Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary fiction’

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading these five novels:

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Soderberg, 1905, tr. Paul Britten Austen (1963)
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, 1934
  • That Night, Alice McDermott, 1987
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper, 1973
  • Doppelganger, Daša Drndić, 2002, tr. S.D. Curtis & Celia Hawkesworth (2018)

I’m not sure a person could pick five books at random and make a more eclectic list. Sometimes odd combinations of books speak to each other in subtle, intricate ways – that wasn’t the case with these five books, but reading such different novels at the same time didn’t diminish the reading experience for me either.

I read Murder on the Orient Express because of a conversation I’d had with my mother recently, enjoyed it in the way that I was remembering what it was like to read Christie in my household as a teenager—I rediscovered my mother’s Christie paperbacks when I helped my parents move last year, more importantly, I was reminded of the the way she wrote the month and year in pencil each time on the back page and some of them have been read five or six times. The books are yellowed and falling apart, and she goes back to them again and again. And then I happened upon “The Case of Agatha Christie” (which is really interesting, especially if you are interested in modernism and discussions of formalism) in the most recent London Review of Books and now I am writing, or trying to write, an essay about the memories and questions that have come alive to me by the simple juxtaposition of this article, my mother, her Agatha Christie paperbacks. As essays about mothers often go, I may not be able to finish this one.

Lanchester writes (of Christie): “Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.”

We are reading That Night for the novel class I’m teaching this year. It’s a favorite of mine, and was one of the first novels I wrote about for this blog, as well as part of my list of “perfect novels”. Rereading it again for the third or fourth time, I was struck (again) by its accomplishment. The novel does not feel dated, neither does the style, even if its subject matter has somewhat. McDermott’s narrative control—the telescoping outward to transform a very specific domestic story into something unequivocally universal, the poetic repetition, the effaced 1st person narrator—is both subtle and flawless. It was a pure delight to reread.

I wonder now what heartache it caused them, the mother especially, fleeing her home like that, the home she had made with her husband. I wonder now how bitterly she had looked back across the year and a half that saw her lose her husband, her daughter, her home. With what envy she had looked at the other houses along our block as she drove past them for the last time that morning. How peaceful, how untouched they must have seemed to her, those houses where the brave men slept, their wives tucked under their arms, their children nearby.

Or perhaps as she drove past the shuttered houses, with their damp lawns and purring window fans, she saw instead how precarious their peace was, how momentary. Maybe she saw instead the coming troubles: the scattering of sons, the restlessness of wives, the madness of daughters. Maybe she was aware, in her flight that early morning, that all futures were as uncertain as her own, that even as she drove away, her mother crying quietly beside her, the very blood that pulsed through their veins and set the rhythm that kept their wives asleep was moving pain and age and sorrow to the hearts of the good men.

I will save my thoughts of Doctor Glas and Doppelganger for posts of their own. What strange, marvelous books. One daring for its time period, the other formally playful but shadowed and dark.

What are you reading?


The opening paragraph of Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew* involves a clever repetition:

Never forgive, I said that morning just as I do every morning, by the window, waiting for dawn. Never forgive. Whom? Constanza? Which one of them? Never forgive her, the young Constanza, or myself, the old one? I did not know, all I knew was: I was never to forgive.

‘It hasn’t been that long, mother, it’s normal you feel lonely,’ my daughter Agustina had said a few days before. I don’t feel lonely, it’s this house that suddenly has an echo.

First is the mention of two women sharing the same first name, a young and an old Constanza, something which creates an immediate doubling. Two women, both needing forgiveness. Second is that last word echo and how it so casually evokes an emptiness that both contains and repeats itself. More doubling. There is also the subtle image of a figure at a window; a pre-dawn moment that most likely involves a reflection as well as the implied experience of looking out while looking in. And, finally, there is the actual printed repetition of the word forgive—four times in five lines!—along with a single repetition of the word lonely.

This idea of doubling and echo winds its way throughout the entire novel, because even the premise of Mildew is dual. There are two stories running alongside one another—the story of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with their niece, and the story of a woman who finds a green spot on her body. And not just anywhere.

