where the wealthy keep their kids away from the rapidly depopulating city of Vado. The “Specials”, those on scholarship, become pets to the elite students; students pets to the masters; and on it goes. Through its short chapters, erratic timeline, and two-part narration the school’s web of exploitation is gradually weaved. Just try to find your footing in this unsettling milieu.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
Valeria Luiselli’s irreverent second novel in Spanish was written in collaboration with workers at a Jumex factory in Ecatepec. The workers would listen to chapters as they worked, discuss them, and return the recordings of their discussions back to the author. The story follows Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, an auctioneer in Mexico City. His wares? The teeth of notorious and infamous people from Petrarch to Marilyn Monroe. Highway is endearingly eccentric and charming company on this hilarious, madcap journey on which his only aim is to impress his son.
After the Wall by Jana Hensel (translated from German by Jefferson Chase)
This is a memoir about growing up in East Germany, and what it’s like to have childhood experiences that don’t exist anymore. My favorite element is the contrast of generations; older East Germans find it harder to adapt to the change, but younger Germans can’t completely understand what it was like to grow up in a divided country with such different experiences on either side of the wall. Hensel writes in a collective voice to show that she’s speaking for her cohort who have one foot in the past and another in the present. Really recommend this!
Isy Abraham-Raveson, Philadelphia, United States
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lingren (translated from Swedish by Florence Lamborn)
Pippi Longstocking is a joyful story of an unconventional, super-strong girl teaching others the importance of breaking conventions and being oneself. Pippi is wonderfully imperfect. She can be self-centered and is easily annoyed, but also hates injustice and always stands up to bullies, whether they are little boys or police officers. Unfortunately, the book is not free of racism–Pippi is full of strange tales of racialized others from her worldly travels. If sharing this book with children, it would certainly require a discussion about prejudice. But overall, Pippi is a role model for all of us, embodying courage, strength, independence, playfulness, and the power of eccentricity.
The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous (translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette)
The Frightened Ones explores the psychological traumas of living under dictatorship in present-day Syria through an intimate look into the pressure-cooked minds of two women. It is an emulsion of reality and memory, blurring storytelling boundaries between an in-person narrator and one in a manuscript. The effect creates a sort of meta-autofiction, where truth is overrun by fear and we as readers are left questioning what is commentary, biography, or fiction. The complexity of Wannous’ text softens its focus, making it hard to describe, but its propulsive pace and meticulous sense of atmosphere make it worth the effort. Ultimately, The Frightened Ones reads less like a novel and more like an experience.
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers)
Gessen and Summers collected various stories from this renowned author and placed them into four categories: Songs of the Eastern Slavs, Allegories, Requiems, and Fairy Tales. But they all share dark, fable-esque perspectives on jealousy, repression, and revenge. I realized while reading this that I’d come to expect a certain interiority from short stories in general, and a focus on minute personal psychology. But Petrushevskaya’s stories are externalized; the outside world is treated as a nightmarish reflection on the grimness inside. There’s a sense that we’ve made the world in our image, and that the result is not pretty. This then raises the question of how you cope if what’s inside you doesn’t match the stories the world is feeding you, forcing characters to create or to find their own worlds. It’s fabulous in all senses of the word, and whether or not you speak Russian, I encourage you to look up some video interviews with this author, if only to appreciate her enviable hat collection.
Wait, what, I have reading interests outside Shakespeare?!
Last summer I wrote a piece on Women in Translation month that you can read HERE if you’re looking for a primer on what this is all about!
Every August the wonderful Matthew, Kendra, and Jennifer from booktube host the Women in Translation Readathon – this year it’s taking place from August 24th – 31st. There are 3 prompts this year:
Prompts (bonus for any if the translator is also a woman!):
1. Read a book published by an independent press
2. Read a genre title (SFF, romance, crime, thriller, horror, etc.)
3. Read a book that was published in its original language pre-2000
My own TBR is as follows:
Prompt 1 – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover (published by Europa Editions)
Prompt 2 – The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (thriller)
OR Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (thriller – also works for prompt #3, originally published in 1997)
Prompt 3 – Abigail by Magda Szabó, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (originally published in 1970)
My big priority here is Disoriental, but I will be getting to as many of these as I can that week!
But this year there’s an exciting component to the readathon that affects me – and potentially all of you!
If you’ve wanted to try your hand at written reviews but don’t have your own platform (or maybe you have a smaller platform that you’re looking to grow), there are two exciting options. You can review ANY book by a woman in translation and submit your pieces to Jennifer – they’ll either be featured in Open Letters Review or here on my blog! Guidelines below:
Written Review Options:
1) Open Letters Review (https://openlettersreview.com/): Any full reviews of 2019-2020 releases. Send to me by Sunday, September 6th and she’ll edit them so they can run on the site. Welcome to send before that date as well! Typical review is 600-800 words. (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
2) Pace, Amore, Libri (https://paceamorelibri.wordpress.com/): Rachel has agreed to host shorter bits about WIT books published in any year on her blog! We’ll be doing a collective piece: people can contribute 6 sentences per title, 2 titles maximum per person, and we’ll run them as a big recommendations post together. Deadline for this will also be Sunday, September 6th. (Contact: email@example.com)
KIM JIYOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated by Jamie Chang
Liveright, April 2020
“Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age. She got married three years ago and had a daughter last year. […] Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior was first detected on 8 September.”
So begins Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo’s daring excavation of a young woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, which has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea. Jiyoung (the Korean naming convention places a person’s family name before their given name), an average, unremarkable woman, one day begins to imitate the voices of other women she has known throughout her life—a phenomenon neither she nor her husband can explain, which prompts them to visit a psychiatrist.
