The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Romania: The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller

Translated by Philip Boehm.

Set in Romania during the last months of Communist dictator Ceaușescu’s regime, people struggle to keep their minds and bodies intact in a world that’s permeated with fear. Adina is a young school teacher, Paul is a musician, Clara works in a wire factory, and Pavel is her lover. But one of them is working for the secret police and is reporting on the others.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter was a bit of a difficult read for several reasons and the way it was written was the main one. There were little things like how there are no speech marks when someone is talking, so you definitely needed to pay attention to what’s going on – especially when there was more than one person talking in a paragraph. Then there’s the attention to detail the author has. There’s so much focus on tiny things like the creases in a dress, how ants move, or how the chalk is like on a blackboard, but when it comes to the characters, they don’t get much description or backstory at all. It’s almost like it’s an intense study of the time period it’s set. This writing style makes the characters very distant and hard to connect with, as it’s as if the environment they live in is more important than themselves.

The main plot of the secret police, and someone in their friendship group not being trustworthy, doesn’t really kick in till halfway through the book. The first half of The Fox was Ever the Hunter is more of a study of the environment the characters live in. The intense descriptions make the town feel like a very cold and unwelcoming place to live. It seems almost hopeless and when Adina, Paul, or Clara make an appearance they feel like they’re sleepwalking through their lives.

I could see some people loving how The Fox was Ever the Hunter was written as its prose is often poetic and strangely beautiful, but for me it made it a bit of a slog to read.

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READ THE WORLD – Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Yun Ling, the only survivor from her internment camp, sets out to build a memorial to her sister. Her quest leads he to The Garden of Evening Mists, and to Nakamura Aritomo, a man of extraordinary skill and reputation, once the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. When she accepts his offer to become his apprentice, she begins a journey into her past, inextricably linked with the secrets of her troubled country’s history.

The Garden of Evening Mists is told in the first person from Yun Ling’s point of view and spans over fifty years. The novel takes place in three time periods, when Yun Ling is a retired judge and writing down her story, when she becomes a gardener’s apprentice, and when she’s a teenager in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during Japan’s invasion of Malaysia. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Anna Bentinck and I really how she narrated it. The way Bentinck narrated it was great as she had a different voice for the older Yun Ling and the younger Yun Ling making it easier to follow what point in time the story is set.

I knew very little of Japan’s invasion of Malaysia during World War Two, or Malaysia’s history in general, before reading The Garden of Evening Mists. As it spans so many years, you get to see how the country changes over time, the different political influences it has, and how the people must adapt and deal with some the atrocities they face.

Yun Ling is a brilliantly complicated and realistic character. She suffered a great deal at the hands of the Japanese, she suffered physical and mental abuse, her family was torn apart, and she became a changed person due to her experience. She has every right to hate those that hurt her, but her feelings go towards all Japanese people so naturally her relationship with Aritomo is strained – at least to begin with. Seeing Yun Ling learn to deal with her anger, hurt and resentment and try and move on with her life was really powerful and compelling. Her relationship with Aritomo was fascinating as they were constantly learning from one another and as they slowly started to share more about their pasts, they were becoming a solid unit.

There were some surprises along the way as slowly Yun Ling started to piece together hers and Aritomo’s pasts, and how they may have been connected long before they met. The Garden of Evening Mists is a great historical story with some beautiful writing. The way the garden was described was so vivid and stunning, but equally the brutality Yun Ling faced was just as vivid and shocking. I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists far more than I was expecting to, and would recommend it to just about anyone. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Northern Ireland: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

A collection of eleven short stories of childhood, adolescence and motherhood.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project (I find them to be a good way to gain an insight into a writer’s country and its people, and they’re also usual a quick read) but I’ve never had as much of a visceral reaction to a short story collection as I did with Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes.

Each story ranges from 10 – 25 pages, some are in second person but most of them are in first person, and each story is about a female character. Each story is about a young girl, or a teenager, or a mother, and they’re each like a little snapshot in a moment of their lives. I think my favourites were “Thirteen”, “Through the Wardrobe” and “Inextinguishable”. In “Thirteen” a young teenager has to deal with her best friend moving to London, how they first of all write multiple letters to one another each week but slowly the letters stop being written. “Through the Wardrobe” is about a young trans girl figuring out why she feels sick when her older sisters are given Disney princess dresses for Christmas while she’s given a Peter Pan outfit. “Inextinguishable” is about a mother grieving for her daughter and finding some form of release in the music her daughter loved.

There are stories that feel very true to life. One story has a teenage girl being sexually harassed without really knowing what was happening, another story is about a teenager fantasizing about her teacher, or another feeling hollow and helpless.

Each story is powerful and compelling in its own way. They are stories about first loves, sexual desire and romance, but they are also about friendship, growing up and family. Some stories are sad, some are hopeful, while others are almost nostalgic and melancholy.

Caldwell really captured the mindset of young children, the pain of adolescence, and (I presume) the terrifying reality of being a parent. While I might not have been in some of the exact situations as the female characters in these stories, I remember idolising a baby sitter, losing touch with friends, and having a whole lot of feelings inside that I didn’t know what to do with. Each of the female characters felt so honest, true and relatable and that was down to the brilliant writing Multitudes is fantastic short story collection and I can’t recommend it enough. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Thailand: The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon

A collection of twelve short stories that are all very different. Translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

All of the short stories are set in modern Thailand and they are all witty and often are a little weird too. They mix together genres like sci-fi with romance or mystery, some of them really shouldn’t work but they do. Pop culture references abound in these stories about characters of all ages and backgrounds. Having a collection feature stories about such different people shows little snapshots of what life is like in modern Thailand for different people. The setting was interesting as it often felt like a blend of the new and the traditional.