I went into the bathroom and undressed in front of the mirror. I did not find in my reflection the young woman I had been just seconds ago. I examined my body, a personal audition that I fail every morning. Big feet, varicose ankles, wide thighs.

A slight prickling in the pubis made me look down and I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.

Within a few lines, Jonguitud confirms what is first here only an allusion to Macbeth. Constanza is a costume designer for a local theatre group and six months before the novel opens, she made the costumes for this very play. References to theatre abound and this again reinforces the idea of doubling: scenes on stage within the scenes of the novel that give the reader two “stages” of action, careful insinuations that characters might be playing “roles,” specific theatrical movements within a longer story, even the growing spot of mildew on Constanza’s body is discussed in terms of costume. And the first person direct-to-reader narrative perspective plays right into this; it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider Mildew a form of or even an homage to Shakespearean soliloquy. With these careful allusions and parallels, Jonguitud enriches a short text with great depth and complexity.

Alongside this intertextual depth, there is a tremendous amount of story packed into these 91 beautifully printed pages. An entire history condensed into a single day, an entire family and their respective pasts brought out in quick but vivid portraits. Constanza tells of her childhood, her parents and siblings, and eventually explains how she came to raise her sister’s child, the younger Constanza, and what that experience was like—not just for her but for the rest of the family. If we believe Constanza, it was not a pleasant experience and the younger Constanza was a source of constant tension and family crisis.

Mildew is an unsettling and uncomfortable text. Not just because it moves through a variety of dark questions – including difficult questions of female desire – but from a structural and narrative perspective as well. Extending the idea of the novel as an echo of Shakespearean soliloquy, it stretches out the very strengths of that form—the way it builds tension through abrupt movements of thought, how it integrates past/present reflections, allusions to action that has occurred “off-scene.” And like many of the best soliloquies, there is a rising sense of madness as Constanza vents her thoughts and emotions.

The marvelous parallel to her increasing unsteadiness (and perhaps increasing untrustworthiness as narrator) is the mildew growing down the trunk of her body. By the middle of the book, Constanza’s leg is nearly completely covered:

I sat on the floor, among the plants. My green leg smelled like a dark basement, an old closet, it smelled forgotten. I saw then that the mildew had extended beyond my toes and had wide filaments, long like pine needles. From one of my toes a branch was now growing.

From this point on, the narrative (which was not particularly linear in the first place) begins to fragment even further. Each short chapter is somehow more jarring than the one preceding it, and the scenes become difficult to puzzle out in terms of timeline. There is a sense—fantastically carried off by Jonguitud—that the story is both building toward a big event and racing as quickly as possible away from a different big event. This, again, is another kind of doubling and it makes for great tension within the novel’s structure.

At only 91 pages, Mildew is a deceptively simple book. Its brevity and relatively unadorned prose belie what is more layered and difficult. This is a novel with a psychological and emotional intensity that invites careful reading and re-reading, and resists immediate interpretation.

*Mildew is translated into English (from Spanish) by the author and published by the marvelous CB Editions.


Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out last year and there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it. I really like Messud’s writing (I’ve read her two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale, as well as her big novel, The Emperor’s Children), mostly because she is a fiercely intelligent and intellectual writer, but also because of the way she works carefully at thorny emotional questions in her books. She can do social satire as well as intimate personal/domestic – so I was quite curious to read The Woman Upstairs and now that I’ve finished it, it’s exactly the kind of book I’d really like to discuss.

Briefly, the book is about a fortyish woman named Nora. And the book is, at least on the surface, about her anger at what life has dealt her, but also at the overall outcome of her choices and a long-chain of events that has led her to a certain moment—in this are family situations (the death of her mother being the most important, but also her childhood and her self-conception as having developed from her particular family with its specific emotional currents) and professional situations (her work as a 3rd grade teacher, her years-earlier decision to give up her dream of becoming a professional artist). Nora narrates the book, and she focuses her narrative on a single relationship, an odd kind of intense love triangle between herself and three others: Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid. The Shahids are a family (Reza is their young son and Nora is his teacher), and Nora and Sirena become friends and artistic collaborators (of a kind).

