Rosa Montero ‘Flesh’


—She straightened up. Round breasts, heavy, slightly drooping, it makes sense, but still pretty. A body shaped by gym sessions. Completely natural. 60 years old. For sixty she wasn’t bad at all. IMG_1293But, of course, from today on she was in her bloody sixties.she reached out a hand and turned the light on, one of the fluorescent lights above her wardrobe, shining down on her whole body, acceptably smooth until now under indirect light, seemed suddenly to slump as if subjected to the forces of 3D gravity…She inspected herself slowly in the mirror without pity. The body is a terrible thing she said to herself out loud, so as to get moving again.***


Soledad is single professional woman coming to terms with her age at sixty, at once strong but insecure, determined but fragile and reaffirming a hunger for life.

In this book which can be translated into English as ‘Flesh’, Montero paints us a complex picture of a woman of sixty who is still maturing, jealous since her married boyfriend left her for his pregnant wife, jealous to the point of hiring a gigolo for an evening at the opera to try to show him she was better without him, to make him jealous, only for her acquaintances to think she was with her son.

She has her life under some sort of control up to this point, but when leaving the the Opera, her Spanish speaking Russian gigolo intercedes in a violent robbery and things get out of hand from here, their relationship becomes deeper than the clear one of a gigolo and his client. As their relationship evolves, the central question becomes one of danger, is Soledad in physical danger from the young Russian man or, as she suspects he is not being honest with her and she begins following him, is he more in danger from the fiery Soledad? This is juxtaposed with the stories of the Cursed Writers which she is considering for the exposition she is preparing for the National Library. As Soledad’s hunger for life and experiences is confirmed, The ever present question of the onwards march of time persists:


—Soledad felt once again an onset of panic, the unending sadness to think that she may never again fall in love, that she may never again lean up against a man’s body, that she may never again feel a man inside her, that her body may never feel the heat of passion for another. The last time you make love, the last time you climb a mountain, the last time you run in the Retiro park. Time ticks on unstoppable, towards the final destruction like a bomb.***


First published in Spanish as ‘La Carne’ by Alfaguara in 2016
Translated into French by Myriam Chirousse as “La Chair” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

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Andrée A Michaud ‘Bondrée’


—The children had long since been put to bed when Zaza Mulligan, on Friday the 21st of July, started up the forest path leading to her parents chalet humming Aimg_0860 Whitet Shade of Pale driven on by Procul Harum alongside Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the sparkling lights of the summer of 67. She’d drunken too much but she didn’t care.***


Welcome to Boundary Pond, a lake on the Quebec, Maine border, which picked up the name of Bondrée from Pierre Landry a long since dead trapper. In this book about the great out doors around the lake and its surrounding forest, Peter’s forest, Michaud manages the feat of presenting us with a closed set up mystery. At the outset of the story Zaza Mulligan is found dead after having her leg sectioned in one of Pierre Landry’s old bear traps, and after investigation by the American detective Stan Michaud the enquiry returns an accidental death but Michaud has his doubts:


—Life reorganized itself around this absence and everyone, except for friends and family as well as cops like himself, unable to hold back the ghosts, would forget that in this space, filled by absence, there was once a young girl. It had to be so, the game didn’t allow the participation of the deceased.***


And then the second death in similar circumstances leaves no doubt, there is a killer out there. Michaud shows us the tired and haunted detective, The mix of holiday makers around the lake, part American and part Québécois, only managing a few words of each other’s language as well as several chapters narrated by the young Andrée Duchamp, no longer a child but not yet an adolescent:


—I’d only seen my mother in such a state at the death of her father grand-dad Fred. For weeks after papys funeral, she just disappeared at any time. Her body was still there bent over the sink or over the kitchen counter, but the essence of my mother was gone. Her hands hung in the air in front of her, our questions slid from her ears and it needed for her to drop her knife or her potato for her to re-enter her body. These absences scared me, because the false grimace that froze her looks belonged to a stranger that I wouldn’t have wanted to cross in the dark.***


And who is Little Hawk, an erstwhile friend of, and who had been taught more than twenty years previously to trap by, Pierre Landry and who finding Landry hung in his hut swore that:


—Nobody, ever, will touch my son, my daughter, my father or my brother.***


Michaud, who manages to have a detective with her surname and a narrator with her christian name, much like Agatha Christie before her, even though we know all of the families around the lake, keeps us guessing till the end.

