Archive for August, 2020

Wild Woman

August 28, 2020

The Croatian writer Marina Sur Puhlovski came early to writing but late to publishing. She had written nine books before the first was published in 1991 only for the Yugoslavian civil war to interrupt: “After the war, and nearing fifty, I found myself in a situation where I had been writing my whole life and I had authored just one book.” Luckily she found a sympathetic publisher and soon her many years’ worth of manuscripts were appearing in print – Wild Woman, the first to be translated into English (by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric) is her twentieth book. All her work is rooted in her own life – “All my novels and stories belong to the same life. I never made up stories – they came on their own” – and so we can assume the story of Sofija Karlj (her name is revealed on the final page) is to some extent autobiographical, if that at all matters.

Wild Woman charts Sofija’s unhappy marriage to “my one and only” (her husband is never named), a fellow student at university where they are both studying literature, and her attempt to gain independence. As the novel opens she is finally ‘free’ but finds herself barely functioning in a flea-ridden flat:

“I have no idea how it happened – how I became a zombie – when only two days ago I was literally dancing with joy around the house, happy that the bastard had finally left.”

The novel then rewinds to the time when Sofija was a naïve nineteen-year-old, lacking in confidence, particularly when it comes to her appearance:

“I’m a bit of a chunky girl of nineteen, with narrow hips and broad shoulders, but strong thighs and claves, and legs that are neither short or long, but definitely not made for mini-skirts, which is what all the girls are wearing when I’m in secondary school.”

The chatty tone is typical of the novel, one which suggests the narrator is taking us into her confidence. When she meets her future husband she isn’t instantly attracted – “for a while I vacillated, yes I do want him, no I don’t” – and, in fact, only agrees to go out with him after a friend suggests that she will happily take her place. How far he fools her and how much she fools herself is hard to tell. Early on she senses “he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing”; whereas, in her mother’s words, “There’s something wrong with that boy.”

Puhlovski makes much of that fact that Sofija is influence by what she has read. Fairy tales are mentioned frequently; the template for their relationship, in her mind, is Satre and de Beauvoir; and she describes being in love as “better than flying on a magic carpet, like in Scheherazade.” Looking back she admits she was “indescribably stupid”, having not

“…yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books, which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours.”

Sofija has her own doubts when her husband disappears while on holiday after going out to buy a packet of cigarettes. Hours later she finds him sitting alone in a café; it will be a while before she realises he craves anything other than solitude. Her life deteriorates further, however, when she discovers he has a brain tumour – one which he and his family already knew about before the marriage:

“I left my youth behind when I walked into the hospital.”

(There is a parallel later with a dog they buy which develops sores on its paws which turn out to be a genetic condition – “You should never buy a puppy like that,” the vet tells her). While he recovers, she writes the articles for a radio show that he has been commissioned to do so he doesn’t lose his job. When he has a chance to have the tumour surgically removed, it isn’t entirely clear why the (admittedly dangerous) operation doesn’t go ahead – is it him who cancels it? Staying near the hospital, we can see that Sofija is beginning to long for freedom, bitterly disappointed when her mother arranges for her to stay with relatives rather than in the room she had found:

“…my hear sank, I had already imagined myself living in that dark quiet little room with the ray of sunlight slicing through the air and on my open book.”

Such is the patriarchal pressures of the 1970s, her mother, who has never liked him, does not want Sofija to leave him: “the poor man is ill, you shouldn’t do that to him.” Sofija herself feels she can only leave him once he is secure:

“With his degree and job I don’t owe him anything anymore.”

(As well as doing his job for him, she has helped him study, and cheat, for his degree). Even then she feels she must make him want to leave her.

Though Sofija’s life is often depressing (another constant battle is with space as they are forced to live with parents even when married) the novel itself is never gloomy thanks to the narrative voice which is full of life even when bitter and angry, with bursts of eccentric imagery:

“My head is like a cage full of exotic birds trying to out-squawk each other.”

Wild Woman is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and I can only hope for further translations as I would happily spend more time in Sofija, and Puhlovski’s, company.