In the way that I have come to admire, Messud takes up a number of difficult questions in the story—namely, the particular solitude of a single childless woman in contemporary American society, the compromises a person makes in terms of fulfilling artistic dreams, the strange pull of female friendships, and also essential notions of desire and attraction and love. There is really a lot going on in the book, and she doesn’t work at these questions perfunctorily but instead she spends a lot of time on them, revisiting them in different situations and with different characters. It makes for the kind of book you can read forward and backward, slowly. Messud invites a kind of conscious reflection on Nora’s explanations and judgments, on her opinions and decisions, and so I often found myself asking – Is that true? Does it really feel like that? Do people feel that way? Do I feel that way?

I like a book that solicits this kind of engagement from me. And I love the scale of Messud’s social commentary. She can do satire (The Emperor’s Children) but in The Woman Upstairs she is decidedly never making fun of Nora Eldridge, even if the book can be funny at times.  Instead, she is taking Nora very seriously—even when Nora might be difficult, or pathetic—and I found the seriousness of Messud’s project quite touching. Really, the book is a dissection of an individual’s unhappiness. Of a woman’s unhappiness. I think the distinction is important, and I think Messud makes it overtly.

One thing that struck me, however, was that the book’s emphasis on self-reflection and its choice to have Nora speak directly to the reader means that it also involves a tension between direct scene and thought-based exposition. Or, put another way, the book relies more heavily on Nora’s thinking than it does on Nora’s behavior. What she does is obviously there, but what she thinks is always and consistently forefronted. She is, quite literally, almost always “telling.” I found this a curious choice simply because the book is so much about Nora’s anger and the kind of person it has made her. Now, Nora is dealing with a simmering anger, a kind of just-barely controlled resentment—and so much of the book’s tension is wrapped up in waiting to see when she might lose control. I was surprised, in fact, at how little she does. I don’t mean big overwhelming eruptions, because I think that Messud is making a point that unless Nora intends to self-destruct (the option at one end of the anger spectrum – and something she will not ever do) she will internalize and hold it together no matter what. But Nora doesn’t ever really slip up. Not even little things. I’ll admit that because of this, it was sometimes easy to lose sight of her anger.

Finally, something else that struck me as interesting was the way the book is structured. It opens at a present-tense point, Nora in the here and now, and in this here and now she is furiously angry. At her life in general, but also because of something very specific. She then moves backward four years to begin the story of that very specific thing. And then the entire story rolls out – nearly 300 pages of it, all of it in that four years earlier time period, briefly interrupted by even earlier flashbacks. It isn’t until only a few pages from the end that we catch up to that first present-day period and where, essentially, we can now deal directly with Nora’s anger and its consequences. But it’s strange because Messud doesn’t do very much with this—she addresses it, of course, and in an intriguing (even a courageous way, I would say) way, but it is extremely brief. It surprised me. And I say courageous because Messud uses this story of Nora’s anger and what it might do/become as a launching off point into a future we cannot (or may not be able to) easily envision – if Nora can transform herself, in some way transcend the anger that has characterized her, it is only through the reader’s determination to agree with this possibility, really it is only through a trick of the reader’s imagination. That’s a fascinating idea – and one I’m still thinking about.

One of the tangential bonuses to having this blog is that I feel fairly free to write up some of my more unfinished thoughts about a book. I recently wrote a review for Necessary Fiction of Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which is the latest novella published by Peirene Press.

