Review no 78: Restless by Kenneth Moe (Norway)

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Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough

Restless is a novella, first published in 2015, and published in 2019 in smooth English translation in a beautiful edition by the small press Nordisk Books, which focuses on Nordic books that offer an alternative to the ‘Scandi noir’ stereotype.

This debut work of fiction comes with the endorsement of Norwegian literary heavyweight Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose publishing company printed the original edition, and who edited the book. Restless is written as a series of notes to a woman, known only as “you”, with whom the nameless writer is obsessed, and who does not return his desire, although there have been teasing moments of connection.

From the outside, the reader has the impression that the author is taciturn, controlled and reasonable, but inside he is riven with insecurities, crippling health anxiety, loneliness and insatiable lust, and he pours his sometimes disturbingly personal and most intimate feelings out onto the page, amid an exploration of the consolations and otherwise of literature. He lives in a dark flat, sleeping too much, losing the distinction between night and day, overweight and supported by a student loan for a course he’s no longer taking.

Imagine that I were capable of stalking you on the street, of throwing stones at your window at night; of shoving threats and the hearts of animals, psychotic mix tapes and home-knit scarves through your letterbox; of killing and ending up in prison for you – because what else constitutes trying hard enough? Is it ever time to give up on love?

The swirling, internal, obsessive nature of the prose reminded me a bit of a male-perspective Loop by Mexican writer Brenda Lozano, which has been much praised, and which I reviewed back in March. However, here the overwhelming feeling is of enveloping despair, frustration and self-loathing, and I found its evocation of crushing depression almost unbearable to witness.

Review no 77: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (Cyprus)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

The writer of The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides, is a successful screen writer who was raised in Cyprus by his Greek Cypriot father and English mother, and has lived in the UK since the age of 18. The book (published in 2019) has been a huge international bestseller. I hate crime novels at the best of times (it baffles me that people find the genre cosy, I find it terrifying and a bit sickening!). But this was a pick for my book club, and it seemed that it might be gripping and distracting and light, and just what we all needed.

Alicia is a successful artist whose husband Gabriel was found brutally murdered at home. She is assumed guilty of the crime, and admitted to a mental institution after refusing to speak at all in the days, weeks and months following the crime. Theo is a therapist who is determined to help her find her voice again.

But the writing is so clunky as to be near unreadable (for me – thousands if not millions disagree!), the plot is full of enormous holes and the pop psychologizing was enough to drive me to drink. The heavy references to Greek tragedies I found somewhat interesting, but in no way sufficient to compensate for the books manifold deficiencies. I must admit there was a good twist, which I didn’t see coming, although I might well have done if I had been more engaged in the plot. Anyway, I hated it, but that’s another one ticked off!

Review no 76: Loveless (Russian film)

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Loveless (2017) is a relentlessly bleak Russian film, directed and co-written by Andrei Zvyagintsev. It’s a bit like a Mike Leigh film, but imagine one devoid of humour or any base-level sense of human connection and goodness.

Warring couple Zhelya and Boris are breaking up, with little consideration for their 12-year-old son, who they openly consider to be burden. Zhelya feels she was trapped into marriage by her pregnancy and subsequent traumatic birth, and both parents are now involved in relationships with new people. There is no evidence of any semblance of love or affection for little Alyosha, a quiet boy, who is often left alone in the flat, and who gets himself to and from school with little to no parental engagement.

After overhearing his parents fighting over their mutual desire not to have custody of him, and throwing around talk of boarding schools and orphanages, Alyosha naturally looks utterly devastated. However, neither parent realises when he doesn’t come from the school the next day because neither of them is there, both spending the evening until late with their respective paramours. Zhelya does come back to the apartment eventually to sleep, but it is not until a teacher calls the next day that she realises he is missing.

All the adult characters are repellent. When aspirational Zhelya confides in her boyfriend Anton that:

I’ve never loved anyone. Only my mum when I was little. And she … never cuddled me, never said anything nice. Nothing but rules, discipline, school

it might serve as an explanation for her warped nature, but it doesn’t excuse over a decade of parental abuse. Older boyfriend Anton, meanwhile, lives in a stylish Moscow apartment that has an actual tree growing out the floor (in an artsy, moneyed way). He is positively creepy, saying very little except occasionally dropping phrases along the lines of “I like studying you” to Zhelya. However, one line powerfully encapsulates the whole premise of the film:

Lovelessness. You cannot live in that state

Husband Boris is more concerned about the impact of his divorce on his image within his very socially conservative company than the impact on his son, and his younger, pregnant girlfriend is utterly without self-awareness, muttering into her dictaphone “Dream of having a tooth taken out. What does it mean?” (in possibly the lightest moment in the film – with the exception, perhaps, of the time when Boris describes his mother-in-law as “Stalin in a skirt”).

