My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: an outstanding novel which must not be forgotten

Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.

As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.

I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.

The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz: often maddening but brilliant

A Tale of Love and Darkness by [Amos Oz]

This is the kind of “modern classic” which cannot be read quickly. One simply has to “go with the flow”. At first I was so overwhelmed by this vivid evocation of a small boy growing up in 1940s Jerusalem when Hitler was still a looming menace in the Europe his family had felt forced to leave that I recommended it for a book group to complement “Mornings in Jenin”, the moving and informative memoir of a Palestinian childhood by Susan Abulhawa, and “East West Street – the forensic analysis of the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity” by Philippe Sands.

Only a few chapters later, I was regretting my decision, having realised that my Kindle concealed the 528 page tome swollen with repetition as the storyline swirled in all directions round the stones of memory, burdened with factual detail of at times mind-numbing tedium, including lists which could never be confined to two or three examples when twenty-seven came to mind. A particular low point for me was the description of the lengthy walk to his great-uncle’s house, forcing the reader to consider every lamp-post and cracked paving stone en route. Admittedly, this captures how very long a walk may seem seem to a small child, and how every detail becomes engraved effortlessly on the mind through sheer familiarity.

It could also be that the Hebrew in which this was originally written lends itself to this kind of flowery excess which at times sits uneasily in the the brilliant and it seems painstakingly accurate English translation by Nicholas De Lange. Despite considering giving up, I am very glad to have persisted, since so much of this book is rich in anecdote and insights, combining poignancy with humour, and a strong underlying thread of irony and self-mockery. As a reader with a strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause and little patience for the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, this book helped me to understand the viewpoint of the settlers who formed the new state of Israel, particularly after the bloodbath and privations which followed the Arab uprising against the UN ruling that Israel had the right to be established 167 days later in in 1948.

I could accept the fact that, despite his precocious understanding, remarkable powers of observation and recall, there is no way much of the detail from his childhood, including his father’s definition of words, could not have been embellished or researched years later to verify the facts. As a twelve-year-old, did Amos really disrupt a speech to a large audience by Menachem Begin with his hysterical laughter over the leader’s unwise use of the word “arm” which had in Hebrew an embarrassing double meaning? Yet even if it contains a strong dose of “faction” at times, this novel has an undeniable authenticity when it comes to describing feelings and motivations.
I enjoyed some of the humorous moments, even if they highlighted his parents’ lack of understanding of their imaginative young son: fascinated by the carp kept in the bath until ready to be cooked, he tried to provide it with a bit of variety by filling the bath with “islands, straits, headlands and sandbanks” made from kitchen utensils, to be discovered by his bemused parents in a Buddha-like trance trying to see the world through the eyes of a fish.

The pace quickened in coverage of the years following the shock of his mother’s suicide, in which he was obliged to grow up quickly. His conflicting emotions of anger that she could have abandoned him, guilt that he must have been somehow to blame are conveyed with a moving, vivid power, yet the author has also identified the probable true causes, including the trauma of his mother being driven out of a once comfortable life in Ukraine, full of promise, forced to leave behind friends and relatives who perished in pogroms, and the disappointment of her narrow, impoverished life in Jerusalem, with a well-intentioned but insufferably tedious pedant of a husband. We see how the adolescent Amos “saw through” some of the prejudices of his social group, rejected both their reverence for Menachem Begin and the academic life which his father hoped he would follow and went off to join a kibbutz inhabited by the down-to-earth, muscular left-wing pioneers he had always admired. Here he was given food for thought by the older man who accepted sentry duty on the lookout for attacks from aggrieved Palestinians, while fully understanding their point of view over being dispossessed of their land.

I believe it would have been a greater work if more ruthlessly edited, but the author’s habit of circling a topic, analysing it, dropping it to return later, is all part of his attempt to return to a past he may not have considered for years and to make sense of it – essential aspects of good autobiography.

“A coup in Turkey” by Jeremy Seal: Repeating history

Since the decaying Ottoman Empire’s collapse after the First World War, Turkey has been dominated by autocratic, ambitious leaders with differing visions apart from a common penchant for grand infrastructure projects, from Kemal Atatürk’s creation of a new capital in Ankara, to Erdoğan’s airports, high-speed railways, and Çamlıca Mosque, the largest in Turkey, complete with art gallery, library, and a conference hall.

