1990s Books in Translation Novella

Breathing Underwater – Marie Darrieussecq

Breathing Underwater Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Five words from the blurb: coast, daughter, clues, looking, mistake

Last year I was amazed by the power of the novel, Beside the Sea, and so asked for recommendations of books with a similar level of impact. Breathing Underwater was suggested as a book that not only shared the themes of Beside the Sea, but also the power. I found it interesting to compare the two novellas and I think this pair would make an interesting combination for those studying differences in writing style.

Breathing Underwater follows a woman who walks out on her husband and then takes her daughter to the seaside. Her husband hires a private detective to track them down, but this isn’t a fast-paced chase. The events are very slow, with each scene intricately described.

She leaves the child on top of the dune. She feels something like relief, a pause; the intuition that she can leave her there, absorbed by the sea, eyes straining from their sockets; in the redundancy of the fishing poles, sinkers, floats, and even the buckets and shovels. She won’t rush down to the beach straight away, she won’t run off to drown in the waves; unlike logs blazing in fireplaces or outdoor bonfires, the sea does not make itself our friend, it doesn’t crackle within arm’s reach: you look at it for a long time before it dawns on you that you can touch it.

The book had very little plot and I often found that the surroundings were so well described that I forgot what was happening.

The reader is a casual observer of events, never quite understanding what will happen next or the reasons for the actions. This was a problem for me as it meant that I felt no emotional connection to the characters. The multiple narrators in this short book increased this sense of detachment.

If you enjoy slow, thoughtful narratives then I’m sure you’ll love this book, but I’m afraid the writing was too flowery for me and I don’t think it came close to matching the emotional power of Beside the Sea.



Three Entertaining Books

I was writing reviews for the following books when I realised I was repeating myself. Although all three have different writing styles and settings they share many other qualities and so I thought I’d combine my thoughts into one post, giving you a trio of entertaining reads to add to your TBR pile.

All three books captivate the reader, making you want to turn the pages quickly in order to find out what happens to the characters. They are all easy to read and the writing flows beautifully. If you are after an entertaining read I can’t really fault any of them – just pick the one that appeals the most and I’m sure you’ll enjoy being transported into its world.

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Five words from the blurb: Greece, Heroes, King, war, immortal

Fleur Fisher drew this book to my attention. I have always wanted to know more about Greek mythology and so this well researched re-telling of Achilles’ story appealed to me. The book is narrated by Patroclus, a young prince who forms a strong bond with Achilles. We see them grow up together, learning to become warriors. Their friendship strengthens as they reach adulthood and embark on a journey that leads them into the Trojan war.

The Song of Achilles managed to combine humans and Gods in a way that seemed completely natural. I loved the vivid descriptions of this ancient time and the way the narrative brought the characters to life. The emotions felt real and I enjoyed seeing the love between Achilles and Patroclus blossom. It was wonderful for me to learn the full story behind the snippets of mythology I already knew.

If you have any interest in Greek mythology then I’m sure you’ll appreciate this emotional book. Recommended.


Gillespie and I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Five words from the blurb: Glasgow, encounter, tragedy, mystery, humour

Gillespie and I is set in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. The book is narrated by Harriet Baxter, a women who embarks on a journey to Glasgow in order to see the International Exhibition. Whilst there she meets the Gillespie family and becomes increasingly involved in their lives. Unfortunately the family is plagued by problems and Harriet is unable to prevent the tragedy that eventually occurs.

This book is packed with Victorian atmosphere, but is far lighter and chattier in tone than any of the other books I’ve read set during this period. It is impossible not to be warmed by Harriet’s banter and she charmed me into reading this 500 page chunkster twice as fast as I’d expected to.

I loved the way that snippets of information were sprinkled through the text, but I also liked the fact that many of my questions were left unanswered, leaving me to think about this book long after I’d finished it.

If you are after an entertaining Victorian mystery then I recommend getting hold of this book. 


The Poison Tree

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

Five words from the blurb: London, dead, life, love, past

I first heard about this book on Steph and Tony’s Blog. She compared it to Tana French and I have to agree – this compelling thriller shares Tana French’s writing style and her skill for character development. The plot is a little different in that there is no police investigation; instead we follow the lives of the criminals as we discover what led them to commit their crime. 

The Poison Tree is set in London and follows Karen, a student who is drawn towards a brother and sister who lead a glamorous lifestyle. The family’s problems are revealed slowly and although the plot isn’t particularly original, the structure is very clever. The book is gripping throughout, but I especially loved the last 50 pages – they ended the book perfectly.

Recommended to anyone looking for a character driven mystery.


Have you read any of these books?

Did you enjoy them?

Which one appeals to you most? 


The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

Five words from the blurb: American, college, love, novel, relationships

Jeffrey Eugenides has a special power with words, managing to reduce me to tears just 34 pages into Middlesex. His latest novel, The Marriage Plot, shares this magical character building, but unfortunately it lacks a powerful plot.

The Marriage Plot is an unashamedly American novel. Focusing on college students in the 1980s we see their struggle to form relationships and the pressures placed on them to pair off. The characters come to life on the very first page. I quickly felt as though I knew them all; understanding their motivations and sharing their pain.

The central character is Madeleine, an English major writing a thesis on “the marriage plot” which investigates the way changes in courtship have altered the structure of novels throughout history.

Sexual equality, good for women. had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for a separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much any more, and neither did the novel.

This was a clever device and I loved the way this theme was reflected in Eugenides’ novel – especially in the final few paragraphs.