August 24, 2020

Agota Kristof is a Hungarian writer who left the country for Switzerland aged twenty-one when Russia suppressed the uprising of 1956. In 1986 she published her first, and most famous, novel The Notebook, written in French. It was followed by two further novels – The Proof and The Lie – to form a trilogy. Yesterday is a later novel, from 1995, which was translated by David Watson in 1997, but has recently been reprinted. It tells the story of an immigrant who spends his days working in a factory and writes at night – just as Kristof worked in a factory for five years when she moved to Switzerland – but is far from being autobiographical.

The novel’s narrator, Tobias, hates working in the factory. As the novel opens, he stays on the bus as it passes the factory stop, only getting off at the end of the line where he is found later, face down in the mud, by a walker. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital, which he finds preferable to the life he was living:

“I was happy to stay in hospital, because I didn’t have to go back to the factory. I was fine here, I was looked after, I could sleep.”

Here, a psychiatrist asks him about the woman, Line, he is waiting for, but most of what he tells him is untrue. He claims that Line is made up, “she doesn’t exist,” and, when asked about his childhood:

“I’m a war orphan. My parents were killed in the air raids. I am the only survivor from my family. I have no brothers or sisters.”

In fact, his mother was not killed in an air raid but brought him up alone, prostituting herself so they could survive:

“My mother was the thief, beggar, and whore of the village.”

When he goes to school, he realises that the man who visits his mother who (unlike the rest of her clientele) clearly isn’t a peasant, is the teacher. (“He gazed at me for a long time, he stroked my hair, he kissed me on the forehead, he pressed my hands against his cheeks,” is his description of a prior encounter at home). It is there he meets Line, Caroline, the teacher’s daughter:

“You’re wearing my brother’s jacket. And his shoes. What’s your name?”

As you have probably guessed, Tobias is the teacher’s son. He finds this out when he overhears a conversation between the teacher and his mother at the point (twelve years old) when he can leave school:

“I don’t want my son to become a peasant. Even worse, a farm hand, a beggar like you.”

Tobias is filled with hatred for both his mother and his father, and he runs away – “without realising it, I arrived in another country in a large city.” He changes his name to that of his father, Sandor. After spending some time in a children’s home, he begins work in the factory. His life becomes routine and he even develops a relationship with a woman, Yolande, but, as he tells the psychiatrist, he goes on seeing her “because I don’t have anyone else.”

“Today I start the idiotic routine again. I get up at five o’clock in the morning, I wash, I shave, I make some coffee, I set off, I run to the main square, I get on the bus, I close my eyes, the full horror of my present life stares me in the face.”

Everything changes when he see Line in the bus one morning and realises she, too, is now working at the factory:

“So it was her I was waiting for! I didn’t know. I thought I was waiting for a woman who was unknown, beautiful, unreal. And it’s the real Line that has come after fifteen years of separation.”

The mythical Line he was waiting becomes the actual Line from his childhood. Despite the fact she is married with a child he is determined that she is the only woman for him.

Yesterday, then, is a love story of a kind, though Tobias’ love is like a straw he holds onto in a storm. He is a character who has had nothing but bad luck, and whose decisions seem only to reinforce that misfortune. The thought of Line is all that lies between him and giving up. His life is not quite as wretched as those in The Notebook, but he has little to hope for.

This is partly due to his status as an immigrant, and the novel is very good on immigrant experience. Tobias’ only friend (a generous description of their relationship) is another immigrant, Jean, even poorer than he, whom he pays to paint his room. Jean sends the little money Tobias can pay him home to his wife and children, but he can’t go home himself:

“The whole village would laugh at me. I promised I’d make a fortune.”

Jean “cries almost all the time” and the immigrant community is riven with suicides:

“The post mortem showed that Vera had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
“Our first death.
“There were others not long after.
“Robert opened his veins in his bath.
“Albert hanged himself, leaving a note on the table written in our language, ‘Fuck you.’”

Very few writers can access grinding poverty in the way Kristof can, embedding the narrative, without commentary, within that world. Both Line and writing represent vague, unformed hopes for Tobias, and it is questionable whether even he has much faith in them. Readers should not expect either to lead to salvation. Kristof is not for the faint hearted, but she is a very special writer.

