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Elena Ferrante – The Lying Life of Adults

At the approach of puberty our self-esteem is at its most vulnerable. Are we different from our peers? Because mostly we want to fit in. Are we too tall, too short, too pale, too dark, too poor, too rich, ugly, pretty, too fat, too thin? We don’t even want to be too clever we just don’t want to stand out.

Imagine then the anguish of Giovanna when she overhears her beloved father describing her to her mother as ‘Very ugly.’ He was angry with his daughter for not doing as well at school as she had formerly, and his anger caused his destructive words. Because what he said was that she was becoming like his sister, the hated Vittoria, who he had always been described as ugliness and spite combined.

…I was going through a period of feeling very fragile. I’d begun menstruating almost a year earlier. my breasts were all too visible and embarrassed me, I was afraid I smelled bad and was always washing. I went to bed lethargic and woke up lethargic. My only comfort at that time, my only certainty, was that (my father) absolutely adored me, all of me. So that when he compared me to Aunt Vittoria it was worse than if he’d said: Giovanna used to be pretty, now she’s turned ugly.

This leads Giovanna to develop a passion to meet Aunt Vittoria. Her parents try to discourage her but being liberal and fair-minded people, they do not forbid her. It gradually emerges that, while both parents work in education and are graduates with active intellectual lives, her father comes from the poor side of town. He rejects his origins strongly. Culture, education and political debate make up the foundation of her parent’s lives. They are atheists, they try to bring Giovanna up without hiding any truths. How ironic then, that as she explores the world of her aunt, she finds that her parents, and particularly her beloved father have told her many many lies.

Giovanna lives in quite a closeted world. Her parents work, she goes to school, her parents socialise with their long-term friends, Constanza and Mariano and Giovanna with their daughters, Angela and Ida. They are all cultured well-heeled socialists. Her Aunt Vittoria belongs in quite a different world. When Giovanna eventually persuades her parents to allow her to meet her aunt (and to wait outside in her car while the meeting takes place) this is what she finds

The door opened, a woman dressed all in blue appeared, tall, with a great mass of very black hair arranged on her neck, as thin as a post, and yet with broad shoulders and a large chest. She held a lighted cigarette between her fingers, she coughed and said, moving back and forth between Italian and dialect:

“What’s the matter, you’re sick, you have to pee?”

And so begins a relationship that over the next four years will change Giovanna’s life. Aunt Vittoria, is loud, violent and manipulative. She is religious, yet swears constantly, she loathes Giovanna’s father and does not refrain from criticising him.

 Gradually Giovanna meets other young people in Aunt Vittoria’s circle, some rather threatening young men among them, and moves away from Angela and Ida. But more importantly, she finds out exactly how her parents have been lying to her and learns to lie herself.

Giovanna is not the most sympathetic character, nor is Aunt Vittoria, but they are people struggling to find what they want from life. Giovanna has perhaps a sophistication and vocabulary way beyond her years. The book states it is written with hindsight, but there also a level of relentless narcissism that I found repellent.

As you can probably tell I didn’t love this book although I liked the irony that in some way religion plays a part in Giovanna’s path to independence. The book was lent to me (and highly recommended) by a friend who has published two books in the coming-of-age genre, so I respect her opinion. Maybe I’m too old and crabby to put up with the self obsession of a teenage girl. Books about people with dementia are more my speed these days.

I think a knowledge of the geography of Naples would add to the pleasure of reading this book.   The public there were certainly queued up waiting for it when it came from the publishers.

That Giovanna is a formidable young woman is shown by her way of divesting herself of her virginity. She chooses the young man, humiliates him, and makes the event as brief as possible.

He drove me home, him dissatisfied, me delighted.

At the close of the novel she is sixteen years old and ready to leave Naples with a girl friend to find a life away from her family.

On the train, we promised each other to become adults as no one ever had before.