I loved the character building of the first 100 pages, but after that I slowly began to lose interest. Very little happened and I became increasingly frustrated. The book had some good themes, but they were too spread out and I think it would have benefited from being at least 150 pages shorter. I suspect that the reminiscing aspects of this book will mean it has a greater appeal to Americans (especially those who went to college in the 1980s), but as someone from outside the country I felt that a lot of the cultural references went over my head.

I’m probably being a bit harsh by awarding this 3.5 stars as it clearly has a lot to recommend it. I think my expectations were a bit too high going into it and so I was disappointed by the simplicity of the plot and the mundane actions of the characters.

If you enjoy getting inside the head of ordinary people then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book, but I wish something more exciting had happened.


Everyone else thinks this book is amazing:

The Marriage Plot is humane, subtly humorous, sometimes touching, and always extremely engaging. Things Mean A Lot

….taking things that are MAD TEDIOUS, like people’s scholarly inclinations and the way they intersect with and inform said people’s life-paths and making it FASCINATING! books i done read

Eugenides prose is just as beautiful and detailed as it was in Middlesex, and his characters just as memorable. Literary Musings



Everything You Know – Zoe Heller

Everything You Know

Five words from the blurb: women, daughter, suicide, diaries, lonely

I loved Notes on a Scandal, but couldn’t finish The Believers and so was interested to see what I’d make of Zoe Heller’s debut novel, Everything You Know.

The book focuses on Willy, a bitter man recovering from a heart attack. His youngest daughter has just committed suicide and he is struggling to cope with the other relationships in his life. The book explores his emotions as he attempts to put his life back on track.

Willy is a unlikable character who is impossible to warm to. As I read about his opinions and actions I frequently wanted to slap him, but despite these problems I was impressed by the realistic honesty of his words:

Sophie has always intimidated me. I was awkward around both of my daughters – embarrassed by their little pink bodies, appalled by their pukings and snottings, convinced that if they cuddled too close I would get an erection – but I was especially nervous of Sophie. She was by anyone’s standards, a daunting child – creepily self-possessed and knowing about adult matters.

There were some fantastic pieces of writing, peppered with emotion and insight, but the structure of the book didn’t work for me. At less than 200 pages this should have been a fast read, but it was frequently a chore – it didn’t flow very well and there was no forward momentum.

It was interesting to see how Heller’s writing developed over the three books, but apart from that this book had little appeal. I like my books to have more plot and less bitterness.

Recommended to anyone interested in the thoughts of a grumpy old man.



How to Forget – Marius Brill

How to Forget

Five words from the blurb: illusionist, forget, brain-scientist, experiment, adventure

I hadn’t heard of this book, but I received an email from its publicist and was instantly drawn towards the premise – I couldn’t resist a book that combined magic with brain science!

How to Forget is a fast-paced, complex adventure story which also manages to include details of scientific research into brain function and memory.

The central character is Peter, a magician forced to entertain the elderly after a children’s party went horribly wrong. Peter is also in a relationship with Kate, a con-artist wanted by the FBI. The pair become involved in an increasingly complex plot which is clever, but often difficult to follow. I frequently found myself re-reading sections in order to fully understand what was happening. I’m sure I’d benefit from starting the book again, just so I could pick up on all the details I didn’t spot first time around. This shouldn’t be seen as a negative – it shows a depth and intelligence not seen frequently enough in modern books.

The sections on human memory were thought provoking. The book suggested that people would be happier if they could forget certain aspects of their lives. I’m still thinking about the questions this book raised about who should be allowed to have their memory wiped and although this book is probably too long and complex for the average book club I think that many people would love to discuss the issues raised in this novel.

How to Forget has some of the cleverest plot twists I’ve come across. I loved the way it explained the tricks con-artists/magicians use to misdirect the public and how these were used to allow the characters to escape from various situations.

The mind is vulnerable and who we think we are can change entirely under all sorts of pressures: amnesia, fugues, false memory syndrome, alcohol, drugs, gods and even, for a split second, a pack of cards. Every day we see how susceptible the brain is to accepting false conclusions. How it can create connections and memories to explain the unexplained, in its insatiable eagerness to make sense of the world.

My main problem with this book was that I was so busy concentrating on the numerous plot threads that I was unable to bond with the characters. I also found some of the scientific study notes unnecessary. Despite these criticisms I was impressed by ambitiousness of this novel. It isn’t perfect, but I’ll certainly be thinking about it for a long time to come. Recommended.


If you’d like further information I found this interesting interview with Marius Brill on the Foyles website.


1950s Classics

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart (Pocket Penguin Classics)

Five words from the blurb: masterpiece, strong, man, African, awareness

Things Fall Apart has been on my book shelf for a very long time. I knew it was an important book, but it intimidated me and so I avoided reading it. I imagined it to be a complex, disturbing read and so was surprised to discover its fast pace and simplicity.

The book shows how a small African village is affected by the arrival of missionaries from Europe. We see events from the perspective of Okonkwo, a man famed for his strength, but plagued by difficulties beyond his control. His flawed character was fascinating to read about as although I didn’t warm to him I felt great sympathy for his situation.

I also loved the insight into Nigerian tribal life and now feel I have a better understanding of their culture. Achebe did a fantastic job of portraying both the English and African people in a straight-forward, non-judgemental way; allowing the reader to form their own opinion of who was in the wrong.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

The ending was especially poignant and I think this is one of those books that will grow on me over time. I can see why it has become a classic and I hope that people will continue to read this book for many years to come.


I read this book for Amy’s Nigerian Independence Day Reading Project. Head over there to see many more Nigerian book recommendations.