10 Books for Women in Translation Month

Here are my top ten books by women in translation.  It is Euro-centric, so if you have some more diverse recommendations, please send them my way!

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  1. Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts: Strange, compelling stories set in Barcelona and Madrid.  Assured writing, the stories portray realistic families and homes (a girl and her ‘special’ sister, a woman mourning her husband) but twist and turn with elements that make you question reality or the narrator’s state of mind. It’s not often that fiction surprises.  Her fearless exploration of the human mind reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abanonment.
  2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein: I recommend all four books in the Neopolitan Quartet (this is the first).  Her writing is clear and lyrical, with a sense of urgency that propels the story along.  I loved the friends Lenu and Lila, the one studious, the other fierce, both vividly described so you can hear them speak, and see them gesticulate; you feel the heat, poverty and everyday violence of their neighbourhood.  I love the girls’ strength, the feeling of being in Italy and Ferrante’s honest depiction of that place and time.  IMG_9426
  3. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: actually, everything by Tove Jansson.  I loved the Moomintroll books as a child, there is something so cosy, comforting, gently funny about them and together with her illustrations, they tap into a child’s imagination in the most delightful way.  In this book, a six year old girl spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in Finland.  It has a wonderful sense of place and nature, and a story that is compelling but lightly told.  She is so economical and her writing deceptively simple.  It leaves much to think about, but most of all her characters are quirky, unsentimental but completely lovable.  She’s an icon, what can I say! IMG_9353
  4. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. A beautiful book.  Set in World War Two, it describes a family who flees Paris and moves to the countryside, and the tensions that arise when they have to host a German soldier during the occupation.  Irene Nemirosvksy, then a celebrated author, wrote this in in the French countryside during the war, and tragically died in Auschwitz in 1942.  I was swept away by the story of Lucile, and the contrast between the perfectly observed domestic scenes and constraints of village life, and the dangers of war, all written with musical fluidity and a sense of humour.  Nemirovsky was an impeccable writer and this is her masterpiece.  Read it!
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Adriana Hunter. I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, wry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.
  6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Osagawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive, and learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son & 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. I liked her carefully drawn characters and clean writing style.
  7. In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush: A five-star read.  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. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
  8. Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini: I picked this up in Waterstones just before we visited Barcelona, and am just reading it now.  It’s set in the civil war, but told with an originality and perspective (a village girl who is supposed to become a maid, until the war intervenes) that makes the story fresh.  I like her dark humour and the character of Montse, now a spirited old woman but telling the story of her youth.
  9. The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.  Szabo was arguably Hungary’s foremost female novelist.  The narrator (who I think remains unnamed) hires an older housekeeper, Emerance.  She is a strong, eccentric character, and we don’t know what drives her but gradually learn about her past: the reader’s sympathies ebb and flow between the narrator and Emerance. It highlights the way older people are treated in society, and the afterpains of war. Slow at times but rich and satisfying, told in finely crafted prose. The singular characters and some vivid scenes have stayed with me long after reading it. Related image
  10. Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler: I enjoyed these stories very much.  Deftly written, Teffi has a deceptively light style, handling poignant subject-matter with elegance and a sense of humour.  These stories open a window into the Russian literary circles of the early 1900s – fascinating in itself, not to mention her encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin, which are wonderfully recounted.  Teffi was forced to leave Moscow in 1917 and I recommend her memoir of this period, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.

What are your favourite books by women in translation?

Baileys Prize 2017

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 7 June.  Here is my quick and incomplete guide to the shortlist.

The shortlisted books are:

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

I’ve read four of the list (pictured below – missing my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, back in London but probably my favourite of the list).

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Just add Baileys!

I am intrigued by First Love and have heard mixed reports of The Sport of Kings.  My thoughts on the four I’ve read … :

The Power

Women have the power to electrocute you with their hands.  This gives them swagger and confidence; men are afraid to walk the streets at night.  Gender wars and global upheaval ensue, reverse-echoing current geopolitics (men must stay at home, genital mutilation, etc).  Alderman seems to say: women would behave in the same way as men, given the chance.  Muscular, engaging writing and interesting characters.  The story is science fiction (which I don’t tend to enjoy because of the extra leaps of faith it requires) and works at a macro level, so I wasn’t ‘in’ its world.  But a very strong book.  I would not be surprised if it won.

Stay With Me

Yejide and Akin are married in 1980s Nigeria and trying to have a baby.  Traumatic events occur, without being sensationalised.  This is a gentle book, despite the emotional punch.  The writing does not draw attention to itself but presents the characters with sensitivity and compassion.  It took me a while to get into and I did not love it overall – I couldn’t get traction or immerse myself in the story – but I admired its originality and sense of place.  A quietly strong book.

The Dark Circle

Beautiful writing, sympathetic characters sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and an interesting moment in history – 1949-51 – I wanted to love this more than I did.

Well-crafted, I liked brash Lenny and Miriam in London, but the parts with bored, ill sanatorium patients dragged and I never got attached to the characters (although Persky the American was fun).  The story felt contrived at times, pressing on the reader the symptoms of TB and historical treatment of the disease.

But – beautiful craftsmanship, each sentence honed and polished, thoughtfully written, intelligent and (I’m assuming) historically accurate.  There is much wisdom here, but it’s put as the characters thinking, which was sometimes a stretch.  For example, Hannah the German (“Germany had an innate dislike of chaos and untidiness”) reflects that “in the spirit of the British there was, she felt, a kind of human glitch, the system could handle a sense of humour …”

The patients analyse Metamorphisis and its parallels to their situation and the Jews (waking up one day and being in a body that is treated as though one might as well be an insect).  This was interesting but I found it a little clunky.

The sanatorium part ends and soon after that I thought the story came to a natural end, without a neat resolution but the tension in the story (who survives) is answered.  But then there is a long tail as the story goes on for 40-odd pages, following the surviving characters into old age, which I didn’t need.  Perhaps it’s ‘completing the circle’ or to satisfy the readers’ curiosity, but I thought it weakened the novel.

I so wanted to like it more!  I plan to read more of Linda Grant as she’s hugely talented and maybe with a story that’s more about the characters and less about an ‘issue’ I’ll have more luck.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

A devastating story, beautifully told.  It may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew and deepen your compassion for all the people of China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and their children.  It’s long and intricate – I needed a cast of characters at times – but it weaves together whole lives with care and delicacy and the characters feel real.  Accomplished, this feels like the novel Madeleine Thien was born to write.  Highly recommended, with a tissue caveat.

This is my pick for the prize!  Who do you think will win?