There is no redemption in this beautifully stark film of loss and guilt and inter-generational inadequacy. Please someone find me some funny books or movies to get into! I seem to have a knack for sniffing out pure miserableness.

Review no 75: Artist Mona Hatoum (Palestine)

No one has put the Palestinian experience in visual term so austerely and yet so playfully, so compellingly and at the same time so allusively” – Edward Said

In 2016 I was introduced to the work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, when I attended an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern in London.

Hatoum was born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents in 1952 (and does not have Lebanese citizenship). She found herself stranded in the UK in 1975, during what was intended as a visit to the country, when conflict broke out in Lebanon. She subsequently went to art school in the UK, and has since then been based between London and Berlin.

I grew up in Beirut in a family that had suffered a tremendous loss and existed with a sense of dislocation.

Influenced by surrealism and minimalism, and encompassing conceptual art and performance art, Hatoum, perhaps inevitably, makes work which explores displacement, conflict and contradiction.

Her early work was often performance art. This explored the relationship between politics and the individual, but, equally, the resilience and vulnerability of the body. Most famous, perhaps, is her 1980s street performance in Brixton (London), set against a background of race riots.

In contrast, in the late 1970s Hatoum ran 240 volts through a suspended collection of metal household objects (such as scissors, strainers, rulers and corkscrews) to light a bulb at the bottom: such relatively dangerous installations were displayed in short sessions to an invited audience.

In the late 1980s her work increasingly began to focus on large-scale installations and sculpture, again often using repurposed or unusual materials. For example, Recollection (1995) made use of her own hair, collected over years, and arranged in rolled balls on the floor or hung in strands from the ceiling. Another work is a necklace constructed from fingernail clippings. Art resulting from activities that in the typical life would make you seem at best odd always makes me muse on the thin line that separates identification as genius with a surfeit of creative talent from, instead, being labelled a tragic misfit.

Meanwhile, Hot Spot (2006), is a sculpture representing the world, by means of a stainless steel, cage-like globe, with the continents outlined in red neon tubing, representing flash points and the constant threat of conflict that encircles the planet. The whole thing buzzes with unsettling energy.

Hatoum has also made installations and sculptures inspired by homewares or domestic interiors, which seem to suggest political surveillance and state oppression, while challenging and foregrounding assumptions about femininity and adding an element of threat to the everyday.

It all sounds quite heavy, but kinetic sculptures, such as + and – (1994-2004), which mechanically combs sands into a zen garden with one side of a rotating metal arc, then smoothes it flat with another – or household objects taken totally out of context, scaled up or changed to make them familiar but uncanny, meant that the exhibition was accessible to my young children (at the time aged 7, 9 and 12), who came along too.

Hatoum’s work is not without elements of humour, either. She noted on arriving in the UK that “people were quite divorced from their bodies and very caught up in their heads, like disembodied intellects“. This bodily disconnect is challenged by Don’t smile you’re on camera! (1980), which embraces the voyeuristic appeal of video. A camera was pointed at the audience, and panned up and down slowly. On a monitor facing the audience, a shirt would fade away and, disconcertingly, “a ghost image of bare breasts appears behind, creating the illusion that the camera can see through people’s clothes“. Hidden assistants would film their own half-naked bodies and mix those images in with the film of the audience, to challenge the audience’s perceptions in this way.

Review no 74: The Pact We Made by Layla Alammar (Kuwait)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

This book, the cover of which came emblazoned with plaudits, was another I read as part of my membership of the Shelterbox Book Club (which for a donation of £10 a month sends me a regular book for discussion as part on an online book club, and also helps to provide emergency shelter and resources for families affected by disaster worldwide). I previously reviewed A Girl Made of Dust, also read for the Book Club, so it may seem that the books focus on the female experience, but actually there is plenty of balance.

Author Layla Alammar was brought up in Kuwait, the daughter of a Kuwaiti father and an American mother. She subsequently moved to the UK, where The Pact We Made (published in 2019) was longlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

The main character, Dahlia, is intriguing. She is from a moneyed, cosmopolitan Kuwaiti background, and has a good job in finance, but her life is not her own. She feels dissociated from her life, and has to endure an endless succession of suitors, a bit like an unmarried, modern-day Penelope. Although her parents (and especially her father) are relatively liberal, elements of traditional Kuwaiti culture prevail, and they seek to marry her off to someone suitable, in a similar way to her sister. But Dahlia rails against the prospect of an arranged marriage, while her two best friends already seem happily settled, although at least one of the marriages is by no means as perfect as it comes across from the outside.