Travel writer Jeremy Seal has drawn on a deep knowledge and love of the country to focus on the long-forgotten decade of the 1950s in which the rise and fall of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes – Adnan Bey – reveals a good deal about the tensions which have led Turkey from Atatürk’s dream of a modern, progressive secular republic to the current reality of Erdoğan’s nominal democracy with revived support for Islam, probably reflecting the wishes of the majority, but which has also suppressed free speech and slipped into corruption.

A charismatic, successful cotton farmer, Menderes risked helping to found a new Democrat Party in the aftermath of the Second World War. Attacking an authoritarian Republican Party which had been Atatürk’s legacy, he asserted, “governments that do their work well have no reason to fear freedom of the press”. Gaining power as Prime Minister, Menderes prioritised improving the lives of villagers subjected to secular education when what they really needed was clean water, electricity and more productive farms. Although he was loved for “restoring to right-thinking religious folk the things they wanted, like mosques”, to paraphrase Erdoğan, who has followed his example, perhaps from the same desire to increase political support, the practical reforms unfortunately misfired. Imported steel ploughs led to soil erosion, and unrealistic price guarantees for wheat crops bankrupted the Treasury.

Menderes compounded his errors: relying on popular support to the detriment of Turkey’s “influencers”, academics, journalists and military leaders; arguably wasting money on vanity projects such as mosques; laying himself open to charges of immorality through his many affairs in Istanbul, neglecting his loyal wife. Under pressure, he sadly went the way of too many other politicians in becoming authoritarian. The last straw was the granting of special powers to seize the property and order the imprisonment of those who resisted the work of a commission set up to investigate the “destructive and illegal” activities of the rival Republican Party.

Although Atatürk had theoretically banned the army from involvement in politics, it conducted the 1960 coup in which Menderes and many other Democrats were imprisoned on an island prior to a prolonged trial of questionable legality, leading to his rushed execution in a bungled “compromise” in which most of the other death sentences were commuted in the face of international condemnation. Before imprisonment broke his health, Menderes insisted that he had been democratically elected, and was supported by the “National Will”. Certainly, he retained widespread support, although some must have been turned against him by the distortion of facts, such as the creation of “false martyrs” – claimed to have been massacred” during protests against his regime , but in fact killed by “failures of the army’s own safety practices”.

The author contrasts this with the failed coup of 2016 in which the “National Will” of public pressure in the streets helped to foil the attempted military takeover of the news media.

This novel has been widely praised and contains interesting information which should be better known. So why was I disappointed? Frequent digressions and anecdotes are no doubt intended to flesh out an appreciation of Turkish society, but combined with the continual dodging back and forth in time, they create a disjointed, even confusing effect. Imagined conversations at dramatic points prove stilted and jarring. In his evident sympathy for Menderes, Jeremy Seal may have let him off too lightly. For instance, did he really “secretly stoke a demonstration in Istanbul in favour of Turkish claims on Cyprus, to the point of instructing local police and military units “not to intervene” and was he “behind the Salonica bomb” explosion? I would have liked less on the Gatwick air crash he survived, and the grim details of his last days, and more analytical overview of the fascinating period which brought Turkey from Atatürk to the present situation.

“Les oubliées du dimanche” by Valérie Perrin: overwrought?

Twenty-something Justine and her younger cousin Jules, still studying for the “Bac”, have been brought up as siblings by their paternal grandparents following the horrific death of both their parents in a car crash. The trauma of this event may be what has reduced both Justine’s self esteem and ambition, leaving her content to work as a care assistant at “Les Hortensias”, the local old people’s home in her French village. Clearly full of empathy for the residents, Justine is particularly drawn to Hélène, who lives mostly in her imagination, on a Mediterranean beach with her long dead lover Julien, yet retains the ability to recount so many of her reminiscences that Justine is able to make a detailed record of her life. It is unclear how much of this she has embellished, but does it matter?

With the chapters switching between past and present, this often seems an overcomplicated tale. When Hélène and Lucien are separated by war, what keeps them apart and how will they be reunited? Their story has a dreamlike quality, larded with sentimentality and melodrama, without flinching from some grim events. The verging on magic realism in the form of Hélène’s guardian seagull, ever-present except when reassuringly absent looking out for Lucien, makes other implausible incidents seem par for the course.