Hypnotism Made Easy

August 20, 2020

Marie Nimier is a French author who has written numerous novels, only two of which seem to have been translated into English – The Giraffe in 1995 and Hypnotism Made Easy (by Sophie Hawkes) in 1996, making eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of that year. Hypnotism Made Easy is a coming-of-age story based around the titular handbook which the narrator, Cora, finds in a house which her family have rented for a holiday. So intrigued is she that she decides to take the book with her, intending to gradually acquaint herself with its contents, and linking it specifically to her strong desire to leave childhood behind:

“I would read these pages bit by bit, so that the treatise would accompany me until the day I came of age.”

The first lesson involves a form of self-hypnosis which she finds soothing:

“My outward appearance did not change at all, but inside, beneath the skin, I dreamed on in peace.”

This seems harmless, but it is already clear that the threat of hypnosis is not an idle one, and a further warning occurs when, in a later holiday, she uses the next chapter to hypnotise another young girl, but then finds herself unable to wake her:

“The day before we left she succeeded in cornering me near the telephone booth and calling me a witch.”

Cora’s earlier attempts to practise on animals have been scuppered by a fraudulent parakeet which begins dripping dye on the day it is purchased and has to be returned to the pet shop. It stands a symbol for the deceptive appearances which will trouble Cora’s love life.

Cora’s love is currently focused on her uncle, Paul, despite the mental difficulties which has resulted in hospitalisation and a refusal to eat. The affection is reciprocated – “They admitted that my uncle had often clamoured for me” – and it is Cora who eventually convinces him to eat again, using the book to help her. On Cora’s part, however, the love is laced with desire:

“My whole body shook upon contact with his skin.”

When he is discharged from hospital and begins living with his speech therapist, Cora is delighted to discover that his lover is jealous of her. She uses her hypnotic powers to ensure they can spend time alone:

“In order to rid ourselves of her, I set about giving her a headache.”

Despite their intimacy, Paul refuses Cora’s physical advances, which reach a ridiculous crisis when she threatens to deflower herself with a zucchini if he will not undertake the job himself:

“If anything were obscene, wasn’t it the innocent way he held me on his knees, as if I were still ten years old.”

Instead she turns first to a travelling hypnotist, Katz, and then (in the same night) her gym teacher, Leo. The loss of her virginity, however, does not change the in the way she had hoped:

“Virgin or no, the date remained the same. I was wrong to believe in the miracle of the two square inches.”

Though Katz is perturbed to discover she is still in high school, he promises that he will return for her when she is eighteen and make her part of his show, a promise which he keeps. Her new life, however, does not live up to her expectations: “I had thought I was escaping: in fact I was drowning.” Slowly we begin to suspect that Katz may be using hypnosis on Cora outwith the show. An interesting comparison can be made with Katz’s original assistant, Pedro whom Cora initially described as “like a poodle waiting for a biscuit.” Pedro seems like a comic character, often badly treated by Katz, but later Cora falls into the same role:

“…like an animal that seeks its master’s affection, I would sprawl all over him.”

Katz, for example, burns Cora with a lighter in order to prove his powers, and later wants her to open the show by stripping, despite her objections. At the same time she finds it difficult to remember things (“I wasn’t even twenty and I was losing my memory”) so she begins to write everything down. However, when she later looks at her journal:

“I discovered absurd, incomprehensible things there, written in my own hand.”

For all the sinister undertones of the second half, Hypnotism Made Easy is a very readable, sympathetic novel. Nimier uses hypnotism to explore adolescence and love which, for many, is a kind of madness. That Katz wants an assistant rather than an apprentice, and that he wishes her to be under his spell both on and off stage, feels like the perfect metaphor for many relationships. Cora herself is endearing even when wrong-headed, and can be easily admired in her foolishness. Most readers will hope for a happy ending she deserves. Hypnotism Made Easy is perhaps not prize-winning material, but it certainly earns its place on the long list, and will make any reader wonder why Nimier has not been translated since.

