Category Archives: 2018 Women Writers Reading Project

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Strike Your Heart by Amélie NothombTitle: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454852
Genre: Mothers and Children, Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction,
Pages: 135
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am still reeling under the influence of Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. It is a short novel (could have been a novella if fifteen pages shorter) but the impact it has is tremendous. What a book! What a treat! And yet, it will drain you emotionally – of almost everything you possess – of course temporarily but it will.

Do not be fooled by its size. 135 pages pack a lot more what 350 pages cannot in most novels. This one is a firecracker and how! While I was reading it initially, I thought it was modelled after Madame Bovary and some of it sure was, but it was only in the first couple of twenty pages or so and then the similarity ended.

The book is about Diane but first let’s talk about Diane’s mother Marie, the one with whom it all begins. Marie who had to marry early on and give birth to Diane when she was just twenty. There is no bond between mother and daughter. Marie can’t bear to see her daughter. Diane does what she can to gain approval of her mother. Diane’s father Olivier is merely a spectator. With two more siblings, Diane’s love for her mother doesn’t diminish, till she sees her smothering her sister Célia and decides to step back and live with her maternal grandparents (there is a lot more that happens which I cannot say for now, because spoilers).

Years pass. Diane wants to pursue her dream of becoming a cardiologist (the heart connect) and at university, she befriends an assistant professor, Olivia. Olivia is strangely similar and yet so different to Marie (which Diane realizes much later). Olivia loves power and wants to feel superior to everyone around her, including her own eight-year-old daughter, Mariel. Diane’s life is thrown into a whirlwind and how it all ends up makes for the rest of the story.

“Strike Your Heart” – the very title comes from the quote by novelist Alfred de Musset, “Strike Your Heart, that is where genius lies”. This is what inspires Diane to take up medicine, this is the core of the book – the intensity of emotions and relationships – comes all from the poor old heart.

Nothomb writes with a force of a tsunami, really. Every word and sentence is not wasted. Nothing is out of place. Nothomb is cruel and yet so gentle all at the same time. She moves at a quick pace and doesn’t manage to lose out on all the essential incidents, lives, moments and the on-goings of almost all characters. Even the ones that are hidden – Diane’s brother Nicolas, her best friend Élisabeth, her father, her grandparents, and even Olivia’s husband and daughter. Nothomb has a role to be played by everyone.

“Strike Your Heart” in so many places feels so autobiographical – like it must have happened to someone the author knew or to her. The translation by Alison Anderson is spot on. She is one of my favourite translators of French to English. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is one such example of her genius translated work. Every line seems that it was meant to be there. No syntax changes and the emotion is perfect.

Here is one of my favourite lines from the book:

“She stayed for hours at the side of an old lady who was allergic to solitude”

“Strike Your Heart” will stay with you for a long time. I know it will stay with me for sure. The bitter-sweetness, the longing, the desperation, all of the validation and not to forget jealousy which is so much at the core of this wondrous read.

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water CureTitle: The Water Cure
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241334744
Genre: Women, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I finished reading The Water Cure at neck-break speed. There was no other way to read this book. Yes, it started off a little slow. Yes, it took its time to grow on me but when it did, there was no turning back. There is a lot happening in the book – it is dystopian, it is feministic (well, you will struggle to see it but its there) and in most parts, it is also very fantastical. It may seem that there is no story really but there is, and the writing is on point – every word and every sentence where it should be.

At various points in the book, you might even think that the book is loosely based on King Lear and maybe it is, but it is so much more than that because the King soon disappears in the book. House on the island, alone by the sea. Three girls, Grace, Lia, and Sky live with their parents’ Mother and King (see the use of a patriarchy term right here – while the parents have no names, the father is always known as King).

Their worldly knowledge comes only from what the King dishes them. They have no contact with the outside world. They are in a world of their own. Till of course, like I said, King disappears, Mother takes over and their world crumbles as other men wash up on their beach, lay claim to their land and everything changes for them – in an instant.

Mackintosh’s writing isn’t easy but it is extremely engaging. There are times when you feel the book isn’t even dystopian as it claims to be, but there are only parts that are far and few in-between. The plot is for sure disturbing, but if it is to your taste, then I would recommend that you carry forth and finish the read, because it is extremely rewarding. The storytelling is unique and mesmerizing. Mackintosh is a new voice that has to be heralded, and this one most certainly read like a debut. It is that good.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

The Third Hotel Title: The Third Hotel
Author: Laura van den Berg
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374168353
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantastical fiction,
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

“The Third Hotel” is a strange book. A strange and yet, a highly fulfilling, crackling read really. Clare is widowed and decides to go to Havana for a horror movie festival, which she had planned with her husband, a film critic. And when she does end up going to Cuba, strange apparitions and incidents occur that resemble what she is thinking or feeling – sort of the inner life we all carry within ourselves. She suddenly sees her husband alive and follows him into a world, where reality and fiction blur and that in essence is the plot of the story.