The thread based on Justine and her family forms a more authentic psychological drama which I would like to have seen developed in greater depth to form a larger part of the story. This gradually takes on the character of a crime novel. A malicious caller keeps contacting the relatives of “les oubliées du dimanche” (residents whom they don’t bother to visit) with false notifications that the latter have just died – ironically a way of inducing the relatives to rush to the care home! Then Justine begins to realise that foul play may have been involved in the deaths of her and Jules’ parents.

The portrayal of the care home rings true, and there are insightful portraits of some characters, observed with flashes of wry humour. Others are two-dimensional, like Roman, Hélène’s grandson, an unnerving image of Lucien with his startling “blue” gaze, too often a parody of a woman’s magazine hero.

A screenwriter and photographer, the author is focused on portraying intense repressed emotions and strong visual images. Too much is stirred into the resulting brew. Although there are sections where the narrative drags, it is mostly a page turner by reason of creating the desire “to know what happens”, although as is too often the case the denouement proves unconvincing on several counts.

I read this in French for a book group, and the fulsome praise of most reviewers leaves me feeling too much of a cynic!

Les Années (The Years) by Annie Ernaux: An individual perspective on “collective” memory

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

Les Rêveurs (Dreamers) by Isabelle Carré: Stages of Life

Well-known award-winning French actress Isabelle Carré’s autobiography adopts a style which seems popular with French writers. It is fragmented and anecdotal, often putting more emphasis on minor rather than major incidents, fictionalising events without making it clear when this is the case. The author sometimes writes about herself in the third person, sometimes adopts the viewpoint of a third party to imagine or interpret the memory of an occurrence, even from before she was born.

So it is that she begins with a description of the unmarried pregnant teenager who turns out to be her mother. Forced to hide away alone in a Parisian flat by her hardhearted aristocratic parents, she refuses to hand the child over for adoption, and is “saved” by marriage to the young art student, son of a railway worker, who has become infatuated with her resemblance to a Fra Angelico madonna. This gives a flavour of an unorthodox upbringing in the 1970s, when conventions were breaking down anyway.

Isabelle Carré may devote a whole chapter to a stranger in the Metro who reminds her of someone she once knew, or to the behaviour of a family on the beach compared with her own, without ever explaining how she established herself as an actress, or whether she has a husband. This approach seems to stem from creative writing advice that it is better to select memories, rather than attempt to “cover everything”, since in childhood in particular, one’s impressions tend to be partial and subjective.

In interviews, she speaks of the importance she attaches to dreams, since real life without them can seem too “brutal”. She is fond of the image of one’s life as an iceberg, in which only a small part is visible. Another preoccupation is the eternal tantalising question of “what might have been”, inspiring her to play with a situation and develop it along a different path from what really happened. Yet in what is essentially an autobiography we are not told when this is the case.

French readers will no doubt gain a warm sense of nostalgia from the frequent cultural references. I found looking them up a good way of maintaining my interest in a narrative which often seemed quite tedious, despite some dramatic incidents. So it was that I discovered the “Les Neiges du Kilimanjaro”, rated one of the best French pop songs of the 1960s. The author’s tendency to express her feelings in snatches from past pop songs or quotations from plays became rather trying after a while, also giving the sense that she conceals herself behind the words of others, that is, forever acting.

Clearly a highly imaginative child, she injured her leg badly jumping out a window in an attempt to fly. Was the overdose which landed her in a psychiatric hospital aged fourteen, a result of “nature” or dysfunctional “nurture” or a mixture of the two?

Her mother seems clinically depressed, perhaps through a combination of her own mother’s neglect, living in an apartment with a red décor and large collections of African masks, and a husband who comes out as a homosexual when it is still barely legal. This culminates symbolically in his painting the outside of the front door with the naked figures of two men, running to freedom along a beach, which unsurprisingly arouses the neighbours’ wrath even more than his elder son’s loud piano-playing.

Isabelle seems to harbour resentment against her mother’s coldness and lack of maternal feeling, and show more of a rapport with her father with whom she chooses to live when her mother eventually insists that he leaves. Alone aged fifteen in the flat he buys her, holidaying with him in situations where she is the only female present with his gay friends, could have destabilised her further, but perhaps simply fed her versatility as an actress, finding consolation by immersing herself in acting out imaginary lives.