Little Eyes

August 15, 2020

Little Eyes is the third of Samanta Schweblin’s three books (translated as usual by Megan McDowell) to be long-listed for the International Booker Prize. It’s yet another unsettling glimpse of life as it is in a present that doesn’t quite exist. Whereas the intense uneasiness of Fever Dream was created by an uncertain dialogue in which one of the voices may not even be real, Little Eyes is a much calmer book, presenting us, in third person, a variety of viewpoints from across the globe to demonstrate the interconnectedness of our wi-fi world while at the same time providing us with the disturbing psychological insights which we associate with her work.

In the novel, Schwebiln takes recognisable element of modern technology and joins them up to create the ‘kentuki’. In particular she recognises that social media is both performative and voyeuristic, and so the kentuki allows one user to be watched and the other to do the watching, the twist being that they are randomly connected. The kentukis are designed to look cute and cuddly, like soft toys:

“The animal looked like a simple and artless plush panda bear, though really it was more similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright.”

Like soft toys, they come in a variety of animal forms, but they can move around and have a camera behind their eyes; this movement is controlled by another person who sees through the kentuki’s eyes. In this sense they are ‘alive’ but they are unable to communicate with their owner (making only noises from purring to high-pitched screaming) unless that owner arranges for a method of communication (for example, a simple yes / no system or using an alphabet available as happens in the first chapter where a Ouija board is used). On the other hand, the kentuki can see their owner but the owner has no idea who is at the other end of the camera.

The novel is divided into chapters headed by place names – the place where the kentuki owner or the pilot is. The first chapter, ‘South Bend’, feels a little like a prologue, or even short story. Schweblin tackles the voyeuristic and performative nature of the system immediately in the opening sentence: “The first thing they did was show their tits.” A group of adolescent girls are taking turns to be daring in front of the camera. Schweblin not only captures the pressure of belonging in the trio (“If you want to survive in South Bend… you have to make friends with the strong”) but also the feeling that they have the power in the relationship with their ‘toy’, even to the point that they ask it to blackmail a classmate. This quickly turns around when they give it access to a Ouija board and it attempts to blackmail it owner using its access to family secrets, as well as revealing that she has been talking in an uncomplimentary fashion about the other girls, thus ending the friendship. Though our other destination will reappear, we never return to South Bend, as Schweblin uses this chapter to deal with some of the more obvious repercussions of her invention as if to clear the decks for the more nuanced exploration to come.

The novel goes on to describe the experience of a number of kentuki pairs. In Lima, Emilia observes the life of a young woman in Germany. In Oaxaca, Alina buys one to pass the time while her boyfriend, Sven, an artist, is in his studio. In Antigua, Marvin is initially disappointed as his kentuki seems destined to dress a shop window. In Umbertide, Enzo finds the kentuki bought for his son, Luca, in the aftermath of a divorce, irritating:

“…at first they’d had trouble getting used to each other, and the kentuki’s mere presence had been enough to make Enzo uncomfortable. It was a cruel invention: the boy never paid any attention to it, and Enzo had to spend the whole day dodging a stuffed animal rolling around the house.”

Enzo’s journey is typical of many of the characters, if more extreme – however distant they are from the kentuki at first, it becomes an important part of their life. In Enzo’s case this reaches the point where it feels like the kentuki is someone he can share his worries with, and he offers the pilot a phone number, asking them to contact him. Alina, too grows fond her kentuki despite her initial scepticism, but takes a different approach:

“It was such a good thing she’d never communicated with her kentuki – the more she learned the more certain she was she’d made the right decision.”

Emilia, on other hand, becomes worried for her owner when a man moves in, and attempts to destroy her (they can’t be switched off). Meanwhile in Zagreb, Grigor is buying up kentukis and tablets and setting them up so that users can know in advance who they will be observing for an extra cost.