First published in French as ‘Bondrée’ by Les Éditions Québec Amérique in 2013
Translated into English by Donald Winkler as “Boundary” and published by No Exit Press in 2017
*** My translation

Bérangère Cournut ‘Née Contente À Oraibi’


—I was told, in order to make me a daughter of her clan and because I peed on her the first time she took me in her arms, an aunt called me at first Honawpaahu, Bear-who-sprays-like-a-fountain. IMG_1292Then as on that day I laughed with my mouth wide open, another baptised me Tatatitaawa, She-who-greets-the-sun-with-a-smile……In the following weeks, I ceased peeing on people, wrapped tight in my willow cot like all new borns….which is why I remained Tatatitaawa.***


Born Happy At Oraibi: This is the story of a young American Indian girl, a Hopi, a people who live in the Arazona desert, a people who scrape out a living in this inhospitable area and we are plunged into her life and, through it, the Hopi’s complex belief system, so thoroughly linked to their surroundings and the natural world.

The Hopis live in this arid desert, so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter, dépendant on the meagre harvest for survival, we are with Tatatitaawa, of the butterfly clan, as she grows up in this happy but small community in Oraibi at the third Mesa with at the centre Itangu, the oldest woman of the clan. We are with her as she changes her name at key stages of her life.

We hear of Soyal, when her father and the other men leave their house when the days are shortest and the nights are longest in order pray with the priests and .to call back the sun and of Lakon when the women fast at the end of the cycle in November to pray for rain. We hear of her father who sometimes roared like thunder in the house, but as her mother says, who would complain at the sky for thundering before it delivers us water.

Besides the stories of Hopi celebrations and prayers, births and deaths, we discover Walpi on the first Mesa where Tatatitaawa’s father’s clan, the Grey Bear come from and of the quarrel between her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister of the Black Bear tribe who she believes to be a two-heart who has stolen and given birth to her nborn child.

This is a book with succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of the Hopi culture and helps the reader to begin to feel its rhythm.

First published in French as ‘Née Contente à Oraibi’ by Le Tripode in 2016
*** My translation

Thierry Dancourt ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’


—The Yvelines is still wrapped in night, and despite this, she notices as well that the sky is almost blue. She closes her eyes, raising her face towards the star studded sky, IMG_1290thinking to herself that each and every day over the last few weeks, the snow has been burying Plaisance Gardens, the garden, the pool, the villa and with it the portrait of the young woman with the blue eyes, so completely that for the present one no longer hears of these things.
The star light from another age falls on Marges eyes. It’s what gives them their grey colour, grey with a hint of blue, on that night.***


Thierry Dancourt’s latest book ‘Jeu De Dames’ (probably a play on words, meaning draughts or checkers but also literally a ladies game) has just been published to very good reviews, leaving me wanting to get to know this writer’s work, and so I decided to begin with one of his earlier books, ‘Les Ombres de Marge Finaly’, once again more than one meaning, the shadow that Marge Finaly has left on Pierre Meilhac’s life, as well as maybe the shadowy side to Marge Finaly.

This book begins with a surprise meeting in Paris between Pierre, the main protagonist, and Marge some fifteen years after their last meeting. Dancourt’s beautifully descriptive style takes us back to the end of the sixties where he slowly unravels for us the story of  Marge and her group of friends, none of whom seem to work, and the large but rundown  country property near Paris, Plaisance Gardens, left to Marge after the death of her parents, where they seem to live or at least to meet in order to while away the endless weekends together. The reader can feel the decadence of the moment, from Dancourt’s description of the ‘car pool’ with amongst others the Renault Prairie, shown in the photo, or the Lancia Gamma, or the Pall Malls and Week Ends that Marge and her friends smoke, or his marvellous description of looking into Marges eyes as the snow slowly buries Pleasance Gardens in my opening quote.