Dahlia’s parents are enormously protective, with the exception of one huge failure of protection that has overshadowed the family since Dahlia, now in her late 20s, was a teenager. There are indications of unresolved teenage trauma. Dahlia loves to draw, to express her personality and enjoy freedom of expression, and she loves the liberation of swimming. The importance of art is a recurring theme, and Dahlia often draws the same motifs over and over again, and she is drawn to a a number of Western artists, notably the bleak visions of Spanish 18th century painter Goya.

I found the whole novel a bit modern-day Jane Austen-y, with its obsession with making a good match, but from a contemporary, Middle Eastern perspective. I got some really interesting insights into Kuwaiti culture, where young women like Dahlia and her friends are able to enjoy a buzzing nightlife, and where Dahlia hangs out with male friends, but where male privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. There is a heavy reliance on parental approval and whim, and an obsession with reputation (made or ruined on an alliance with a suitable – or not -man) and making a good match.

To be a child again, blissfully ignorant of everything to come, or a man, able to get in a car and drive to Istanbul – thirty-odd hours and you’re there.”

Although the book challenged various stereotypes a Western reader like myself might hold, I must admit I was disappointed to read yet another tale of sexual abuse. It seems to be the go-to storyline du jour, and not wishing to underplay the awful experiences of those who’ve been through it, I’m fed up of reading variations of the same horrible theme reheated and rehashed over and over again.

The book’s very ambiguous ending was perfect, however, and the reader is left wondering whether Dahlia’s life-changing decision is going to liberate her, or whether, through her efforts to break free of the strictures that limit her in Kuwait, she has just made herself even more powerless.

Review no 73: Rebecca by British author Daphne du Maurier (1907-89)

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I read this book for the first time when I was about 18. I enjoyed it more this time, reading it more than 25 years later, but I also found it much less romantic.

The copy I read was one I found in a charity shop a few years ago, but I hadn’t picked it up until recently, when it felt like a suitable comfort read amid all the coronavirus madness.

When I embarked on it though, I found this very evocative inscription, which made it well worth every single penny of the £2 I’d spent on it!

The opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again“, most be among the most famous in British fiction, and I recently learnt that du Maurier based the book’s setting on a beautiful Cornish house, Menabilly, that she had her eye on for many years, and in the grounds of which she used to trespass. She eventually managed to become a tenant of the crumbling house and its grounds for many years, until the owners decided they wanted it for their own use.

Coincidentally, during the UK lockdown the National Theatre has made its recorded performance of Jane Eyre available to view on Youtube, and watching it reminded me that there is nothing new under the sun, since Rebecca is so obviously informed by Jane Eyre, if not entirely based on it (and I believe this a debt du Maurier herself acknowledged).

I love a country house novel, and I love a ghostly mystery, and hints of romance and intrigue. Rebecca has evidently, in its turn, influenced a bunch of other books that I’ve really enjoyed: My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell being a book I remember tearing through in a day, while I’ve recently listened to Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock as an audio book, and that too contains echoes of Rebecca; plus there have been direct responses or sequels to Rebecca written by authors as diverse as Susan Hill and Sally Beauchamp, as well as of course the Hitchcock film adaptation of Rebecca with its overtly sapphic element.

Reading the novel from a 21st century perspective, I found Maxim in Rebecca far from attractive. He’s a bit scary really, isn’t he? The book is firmly situated in a particular inter-war period of British history (it was published in 1938), and Maxim is very much the strong silent type. He’s also prone to terrifying rages and quick anger, even during, say … an inquest.

No, Maxim. No. You will put his back up. …. Not that voice. Not that angry voice, Maxim. He won’t understand. Please. darling, please. Oh, God, don’t let Maxim lose his temper. Don’t let him lose his temper.

The book is all very Freudian, and all very good fun, though I wouldn’t want to be in the second Mrs de Winter’s shoes, the wife who feels so much in first wife Rebecca’s shadow that we never even learn her name.

Review no 72: Gloria: film by Sebastián Lelio (Chile)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Gloria was released in 2013, and is co-written and directed by Sebastián Lelio. The movie tells the story of a late middle-aged woman who embarks on a conflicted romance with an older man. She’s feeling lonely – her children are independent, although you have the sense that their lives are not panning out as she might hope, and she feels a bit unanchored and surplus to requirements. She has been separated for many years, and is lonely, with an uninspiring office job. Her upstairs neighbour is noisy, and possibly mentally ill, and a hideous hairless cat keeps turning up in her flat and bothering her for food.

I found the cast reassuringly unstarry, the leads are not Hollywood gorgeous, and Gloria (played by Paulina García) wears a pair of unflattering, enormous glasses throughout. At night Gloria starts going to singles clubs, to dance – she loves music and loves to dance – and to try to meet a man. When she meets the older Rodolfo, their relationship seems a bit unlikely from the outset, as he’s not someone you might imagine would have caught Gloria’s eye. Nevertheless, they embark on a passionate relationship (complete with plenty of full frontal sex scenes). However, pitfalls lie along the way, as it becomes apparent that Rodolfo remains at the beck and call of his adult daughters.