Following up the reference to her father’s design of a spherical record player used in a film starring Serge Gainsbourg, revealed that her father is the well-known French designer, Alain Carré. Since in later life he went on to run a successful company employing 90 people, one wonders how he reacted to her descriptions of his previous Walter Mitty-type loss-making projects, his quest for happiness with a male lover, his imprisonment for fraud, and subsequent alcoholism.

In interviews, Isabelle Carré appears somewhat intense, but charming, charismatic and humorous. Admitting that she wrote the book primarily for herself, is discussing it really just another role for her to play? Quoting a playwright she explains, “J’écris pour qu’on me rencontre”, but to what extent is this true? How much of her do we actually “meet”?

“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet: Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 by [Maggie O'Farrell]

This is an original and inventive take on Shakespeare’s relations with his family, whom history has it lived in Stratford while he was for the most part working in London. The playwright is described as the father of Hamnet, the husband of Agnes (better known to us as Anne), the son of John: in never naming him as Shakespeare, Maggie O’Farrell creates the freedom to take all the dramatic licence she chooses to interpret his life.

The chapter alternates between two different periods of time. Firstly, we meet Hamnet, bright eleven-year-old with a tendency to daydream, in search of an adult to look after his frail twin sister Judith who has been taken ill suddenly. Then we are switched fifteen years or so back in time to his father, an unfulfilled youth, bullied by his father, a Stratford glove-maker who has lost his good reputation through shady deals. Forced to work as a Latin tutor to help pay his father’s debts, he becomes infatuated with Agnes, an intriguing older woman who flies a kestrel hawk and is skilled in the use of herbs to cure ailments. She in turn sees something remarkable in him, the dilemma being that he can only realise his talent as a playwright in London, a place where she cannot live, ostensibly because the plague-ridden capital is too risky for Judith’s fragile health, but in reality because Agnes is only at ease in a natural world of trees, wildlife and herbs.

This is essentially an exploration of the nature of grief and how people are affected by it, with Agnes the central character. Hamnet’s role is to be the source of that grief. The back cover blurb in the paperback edition reveals the boy’s fate, perhaps on the assumption that it is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s only son died, raising the tantalising question of whether, and if so how, this tragic fact led to the production of a play called Hamlet only a few years afterwards.

Some may find the slow pace and minute detail tedious at times – as in the description of the layout of John’s house in the opening chapter, but this serves to give strong visual images of a vividly imagined Elizabethan world, as lived by ordinary people, which must have involved a good deal of research. Similarly, the focus on Agnes’s psychic powers – her ability to divine so much about a person simply by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger – may not appeal. Ironically, when it comes to foreseeing the future for her twins, these powers let her down. Yet, combined with a style which is often reminiscent of a folktale, the supernatural element recreates a sense of the superstition which dominated people’s lives in Tudor times, in the absence of a scientific way of explaining their situation. The presence of ghosts is easier to imagine when death is so common, and all this chimes with the magical themes running through Shakespeare’s plays including of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The style is often expressive and poetic, as in the case of Anne’s hawk as first seen by “Shakespeare”: “Its stance is hunched, shrugged as if assailed by rain”. Descriptions are complemented with sharp dialogues and thoughts which reveal rounded personalities: Agnes’s surprisingly supportive brother Bartholomew, her stroppy teenage daughter Susanna, her mother-in-law Mary with whom a mutual understanding grows despite their different natures – and moments of insight and humour in all the sadness.

My main reservation is that moving passages too often seem overwritten, although I feel guilty in saying this, after reading of the acute sickness and brushes with death which the author herself and her own children have suffered. I also found the contrast somewhat jarring between her “literary” passages and those with a child’s story book repetition and turn of phrase: “Three heavy knocks to the door…..boom, boom, boom”. Admittedly, when Anne’s husband returns home unexpectedly after a long absence, and “booms in his biggest, loudest voice” this reflects his other extrovert life on the stage of the London Globe.

Overall, it is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, with even the foreknowledge of the intolerable loss of an appealing child one wants to see survive made bearable in time by the reminder or realisation that inevitable sorrow and joy are inextricably linked in life, in which all things pass.