Following this chance meeting, Pierre slowly meets Marge’s old friends that she no longer sees in order to better understand what happened in that summer fifteen years earlier, how he had been used and the mixed relationship that Marge had with him, when after the sting, replacing him to get valuable antique papers from his employers private museum, Marge runs away with him, Pierre still did not know why and the disappears for fifteen years. I can’t resist quoting one of Dancourt’s descriptions of Plaisance Gardens to finish:


—The villa came into sight, little by little, white, grey in places…..the roof terrace whose clear line, which whilst underscoring the horizontal rhythms, was interrupted by the volumes of the stairwell, the magestic smokestack of the transatlantic liner that this house, built in 1927, didn’t fail to evoke, yes, but a transatlantic liner cruising on a strange soft, delicate green english ocean, a green but raging sea what’s more, because the depressions in the lawn, sometimes quite deep  especially towards the bottom of the property, plunging into the hollows, slipping from vue, reappearing then disappearing completely once again and so, buffeted, shaken, a nutshell in the swell, it seemed so fragile, so vulnerable, so lost.
Thus I discovered  Plaisance Gardens.***


First published in French as ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’ by La Table Ronde in 2012
*** My translation

Yasmina Khadra ‘Morituri’


—There are two hundred yards from my block of flats to the garage where I park my car. Before I covered them in a few strides. Today it’s an expedition. IMG_1287Everything seems suspicious to me. There is danger in every step, sometimes I’m so scared I think of turning back.
The caretaker is a good man. He feels sorry for me. To his way of thinking I’m as good as dead.***


If you watched and liked the recent thriller ‘Cairo Confidential ‘ by Tarik Saleh then now is the moment to go back in time to Khadra’s Morituri (Those who are about to die) set in Algiers in the early 1990’s during the Algerian civil war and published in French in 1997. Behind the name Yasmin Khadra hides Mohammed Moulesouhoul who was an Algerian army officer and wrote under this pen name to avoid censorship.

In Algeria caught between corruption and Islamic fundamentalism, where the police are fair game, inspector  Llob is asked to find the rich powerful Ghoul Malek’s daughter, Sabrine (Ghoul’s name is a play on words meaning the Ogre). Not an easy task, I mean who would take the risk of being seen talking to a policeman, a dead man walking, and risk his life. As Llob pursues his enquiry, we learn that an ‘Abou Kalypse’ (apocalypse) is orchestrating the murder of famous writers and entertainers, well those that are left, they have always been fair game for the fundamentalists.

Khadra sets the scene, there is no hope such as here for instance:


—As of now, in my country, a stones throw from the point of no return, there are children gunned down simply because they go to school and girls who are beheaded in order to scare the others.***


As the enquiry advances further and one of his team is tortured to death by the terrorists after straying into a known zone at risk where his father had died, Llob tells us:


—We have become used to the terrorist’s inconceivable abjectness, they have been known to kill a mother with the sole purpose of ambushing the son the day of the burial and to kill a cop in order to mow down his colleagues come to pay their respects at his tomb***


This is a quick read and if you are looking for signs of hope, well there are some, for instance Llob’s partner, Lino, who is scared to inaction at the start of the book, when pushed to his very limits, lets his pent up anger pull him out of his stagnation.

First published in French as ‘Morituri’ by éditions Baleine in 1997
Translated into English as ‘Morituri’ by David Herman and published by Toby Press in 2003
*** My translation

Catherine Lacey ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’


—The second thing they tell you about hitchhiking is never accept invitations home for tea because teaIMG_1272 really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.


One morning Elyria says goodbye to her husband as he goes to work in New York, she grabs her backpack, and gets on a plane for New Zealand without informing anyone. Her only tenuous link to New Zealand is an encounter at a book show many years before for a few minutes with a writer who told her if she was ever in the area to look in, the loose type of invitation you don’t ever expect anyone to actually follow up on.

This is the initial framework of Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”, A road novel where first of all Elyria’s life is slowly distilled to us as we become aware of her present state of mind. Michael Köhlmeier in his novel ‘Two Gentlemen on a Beach’ describes Churchill and Chaplin’s lifelong fight against depression, telling us of the black dog, well here Elyria is tracked by her wildebeest:


—Nothing is wrong with you, sugar, Jaye said, and I knew she thought that was true, but she didn’t know about that wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took that also into account. One should never provoke or disobey a wildebeest, so I did leave, and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.