My favourite short stories happen to be two that feature vampires – “The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” and “Pen in Parentheses”. “The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” does exactly what it says on the tin, it’s a mystery and the way different characters talk about the apparent She-Vampire makes you wonder if she is a vampire or not. “Pen in Parentheses” on the other hand was about a man reminiscing about his childhood living with his grandparents and how his grandfather would screen old films, including Dracula, on a bedsheet with accompanying classical music.

As is the case with short story collections, there were some stories I liked a lot and there were some I was indifferent to, but they were all pretty interesting in their own ways. Some of the stories were quite meta, with characters seeming to know they are characters and they’re just waiting to find out what the author is going to make them do. A lot of the stories have twists and turns and don’t go where you expect them to at all. This makes this collection a mostly enjoyable and unique experience.

READ THE WORLD – Israel: The Nimrod Flip-Out by Etgar Keret

Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston.

A collection of short stories about different characters, a lot of which are based in Israel.

The short stories in this collection are all very different in terms of plot and length. Some are only two pages long, while others are almost 30 pages long, meaning that for the most part, each story gets straight to the point. Having stories that are only a few pages long make them even more intense, the drama is heightened and the weirdness tends not to be explained.

So many of the characters in these stories face strange ironies and their lives are often not going that well. There’s humour, usually dark-humour, in a lot of them which balances out the stories that can be more sensitive and emotional. That’s the thing I really noticed with this collection, whoever decided what order to put the stories in really knew what they were doing. I say that because there could be a run of six or seven stories that are all surreal and funny but then the next one is more grounded. This tonal shift makes the more serious stories more affecting.

From my very limited knowledge of Israel and its society, some of the stories seemed satirical, with potential character stereotypes exaggerated for affect. There’s relationship drama, whether that’s romantic or familial, characters who are, or were, in the military, and there’s comparisons between Israel and the West and some commentary on how it’s developing as a society.

I really enjoyed The Nimrod Flip-Out. The stories are all so weird and wonderful and different which makes it a book that’s easy to deep in and out of. It’s fun to read a lot of the stories at once, but it’s also a nice collection to savour.

READ THE WORLD – Poland: Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala has lived an exciting life. Born in Poland just after World War One, Lala grew up to be a selfless and honest independent woman who survived some of the most turbulent events in Europe. As she falls prey to the first signs of dementia, she continues to tell the stories of her life to her grandson, who faithfully notes down her adventures.

Lala was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lawrence Dobiesz which I would recommend.

Lala as a book is a little confusing as it’s marked as a work of fiction but the way it’s told, and the fact the grandson who is narrating this story has the same first name as the author, did make me wonder if it was a combination of fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy.

The scenes where it’s clear that Lala is losing her memory were both funny and poignant. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when reading about Lala’s antics I had to smile as there were so many things she said or did that was just like my gran. It’s a great depiction of a woman slowly losing her mind but then there’s also those moments of suddenly clarity which were lovely but also so sad as Lala was never going to get better.

Lala is a grand sweeping story as Lala tells stories about her family as far back as her great-grandfather. This is where she would sometimes confuse something her grandfather did for something her father did, then it’s her grandson who corrects her as he’s heard so many of these stories before he could often recite them by heart.

While Lala is the focus of the story, with her life before, during and after the Second World War is a big part of it, her stories of a family means this story spans over 100 years. This led me to learning a lot about Polish history that I’d never even heard of.

I really enjoyed Lala. It’s an interesting insight into Poland’s turbulent history from he eyes of a character who lived through it all, the good and the bad. It’s funny, touching and sometimes verges on the ridiculous because of Lala’s outlandish stories about the situations she’d get into or she’d hear about. I loved the way it’s told with the grandson simultaneously seeming to tell the red the stories and to be hearing them for the first time himself.

Lala is such an interesting book and it’s honest and realistic take of a woman slowly succumbing to dementia was brilliant yet sad. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Equatorial Guinea: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Orphaned teenager Okomo lives under the watchful eyes of her grandparents and dreams about finding her father. All she knows is that he’s a “scoundrel” and she’s forbidden to seek him out. She enlists the help of other outcasts; her gay uncle Marcelo and a gang of “indecent” girls. With them she finds comfort, falls in love and rebels against the rigid norms of Fang culture.

La Bastarda is a very short book, it’s only 88 pages so it’s very easy to read it in one sitting, and it’s the first book from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English which is pretty cool.

La Bastarda is a coming of age story about a girl who is trying to understand the various traditions her people have and what that means for her and her desire to know her father. Okomo is quite a naïve seventeen-year-old which is probably due to the sheltered life she’s led, she’s unsure about so many relationships in her life and is often clueless about the different rules her culture has.

I liked the relationship that forms between Okomo and Dina. It’s interesting as Okomo’s uncle Marcelo is known as a man-woman because he sleeps with men and refuses to “do his duty” and get his infertile brothers’ wife pregnant to make sure the family has a son; however their community doesn’t have a word for lesbian so it’s as if Okomo, Dina and the rest of the girls don’t exist.

I enjoyed La Bastarda. It’s a quick, easy read about a culture that’s complete different to my own. It’s an episodic story and while Okomo is quite a young seventeen-year-old, I did want her to find her own place, whether that was in her society or not, with people who care about her.