Roy Jacobson – The Unseen


Barroy Island off the coast of Norway is the home to one small family. Here, subject to extremes of wind and sea, they struggle to provide for themselves. Hans and his father work together, not always easily. As the power slides from the senior man to his son, clashes are inevitable. Hans’ wife, Maria is also a feisty character, and their daughter Ingrid, even at the age of three is a being to be reckoned with.  There is also Hans’ sister Barbro described by one possible employer as ‘the imbecile’. They reject that employer for her and another seemingly kinder one. This proves to be a  wise move, as Barbro shows how hard she can work, and she becomes an essential factor in some of their most daring achievements. Continue reading Roy Jacobson – The Unseen

Sandor Marai – Embers


Sandor Marai was born in Kassa, Hungary (now Kosice, Slovakia) in 1900. The Austro- Hungarian Empire, with capitals in Vienna and Budapest, was a monarchy and power in Europe between 1867 and post-World War 1 in 1918. One could spend years studying all the aspects of the creation of this entity and the ways in which it affected the lives of its people: voting rights, economy, treatment of Jews and ethnic peoples and so on. Wikipedia has reams of information. Some of this knowledge is relevant to Marais’ story which is set in 1940. His protagonist the old general and his father the General before him were from the ruling class and fought in wars and were decorated for valour.

Marais himself supported the Communist takeover and settled in Budapest in 1928. But he was critical of the Nazis and left Hungary after World War 2 and settled in Dan Diego. He wrote forty-six books, but only six have been translated into English and his work is not well-known.

After his wife died in 1986, he became ill and depressed and committed suicide in 1989.

Embers is his best-known book and has been performed as a radio play starring Patrick Stewart. A film starring Sean Connery was mooted but never came off. Much to the chagrin of many critics it has not been translated from the original Hungarian but from a German translation. The title in Hungarian means, ‘The Candles Burn Down to the Stump.’

There have been rhapsodic reviews of this book using words like, ‘wise’, ‘moving’, ‘pertinent’ where others found it ‘far from perfect.’

The story is slight. An old man, living in splendid isolation in a castle mostly closed off, and attended by a number of devoted servants, has withdrawn from life forty-one years ago. In 1899 something happened, which caused him to cease all contact with others except for the occasional meeting to give orders to a steward, or with his loyal Nanny, Nini, now ninety-one years old, but still running his household. But on the day the story begins he has received word of a visitor who is coming that day; the visitor he has been waiting to receive for forty-one years.

This narrative is a reflection on the past through the eyes of one character. It has been described as a conversation or debate, but it is essentially a monologue. The guest has his brief period of accounting for the missing years, but the story of their friendship and their differences all come from the general. And the charm of the work comes from the writing; exquisite descriptive poetic writing.

I can’t feel much in common with a man whose greatest passion is hunting or another who says, describing his time living in the tropics

Everything feels sticky and greasy. You’re in your house, the Malays are singing. The woman you’ve taken to live with you sits motionless in a corner of the room and watches you. They can sit for hours like that, staring. At first you pay no attention. The you start you feel nervous, and order them out of the room… Scream at her and she smiles. Strike her and she smiles… They are constantly having children, though nobody mentions this, least of all they themselves.

This is the longest speech the general’s visitor makes, and it certainly didn’t make me feel sympathetically disposed to him.

But here he is as a young man, playing a Chopin duet with the general’s mother, for he is a music lover, and it is this that will always prevent him from becoming a dedicated soldier like his friend.

They sat straight-backed at the piano, leaning away from the keys a little and yet bound to them, as if music itself were driving an invisible team of fiery mythical horses riding the storm that circle the world, and they were bracing their bodies to maintain a firm grip on the reins in this explosive gallop of unshackled energies. And then, with a single chord, they ended. The evening sun was slanting through the large windows, and motes of gold were spinning in its rays, as if the unearthly racing chariot had stirred up a whirlwind of dust on its way to ruin and void.

Two men, seventy-five years old, waiting for death, but also wanting to address the cause of the rift that lies between them. They are not people of our time. They are used to privilege and not afraid of violence. Here they are, after a long rich dinner, readying themselves to have the conversation they have never had.