Elyria roams over New Zealand hitching from place to place , see the opening quote, and hurting, the book is mostly a monologue, we learn of her mostly drunken mother, of her adopted Korean sister, Ruby, whom she was close to and not so close to at the same time, of Ruby’s suicide as she had become a teaching assistant and finally of Elyria’s marriage to  Ruby’s professor, a much older man, drawn together by separate griefs and living an empty shell of a relationship. As Elyria’s road trip goes on and we are overwhelmed by her ever, mostly self, questioning mind, Elyria takes on senseless routine tasks in an attempt to halt her overheating, continual thinking mind and its mostly self reproach until:


— I was something like a dog I owned. I had to tell myself to leave it, to shut up, had to take myself on a walk and feed myself and had to stare at myself and try to figure out what myself was feeling or needing.


Elyria is in such a star that she thinks but she does not feel and as for the title, towards the end of her road trip she realizes:


—And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.


In order to get a flavor of this nervous high energy narration style the quotes here are longer than usual, this was not an easy read now, one week after I am glad to have read this book.

First published in English as ‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Granta Books in 2015
Translated into French as ‘Personne ne disparait’ by Myriam Anderson and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Faïza Guène ‘Un homme ça ne pleure pas’


—Because learning the language, respecting the state institutions, assimilating the country’s culture by cherishing its famous authors, marching for the glory of the nation, img_0748all of that is nothing compared to swallowing raw minced meat with an egg yoke and sauces squashed in.***


Faïza Guène brings to us in this book, for which she benefitted from an Algerian Cultural Ministry Residency program, a story of the difficulties of second generation integration in France. Her character observation and humour, which I discovered in Bar Balto, is further developed here in ‘Men don’t Cry***’. The humour here is however of a much more bitter kind which initially disturbed me but in retrospect well serves the subject matter of families being stretched to breaking point and torn to pieces by the challenges of integration, put in Brexit terms the difference between hard integration and soft integration.

The story is told by the youngest child Mourad who is ten years old at the outset and tells us how his older sister Dounia rebels against her family in adolescence and one day leaves home never to return, the ‘hard integration’. He tells us of two other forms of integration, of his second sister Mina who accepts an arranged marriage and lives in France in an updated continuity of her parents way of life, and we then live Mourad’s coming of age and his decisions leading to a ‘softer integration’.

Years later as Mourad’s father suffers a stroke, he confides in Mourad his wish to see Dounia again before he dies. Mourad who then leaves his home in Nice to teach in the Paris suburbs meets up again with Dounia and the real subject of the book, the confrontation of the two visions of integration takes place. The role of the mother, wanting to control everything acting through emotional blackmail is shown:


—I thought again of my conversation this morning with my mother. I’d phoned the house just to see how things were?
—My heart is broken! Torn apart! I thought you were dead! I’m so dissapointed. Don’t you think I’m worth a phone call? Do you know that I sleep with your photo? The one where you wear a blue shirt and have your brace…I thought you understood the value of a mother…***


Dounia  is drawn as a not particularly generous caricature of Fadela Amara, the founder of the French association ‘Ni Putes ni soumises’ translated into English as ‘Neither Whores nor Doormats’. The confrontation between views is brought to a head at a dinner party where Dounia’s politician companion argues with Mourad:


—Forbidding the veil at school seems to me to be totally justified! I can’t even imagine that that could be brought into question!
I was livid
—Its because you have a personal problem with the veil
—Not at all! I’ve a personal problem with those that stop women from being free!
—But that’s exactly what you do in forbidding the veil at school! You can’t say to people: “Be free in OUR manner, there is only one way to be free, it’s ours!” I find that absurd! And it doesn’t work! It creates a feeling of injustice! You say you’re defending women, have you thought of the number of women who have had to leave school because of this law! They have had to forget their ambitions, their only chance to get away from this very archaic system that you think you’re fighting…”***


An interesting, even dark story of the trials of everyday integration of an Algerian family in France, but most of the family issues are true of many integration stories I believe.

First Published in French as “Un homme, ça ne pleure pas” in 2014 by Fayard.
***My translation