You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and a piece I wrote about feminist movements in South Korea HERE.
TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica
translated by Sarah Moses
Scribner, August 4, 2020
Effectively an anti-factory farming polemic satirized to its shocking, inevitable conclusion, Tender Is the Flesh is a horrifying and grotesque piece of work. Translated from the Spanish brilliantly by Sarah Moses, it tells the story of a man named Marcos who recently lost his son to a cot death and is estranged from his wife as a result. Marcos works at a local processing plant – but instead of cattle, the plant farms and slaughters humans, following a virus which infected all non-human animals, rendering their meat unsafe to eat. But these people are no longer referred to as humans; so desensitized is everyone to their new dietary reality.
This book made me feel physically ill every time I picked it up, but I found it equally hard to put it down. I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, primarily in protest against factory farming, so it’s safe to say that this novel’s central conceit resonated strongly enough to compel me to keep reading, but it would be reductive to say that condemning the meat industry is the only thing Bazterrica is doing here. This book focuses equally on the question of what it means to be human (I can’t get a sort of half-baked Never Let Me Go comparison out of my head, even if the similarities truly do end there – but there’s a reason that’s my favorite book; it’s a theme that I find endlessly fascinating to wrestle with) and the ways in which we allow our personal ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power.
It’s not a flawless book – I think the (air-tight) worldbuilding occasionally overpowers the character-driven part of the novel, which I was honestly fine with until something happened that made me wish the character development hadn’t been quite so withheld from the reader, so I initially rated this 4 stars when I finished, but on second thought, I think this book will be seared into my brain forever, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Bazterrica has achieved here.
This is not an easy book to recommend, and I cannot emphasize just how strong of a stomach you need to make it through this, but, somewhat perversely, it’s not a hard book to love. I’d say it’s probably the single most disturbing thing I have ever read (A Clockwork Orange has been dethroned at last), but that is in no way a criticism.
Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
THE LIAR by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
Little, Brown and Co., 2019
The Liar is a book that will make its readers uncomfortable by design; set in modern-day Israel, it follows a 17-year-old girl, Nofar, who is unremarkable in every way until one day she decides to tell a terrible lie, with far-reaching consequences. At her summer job at an ice cream parlor she has an unpleasant encounter with a local celebrity who yells at her and insults her appearance—things then escalate when Nofar falsely accuses him of attempted rape.
It’s a deeply unsettling premise, and a difficult one to pull off. How does an author tell a story about a false accusation without trivializing the reality of sexual assault? Ayelet Gundar-Goshen rises to the challenge.
You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the rarity of false sexual assault allegations HERE.
VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
FSG, August 2019
When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review. Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway. I found this both boring and deeply annoying.
I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people. Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person? Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties? But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme. Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia). It just… didn’t work for me.
This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto. I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me. I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’
But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot. It just did nothing for me. Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.
Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
THE DOOR by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
NYRB Classics, 2015
originally published 1987
What a brilliant, infuriating, deeply perplexing book. The Door centers on the relationship between two very different women – the protagonist who is a writer, and her housekeeper, an older woman named Emerence. A clash of values between the two provides the main conflict for this tense and elusive story: Ali Smith writes in her brief introduction, “Their relationship transforms into one full of the barbed hostilities of love.”
Emerence – cold, strong, and fiercely, irrationally independent – is an unforgettable character, though she doesn’t feel like a real person as much as a construct; but a construct for what is the question. While The Door reads almost like a twisted fable, it’s morally ambiguous to the extreme: both characters engage in destructive behavior and it’s difficult at times to discern who exactly you should be sympathizing with. Emerence herself feels like a (very deliberately constructed) contradiction: she abhors organized religion but appears to be the embodiment of something almost divine – there’s also a question of her relationship to Hungary’s shifting cultural landscape that I think could benefit from a deep dive into the sociopolitical context of this historical period.
But though I found this book brilliant from start to finish, there was something I grew to dread about picking it up the closer I got to the end. Like Emerence herself, this book is entirely devoid of warmth in a way that started to feel draining; this from someone who genuinely loves dark fiction. I’m happy to have read it and am eager to read more from Szabó – and from Len Rix, who did a great job with the translation – but I can’t decide if this is the sort of book I’ll want to revisit in a few years or whether I’m sufficiently unsettled as to appreciate it from afar without attempting a reread to reengage. Time will tell.
So, like I said, I didn’t read as much in August as I had planned, but I ended up being kind of busy so I guess I’ll forgive myself. For the first half of August I was cat-sitting and I ended up having a lot to do that week, and then this past weekend (technically the beginning of September, but whatever, it’s the reason this wrap up is late so I’ll talk about it now) I went to New York for the long weekend.
It included many highlights: I went to the US Open and saw Naomi Osaka play Coco Gauff (which was wonderful); I saw the current production of Oklahoma which positively blew me away (I am not an Oklahoma fan so I did not have very high expectations, but seriously, if you have a chance to see this production, DO IT); I saw Sleep No More for the fourth time (I’m obsessed); and I met Matthew Sciarappa for brunch, after which we went to The Strand and he picked out books for me and my friends to buy. I ended up with a copy of Compass by Mathias Énard, which I recently mentioned on here that I’m dying to read. It was such fun. Matthew was lovely and it was great to see my NYC friends again (New York is where my main irl friend squad lives, hence the fact that I return there so frequently).
I’m failing miserably at my and Hannah’s readathon, but the Women in Translation show must go on! I still need to finish these three books before I can pick up anything else: Cassandra by Christa Wolf (loving it), The Door by Magda Szabo (loving it), and Valerie by Sara Stridsberg (not loving it – sorry – though it is technically an ARC, so, win for me).
What was the best book you read in August? Comment and let me know!