I really enjoyed Chasing the King of Hearts – as I have enjoyed almost everything Peirene has published. But when I started to write my review, I realized that I wanted to be able to talk about the book as an example of Holocaust literature and how it resisted some of what has become stereotypical about that kind of novel. So I started to write something and I came up with this rough bunch of sentences:

There is a moment when reading the first few pages of a Holocaust novel that a kind of uneasy wariness sets in—is this going to be exciting? is it going to start to feel like a film? It’s unfortunate that graphic depictions of human misery in literature can become exciting once they start to feel familiar, like a good thriller, or once it becomes easy to sort out the bad guys from the good guys and just exactly how many characters a reader will accept for random destruction before deciding the narrative has lost all of its beauty. Do not misunderstand me, these narratives—of all genocides, of all our horrific collective failures—must be told and retold and told again, even at the risk of becoming a kind of kitsch industry for both the heroes and the martyrs. Literature reminds, literature explores, literature reveals and unveils.

But this is also why it is such a relief to experience a novel that carefully resists this drive toward a recognizable cinematic cliché and cathartic memorialization.

When I got to the final draft of the review, I realized that I had to cut these sentences out of it. Mostly because I haven’t actually read enough Holocaust literature to make this kind of claim – and those that I have read tend to do exactly what I was claiming for Chasing the King of Hearts.

I’m thinking of books like Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report or Martin Amis’s Times Arrow, Maureen Myant’s The Search and Arnost Lustig’s Lovely Green Eyes. I have not read Thomas Keannely’s Schindler’s Ark (but I have seen the film) and I’m curious to see how I might consider it – whether it might even be possible to experience it on its own, without Liam Neeson’s face popping in. A book that I might hesitantly put into the other category is Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, which struck me when I read it as using more superficial shock than meditative depth. After cutting those lines from my review and thinking about the idea some more, I am curious where I’ve gotten the notion that there are proper ways to handle novelizing the Holocaust (and other books about horrific historical events) as opposed to ways that are inherently cliché.

I’m not sure, but I will leave my half-finished thought up there –in the hopes that it might generate a little discussion and some book suggestions.

The other thing I wanted to mention when writing about Chasing the King of Hearts was how fitting it was that Peirene brought this book into English, especially as Peirene’s publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has herself written a remarkable novella, Magda (Salt Publishing, 2012) that also tells a WWII story from an extremely unique perspective – it is a short but brutal story going over parts of the life of Magda Goebbels. It is both fascinating and horrible (not just the poisoning of the children but the way Ziervogel illuminates the Nazi psychosis) and while I really admire Ziervogel’s work and research and narrative skill, I have found it a little difficult to write about the book. It’s a remarkable book – it is subtle and straightforward and resists cliché in the same way as the books I mentioned above. I found it devastating. From my own perspective as a woman and a mother, I think that Ziervogel was incredibly brave for working within such a story, for getting as close as she does to such a difficult series of events.

Ziervogel recently wrote about the experience of writing Magda and her thoughts add a nice filter through which to look at the book – I found her comment on why she chose to write the book’s most difficult scene from a specific character’s POV very interesting. As I was reading the end of Magda, I wondered whether the scene might actually have been easier to face – as a writer – from the perspective she chooses, but she adds some historical nuance to her choice that is very appropriate.


Elizabeth Baines’s Too Many Magpies (Salt, 2009) is a slim little book. And the timeline is short, following along the events of just a few seasons. But it is one of those books interested in describing/exploring how a person’s life can fundamentally change in a matter of seconds. In this case it is the result of chance, an unexpected meeting between a man and a married woman who is also a young mother.

So, yes, this is a book about infidelity. And often it feels like there are already too many of those around, but Too Many Magpies comes at the question from an oblique angle. It isn’t interested in asking the reader to think about how this young woman could possibly fall for another man at such a time in her life—surrounded as she is by a loving husband and two small children—instead, it takes the falling part for granted. This is something that happens. This is something people do not always control. A connection arises, unforeseen and even unwanted. But it is too powerful to ignore.

And the question the book sets up is one about rational thinking vs. superstition and intuition, about logic vs. emotion, about need vs. desire. More than anything the book is about power. How does a person come to exercise a kind of power over another? How willing, how complicit are we in this process? And finally, perhaps the most interesting part of the question, the book also looks at how other people’s perceptions of us change once it becomes clear that we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by someone else’s power.

