Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 5)

The Story Of The Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

Ah, here we are: the last of the Neapolitan novels. Sitting down to read The Story Of The Lost Child felt like sitting down to goodbye drinks with an old friend the night before they leave town. Having followed Lena and Lila through childhood (My Brilliant Friend), adolescence (The Story Of A New Name), and young adulthood (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay), this last installment follows them as they mature into old age. It has been translated, as always, from the original Italian into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein.

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Lena says early on in The Story Of The Lost Child that this is “the most painful part of the story” and (spoiler alert) she’s spot on. I think this might be the most intensely felt of all the Neapolitan novels, more deeply impactful than even the sharp angst of My Brilliant Friend.

It begins in a time of painful contrasts for narrator Lena: the passion of a long-awaited love affair with Nino and the satisfaction of a revitalised career, experienced simultaneously with complete social, marital, and familial collapse. She officially leaves her husband Pietro, and believes that Nino too has left his wife… but Lila, as always, comes around with a big bucket full of truth and dumps it over Lena’s head. Nino hasn’t left his wife, and doesn’t intend to.

Even when he knocks Lena up, he stays with his wife, and splits his time between two households. Lila gets pregnant at the same time (by Enzo, with whom she still lives and runs a computer business). Finally, Lena and Lila’s lives are on the same track. They go to gyno appointments together, commiserate over the symptoms of pregnancy, and become close once again.

They grow even closer when Lena discovers Nino is cheating on her with the housekeeper, and moves into a small apartment right above Lila’s. They have daughters the same age, they trade off dinners and childcare, it’s all very Modern, takes-a-village, etc.

The big catalyst of The Story Of The Lost Child is that Lena, in desperation and lacking time to write new work, submits a copy of her old manuscript – a novel about her childhood in Naples – for publication. Apparently, being back in the old neighbourhood makes her prose just a bit too vivid. The dangerous Solaras family recognise themselves in the pages, and the ramifications – not just for Lena, but for everyone in her orbit – are huge. (There’s a hint in the title…)

I won’t reveal the Big Twists from that point (got to hold something back, eh?), but the ending – oooft! It was better than I could have ever imagined. Standing ovation. Even after thousands of pages, Ferrante still surprised me and delighted me and made my heart twist in my chest. The end of The Story Of The Lost Child is absolutely breathtaking.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Of The Lost Child, finishing it felt bittersweet. I know there are other Ferrante books to read (some of them are already crowded into my to-read shelf!), and I’m a bit too Mature(TM) to mope about fictional characters… but still! I’m amazed and impressed with how the story ended, but quite sad that there’s no more of it for me to discover.

Some project for some future year – “when I have time”, ha! – will be to sit down and re-read all of the Neapolitan novels from start to finish, but back-to-back this time (instead of one per year, as I’ve done since 2018). I wish I could do it immediately, if I’m being honest, but naturally there are other books to be read and things to be done that have to take priority. It’s one for the bucket list.

If you’re wondering whether undertaking to read the Neapolitan novels is worth it, the answer (according to the authority of me) is absolutely YES. If you’re wondering whether the story runs out of fizz by the time you get to The Story Of The Lost Child, the answer (according to the authority of me) is a resounding NO. Of course, the series has its ups and downs, and every reader will respond differently to parts of such a complex and multi-faceted work, but on the whole: W. O. R. T. H. I. T!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of The Lost Child:

  • “Who wrote those words? An algorithm? If the writer is human, she seems afraid to reveal the self behind her work. I find that irritating and cowardly. What is she hiding from? The Mob? Whatever. Brilliant marketing of four novels that could easily have been edited to one. Bravo on that point.” – rc
  • “Glad my female friends and I are not this complicated.” – Sucarichi
  • “I am not a corpse, therefore I loved this novel. The only problem with it is the depression I feel having reached the last page.” – Agaricus
  • “Without doubt written by a non Italian. 4 books and not one mention of Napoli the football team. No mention of Italy wining the World Cup. Ridiculous! No Mention of the Roman Catholic Upbringing ALL characters would have had. No mention of the local chapel and the priests. Pure fantasy!” – C. Caughey

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery is not only a French novelist; she’s also a philosophy teacher. That explains why, just a few chapters into The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, we get a cynic’s lesson on phenomenology. And then another on class consciousness. And then another… Despite that (or because of it?), this quiet little novel – L’Élégance du hérisson in the original French, translated into English by Alison Anderson – has gone on to sell millions of copies worldwide.

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The Elegance Of The Hedgehog is set in a bourgeois apartment block, and narrated by two of its residents: the building’s concierge who leads a secret life, and a troubled twelve-year-old who lives with her wealthy family on the fifth floor.

My name is Renée. I am fifty-four years old. For twenty-seven years I have been the concierge at number 7, Rue de Grenelle, a fine hôtel particular with a courtyard and private gardens.