Silently, wobbling a little like shadows on a wall, they walk in this ghostly glow from the dining room through one cold salon after another until they reach a room whose only furniture consists of a grand piano with its lid raised and three chairs around a great-bellied hot porcelain stove. They sit down and look out through the long white curtains at the dark landscape… they each light a cigar, and sit in silence warming themselves. The heat from the logs in the stove pours out in steady waves and the candlelight dances above their heads. The door has been closed. They are alone.

Written in the middle of a war, this story celebrates an existence that was rapidly fading then, and now no longer exists, by an interesting and very different writer.

His book Portraits of a Marriage translated by George Szertes is now on my list.


Jessica Dettmann – This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

When Annie Jones’ mother wanted to get rid of guests she rose to her feet and said graciously, ‘This has been absolutely lovely,‘ and stood waiting for them to leave. But what can Annie do when the intrusive guests are her own family, bringing with them their unhappiness and secrets?  She knows she can’t fix their lives, but as she is their mother, they seem to expect her to.

I have a great admiration for writers who can create genre fiction that is absorbing, and not too cliched. I have whiled away many a holiday deep in a Liane Moriarty. I admire her ability to create believable characters who are flawed in the same way we may be, but where under the superficial cosiness lurk real issues, domestic violence, amnesia, stalking, feelings of inadequacy. She draws us in to the character’s lives, and we read intently until resolution is achieved. And they’re not all just happy endings. True, we are reading about the lives of middle- class white people, but those are the lives she knows. There is nothing fake about the writing of Liane Moriarty.

This has Been Absolutely Lovely is Jessica Dettman’s second novel and it is set in the well-heeled middle-class world of Sydney’s beaches. Annie has given up her early dream of a career in music. She wasn’t allowed to perform her song at Eurovision because she was pregnant. She returns to Australia and has three children. She cares for her parents. her mother has dementia, then dies, her adored father slowly grows weaker, then dies. Now it is Christmas, and she has her three children and their children taking up all the space in her life and keeping her away from her beloved piano. And she is held back just when she has had a glimpse of freedom. Because all the children have problems.

Grumpy greedy Simon, her eldest son, is not getting on with his German wife Diane, and he announces they are not going back to Germany. The reason why emerges later, and it is not to his credit. Annie knows he is hanging around waiting for her to sell her father’s house so he can grab a share of the profits, Naomi is loving and sweet, but very vegan and into auras, and Molly the youngest child is pregnant with nothing at all prepared for the birth of her baby except a whole lot of phone apps.

We also have the father’s enemy, next door neighbour Ray, dying of cancer, and returned from London, members of Annie’s group The Love Triangle, ex-husband Paul and his partner Brian.

And now Annie realises it is her turn

It wasn’t that the guys hadn’t pulled their weight when they were all in the band, but… You’ve always done most of it, Annie told herself. You pretended it was a team, but it was always you. And suddenly she was off; her brain shooting from one thought to the next, making leaps, associations, grabbing unrelated ideas by the hand and pulling them up on the stage, not sure why they were useful until she saw how they danced with what was already there. Her brain was crackling with electricity. Nothing had ever made her feel quite like this. It was an intoxicating power, building something from emotions and sounds.

But Annie has to struggle to be free of her sense of obligation to the lives of others. There is another death, a birth and disgrace and a revelation of the true character of her father to deal with before she can be free.

Recommended for a jolly good holiday read.

M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise again




….Meanwhile there was coming and going on the stairs, especially at night. Voices were raised. Two in the morning, someone dropped a heavy object on the landing, while downstairs someone else leaned on the bell-push or shouted indistinctly from the street. Next door’s sash window, its frame warped by years of river fog, slid up with a long grunting sound. Next day Shaw might glimpse a figure making its way quickly across the landing to the communal bathroom, which it occupied for longer than a normal person; afterwards there was a smell in there. (p 9-10) Continue reading M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise again

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol



He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

And may we all be filled with compassion as Scrooge was after his visitation from the three Spirits. As Dickens says in another part of this book

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.