Without a doubt the story and the questions Baines poses are compelling, unique even. But her writing is what makes this short book exceptional. A very intimate first-person narrator takes us through her story, telling of the events and conversations and occurrences that mark her experience. She slips easily between time markers, and gives only the essential; she is interested in symbolism, coincidence and knowledge. She wants to understand how you can know things, and what that word really means.

Funny how something good and easy can make you know about the bad.

It wasn’t that the birth was easy, the second time; they tell me that in an earlier age he’d have died. I believe it. I knew it then, and so did he. They held him up, amongst all that blood and metal, and I saw the instinct-knowledge cross his face: so that was it, that’s the line you have to teeter on, that was death, and this is life. So. And satisfied, he closed his eyes.

And set to work seizing life in as calm and efficient a way as possible, drinking deep and quickly from my breasts and falling straight back into unburdened sleep for hours.

No, it wasn’t that there was no danger. But there was this certainty: that however things turned out, they were proceeding according to natural laws.

The book involves this wonderful tension between ideas of science and more romantic and felt explanations for what happens in everyday life. The narrator is curious about how deeply we want to believe in magic, yet she is aware of how dangerous and beautiful those beliefs can be. But also, on the other side, how very shocked and disappointed we may feel when science fails us in some way. It is really well done—complicated and with no real attempt to do more than question and examine and highlight these tendencies. I love the ambiguity in that.

I’ve only just discovered Baines. She has another short novel called The Birth Machine, and a collection of short fiction, Balancing on the Edge of the World, both of which are published by Salt. Very much looking forward to read the rest of her work.



This week at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Tania Hershman’s collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano:

But flash pieces can also work in another direction entirely. They can willfully ignore or resist this idea of “boundaries,” and, in this way, they create a sharp and refined glimmer of a much longer story. But they are more than hints or teasers, they become like a puzzle piece so intricately detailed and formed that it no longer needs the puzzle.

This last example is the kind of fiction that mostly fills Tania Hershman’s My Mother Was an Upright Piano, a collection of 56 short and very short fictions that play across a wide variety of human experience and emotion—loss, irreverence, love relationships, family relationships, grief, anger, curiosity, escape. The diversity of subject on offer in the collection is brilliant, but what really impresses is how Hershman succeeds in establishing longer, more complicated narratives within each short piece. These aren’t incomplete excerpts; the reader doesn’t want or need any of these fictions to go on longer or somehow become another form entirely. But again and again, out of a very short piece, a fuller story blooms.

You can read the full review here.

This week at Necessary Fiction, I review Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight, a book published by the Prague-based Equus Press in 2012:

Overall, plot does not so much matter in this book—the mood, the style, the imagery and emotion are really at the heart of the work; also, Armand is experimenting with depression and psychosis, how to describe them, how they are experienced—but for the sake of review, here is a bare bones that will suffice: a young man in Prague relives a past relationship when the body of a young redheaded woman surfaces in the river and he goes with his friend (if that’s really the word to describe their connection), Blake, to photograph the body. Blake is a pornographer of women’s bodies, both dead and alive, although he seems to prefer them dead. Our narrator is a fugitive, having exchanged his life (via swapped passport in a South American jungle) for a dying man’s ten years before. The reason for his shadowy existence is slowly and circuitously revealed and has everything to do with the body of a young red headed woman. Not the corpse we meet in chapter two, but that body from his past, a powerful physical presence that hovers throughout the entire book.

You can read the entire review here.

Today at Necessary Fiction, I review Dana Johnson’s début novel, Elsewhere, California. Here is just a bit of what I had to say:

Avery understands the way that language works as a door between cultures because she’s been paying keen attention to speech patterns and the importance of words since she was a child. And Avery is a tester, interested in trying out words and phrases from other people—from Brenna’s poor, white and overly permissive family; from Joan, a kind and elderly white neighbor; from the young women of different cultures she meets in college; and even from her own family, those in California and those in Tennessee. To Avery, language is intricately bound with identity and so as Avery learns to speak several “languages,” her identity begins to crack and splinter.