Along with “The Plague” by Camus, this is a timely book to read during or in the aftermath of a pandemic. Perhaps recent experiences make us more attuned to the feelings of past generations who had to live with a vulnerability to disease and untimely death which we thought we had overcome.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” by Thomas Hardy: tuning his merry note

Under The Greenwood Tree by [Thomas Hardy]

On a cold and starry Christmas Eve in 1850s Wessex, or a thinly disguised rural Dorset, the Mellstock Church “Quire” of fiddlers and singers keep up the time-honoured tradition of carolling their way round the scattered hamlets of the parish, to a mixed reception. Farmer Shiner bawls at them to shut up, which only incites them to play even louder, the young vicar murmurs his thanks without getting out of bed, and pretty new schoolmistress Fancy Day poses in her window with a candle, captivating the tranter’s (carrier’s) son Dick Dewey. The course of their love affair forms the main theme, but the secondary one of the vicar’s desire to replace the quire with a modern cabinet organ to be played by none other than Fancy Day, is no less important since it reflects the changes in society which are gathering pace as old habits wither away, and strong communities are ruptured as people begin to drift to the towns for work.

There is in fact relatively little about this trend in the novel, despite Hardy’s interest in social and political matters. Having had his first novel rejected as likely to alienate readers with its radical ideas, Hardy played safe with “Under the Greenwood Tree”, intended as a “study of rural life”, the motley local characters, with their pithy, quirky observations in the local dialect, forming a humorous background to the romance. So, it forms a sharp contrast to Hardy’s subsequent gripping but progressively more bleakly tragic novels:“The Mayor of Casterbridge”; “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure.”

Years later, Hardy seemed to regret having written “so lightly, so farcically and flippantly at times” rather than develop a deeper study of the group of musicians, who are portrayed as somewhat two-dimensional comical characters, as indicated by the description of their silhouettes against the sky as they gather to sing at Christmas Eve. The novel is strongest in its vivid description of rural life: the closeknit community with the tranter throwing his cottage open for an uproarious Christmas party with dancing; the tolerant inclusion of the “simple-minded” Thomas Leaf, although he serves a useful purpose in being the only one able to sing a “top G”, the smoking out of the bees to gather their honey, at which Head Keeper’s daughter Fanny is still adept despite having been educated “to be a lady”. With echoes of Hardy’s poems, there are many striking images of the countryside such as the distinctive sounds made by different trees in the opening paragraph: the fir trees rock, the holly whistles and the “ash hisses amid its quiverings”.

The possibility of tragedy in the book’s climax and the final sentence with its twist of ambiguity give hints of Hardy’s darker later masterpieces.

“La Tresse ” or “The Braid” by Laetitia Colombiani: “saved by a hair’s breadth”

Like the three stands of a plait (ou tresse) the chapters focus in turn on three women who seem at first to have little in common apart from their sheer determination. A villager in Uttar Pradesh (India), Smita is a Dalit, member of the “Untouchable” cast which means that, like her mother before her, she must empty the toilets of higher caste neighbours, using the same wicker basket impregnated with the curse of its pungent odour. All that keeps her going is the dream of her small daughter Lalita breaking the vicious circle and escaping her fate by getting an education. The Brahmin teacher accepts the expected bribe to take her on, only to humiliate the little girl on the very first day. Incensed and defiant, disappointed by her husband’s refusal to leave his rut of rat-catching in the village, Smita chooses the dangerous course of travelling with Lalita to a relative in a distant city where the pair can start a new life.

The daughter of a Sicilian wig-maker in Palermo, Guilia is the only one of three sisters to take an active interest and work in the family business which she seems destined to take over in due course. Her carefree life is shattered when her robust, seemingly indestructible father is badly injured in a road accident which leaves him in a coma. Obliged to sort out some paperwork, she makes a shocking discovery. At the same time, perhaps susceptible in her grief, she embarks on an unlikely love affair.

Meanwhile in Canada, high-flying lawyer Sarah, twice married with three children largely absent from the scene because they are cared for by male nanny and factotum “Magic Ron”, takes pride in her success and is utterly confident in her sense of being in control. When confronted by a threat to her career which perhaps she should have foreseen, which cannot be managed and contained through sheer willpower, how will she cope?
This is easy to read and plot-driven, but the continual switching between apparently unconnected storylines is somewhat jarring, at the same time serving to increase suspense over how, if at all, they will converge at the end and masking a thinness in Guilia’s and Sarah’s tales. I would have found it a more satisfying read if presented as three separate short novellas, although I accept this would have weakened the “Eureka” moment of realising what links the three women. Smita’s tale seems to me the most fully developed and engaging, perhaps because there is a stronger sense of place and portrayal of a (to me) unfamiliar, distinctive culture as she travels towards her goal.