Laura van den Berg’s stories and novels have this quality of the fantastical. I think it is a constant as it has been repeated in “The Isle of Youth” (a collection of short stories) and even “Find Me” (a novel) which I have read. Her novel isn’t easy to get into but once you do, there is no stopping you as a reader.

The author takes the gruesome, the horror, the extraordinary and blends it with the everyday loneliness. There is this raw emotional power in the novel that is consistent and cohesive to the entire plot and the way characters behave. It almost reminded me of Murakami, Kafka and Cortazar a lot – the psychological revelation and the mystery surrounding everything – from the places to people.

Havana in itself is such a major character in the book that the book is nothing without it. Also, as you read along, the story takes over – it creeps on you unexpectedly – with multiverses and the undead presence of Clare’s husband that forms the crux of the novel. Berg’s writing is precise, blunt and told in effortless prose that is ambiguous and also thrilling at the same time. It is a challenging read but immensely rewarding. Stay with it.

 

 

How to Love a Jamaican : Stories by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican Title: How to Love a Jamaican: Stories
Author: Alexia Arthurs
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-1524799205
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Some books feel closer. They almost feel like a hug. “How to Love a Jamaican” is one of those books. Every story to me seemed wondrous and not a single plot or theme was out of place. And but of course, the stories are diverse, intricate, and provide a lot of authentic insight into the lives of Jamaicans living at home and out of it. The stories blend into each other – exploring themes of loss, love, personal growth, the immigrant experience and mainly what can be called home.

I was also aware of the number of books written exploring this theme and tactic and yet How to Love a Jamaican seems new and fresh. I think it has to do primarily with the writing. Some stories will obviously strike a chord more than the others, but each one will find a special place in your heart. I am a big one for short stories, so this collection did not disappoint me at all.

What is most interesting that Arthurs doesn’t try and explain the idiosyncrasies used or the words, or the phrases. They naturally flow with the stories and that’s that. It is up to the reader to want to know more, which works for a reader like me. My favourite story is “Slack” which opens with a scene of a tragedy and moves to become something larger, which left me bereft and smiling at the same time. “Shirley from a Small Place” is all about the rootedness to home, not forgetting where you came from, a dominating mother, and of course all the culture, pride and food. It seems as though it has all the tropes, but having said that, they work brilliantly. Like I said earlier, it is all about the writing.

The book reads very fast and yet there are moments that will make you stop in-between the read. Arthurs is also most times funny and extremely empathetic toward her characters. And I am sure most of them are known personally to her, for the book to be so involving and engaging to the reader.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an unusual collection of short stories. It may seem run-off-the-mill at first place, but do not be fooled by its simplicity. There is so much simmering underneath that facade. Read it to understand the Jamaican experience and a different point of view which is redeeming, emotional and liberating, all at the same time.

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe

The Violet HourTitle: The Violet Hour: Great Writes at the End
Author: Katie Roiphe
Publisher: The Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0385343596
Genre: Nonfiction, Death and Dying
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

There’s something about death, isn’t it? Something so fearful and yet sometimes enigmatic for some. Sometimes also makes you think about it all and then only leads to everything becoming nothing in an instant. One day it is all there and the other it isn’t.

Katie Roiphe takes this a step further in her book “The Violet Hour” and speaks of death in the context of great writers (who are but obviously dead) at the end of their lives. She just doesn’t write of death as the end, but the entire journey of dying, so to say. For instance, how Susan Sontag thought she could beat death at its own game and did several times, till she had to go. Or for that matter, Updike who after receiving the worst possible diagnosis wrote a poem at seventy-six. And then the excesses of Dylan Thomas and his suicide attempts that finally led to his death.

A good work of nonfiction, to my mind, is the one that doesn’t stray away from facts and more than anything else does not try to romanticize facts. Roiphe’s strength lies not only in these two facets of writing, but also the way she presents her extensive research, which involved family and friends of writers and what is already known to the general public. Roiphe doesn’t make the book sentimental, and yet it tugs at the heart because death is sadly a universal experience. We have all seen it up, close and personal and can relate if not even empathize with most part of the book or all of it, as it were in my case.

The book does not tell you how to grieve. What it does though is in a way deconstruct death through experiences of great writers and what it did to them and their family and friends. And in that process, we just get to know these writers better. Death, for Freud, was just a subject to be studied till he realized that he couldn’t observe his own death after all and never hestitated to smoke himself to death and refused to take pain killers.

At some point, as a reader one could feel guilty of prying into another’s death – the last days and yet there is something about the book that makes you want to know more about these six writers. Kudos to Katie for all the research and the way she articulates thoughts, emotions, what the writers did in the last days, what they chose to rather and above all what does death mean to each of them and perhaps even to yes on a universal level.