Two Novels by Therese Bohman, both translated by Marlaine Delargy.

This is a review I wrote for The Quarterly Conversation a few years ago. I’ve linked to it before, during a past Women In Translation months even, but now that the site is no longer — RIP QC! — I’ve revised and moved it permanently to Reader at Large. Bohman is one of my favorite writers. She doesn’t coddle her characters or give her heroines an easy time of it… and yet they thrive.

This past October I also reviewed Eventide, another Bohman novel with a flawed, interesting female protagonist. You can read that review here.


The Swedish writer Therese Bohman seems to have an affinity for aimless young women vulnerable to the attentions of older men. In two of her novels, Drowned and the newly translated The Other Woman, she channels the psyches of twenty-something University students engaged in liaisons with men already involved with other women. 

The books share so much in common that they might be the same novel: both explore almost identical situations, share many of the same structural and plot devices, and the author’s and her translator’s, Marlaine Delargy, prose styles remain consistent from book to book. What differences exist are relatively superficial. Drowned and The Other Woman are conveyances for Bohman’s thoughts on feminism, sisterhood, and perhaps even the socio-economic status of women in modern society. Regardless of the ambiguous morality of her female characters’ decisions, Bohman’s treatment of them is inarguably sympathetic. Their affairs with men may be the impetus for coming-of-age journeys, but they do not represent a final destination.

Drowned is a psychological thriller—dark, gothic, and fraught with eroticized violence. In my opinion, it is technically the better, more innovative novel. A story about two sisters: Stella, the elder, lives in a beautiful “yellow wooden house” with a garden; she has the perfect job at the local parks and gardens department; her boyfriend, Gabriel, is devastatingly attractive and a successful novelist. He is also fifteen years her senior. Everything about their life together appears picture-perfect.

By contrast, Stella’s younger sister Marina is adrift and directionless. She attends university in Stockholm, is working on a thesis she’ll probably never finish, and is in a stalled relationship which she is too apathetic to end. Everything about her is nebulous and undefined. 

A love triangle develops between the sisters and Gabriel. We are given the impression that rather than rivals, these two sisters, separated by a significant age gap, desire a closer relationship. (Indeed, this is why Marina is spending her summer holiday with the couple.) Stella remains completely unaware of the attraction between the two people she loves. 

It gradually becomes apparent that something is not right about Gabriel. Microfractures appear on the surface of his and Stella’s relationship. He is prone to unexpected (and seemingly out of character) rages. He is sometimes fumbling, vulnerable, and haunted, only to act with calculated violence moments later. Readers are left unbalanced, asking questions and quickly turning the pages. 

Bohman generates tension by allowing much of the action to take place between sentences. She focuses on meticulously rendered details: the seasons and environment through which the characters move play pivotal roles in her narrative. Inanimate objects like a bottle of nail polish, an angora sweater, a hothouse orchid, and a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are laden with symbolism. Each element has been considered and imbued with a menacing prescience. 

The garden is in the process of decay. The sunflowers look like scarecrows now that they have gone over, their seed heads black and wet, their leaves straggling and shriveled. I pull on Stella’s Wellington boots that are in the back porch and take a walk around the garden, noticing the tomatoes that ripened but were never picked, their split skins exposing the dried flesh, rhubarb with leaves as big as umbrellas, the stalks so thick they are presumably inedible. They taste best before they get too big, as far as I remember, then they become bitter, woody. The pods of the sugar snap peas are swollen and lumpy, distorted, also too big for anyone but the worms to eat. Only the parsley is still green, glowing amid all the brown and gray, tiny drops of water have collected in its curly leaves. I break off a piece and push it in my mouth, it has the harsh taste of iron. A few sparse marigolds are still flowering stoically in the borders.

Bohman avoids the inherent clichés, elevating her plots above the stuff of Lifetime movies through acts of restraint. She creates rich and vivid scenes with only a few broad, carefully considered brushstrokes. Utilizing the concept of chiaroscuro, she fills these books with oppositions and dualities, both subtle and blatant.

A similar dynamic plays out in The Other Woman, which is a looser, much more casual production. It follows an arc readers are all too familiar with—a young cafeteria worker falls for a distinguished and married doctor, who she meets at the hospital where they both work. But that is where the familiar formula begins and ends.

