The wonderful Meytal Radzinski (@biblio and @read_WIT ) started Women in Translation Month – a great prompt to read more books by women in translation in August each year. She is compiling a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation: #100BestWIT. Here are my top ten.
Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston
A dystopian tale set in the near-future. The narrator has a clone, or ‘half’ who has lived in a coma and supplied spare body parts when needed – a group and their ‘halves’ are in the forest. Eery, with aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm, and the mystery of why they’re there and the sinister society they’ve escaped. Darrieussecq writes with a great sense of humour and a disarming, frank tone which I really enjoyed. Beautifully paced, with a twist near the end.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
A lyrical story of two girls’ friendship in a poor area of 1950s Naples. I loved the strong, flawed characters, sense of place and immersive style. It’s beautifully translated, especially the dialogue: even reading it in English, I felt like I was in Italy.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith
This begins with the 1940 exodus from Paris – we see families go from lives of privilege to losing everything under German occupation. The story moves to a rural village where Lucille and Madeleine are forced to share a house with a German soldier. I love the elegance of Némirovsky’s writing. The characters feel real and she conveys the drama and peril with a light touch. It’s an extraordinary work, all the more poignant when you know the circumstances in which Némirovsky wrote it.
Sulphuric Acid by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Shaun Whiteside
A disturbing story of citizens forced into a concentration camp for reality TV. Both the camp and the public seeing it as entertainment are horrifying. But Nothomb has a wonderful dry wit and draws strong, memorable characters. Moving tension between guard Zdena and Pannonique, the viewers’ favourite prisoner. Explores loss of identity, how low we will go for ‘entertainment’, apathy and the mob mentality. A great novella.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
A housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only for 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive and non-judgmental, so learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son and they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?) but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension.
In Diamond Square by Mercé Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush
A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving.
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim
An exquisite novel set in Seoul. A family searches for their mother, who has gone missing. Crystal-clear writing – thoughtful but fluid. She gives her characters space to reflect, but on each page there’s a tension or event to propel the reader forward. It’s infused with South Korean culture yet there’s so much we can all relate to (especially regarding motherhood). The final scene is stunning, heart-breaking and redemptive. Highly recommended.
Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler
Short stories by Teffi, a literary star of pre-revolutionary Russia. I enjoyed these – deftly written, with more than meets the eye, and a sense of humour. A window into St Petersburg and Paris literary circles of the time, which is fascinating in itself – not to mention Teffi’s (true) stories of meeting Tolstoy and Rasputin.
The End by Fernanda Torres, translated by Alison Entrekin
I thoroughly enjoyed this story of old men in Rio reflecting on their friendships and approaching deaths. It’s narrated by each in turn (with some events repeated). Alvaro is a misanthrope who hates women (but says he hates men too) – this put me off at first but then I just enjoyed her style and humour. The men feel real, if larger than life, and it’s thought-provoking about age and mortality.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus
I loved this novella. The tone is warm, inviting and quirky with an easy writing style. The characters are innocent and non judgmental, with simple, matter-of-fact observations that reminded me of Murakami, but with a female sensibility. Depth and intelligence behind the simple style. Loved the clean, economical writing and interesting characters.
What are your favourite books by women in translation?