What Schweblin does brilliantly is use these stories (and others) to explore how the virtual and real worlds interact, and the complexity of understanding the relationship between the two (which is what so many of the characters fail to do). Focusing on these individual stories actually gives the novel a wider perspective, and she skilfully brings each one to a conclusion which raises a question of its own. While Little Eyes may not quite conjure the nightmarish horror of Fever Dream, once again Schweblin has produced a novel which is prescient and frightening in equal measure.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga

August 9, 2020

When publishers who, over the years, have expanded our knowledge of literature beyond the narrow confines of Europe and North America are praised, one which is often forgotten is the Heinemann African Writer series (and its companion Caribbean Writers series). This may be because much of what they published was originally written in English, or because it lay beneath often unsophisticated covers, but the fact remains that they bought the most famous African writers – Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Woly Soyinka – to a wider audience, and brought many other important writers to the attention of the West, including some, like Ayi Kwie Armah, who remain trapped in expensive, out-of-print editions. Some of their work was, however, translated, including Mariam Ba’s So Long a Letter, which remains a key text by an African woman writer. Calixthe Beyala was another writer who benefitted from the series as Heinemann published three of her novels in translation during the 1990s, including Your Name Shall Be Tanga in 1996, making her eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Beyala had a busy 1996, winning Acadmie Franaise’s Grand Prix du Roman while at the same time being accused of plagiarising Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Already a controversial figure in her home country of Cameroon due to her ‘pornographic’ writing and feminism, and currently embroiled in a dispute with a journalist who has been imprisoned on a charge of defaming her, it’s probably best to focus on the novel in question. Your Name Shall Be Tanga, which was originally published in French in 1988, and translated by Marjolijn de Jager in 1996, tells the story of two women placed together in the same prison cell. Anna-Claude is a French teacher who has come to Africa in a kind of madness, in search of the imaginary husband she believes is waiting for her. When some of her students disappear she protests and is arrested as a ‘subversive.’ When a young Cameroonian girl is put in the cell with her, she asks her to share her story:

“Give me your story. I am your deliverance. You have to assassinate the silence that you drag behind you like a dead skin.”

The novel’s title is explained when the girl decides that she will tell Anna-Claude the story of her life:

“Give me your hand; from now on you shall be me. You shall be seventeen seasons old, you shall be black, your name shall be Tanga.”

Tanga’s story is one of unrelenting abuse. It begins with her father who, already regularly unfaithful to her mother, “would later rip me apart in the budding of my twelfth year.” Her mother pretends ignorance, even when she falls pregnant, “coughed discreetly into her skirts when she saw me give birth to the child her man had sired.” From there it is a short step to child prostitution:

“I brought my body to the crossroads of other lives. I put it underneath the light. A man approached me. I smiled. I followed. I undid my clothes. I placed my body on the bed, underneath his muscles.”

The novel is not without hope but, as Tanga lies dying in a prison cell, we know these hopes are futile. When she meets Hassan she refutes the suggestion she is a whore – “I refuse the costume which he wants to put on my back” – in the hope of something better:

“I’ve decided to live, I’ve nothing to do with mother old one any longer. She pasted so much sludge onto my both that all the tidewaters couldn’t wash it away…”

When Tanga suggests marriage, however, she never sees Hassan again – she may not want to be a whore but that is all men can see in her; it is as much a prison as the one she now finds herself in.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a very bleak novel which portrays life for most of its character as hopeless, particularly for women. This is illustrated by Tanga’s younger sister who is ready to follow in her footsteps – “Aren’t I pretty?” she asks her. When Tanga tells her she should learn how to read instead, she accuses her of being jealous. But male characters suffer too. Take Footwreck, for example, whom Tanga attempts to ‘adopt’. Neglected as a child, rats have eaten his feet – also demonstrating (as with Tanga’s mother) that woman are not simply victims. When Tanga angers the butcher, it looks like he is going to rape her, but instead he cries. When Tanga tells him “a real man, never lets a tear drop,” he replies:

“You can’t become a man without having first been a child, you understand?”