The narrator of The Other Woman never reveals her name. Like Marina, she is a student, and the two young women are of an age. Unlike Marina, she is completely self-aware. Whereas Stella and Marina appear to come from an affluent family, this narrator makes it very clear that she has no such advantages. She works her menial job because she needs to support herself. She has only half-formed dreams of becoming a writer, and her early fantasies about Carl are pathetic in their yearnings. They center around his realizing she is special, that she doesn’t “belong there” among her coworkers. She is the young ingénue, the shop girl, Pygmalion archetype, whose seduction has as much to do with the trappings of class and status as it does with sexual desire. “I have always known there is something vulgar about me, something I cannot hide. . . . I have felt it all my life, even as a child: the aura around some of my classmates was different, more solid somehow.” When she talks about the difference between her classmates and herself, it transcends mere possessions and moves into the elusive realm of taste: “Raincoats and boots that weren’t the cheapest because their wearer would soon grow out of them, but were well made and practical, handed down from older siblings, yet they were not unfashionable because they had never been fashionable in the first place.” When she meets another student at a party, a girl named Alex, it is immediately apparent that her attraction to Alex and her life represents a parallel to her relationship with Carl. 

The journey for these two young women is perhaps as much about identity as it is about sexual desire. Stella and Alex represent the women Bohman’s two narrators wish to become. The men are props in those lives. Carl, the less threatening of the two men, and the doctor in The Other Woman, comes across as entirely solid and dependable. But, while she is in love with him, his influence over the narrator is arguably less than Alex’s. Whereas Gabriel is without question the dominant personality over both Marina and Stella, yet it is Stella who dominates Marina’s thoughts. 

This theme of feminism and a female confederacy is more present in The Other Woman than in Drowned. It is dealt with directly as the former’s narrator spends several pages sorting through her feelings toward her fellow female students. “It feels like I will be brought up before a women’s tribunal to justify every decision I make, while at the same time I have no interest whatsoever in the approval of other women. I sometimes wonder if I’m a misogynist, but I’ve never heard of a female misogynist, and in any case I don’t really hate women, I just find it difficult to empathize with them.” These passages about how young women tend to align themselves for or against an obscure, collective feminist “we” are honest, depicting how blurry such boundaries can be. Carl and Gabriel, are using these young women to re-create a former sexual partner or fantasy. But the girls are using them in return, fulfilling an altogether different fantasy. Bohman is much more forgiving of the girls. 

Drowned ‘s dependence on the natural world juxtaposes with The Other Woman‘s emphasis on humid, close (often cozy) lit interiors, which alternate with the cold, windy expanse of the harbor where the narrator walks late at night. Bohman uses the transitions from interiors to exteriors to mirror the conflicts within her protagonists’ psyches. 

The dishwasher down in the main kitchen is a cubist whale made of aluminum, lying on its belly with its mouth wide open, filtering dishes and containers through a series of vibrating rubber strips, stroking them into position before it slowly swallows them, washing and rinsing deep down in its belly, then delivering them on the other side, sparkling and red hot. Sometimes it feels like my friend, or at least my pet. I am its caregiver, I clean it and take care of it when it has done its work for the day, when the last containers have passed through it and been blown dry and the room is like a warm, damp cave, where the air exhaled by the dishwasher has misted up the huge windows against the December darkness outside. 

Therese Bohman strikes the right balance between lavish prose and simple storytelling—allowing her books to be both beautiful literary objects and vehicles which engage readers through larger ideas. Neither Marina nor the titular other woman walks away innocent from their encounters. Both, in a sense, get out of their affairs exactly what they most desired—though what that is may not be what they believed it to be going in. As a society we are quick to cast judgment, particularly on women. And Bohman is provoking us into casting those judgments—perhaps in order to show us how hypocritical and ultimately unrealistic they are. 

Title: Drowned
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press (New York, 2012)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 524 2
Title: The Other Woman
Author: Therese Bohman
Publisher: Marlaine Delargy
ISBN: 978 1 59051 743 7

Currently Reading: Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Grace Frick & the author.