The film has a great soundtrack, and some fabulous set pieces, with some hands-over-the-eyes scenes (not nudity related!). Bittersweet, with moments of melancholy humour, the ending is perfect and not a little heart-warming.

I followed up with Gloria Bell, a US 2018 remake of the film, starring the more obviously beautiful Julianne Moore. Unusually (I think!) the remake is also written and directed by Lelio. It’s very faithful to the original, although Rodolfo is now called Arnold, which amused me for some reason. One reviewer notably commented on the fact that the movie (in both its iterations) can’t be accused of failing the Bechdel test, and it was refreshingly unusual, in both versions, to see a late middle-aged woman carrying a film.

Review no 71: The Dinner by Hernan Koch (Netherlands)

 Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett

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Hernan Koch’s acclaimed 2009 novel has a seemingly normal family dinner in a fancy Amsterdam restaurant as its focus, and the plot unspools over the course of a single evening. First published in English translation in 2012, it feels like a shorter book than it is, due to its page-turning intensity, and although the climax of the book is not subtle, the whole effect is gripping and unsettling. The novel was an international best-seller, and has already been the subject of three film adaptations (none of them massively successful, as far as I’m aware).

The book is narrated by former teacher Paul, who goes out with his wife Claire to meet his brother Serge and his sister-in-law Babette for dinner. Serge is a bit of a local celebrity, being a prominent politician, and even a contender for prime minister. The aim of the dinner, described in painstaking detail, is to formulate a response to a crime carried out by their teenage sons. However, as the novel twists and turns and the family leisurely work through their courses, the complacent reader becomes increasingly and unwillingly complicit in a situation that is deeply disturbing. It’s impossible to say much more without ruining the book, which I enjoyed hugely, though some readers may feel manipulated. One Goodreads reviewer describes it as “middle class, lite-lit of the worst kind”, and another derides its despicable characters. I don’t think it can be accused of being boring though.

Review no 70: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

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We read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo for my book club a while ago. My friend Emily likes to seek out books by African authors, so I suspect this was her choice (we all put suggestions into a little bag, anonymously, and then someone pulls out two!).

Published in 2013, this is NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, and it attracted a lot of positive attention on publication, picking up a few prizes along the way. Bulawayo spent her childhood in Zimbabwe, moving to the USA for her college education, where she has remained. The book’s first chapter, “Hitting Budapest”, initially appeared as a short story in the Boston Review, and subsequently won the Caine Prize for African Writing.

We Need New Names is an episodic coming of age story focused around a young girl called Darling, who we first meet during childhood in Zimbabwe, where she lives in a shanty town called Paradise. Later Darling moves as a teenager to Michigan, where she hopes to find a better future living with her aunt. 

Bulawayo doesn’t ignore the bleakness of aspects of life in Zimbabwe, where schools have closed and witch doctors are flourishing amid strikes by medical workers and grinding poverty. And nor does she turn away from the often false promises of the American dream. But she writes with verve and pep, and a useful dose of humour.

Review no 69: Two Swedish films: Force Majeure and The Square by Ruben Östlund

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Ruben Östlund’s film Force Majeure (released in Sweden as Turist) came out in 2014, and has recently been the subject of an American remake (re-titled Downhill, starring Will Ferrell, and apparently dire). The original Swedish film, focused around a father’s mishandled response to an apparent avalanche, is great, both funny and cringey. A family with young children, holidaying in the Alps, have to deal with the fall-out after the husband, Tomas (played by Johannes Kuhnke), responds instinctively to the threat of an avalanche by running away … then refuses to admit what he did. It’s an expertly handled blend of dark comedy and an uncomfortable exploration of masculinity.

Later release The Square (2017) also manages to combine laughs with toe-curling discomfort. It stars the appealing Danish actor Cleas Bang, who plays Christian, an idealistic and flawed gallery owner. Other members of the cast include acclaimed American actor Elisabeth Moss (playing a journalist) and British actor Dominic West (in the role of a visiting artist). The film, a winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or, centres on the pretensions of the modern art world, which I guess are an easy target for parody. The Square of the title refers to an area outside Christian’s art gallery, designated “a sanctuary of trust and caring” within which “we all share equal rights and obligations”. (In fact, it started off as a genuine social experiment by the director.)

An interview in the British press has quoted Östlund (previously a director of extreme sport videos) as saying ““Basically, all my films are about people trying to avoid losing face.” If you have a strong tolerance for squirming discomfort, both these films are brilliantly entertaining.