The novel’s desolation is made bearable by the liveliness of its language, though this can at times seem overwritten. Take, for example, “Our eyes meet – they rub against each other. They go on and on and resound in me.” If the first sentence has a certain exaggerated charm, the second ironically goes on and on, and ‘resound’ feels like it has little to do with ‘rubbing’ Later in the same paragraph another metaphor is attempted: “our eyes that are there like a curtain hung between two half-open doors.” At times there is a joy in this unrestrained imagery, but at other times it is clumsy and distracting.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a horrific portrait of poverty in Cameroon, and the callous exploitation of children. It is written with (a sometimes overwhelming) linguistic power and certainly deserves its place on the long list.

The Disaster Tourist

August 6, 2020

Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, is a further example of the increasing number of Korean novels reaching an English-speaking audience. It’s a sharp satire (though one where the line between satire and reality can be difficult to distinguish) of the tourist industry, and, more generally, of the commodification of every aspect of our lives, and deaths.

Yona is an employee of a travel company, Jungle, which specialises in holidays to disaster areas:

“Yona has worked at Jungle for over ten years, surveying disaster zones and moulding them into travel destinations.”

Now she is beginning to feel less certain of her job security in a company that is ruthless with both staff and customers. (We see this in the opening chapter when she tells a customer that no refund is possible when, three months before the trip, he attempts to cancel as his child is sick, and later with another customer when his travelling companion has died).

“Recently, whenever Yona went into work, she felt like a dandelion seed that had somehow drifted into a building. The chair she sat in each morning was definitely hers, but for some reason, sitting in it was awkward, like this was the first time she’d ever touched the piece of furniture.”

She is particularly uneasy when she turns up for a meeting only to find no one else there. “Today’s a foul,” she is told, and is too afraid to ask what this actually means. Later, she is molested by her boss, Kim, in a lift, and her primary fear is that he is rumoured only to target “has-beens”, those whose career is over, even if they don’t yet know it. Eventually, when she is taken off the project she is managing, she decides to resign, but Kim suggest that, instead, she take some time off and use it to review one of Jungle’s less popular holiday destinations. She decides to go to see a desert sinkhole on the (fictional) island of Mui near Vietnam.

The trip is a disappointment. The sinkhole also marks the site of a tribal massacre, but there is very little to see:

“She wondered how a place ravaged by disaster could look so peaceful.”

The desert visit also takes place on the first day and Yona feels “they’d seem Mui’s highlights too early.” Other elements of the trip include a visit to a volcano that is not noticeably a volcano, and a night spent in a traditional house on stilts.

“When Yona glanced at the itinerary, everything looked dull. Who had come up with such a poorly organised schedule? Yona understood why this trip was targeted for cancellation.”

Among the other tourists on the trip are a screenwriter, a college student, and a teacher and her five-year-old daughter. Ko-eun chooses not to give us their names, although they feature extensively during this section. The child in particular is always asking questions and demanding attention, and her presence highlights the eeriness of the holiday.

Up to this point, however, the novel’s satire of the tourist industry has been tame. Only when Yona is separated from the other travellers on the way to the airport at the end of the holiday and is forced to stay in Mui longer than she anticipated (which also emphasises the difference between being a tourist and simply being in another country) do we see the lengths to which those who own the resort are prepared to go to ensure that the island remains on Jungle’s list of destinations:

“Since signing a contract with Jungle and building the resort, Mui has been tailoring everyday life to fit its role as a disaster zone… Now, if disaster disappears from Mui, life disappears, too.”

The screenwriter has, in fact, been hired to create a new disaster scenario which will be enacted on the island thus ensuring continued value for tourists:

“Some people will die because of the sinkhole, but others will live because of it. And a lot more will live than die.”

Yona has to decide whether to go along with the plan or not, a situation complicated by her developing relationship with a local man at a time when the local population are regarded as expendable.

The Disaster Tourist, like all successful satires, takes the worst of the present day to its logical conclusion. It’s not simply an attack on ‘disaster tourism’; it also highlights, more generally, the way in which third world countries must create a culture to cater for tourists to be economically viable, and the damage this can cause to those who have to live there. While this may bring some income for the inhabitants, the novel shows that it is faceless corporations which lie behind it – here brilliantly named ‘Paul’. In the novel Paul’s yellow construction trucks disappear when tourists are visiting but return as soon as they are gone; they also have a history of knocking down islanders with impunity. What the novel loses in characterisation (only Yona is really more than a sketch) it makes up for in exposing both corporate and individual greed, and how quickly we can lose sight of the real cost of travelling. The Disaster Tourist is a disturbing expose of capitalism without restraint, though its (literally) deus ex machina ending might be seen as softening the satire’s blows, while at the same time emphasising that nature cannot be tamed.


