1950s Classics Novella

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: Australia, outback, survival, Aboriginal, cultures

Walkabout is a classic book about two American children who become stranded in the Australian outback after a plane crash. They are rescued by an Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive in this difficult climate. It is a short, easy read that is written for children, but I think this powerful book deserves an adult audience too.

Walkabout was first published in 1959. It reads like an Australian classic, but was actually written by an English author who spent time studying the country. The descriptions of the Australian landscape were superb and I was particularly impressed by the details of the Aboriginal culture, many of which were new to me.

I read it to my sons (aged 8 and 10) and they both enjoyed it – particularly the scenes involving the Australian wildlife.

On the topmost branch of a gum tree that overhung the gully, there alighted a bird: a large, grey-backed bird, with tufted poll and outsized beak. Its eyes, swivelling separately, searched the gully for food; but instead of the hoped-for frog or snake sunning itself on the rock, it saw the children. The kookaburra was puzzled. The presence of these strange interlopers, it decided, deserved to be announced. It opened wide its beak, and a continuous flow of grating, melodious notes shattered the calm of the gully.

The overall message of the book is one of tolerance and understanding between different cultures, so it was useful to use this text to explain issues around racism. The only problem was the strength of language. I was quite shocked by some of it and deliberately toned down the racist language when reading this to my boys.

This is an atmospheric little book with a simple, but engaging story. I can see why it is a set text in many schools and recommend it to those who enjoy reading about the natural world.


2014 Books in Translation Novella

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels by Dimitri Verhulst

   Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Five words from the blurb: Jesus, Belgium, publicity, welcoming, committee

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a novella that satirises modern society by imaging what would happen if Jesus Christ were to announce his second-coming. It shows the way authorities would panic at the thought of the global media descending, the fights over who would be able to meet Jesus, and the way the public react to this happy news.

I was worried that this book might be overly religious, or offensive in some way. Luckily it was neither – it simply mocked our way of life, particularly the political system.

It was hardly surprising: everyone of any name or fame was dying to be photographed next to a man who shared his DNA with Gold Almighty. Any deeds of nobility that could be conjured up were worthwhile; there was no arse so filthy it wasn’t worth kissing; no pride too small or too big that it couldn’t be pushed aside to clear the way for some craven toadying.

I loved the informal, chatty style of writing and the way the narrator directly addressed the reader. It would probably grate over a longer book, but was perfect for this novella.

My only problem was that some references to the Belgium political system went over my head. I think I got the general gist of these jokes, but suspect that anyone familiar with the country would enjoy it even more.

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a short, but entertaining book and I look forward to investigating Dimitri Verhulst’s other books.


2015 Books in Translation Novella Recommended books

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

 Source: Library

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Shortlisted for 2016 MAN Booker International Prize

Five words from the blurb: mountain, valley, change, solitude, great

A Whole Life is only 150 pages long, but it contains a beautiful, perfectly formed, story about the life of one man.

Andreas Egger lives in a remote mountain valley. One day his life is changed by the arrival of a company planning to build a cable car up the slopes. The book shows how this simple change slowly alters the feel of the valley, bringing tourists and skiers into this once peaceful place.

The writing in this book was outstanding and I frequently found myself noting down passages:

He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long-buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.

Andreas Egger was described in such a vivid way that I felt I knew him. I understood his fears and felt a deep compassion whenever he was faced with difficulty.

This book also manages to encapsulate the history of the region. We see the introduction of paved roads, cars and hotels – and also the impact of war. It’s amazing how much has been included in this book without it ever feeling cluttered – it takes immense skill to create such a slow, but rich piece of the writing.

In fact, I can’t find fault with anything in this little book. It is perfection in novella form!



2015 Novella

Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

Kauthar  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Islam, rituals, love, extremism, terrifying

Kauthar follows a young woman as she converts to Islam and then becomes increasingly radicalised. The subject matter is particularly pertinent to our society today and I’m pleased that I am now more informed about the issues involved. Unfortunately it lacked the emotional power of her debut, Magda and I found the amount of religious information overwhelming.

Kauthar is only 144 pages long, but it crams a lot into such a small space. The writing is deceptively simple, but contains many sections that force the reader to stop and think about the issues raised. 