The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

Read on its own, outside the context of a body of work that includes 13 novels, 4 plays, 3 children’s books, 1 screenplay and assorted essays, The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye is a deceptively straight-forward tale about the life of a gifted French female chef told by her lovelorn protégé. For readers familiar, passionate even, about NDiaye, it seems an outlier. Traditional in subject and conventional in approach, it lacks the unsettling paranoia, the grappling with race and trauma, and the stylistic audacity of her earlier work. We assume the male narrator is unreliable because it is the sort of twist we expect from a NDiaye novel. And in this way, she subverts our expectations from the very first page.

“Oh yes, of course, she got that question often. Endlessly, I’d even say…” So begins our chatty, unnamed narrator, relishing the spotlight, puffed with pride, reveling in his former intimacy with and access to genius. He is the keeper of the flame – but there is also something tawdry about him. A little too sly. Definitely smug. The prose is less dense, less feminine, than past novels. Jordan Stump’s translation adapts to this weak, masculine voice, giving us yet another wonderful and nuanced translation of NDiaye’s work. I felt relatively secure in my dislike of this character, confident my judgement would be validated by the time I reached the end. But until then I was happy to lose myself in the rags to riches story of the Cheffe. Her humble beginnings, her work as the cook to a wealthy, gluttonous family, her apprenticeship and the opening of her own restaurant. My favorite bits were the detailed, mouth watering descriptions of her culinary artistry. The Cheffe had a knack for visualizing the dish, then creating it.

And so, having called up in her mind a simple, idealized image of a peach tart, its amber color underscored by something she thought might be verbena, with the faintest gilding, subdued and matte, or caramelized sugar… she was pleased, when the tart came out of the oven, to see no disparity between the thing and her premonition of it, and so she forgot the idea and conferred on the real tart the status of a model for all her deserts to come.

Central to the story are the Cheffe’s relationships. With her daughter, her customers, her food, and to this man who is narrating her story as if he is the sole proprietor of her memory. He – we never learn his name – obviously admired the Cheffe. More than that, he loved her. I kept expecting his devotion to her to turn ugly, to become dark and creepy, but it never did. Yes, he was obsessed. But any harm he did was to himself alone. Because of their age gap (he was decades younger, roughly the age of her daughter) and her devotion to food, she treated him more like a stepson (not quite a son, but someone for whom you feel a certain emotional attachment) than a romantic possibility… welcoming him into her kitchen but always, physically and emotionally, keeping an arm’s length between them. And yet, their lives remain entwined. Mostly thanks to his efforts to keep them so.

In the process of telling us about his mentor’s life and journey, our narrator drops little bits of information about his own circumstances and history. He lives in a Catalonian retirement community now, which seems rather posh. There are endless cocktail parties with neighbors whom he mingles with but who know very little about his past. He no longer cooks. He drinks too much and is expecting a visit from his daughter… the former seems to be inextricably linked to the latter. He does not tell us outright, but we suspect he is nervous about seeing her. That their relationship is strained. When she finally arrives in the final chapters we realize she has been there all the time.

I read The Cheffe months ago.  At first I disliked and distrusted the first person narrator – even pitying the translator for having to spend so much time in the man’s head. But, surprisingly quickly, I came to appreciate the emotional journey of the story, which moves towards a final moment of warmth and joy.  There’s hope and redemption to be found here. The Cheffe is, in my opinion, the least self-conscious of all NDiaye’s novels. It is also the one that was written most recently and the book most overtly about writing. Like her Cheffe does with food, NDiaye is stripping away the tricks and contrivances of style. Of which, when you think about it, the most celebrated and overused is the unreliable narrator.  As readers, we’ve been conditioned to expect and enjoy being lied to.  Such a clever trick! NDiaye allows us our cynicism and suspicions, only to finally reveal that everything we’ve been told is true. And show her readers that the emotional honesty and vulnerability of this narrator is just as wonderful – maybe even better – than gimmicks.

Of course, I may be completely wrong and guilty of once again projecting my expectations onto NDiaye. We’ll just have to wait for the next book* to find out.