August 3, 2020

Marie Redonnet is a French writer who was widely translated in the 1990s when five of her novels appeared from the University of Nebraska Press, the majority, like Nevermore, translated by Jordan Stump. Nevermore originally appeared in 1994, with the English translation following in 1996, and, despite no UK publication, I have included it in the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list in an effort to improve the representation of women writers. It’s a short novel with a large cast of characters, a portrait of a small town as much as any individual, told in a dispassionate, one might even say emotionless, narrative voice.

The novel opens with the arrival of two newcomers to San Rosa, an American town with French features (particularly the pissotiere, which will prove to be important to the plot). The first is Willy Bost who will be taking up a post as deputy to Commander Rodney Burke in what appears to be a two man police force; the second is Cassy Mac Key who has accepted a job as a singer at the night club Babylon. They arrive together as Willy’s car breaks down and has to be towed into town by Cassy. Both characters see San Rosa as an escape. Willy “wants to forget the past” and even writes in the notebook he carries:

“It is forbidden to remember the past.”

His transfer to Sam Rosa is a punishment “because he is considered undesirable in High Places.” Cassy, too, feels she has few options:

“She could pack her suitcase and flee. But to go where? With her CV no one would hire her.”

They both stay at the Gold House, a boarding house run by Lizzie Malik. Once an acrobat in the Fuch Circus, she had almost died in an accident that she believes was an attempt to murder her:

“In hospital, as soon as she came out of her coma, she began to shout that someone had cut her rope and had tried to kill her.”

The mystery of who killed her will form one of the novel’s main plot stands, alongside a complicated rivalry for political supremacy in the town which is linked to competing entertainment establishments, Babylon being one.

None of this, however, quite conveys the strangeness of the novel. This is apparent in its prose style and its deliberate lack of complexity. The sentences are, in general, not short enough to be dramatic, but not long enough to be complex; they are what you might call ‘medium’ sentences, and tend to stick to one idea and avoid conjunctions. This can make the novel read almost like a children’s book, particularly as Redonnet likes to use character names, including full names, frequently:

“Lizzie Mallik is just finishing the morning dishes when Willy Bost comes into the kitchen. She is relieved that he is behaving towards her as though nothing had happened. That is the best solution for both of them.”

The reference here, though, illustrates one aspect of the novel that makes it far from suitable for children: the preponderance of loveless sex acts. On his first night in the Gold House, Willy feels inexplicably aroused, so he invites Lizzie to his room and “asks her to suck him, as if it were an order,” which she does. Cassy has an even more disturbing encounter on her first night at Babylon, when the owner, Dora Atter:

“…runs her silk gloved hands over Cassy Mac Key’s body. Then she pinches her until bruises appear. She takes an instrument out of her pocket, and thrusts it into her vagina until she groans in pain.”

These incidents add to the sense of a town where power is everything, and ruthlessness is rewarded. Violence is not only sexual, and when President Harley (who has also assaulted Cassy) is found murdered in the pissotiere at the Fuch Circus, the power struggle in San Rosa comes out into the open. The journalist Danny Sapin proposes that, “The only solution is to demolish the city centre and to construct a new centre, one worthy of San Rosa.” On the other hand, Father Anderson, in his sermon, argues:

“What must be done is not to destroy the city centre but to save it, in order to make of it the city of God.”

Here, Redonnet, seems to tap into arguments still current: destroy and start again versus ‘save’ (improve) what we have. In fact, for all it is now almost thirty years old, the novel’s portrayal of small town American life does not feel dated, precisely because of its rejection of realism. It is, however, far from optimistic: the town is a snake pit of competition where sides are taken, rules are broken and winners and losers swap places overnight. Redonnet has a unique and memorable voice and vision and well deserves her place on the long list.