Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

a nutshell: bringing to light the life of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, this novella is set between Jamaica and Dominica in the 1830s

a line: “You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too.”

an image: I found Antoinette’s story of waking as a child to see two huge rats then falling back asleep in the moonlight of a full moon fantastically eerie; her da (nurse) was furious the next morning and as a reader it felt strangely moving when, years later, Antoinette asks her husband if he too believes she has slept too long in the moonlight

a thought: I enjoyed reading Francis Wyndham’s introduction to the first edition of  this 1966 novella and am curious about how Wyndham’s evident enthusiasm for Rhys’ work sensationally ‘resurrected’ the writer, who was presumed dead when she vanished for 20 years after Good Morning, Midnight (1939) was unsuccessful

a fact: born in Dominica’s capital (Roseau) in 1890 to a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother, Rhys spent her childhood there before moving to England where she spent the First World War – she wrote many books before coming to this one, and her letters show that she was obsessed by Brontë’s novel and haunted by the need to write about the first Mrs Rochester

want to read Wide Sargasso Sea? visit here

The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk (tr. Julia and Peter Sherwood)

a nutshell: 80 pages of a stunningly unique world through the eyes of a young girl in an eccentric (matriarchal) family in the years before & after former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution

a line: “We swapped our barbed wire cage for one made of gold”

an image: when Granny used to say Mum had a clitoris for a brain, Karolína would picture a beautiful flower inside her head – a kind of gladiolus

a thought: from its 10/10 opening to its equally fabulous ending, I found this book absolutely spell-binding; my main thought is I need to reread it

a fact: after reading the novella I learned Kovalyk is a poet, fiction writer, playwright & social worker from eastern Slovakia; these various ‘hats’ totally make sense considering the text’s poetic feel / social commentary

 

want to read The Equestrienne? visit here

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas)

a nutshell: shaped as a 95-page letter from a widow to her childhood friend, this is an achingly eloquent reflection on women’s roles in Bâ’s native Senegal

a line: “The past fertilizes the present”

an image: Ramatoulaye describes the power of her work as a schoolteacher – how teachers set in motion waves within children which, breaking, carry away in their furl a bit of themselves

a thought: the significance of books also emerges in the letter (which Bâ wrote in a semi-autobiographical manner); for the narrator, Ramatoulaye, literature is seen to knit together generations and ultimately lead to progress

a fact: the novella was awarded the first Noma Prize for Publishing in Africa in 1980

 

want to read So Long a Letter? visit here

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (tr. Stefan Tobler)

a nutshell: forget plot/character, this is a 1973 “brain tempest” (Água Viva was intended to convey ~a thing that bubbles~) from one of Brazil’s most celebrated authors

a line: “I know that my gaze must be that of a primitive person surrendered completely to the world, primitive like the gods who only allow the broad strokes of good and evil and don’t want to know about good tangled up like hair in evil, evil that is good”

an image: two words. cat’s placenta | two bonus words. soft oyster

a thought: there are many lofty thoughts aired in this philosonovella (yes I just made up that word) but the one that stopped me in my tracks was one simple remark by Lispector – animals don’t laugh

a fact: the famous singer Cazuza read this book 111 times

 

want to read Água Viva? visit here

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

a nutshell: this three-part novella from South Korea tells the starkly powerful story of a woman named Yeong-hye who takes a quiet yet explosive stand against her oppressive existence

a line: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

an image: the enigma of the Mongolian mark sustains what was, for me, the most engrossing chapter

a thought: one theme that runs through the entire novella is the idea that everyone is fundamentally unknowable – even to those with whom every day is spent

a fact: in 1997 Han Kang wrote a short story (‘The Fruit of My Woman’) about a woman literally turning into a plant, then reworked the image in The Vegetarian in what she called “a darker and fiercer way”

 

want to read The Vegetarian? visit here

 