The Elegance of The Hedgehog (Page 15)

Renée, the concierge, has gone to great lengths to conceal her true passions and pastimes from the residents of the building. She feels obligated to present herself as a “typical” concierge – fat, cantankerous, obsessed with television and cheap nutrient-deficient meals. But away from the prying eyes of her wealthy employers, she is an avid reader, an autodidact of literature and philosophy, who listens to opera and ponders phenomenology when she’s not collecting their mail or watering their plants.

Now, here’s where you need a content warning: there’s some pretty intense stuff with suicide in The Elegance Of The Hedgehog (and the rest of this review), so take care if you need to.

Paloma – the pre-teen who lives in the building – keeps two diaries, in which she details her “profound thoughts” and her observations on “the movements of the world”. She feels compelled to record these notes, as she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. This is adolescent angst turned up to eleven. She’s seen nothing in her privileged, sheltered world to convince her that life isn’t completely meaningless – the “vacuousness of bourgeois existence” dismays her – and she doesn’t see any point in hanging around.

Paloma and Renée would be natural allies, except that they’ve never really spoken. It takes the arrival of a new resident, a cultured Japanese businessman who sees past Paloma’s age and Renée’s class confinement, to bring them together.

I’m not sure if it was just my mood at the time of reading, or the story itself, but The Elegance Of The Hedgehog was much more… smug than I’d anticipated from the blurb. And depressing, to boot. I thought this was going to be more of a feel-good story, a more philosophical A Man Called Ove maybe, but the characters were bitter and it left me feeling hollow. Perhaps there’s a certain French sensibility you need to have in order to find the fun, something I’m clearly without.

Barbery has said that she was “inspired by the idea of a reserved, cultured concierge who turned stereotypes on their head and at the same time created a compelling comic effect”. I can see how that could have happened in The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, but it fell short in execution.

Judging by the wild success of this novel, though, I might be alone in my disappointment. It stayed on the French best-seller lists for 102 weeks straight, and it has since been translated into over forty languages. The critics love it, the book clubs love it… but I don’t. The Elegance Of The Hedgehog was just okay. Don’t pick it up if you need a book to make your heart sing (but if you want one to help you with your Intro To Philosophy class, it might be a winner).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog:

  • “If the author ever finds this review I recommend seeking therapy. To author: you are too much in you head and clearly unhappy. You should get some serious endorphins and adrenaline into your brain. I recommend some high adventure activities or possibly a spontaneous trip to Japan? This could perhaps reign-in your incomprehensible fetization of Japenese culture in the book you wrote.” – Theology reader
  • “While Renée had the potential to be a fascinating character, she just ended up being an intolerable bore. The book just felt like the author was just trying to sound super smart but had nothing to say. It was like listening to a philosophy lecture given by a narcissist. This book was originally written in French so maybe something got lost in translation. Or perhaps I am not refined and intelligent enough to “get” this book, and I am perfectly alright with that. I am OK with being just a pretty face if being smart means reading another snobby and pretentious book such as this.” – SC
  • “The largest discernible differences between these two characters — a twelve-year-old girl and a woman in her early fifties — are the fonts assigned to their respective entries.” – SQ
  • “This book was like inviting my college philosophy class over for dinner” – Kelly

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

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The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil

Dear Child – Romy Hausmann

I sought out Dear Child by Romy Hausmann after I heard it described on The To Read Podcast as Room meets Gone Girl. Indeed, that’s the description used in its blurb, as well. If you thought Emma Donoghue’s story about a child born in captivity was as sick and twisted as it gets, Dear Child will sweep your legs out from under you. This edition was translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch.

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Dear Child starts around Room’s mid-point: a woman and child escape a life of captivity, and shocked hospital workers try to piece together their story. It’s alternately narrated by Hannah (the child), Lena (the mother), and Matthias (Lena’s father, who has been searching for his missing daughter for 13 years).

Lena is immediately hospitalised, floating in and out of consciousness, as she was hit by a car in their bid for freedom. That leaves Hannah, who claims to be 13 years old (though her diminutive appearance and childlike mannerisms would cast doubt on that), to explain their circumstances. Unlike Lena, Hannah doesn’t seem glad to have “escaped”; quite the contrary, she seems eager to return “home”.

“Home”, in Dear Child, is a windowless shack in the woods. The windows are covered by insulation panels, the air is pumped in through a “recirculator” that occasionally stops working, every door and every cabinet is locked. Lena, Hannah, and another child Jonathan, live as a “family” according to the strict rules set by their cruel patriarch. Their lives are scheduled to the minute: bathroom visits, study time, meals, sleep, all highly regimented under threat of sadistic violence.

So, why doesn’t Hannah seem particularly traumatised? Why is she so eager to return? And why is she insisting that her “mother” is Lena when Matthias, Lena’s father, insists that woman is not his daughter?

Of course, I can’t reveal any more on that front without spoiling Dear Child for you, but if you think that’s enough of a mystery to build a full and complete plot, Hausmann will one-up you yet again. “Lena” continues to be tormented: by mysterious letters in her mailbox, by unwanted visitors to her door, by her unstable memories of killing her captor, by her slavish devotion to his schedule even after she is “free”.