This identity crisis begins young, and Johnson does a great job of showing the multitude of awareness moments in young Avery’s life, and the miniscule alignment choices that she makes, both with positive and negative repercussions, as she moves forward from child to adult and her world changes and shifts. There’s a complex negotiation going on here—who does Avery want to be? What are the boundaries to her identity and who or what has put those boundaries in place? Johnson doesn’t shy away from the more delicate questions of race and prejudice, and although the novel has what I would call a gentle narrative, it doesn’t pull its punches either.

My review says as much, but I really enjoyed this novel–its focus on language as well as the clarity and emotional complexity of Johnson’s writing.

Click here to read the entire review.

Elsewhere, California was an interesting book to read relatively close to Martha Southgate’s most recent book, The Taste of Salt, as well as one to consider against all my Gordimer reading, especially her latest, No Time Like the Present. In terms of The Taste of Salt and Elsewhere, California, both books deal with identity issues for African American women who have in some way left their working class or impoverished backgrounds behind, and both books deal with the protagonist’s relationship with a male relative who hasn’t been so lucky, a person the protagonist cares about but who also embarrasses and even frightens them. The main characters of these two novels are quite different, but the books share these general themes and it was interesting to compare how the authors handled similar ideas.

Gordimer is a different kind of writer than either Johnson or Southgate because she’s so often moving from the political to the emotional, and not the other way around. She’s also white, so that’s something else altogether. Regardless, both Southgate and Johnson take a more intimate approach, focusing their narrative on the interior life of a single character. No Time Like the Present is looking at similar issues really, especially the idea of a mixed culture marriage and the documentation of moments of prejudice in a society that is meant to be striving for equality between cultures.




Without meaning to, I’ve taken a little blogging break again. Mainly because I’ve been reading some male authors (Dany Laferrière, Ramuz and Cormac McCarthy) and therefore won’t be blogging about them, but also because I’ve been really busy with work and didn’t have much time. Things have calmed down a bit and summer is finally in full swing in Switzerland, so I’m catching up on my reading.

But I thought I would write up some casual reading notes to get back into the habit.


I just finished Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, published in 1950. Very interesting to read her first. Mainly because I didn’t realize it was her first until I was halfway through. It’s an incredibly accomplished book, extremely funny and wonderfully ironic. It introduces all that Pym would continue to explore in her later books – spinsterhood and bachelorhood, small communities centered around the church, the decision to marry late in life.

Some Tame Gazelle also looks at sisters. Harriet and Belinda, both unmarried, live together and spend their time involved in the local church, where Belinda is friends with the archdeacon. She was in love with him in her youth, but he married someone else. This sorrow rides its way through the entire book. Belinda has never quite gotten over what happened to her, although she is, in most ways, completely resigned to her fate. Pym is relentless in her exploration of people who find moments of contentment in lives that are inherently unhappy and very lonely. That she does this through comedy is remarkable to me. Her books are funny, and then they are horribly sad at the same time.

The last thing I wanted to mention about Pym is that it only just occured to me, after reading several of her books, that although they are always centered around a tightly-knit church community, there is no religion. There is ritual and clerical life, but there is no God. That’s a very interesting choice, I think.


I also started reading Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California. This book comes out this month from Counterpoint Press. It’s the story of Avery, an African American woman struggling with her identity. Johnson alternates between the story of Avery’s youth (written in African American Vernacular English) and her adult life, married to an Italian immigrant (written in non-vernacular). Language is exceedingly important to the cultural questions Johnson poses. I love books that look hard at America’s cultural identity, at its unspoken and spoken boundaries, at the way people negotiate these issues. Johnson also writes beautifully.

I’ll be reviewing this book for Necessary Fiction soon, so I’ll have more to say then.


I’ve also just started reading Janet Frame’s first novel, Owls Do Cry. This is my first time reading Frame, who is one of New Zealand’s most accomplished writers. The book was first published in 1957. I’m about halfway through and was trying to figure out what other book it reminded me of—it has a very particular rhythm and syntax that felt very familiar to me. It finally struck me today that it has a lot in common, language-wise, with Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa. Which really means that perhaps Owls Do Cry simply has a lot in common with other Beat-style literature of the late 1950s. This is not a decade I’m familiar enough with to make any other comparisons – I’d love some input.