Wedding in Autumn & Other Stories by Shih Chiung-Yu (tr. Darryl Sterk)

a nutshell: set in Taiwan in the 1970-80s, this is a collection of three novellas focusing on marginalised people (particularly women) who suffer due to conflicts between nations, generations, and racial prejudices

a line“Women’s wombs are strange places: they can nourish new life and discharge it, over and over again. In that respect, a womb’s kind of like my big sister’s temper.”

an image: a disturbingly vivid scene in which a traumatised woman suffers a miscarriage and a young boy unwittingly deserts her was difficult to shake from my mind

a thought: the importance of investing time & effort in learning about women’s rights issues globally was reinforced for me when I found out that Chiung-Yu’s titular story was inspired by her involvement in Irish protests for women’s reproductive rights while she was living in Dublin, as these had prompted her to think about how women in her own society could be seen as second-class citizens

a fact: born in 1968, the author grew up in Taitung County – the setting of her novellas – along the southeastern shore of the island of Taiwan

 

want to read Wedding in Autumn? visit here

Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (tr. Anna Halager)

a nutshell: a punchy, fast-paced, almost-stream-of-consciousness novella charting the major realisations & life decisions of five queer characters in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk

a line“The island is swollen. The island is rotten. The island has taken my beloved from me.”

an image: the ongoing prison metaphor (at least, I think it’s a metaphor…) in Inuk’s chapter threw me somewhat but does vividly evoke the claustrophobia that has engulfed him so far in his life

a thought: I read this book within a few hours and found it a stressful read what with the endless binges & hangovers / childhood traumas / emotional crises – but it’s certainly a bold debut from Korneliussen

a fact: the author first wrote the book in Greenlandic (published as HOMO Sapienne) aged 24, before translating it herself into Danish and presumably then into English (?) – I liked how she gives a glossary at the back to explain various Greenlandic words left within the English translation, e.g. ‘inuugit’ meaning ‘live your life’

 

want to read Crimson? visit here

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

a nutshell: Ikstena braids together two very moving accounts of growing up under the Soviet occupation of Latvia – one from a mother & one from her daughter – to portray the crushing weight of societal oppression/terror on families

a line“We were destined for a somnambulant existence and condemned to call it life”

an image: milk is a recurring symbol – at one point a teacher is rendered speechless by the mother suggesting her daughter’s hatred of milk may stem from the fact that she didn’t breastfeed so as to protect her child from the breast milk of a person who didn’t want to live (elsewhere the mother refers to it as the bitter milk of incomprehension, of extinction)

a thought: the daughter’s realisation that her struggle to connect her mother to life & light in this world would alway end in stalemate hit me hard as a profound comment on the impossibility of banishing another person’s demons

a fact: between the individual stories, this novella gives many insights into existing under “the Russian boot” in 20th-century Latvia, e.g. travel requests often met with netselesoobrazno (non-essential) which regularly prevented people taking trips abroad – even for family members’ funerals

 

want to read Soviet Milk? visit here

Love by Marie Vieux-Chauvet (tr. Rose-Myriam Réjouis, Val Vinokur)

[full disclosure: this is a review of only the first story in her trilogy of novellas: Love, Anger, Madness; I’ll be reading the others at a later date] 

a nutshell: an intelligent, wistful 39yo woman is fly-on-the-wall to scandals & corruption within her own household and beyond in a 1940s Haitian village

a line: “This resurrected past appeared to me as through a thick veil behind which I have evolved separate from my real self: an astonished spectator of my own life”

an image: an unmarried virgin longing for motherhood, Claire secretly caresses a beloved doll that serves as her makeshift baby

a thought: for me this was a story streaked with more hate than love – our narrator can be vengeful & deceptive, yearning for love but on the whole not giving/getting a lot of it (perhaps this is the point)

a fact: this trilogy was suppressed when published in 1968 and became an underground classic – only in 2005 was an authorised edition finally released in France

 

want to read Love, Anger, Madness? visit here