The narrators and perspectives in Dear Child shift quickly – sometimes too quickly, but it’s an effective way of building suspense and keeping you reading, regardless. I read the whole thing in one night; I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed without getting to the bottom of what was going on. It’s compelling and scary and definitely as twisted as promised (I wouldn’t want to see Hausmann’s search history).

There were a few clunky moments, though. On occasion, the translation didn’t quite scan – though it was difficult to tell whether that was the fault of the translator, or part of Hausmann’s characterisation of Hannah, a particularly strange girl. I’m also not quite sure I bought Hausmann’s explanation of Hannah’s claims that “Lena” took her on trips outside the cabin all the time (to Paris, and to garden parties). And, finally, I didn’t love the supposed “Asperger’s” diagnosis; the way in which it was delivered, and the character about whom it was delivered, when it’s already such an outdated label… it just gave me the ick.

But those hang-ups weren’t enough to stop me charging through Dear Child. It was a gripping, chilling read (and a quick one!) to devour on a dark, stormy night. If you’re in the mood for a charged thriller and you can cope with all the triggers (cruelty, violence against women and children, etc.), this is a good one to try.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dear Child:

  • “I found I kept mixing up the characters in this confusing novel but as I did not care what happened to any of them it did not really matter.” – Joy
  • “I love it when my housework suffers because of a good read.” – robin teets

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises – Fredrik Backman

I’ve been wanting to read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises by Fredrik Backman ever since I read (and loved!) A Man Called Ove. It sounded like an equally sweet and disarming story: a young girl reaching out on behalf of her beloved grandmother to right past wrongs. Then, around this time last year, I lost my own beloved grandmother, and I worried that this book would simply feel Too Real. So, I put it off, until now. I felt ready, and I was in the mood for something Backman-y.

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This book was first published in the original Swedish (Min mormor hälsar och säger förlåt) in 2013, then it was translated into English (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises, or in the US, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) in 2015 by Henning Koch. The rights for translation have been sold in over 40 countries; after the success of A Man Called Ove, everyone was banking on another hit from Backman.

Once again, the story takes place in Sweden, but instead of a curmudgeonly old man, it follows seven-year-old Elsa. The young girl knows she’s different from other children, though the adults call it being “smart for her age”. Her Granny (who’s “old for her age”) is her superhero, and Elsa’s best (only) friend. Granny takes Elsa on marvellous adventures, talks their way out of trouble, and teaches Elsa how to stand up to the kids who bully her at school.

They live in a house of flats, with a large cast of quirky neighbours forming a de facto extended family. I’ve drawn you a map, because I found it quite hard to keep track for the first couple hundred pages.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises House Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Granny dies (which I guess is kind of a spoiler, but c’mon, clearly you saw that coming) Elsa slowly learns more about the life she lived before they became friends. Granny leaves behind a series of letters for Elsa to deliver to people she has hurt or offended.

Elsa soon realises that the fantasy land Granny has been “taking” her to ever since she could remember – The Land Of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom Of Miamas where no one has to learn to “fit in” – might not be entirely imaginary. The terrifying hound hidden in the basement actually seems more like a wurse. The Monster who lives next door to the wurse might actually be Wolfheart, the hero of Miamas. She worried when Granny died that she might never get to visit The Land Of Almost-Awake ever again, but maybe she’s been living in it all along.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises is a step above A Man Called Ove in literary terms, fusing stark Swedish realism with childhood imagination and fairy tales. While I didn’t find Elsa quite as endearing a main character as darling old Ove, she still provided a humourous and poignant insight into what might otherwise have been a very dark story.

It struck me, towards the end, that this is a much better less-pathologised version of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. Backman doesn’t stuff around trying to make Elsa’s quirks fit a specific set of diagnostic criteria. There’s nothing wrong with Elsa at all; she just likes correcting other people’s grammar, and makes full use of her active imagination.

I suspect, with the Britt Marie character’s arc, that one of Backman’s other books – Britt Marie Was Here – picks up where My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises left off. Luckily, I’ve got a copy on my to-read shelf, ready to go whenever the mood strikes.

The take-home message is that you never really know someone. Everyone has hidden depths, even precocious seven-year-olds and their eccentric grandmothers. I’m grateful to Backman for the ever-timely reminder.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises:

  • “A rather stupid grandmother with her elderly granddaughter a the central figures. The grand daughter is only seven but behaves like a grown up. Thankfully the stupid, demented grandmother dies half way through but is still remarkably central to the childish story. Harry Potter is better reading than this for an adult and so much of the story is stolen from Harry Potter.” – nigel barnard
  • “One complaint to Mr. Backman directly: stop feeding literary dogs chocolate, baking mixes, cookies, and coffee. In my experience, that can only lead to bad, bad things.” – Jessie
  • “I recommend this book to anyone who has a heart and a brain.” – Kindle Customer
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