The book was very well researched and contained a wealth of information that was new to me, but I occasionally found that too much was explained and this detracted from the story. It is a very hard line to tread, especially when the author is aware that the majority of readers are not familiar with the details of the subject matter, but much of the book felt like a lecture in religious studies, rather than a compelling novel:

And I ask Rabia,’Isn’t Islam misogynistic?’
‘For Allah there is no difference between the soul of a man and the soul of a woman. We are all from Him and we will all return to Him. O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from the twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. However, there is a physical difference between men and women. And Islam and we Muslims accept and acknowledge this difference in our earthly appearance.

It was interesting to see the young woman become increasingly devoted to her religion, but I never felt I truly understood what was going on in her head. I failed to connect to the characters and always felt as though I was a distant observer, rather than someone immersed in the action.

If you’re interested in learning the basic principles of Islam and would like an insight into the process of radicalisation then I recommend Kauthar, but if you’re after a more powerful book I suggest you try Magda instead.


Books in Translation Novella

Two Wonderful Novellas in Translation

Professor Andersen's Night Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad

Five words from the blurb: alone, sees, murder, indecision, moralist

Professor Andersen’s Night is a fantastic little book, but I didn’t want to write a full review for fear of giving too much away. The novella begins with Professor Andersen witnessing a murder, but he is unsure about what he really saw and so fails to report the crime. As time passes he feels increasingly guilty and tries to think of the best way to remedy the situation.

He was really unwell, his head ached, he saw spots before his eyes and felt queasy all the time, but didn’t throw up. He put on his pyjamas and went straight to bed. But he couldn’t lie still, so he got up, put on his dressing gown and wandered around his apartment, from room to room. This day, and the next day, and the day after that. While he brooded. He had no idea what to do.

This book was very wordy with no chapter breaks and very few paragraphs, but the internal monologue was intelligent and compelling. It could be described as a cross between Hunger by Knut Hamsun and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka; and is equally deserving of a place in the literature canon.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys intelligent literature.


The Hunting Gun (Pushkin Collection) Source: Personal copy

Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue

Five words from the blurb: letters, women, affair, tragic, truth

The Hunting Gun is small, but perfectly formed. It contains letters from a woman, her daughter, and an abandoned wife – each explaining how an affair impacted on their lives. The writing was simple, but powerful and showed real insight into the way secrets destroy relationships. 

There was nothing between us but the quiet lapping of water, like waves on the seashore. The veil behind which we had hidden our secret for thirteen years had been brutally ripped away, but what I saw underneath it was not the death that had obsessed me so, but something I can hardly think how to describe, something like peace, quietness – yes, a peculiar feeling of release.

The joy of reading books in translation is that you get to see how other cultures react to familiar situations. It was interesting to see how Japanese restraint influenced their actions; whilst their thoughts and emotions were identical to a British person dealing with an affair. 

The Hunting Gun was so short it could be read in a single sitting. I prefer a more complex plot, but was impressed by the power of the emotion in this book and am keen to read more by this author.


2014 Novella Other

Two Disappointing Novellas: The Day of the Owl and The Guest Cat

The Day of the Owl

The Day Of The Owl by Leonard Sciascia

Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun

Five words from the blurb: Sicily, murder, mafia, investigation, cold

The Day of the Owl begins with a man being murdered in front of a bus load of people. The sawn-off shotgun used in the attack suggests that it is a mafia killing, but no one is willing to admit they saw the shooting so the investigation runs cold.

This book is an examination of the mafia presence in Sicily. I found it interesting to read about this topic/setting for the first time, but most of the book did nothing for me. I think the problem was my unfamiliarity with the subject matter. The subtlety of the political messages went over my head and the large number of Italian words frustrated me. I only finished the book because it was so short.

Recommended to those with a knowledge of Italian political history and its connection with the mafia.

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hirade

Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland

Five words from the blurb: couple, writers, cat, visits, together

The Guest Cat is a quiet book about a couple who work from home as freelance writers. Beautifully poetic writing describes their everyday lives and the interactions they have with a cat that decides to visit them.

Unfortunately, perhaps because I’m more of a dog person, this book did nothing for me. The couple’s life was boring and I failed to see the attraction of reading endless descriptions of what the cat did. I normally love Japanese books, but this one didn’t contain any of the usual culinary, cultural or mythological aspects of Japanese society that I enjoy reading about.

If you love cats and enjoy vivid descriptions of how they wander in and out of people’s lives then this is for you, but if you’re after any plot or emotion then I’d avoid it.