More importantly, however, is the difference I do notice between Frame and other writers of the same era that I do know a little better – like Iris Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer, for example. Frame uses a stream-of-consciousness style with a lot of poetic language and not many passing-of-time markers for the reader to follow. But the book is beautiful and different and I can’t wait to finish it. Am hoping to finish it up tonight, so I can write about it before Monday, when we’ll be discussing it with the Dead Writer’s Book Club.


And finally, new books! Over the last few weeks, I’ve received, bought, and picked up a number of books at my favorite second hand book shop. My shelves are always overflowing, but I’ve added the following to those towering stacks:

  • W. Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
  • Deborah Levy – Swimming Home
  • James Agee – A Death in the Family
  • Irène Nemirovsky – All Our Worldly Goods
  • May Sarton – Kinds of Love
  • Daphne Du Maurier – Jamaica Inn
  • Melanie McDonald – Eromenos
  • Alexandra Fuller – Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • John Walsh – Border Lines

A few months back, the lovely Helen of Gallimaufry sent me a copy of Tove Jansson’s The True Deciever. She suspected I would like it and was she ever right! Discovering Jansson’s fiction is one of the highlights of my reading year. I loved the book. Loved it.

The True Deceiver is strange and dark and interested in human nature and animal nature and how the two get confused with each other or confront each other. The book is about Katri and her brother Mats and their relationship with Anna Aemelin, a wealthy woman who lives alone in a big house at the edge of the forest.

When the novel opens, Katri and Mats, who have a ten-year age difference, are living above the local shop. Katri is definitely a guardian figure for her brother and both Katri and Mats are outsiders, although for very different reasons. Katri is feared by the villagers because she doesn’t want their friendship, because she trusts no one, because she wields an uncanny authority over a giant but nameless German Shepherd. She is also a math genius. Mats, on the other hand, is considered simple-minded. He loves reading adventure stories. He loves working on boats and members of a family of local boat builders give him odd jobs from time to time.

For her part, Anna is a strange character indeed. A famous children’s book illustrator, she lives alone in the big house her parents left her when they died. She draws eerily intricate paintings of the forest floor which are then superimposed with bizarre, almost cartoon rabbits. Anna lives very much outside the local community, and so in their shared outsider status it is quite fitting that Anna, Katri and Mats are finally connected.

That connection is engineered by Katri for purely financial means. She wants to find a way to give Mats something he desperately wants. It begins with Katri working as a kind of assistant to Anna, and following a break-in (faked by Katri) the two move into the big house. Katri approaches the relationship on purely economical terms – what can be gained? what must be given up? Despite her constant mental calculations, she can’t factor in the other person’s personality quirks. And Anna is unable to think in such mercenary terms. If Katri’s modus operandi is hostile honesty, than Anna’s is overly gracious pretence. The two are worthy opponents and their “battle” will work profound changes on each side.

Just as fascinating as this uncommon story is the way in which Jansson tells it. She wavers between the 3rd person and the 1st person, switching at will and using the 1st to give us snippets of Katri’s thoughts and less often, Anna’s. The 3rd person narrator has a “knowing” tone as well, further complicating the mix of voices and opinions.

The book is set in the deepest darkest winter, when the villagers practically tunnel through the streets to get around town. The weather continues to reflect certain of the book’s events, although this isn’t a heavy handed technique in any way. As the story ramps up and Anna and Katri discover previously unknown parts of their personalities, Jansson’s winter descriptions shift to mirror their inner and outer struggle. It’s wonderfully done.

The True Deceiver was my first experience with Tove Jansson’s fiction for adults, but it certainly won’t be my last. Let me just finish up here with a bit of the writing, taken from a sample in Katri’s 1st person voice:

Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in from the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village cold be covered and erased and finally be clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where he dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. You wait and hide like a tree.