Category Archives: Novella

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak

51oe4dOcMOL Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Publisher: Portobello Books
ISBN: 9781846276071
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 146
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does one describe a book that gave you so much joy as you read it? It has been a while since I read anything like “Swallowing Mercury”. I think this book just made me realize that there is still a lot of hope and faith in the world, though it does have its own set of problems, having hope and faith I mean. Greg’s characters are unique, literally that with their eccentricities, and yet the naivety about them is endearing to make you smile and wish them happiness. “Swallowing Mercury” is that kind of book – it leaves you with a tingling feeling – I don’t have any better way to put it.

This book was read by me as a part of the Women in Translation Month – August 2017. I am so glad that I got to know of this book through this initiative. At the core of the book is Wiola, who lives in a close-knit agricultural community (this by itself is charming. There is a sense of old-world feeling to it which cannot be ignored and that’s the major portion of the book which I love the most. So Wiola also has a black cat named Blackie (you can’t help but love the tongue-in-cheek reference). Her father who deserted the family is back and is now a taxidermist. Her mother is a strange one (but then who isn’t when you come to think of it), who frequently warns her about not entering certain rooms and that one must not kill spiders or there will be storms. Might I also add that all this takes place in Poland.

“Swallowing Mercury” has this fable like quality attached to it. There are also a lot of fables in the book per se as Wiola is a Catholic girl, growing up on them and not to mention, superstitions. Greg’s writing has this feeling of wanting to finish the book (given it is so short anyway) and yet to pick it up immediately after.

The translation from Polish by Eliza Marciniak is beautiful – the book is written in fragments and yet the subtle transition of Wiola from a child to an adolescence is so lucid and more so the background of politics, morality, violence and faith makes it even more intriguing. Trust me when I say that you will not be able to put this book down – there are so many layers to it and more than anything else you get so engaged in the Polish life as a reader that you are almost melancholic as it ends.

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So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors

so-much-for-that-winter-by-dorthe-nors Title: So Much for That Winter
Author: Dorthe Nors
Translator: Misha Hoekstra
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977429
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love it when authors break boundaries of traditional storytelling and present ideas in a new way. Dorthe Nors, a Danish writer does just that. She breaks the norms of telling a tale and how. Her new book (second one) titled “So Much for That Winter” consists of two novellas, of two women sifting through the fallout of respective breakups.

In the first novella, “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space” – Nors writes the novella in the form of sparse headlines. Minna gets dumped on a text and the novella is about her being consoled by everyone around her – Minna’s mission though is to escape them all, especially her sister. I loved the way it was written. It is raw, brutal and funny – all at the same time. Nors could have very well written her own story. She could be Minna you know.

The second novella “Days” is about another breakup in the form of lists – of how a writer fills her time post break-up. Through both these novellas, I got a very uncanny sense of how nothing might be relevant in our endless age of tweets, updates and Instagram posts. Even heartbreak for that matter. I finished both these novellas in one go and honestly, I have not felt this disoriented in a long time after reading a book. Nors’ writing speaks to you and you can sense it crawling up your back and somehow you enjoy it. You are perhaps also taken in with all the reality but also somehow make peace with it.

Also, let me not forget that this experience would not have been possible without Misha Hoekstra’s wondrous translation of these novellas. “So Much for That Winter” deals in being human above everything else. These two novellas complement each other superbly and one cannot be read without the other. Nors has created a strewn about, lush, hurtful, real and beautiful love-letter of our times.

33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

33-revolutions-by-canek-sanchez-guevara Title: 33 Revolutions
Author: Canek Sánchez Guevara
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

A short book that has so much to say. I am enamored by books that say so little and end up showing you an entire world of things, ideas and more importantly make you think and a lot more once you are done reading them. “33 Revolutions” by Canek Sánchez Guevara is one such book.

The book might seem vague to begin with but it is anything but that. It is the story of a nameless protagonist living in contemporary Cuba, whose parents were the supporters of the Castro revolution. At the same time, he is black. The reason I mention this is because it plays a role in the story and one which cannot be ignored. The hero’s father died on being accused of embezzlement. His mother flees after her husband’s death and settles in Madrid.