Title:  The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel
Author: Marie NDiaye
Translator: Jordan Stump
Publisher: Alfred K. Knopf (New York, 2019) 
ISBN: 978 0 525 52047 4

*The next book of NDiaye’s to be released in English, by the publisher Two Lines Press, is That Time of Year. It was originally published in France in 1997. From what I understand, Two Lines Press has the rights to most of her back catalog, but English translations of all new material belongs to Penguin Random House. So, as far as I am aware, the title and plot of the book she is currently writing is unknown.


Currently Reading: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell for #WITMonth.

Women In Translation Month 2020

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2020! This annual event, started by the inimitable Meytal Radzinski, is celebrating its sixth year. Huzzah! To learn more about #WITMonth — past, present, and future — you can visit Meytal’s blog Biblibio: A Life In Letters, or follow the hashtag on Twitter or Instagram.

This year I’m going to try to review writers who I feel haven’t received their due, alongside some old favorites. I’ll also be featuring a few backlisted titles I maybe haven’t shown enough love to in the past? Like Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar and Thus Were Their Faces, the NYRB Classics short story collection by Silvina Ocampo. I’m fascinated by the Ocampo sisters, so if anyone can recommend a good biography in English, please do.

For years I’ve been a subscriber to The New York Review of Books — and now seems like the perfect time to openly engage with some of the criticism & reviews I’ve read on its pages. It’s a topic I’m obsessed with in general. Over the last few years, like a lot of the bookish media, they seem to be increasing their reviews on works in translation. I don’t always agree with their reviewer’s opinions — which was the case with the review of Maria NDiaye’s last book, The Cheffe.

Lastly, I rediscovered drafts of some old reviews which ran at the now, sadly, defunct Quarterly Conversation, which I’m going to be revising as needed and posting here for anyone who might have missed them the first time around. One review is of Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches, along with a Q&A I did with the translator, Jordan Stump (who, coincidentally, is also NDiaye’s translator). I’m currently reading two books by Mukasonga: The Barefoot Woman and Igifu.

I’m very behind on my reading. 2020 is not a good year (an understatement, I know) and my focus is not what it should be. Embarrassing as it is to admit, during times of high stress I tend to binge on trashy romance novels and the occasional mystery. I’m not really sure why… the ones I enjoy are, as a rule, incredibly silly and sometimes not very well written. The plot is always formulaic. Maybe that’s it. They are predictable in all the ways the world currently is not. I mention this because I’m hoping August will be the turning point, putting me back on track. Please wish me luck!

Artforum by Cesar Aira

In a collection of short essays, Cesar Aira discusses his love, bordering on obsession, for the American fine art magazine Artforum. Called, simply, Artforum, as a work of nonfiction it is something of an anomaly in the writer’s oeuvre. Written in the first person, the book carries all the markers associated with the writer — slim volume, short paragraphs covering a large breadth of territory, smatterings of magical realism, and stunning visual imagery. While, overall, they lack the magic of his fiction, the majority of the essays still manage to deliver on individual moments that delight.

The best of the bunch, to my mind, is The Sacrifice, which opens the book. Aira wakes up on a Saturday morning to the sound of rain. He experiences a sense of foreboding, followed by mild alarm, realizing that the windows had been left open overnight due to the heat…

The thing is, because of the heat, we left all the windows open day and night, and near the windows there were tables, chairs, and armchairs, and on these were books and magazines; there was an enormous amount of paper in the house. All of us in the family were readers, the bookshelves were overflowing, books and magazines were piled everywhere. It was inevitable that some would be within reach of the rain, which could come in through the open windows. It’s well known how destructive water is to paper.

He soon discovers his fears have come true and one of his precious magazines has been damaged… but also transformed. In typical Aira fashion, the story takes us somewhere we don’t expect to go. A trick he manages to pull off better than anyone else writing today.