Since the author is a scriptwriter and film-maker, I assumed this novel was written from the outset with adaption to the screen in mind*. At a recent interview, the author was adamant this was not the case. This was partly because she wanted the freedom of not needing to think about the cost of, for instance, choosing specific widely distant locations. She acknowledged that her books are regarded as cinematographic, which she explained as meaning based on situations one can visualise, like Smita and her daughter travelling on an overcrowded train for the first time, rather than relying heavily on description of people or dialogues. On the other hand, perhaps because of the author’s scriptwriting background, the style is for me the weakest factor – by turns heavy on exposition, or unduly sentimental in tone. The strength of the stories lies in the dramatic incidents and changing emotions of the characters.

*At the time of writing this, both of her first two novels have been or are in the process of being filmed.

“Ru” by Kim Thuy: hypnotic memories in a waking dream

Born to a wealthy family during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese communists launched their surprise attacks on the South during the Lunar New Year festivities, mingling machine gun fire with firecrackers, Kim Thuy has drawn on her own experiences to produce this fictionalised memoir. Half the family is home partitioned off with a brick wall to be taken over by communist soldiers who spy on them continuously. Their wealth in the form of diamonds inserted in the pink plastic of dental prosthetics, the narrator’s family joins the flood of boat people, passing via a muddy Malaysian camp to Canada which has extended a generous welcome to many Vietnamese refugees. Years later, as a naturalised Canadian, she is able to revisit her country of origin to reevaluate it from a westernised perspective.

At first, certain aspects of the evidently original and distinctive style irritated me. I felt somewhat cheated by the mainly one page chapters, often more than fifty per cent white space. The way they flitted back and forth in time made it hard to keep characters in mind and grasp the order of events. It is difficult to refer back to points quickly unless one is using a Kindle! I found it easier to read once I had accepted the novel as a series of anecdotes, often poetic, with a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, the white space encouraging a pause for reflection, the underlying aim being to mirror how memory works in fragmented, jumbled recollections.

“Ru”, a French word which can mean “Flow”, seems a more apt title than “Ru” in the sense of “Lullaby”, many memories being quite brutal or harrowing, mixed with beauty, humour or banality. This may render them all the more shocking, in seeming unreal while manifestly true. For instance, Mr. An, met in Canada, is still traumatised by the Russian roulette played by the Communist soldiers, causing him to observe for the first time the varied shades of blue in the sky he thought he was seeing for the last time. The narrator’s objectivity in describing such things is a way of coping with suffering and loss. Yet is it also at the price of making the reader feel too disengaged as well?

Despite their brevity, the paragraphs need to be read slowly, with concentration, because they are so full of images which evoke yet further ones. Each reader will draw something different from the myriad of impressions. Perhaps because they give insights into a different culture, I found the passages on Vietnam the most striking and moving – the nostalgic image of a past tradition, in which old ladies in a boat on a small lake place tea leaves in lotus flowers for them to absorb their scent during the night.

Then there is Aunt Five (the Vietnamese name their family members by number), a spinster who has dedicated her life to her parents. Rewarded after their death by being driven out of the house, she takes refuge in a hut near a Buddhist temple, virtually her sole possession being the four bowls in which she gave her old father his daily rice. These blue and white bowls with silver rims, partly translucent when held up to the sunlight, are a symbol of a lost way of life.

There is subtlety in the anecdote of the refugee boys machining clothes in a Quebec garage after school to earn some pocket money, who recall the dark period in Vietnam when they were abused by men in for the price of a bowl of soup. Yet their ability to maintain a kind of innocence, divorced from the sordid deeds of adults, and become balanced young men, Canadian engineers, is an affirmation of human resilience.

Kim Thuy evokes our empathy with the refugees, and a sense of how having been uprooted from one culture, they inevitably retain a nostalgia for certain aspects of it, some fated to occupy a kind of limbo, unable to shed a sense of disconnection from the host country, no matter how well they appear to have integrated into it: “one horizon always conceals another…… one advances through life in the footsteps of those who have gone before, in a kind of waking dream”.