He is separated from his wife and all he does besides his rote work is read. Books open him to a different world and make him see the reality he is surrounded by: the mundane, the ineffectual and the broken records of life – which the book captures beautifully. I think that has also to do with the fact that the author was the grandson of Che Guevara. The ideas of revolution that spring later can be seen lucidly as being inspired by him.

Our hero also has Kafkaesque dreams – nightmares and tethers on the edge mostly. In fact, at most times you as a reader cannot distinguish between reality and fiction of the novel and question the plot. This to me is fantastic as it challenges you – the reader, which doesn’t happen too often in books. The sense of disillusionment is real and how you actually see the protagonist being an informer and then refusing to do what he is told are the hallmarks of this novella.

This novella has actually made me want to read more about Cuba and its revolution of Castro – of how it all began and how it disappointed its supporters. “33 Revolutions” though is a fantastic stand-alone novella. Guevara puts his heart and soul in the writing – while reading it you might also feel exhausted and tired and that is the cornerstone of a good book – to make you feel what you read. Might I also add that the translation by Howard Curtis who also translated Santiago Gamboa’s book “Night Prayers” (published earlier this year and which I loved) is superb. If politics, life, and the disappointment of it all interests you, then this book sure is for you. If not, then too pick it up for the beauty of language.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Publisher: Granta books
ISBN: 978-1847088734
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Very few books manage to evoke those emotions in you which you never thought a book would manage to bring out. It happens nonetheless and you fall in love with the read. There is more to it though. You know that this read will not be like the others. It has now become special.

“Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill did just that to me. It is now one of those special reads and I know I will keep going back to it again and again and again. The format of the book feels weird to begin with but when you get into it and it grows on you, then it is something else.

It is the story of a wife and a husband and the breakdown of a marriage. It is the story of the woman’s previous lovers and the husband’s lover for whom he is leaving the wife. It is the story of their child and the life they have built together. What’s there not to love about this story? Is it clichéd? Perhaps it is.

A large part of any novella or novel is in the storytelling and this is what makes this book different. The book has no answers to any problems that a couple might face in their marriage. It is not meant to be that, but the snippets of truth of a relationship are brilliantly touched on.

“Dept. of Speculation” to me is one of those rare masterpieces in literature that need to be taken notice of. It is edgy, on the brink of things, unpredictable and something that you will perhaps relate to. There is wisdom, poetry, humour, heartbreak, and some fun facts as well to give you an overall perspective. All said and done, it will make you think and make you cry as well. Go. Read it.

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

untitled Title: The Library of Unrequited Love
Author: Sophie Divry
Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-1780870519
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

An unnamed lone librarian (also old before her time and quite bitter) in France. A stranger in the library. The librarian works in the Geography Section in the basement and that is where this story begins. A hundred-page monologue on the life of a librarian, on the beauty of books, reading, the world, love, losses and her crush on a reader named Martin who visits the library very often.

This in short is the exquisitely told story of “The Library of Unrequited Love” by Sophie Divry. It is sparse and yet so magnificent in its scope and treatment. What I loved about the book is that it does not exclude the non-readers. In fact, it just gives them the space to grow in a library and discover themselves.

In fact the narrator might come across as angry sometimes, but she is also very warm and speaks of the years gone by, literature and the Dewey Decimal System with much fondness. Her ranting then doesn’t seem half-bad as you go along in the book. The protagonist is fierce and melancholy and tragic, all put together but what carries her on regardless is her love for books and the written word, which again reflects immensely in Divry’s writing.

There are no traces of sentimentality at all, though it could get that road quite easily. Divry leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination as we turn the pages, which works very well when it comes to a book as short as this. The translation from French by Sian Reynolds encapsulates the rhythm of the original beautifully, while also talking of French History and Culture which is quite accessible.

“The Library of Unrequited Love” is a book for everyone who loves books and reading. It is for everyone who has ever faced or gone through unrequited love. Get that cup of hot chocolate and get started with this one. Savour it. You will be done in less than two hours and yes, the taste will still linger.

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