Not every essay is about Artforum. There is one about clothespins, and the philosophical and metaphysical implications of their breaking, which is lovely. But on the whole, the collection is uneven and I found the majority weren’t particularly memorable. The fault, of course, could lay with the reader. I expected a rollicking and ridiculous adventure as we followed Aira on his single-minded quest to obtain issues of Artforum magazine (apparently hard to come by in Argentina). But this book is not that. At a superficial level, most of the essays are about waiting for the issues to arrive by International post and the mental games the writer plays in order to rationalize why they are late or fail to appear entirely. In one episode, Twenty Four Issues of Artforum, Aira learns from a friend about a windfall of back issues at a used bookshop. After he buys the magazines he has lunch with another friend, who gives him a surprise gift. The essay evolves into a meditation on the emotional and spiritual connections we form with both people and inanimate objects. It reminded me of Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, specifically the parts where he warmly recounted meetings and conversations with old friends. Of course, what Aira is really writing is a book about his development as a writer and an artist (nothing new there) and disguising it as a book about the magazine Artforum. Still, I can’t help wishing there’d been a little bit more about the magazine — its history, as an object — included in the text.

While not enough to label a genre or even a literary trend, — though one might be very slowly developing — I do feel there have been a number of books published and pushed over the past few years that engage in narrow examinations of one subject as the means of understanding another. I’m thinking about books like On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (which I just reviewed at Ron Slates One the Seawall). In the review, I compared it to The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Both women are dealing with personal illness: Barrera with her loneliness and depression, and Bailey with a rare disease that had her confined to her bed for months. I also compare it to Eric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy of novels about the actor Johnny Weissman, the poet Richard Brautigan, and Steve Jobs. And Nathalie Legers’ Suite for Barbara Loden, which I only recently learned is part of another trilogy (or, as the author calls it, a triptych) on feminist artists, which includes one book about the French Countess of Castiglione and another about the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca. Are these books responses — conscious or otherwise — to the internet, Wikipedia, and our collective habit of diving down rabbit holes on obscure topics?

I’ve always been partial to Chris Andrew’s translations of Aira, but Katharine Silver won me over. The voice she uses is familiar — close enough to the novels but subtly toned-down so that we understand this is the writer speaking to us as himself, rather than through a character. Aira novels tend to grow on me over time. There are passages that individually dazzle but, on the whole, there needs to be a ripening period. In that way, Artforum is no different from his other books that I’ve read.

In 2014, Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos translated portions of “What Aira Says” by Sergio Pitol. It’s wonderful, a convergence of two of my favorite writers which I believe is still unavailable in its entirety in English. Pitol makes a distinction between “the highest expressions of Aira’s art and the more tedious or lesser ones”. (If you are an Aira fan the entire post is worth checking out). Right now I would classify Artforum as among the lesser expressions. But, that said, I like it better than I did a week ago. And a month ago I found it entirely underwhelming. So who knows what my feelings will be a month from now? That ability to linger and metamorphize in a reader’s mind over time is both magical, rare, and at the essence of why I continue to admire Ceasar Aira.

Title: Artforum
Author: Cesar Aira
Tranlator: Katherine Silver
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2020)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 2926 5

Korean Writer Hwang Sok-yong

There’s an emotional stoicism to Hwang’s characters that might be misconstrued as flatness, but should be perceived as an idiosyncrasy of the author’s prose. The lives Hwang depicts are not easy ones, and could have been twisted into distasteful melodramas. The pain and suffering that Bari, Woohee, Minwoo, and the two brothers experience is more powerful for being muffled, filtered, as if their spirits and psyches were protected by layers of cotton wool. 

The above is a passage from my March review of three of Hwang Sok-yong’s novels for Guernica. I love these books. I love Sora Kim-Russell’s translations, the humanity of the characters, and the seamless way Hwang Sok-yong weaves the supernatural into the everyday. (It reminds me a bit of Cesar Aira, despite these two writers being nothing alike). The title of the essay, which I didn’t choose, is A Country on the Cusp of Change (Guernica, March 2020)… and, to be honest, I feel like this review got a little bit away from me. It became too much about the political and economic, maybe because the author has a history as a political activist that I felt I needed to talk about, and too little about the emotional way I connected with the characters. The two brothers in Familiar Things, Bari and her dog, Jung Woohee from At Dusk — I’m still thinking about them months later. We care about the ideas in the text because we care about the characters.

You can read the full review here.

Title: Familiar Things
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: Princess Bari
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: At Dusk
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe