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!

Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Therese Bohman’s novels have fascinated me since I first read her English language debut, Drowned, in 2012. For a long time, I thought it was simply the ferocity of the stories that I admired. Her portrayals of love, and what passes for love, is intimidating. Reminiscent of Virginie Despentes, sex is a power struggle. There’s an undercurrent of violence and manipulation in all male/female interactions.

Eventide, her third book translated into English, maybe her breakthrough. It has received more attention than her two previous books combined, having arrived at the perfect intersection of the #MeToo movement and a demand for more books in translation by women. I always want to talk about Bohman during Women In Translation month… though I sadly didn’t manage to get this post done for WIT2019.

Karolina is Bohman’s first middle-aged heroine. She is an art historian and academic. Her last romantic relationship (which was characterized as having the longevity and monogamy of marriage) has just ended. Not because of infidelity, tragedy or abuse, but because Karolina decided she no longer loved her partner. She finds this new phase in her life both exciting and frightening — an emotional cocktail which leaves her vulnerable to the attention of a charismatic graduate student she’s been assigned to advise.

In many ways, Karolina is the logical evolution of Bohman’s previous female protagonists — all of whom are involved in some variation of a romantic triangle. In Drowned two sisters are seduced and ensnared by the elder’s husband. In The Other Woman, a twenty-something cafeteria worker begins a romantic relationship with an older, married man and, unknowingly, the man’s daughter. In Eventide it is Karolina, her student Anton, and Lennart Olsson (another professor in the art department), who form the novel’s emotional triumvirate.

Anton has made a fascinating — and possibly groundbreaking — discovery. He has uncovered a cache of work by a forgotten woman artist from the Mannerist period, which is Karolina’s particular area of expertise. Lennart Olsson has made his career on “discovering” overlooked and forgotten female artists. In Anton, he sees the possibility of advancement… should he become Anton’s advisor. But, of course, everything is not as it appears. Anton’s progress on his thesis is slow, his research haphazard, and Karolina quickly senses a problem.

Eventide is a type of quiet drama that centers around situations and challenges particular to the lives of women. The stakes might appear relatively low to us but, from Karolina’s perspective, they are everything. Is Anton a fraud? Will Karolina be helping him perpetuate an academic lie, thus endangering her own career and reputation? And, always, underlying everything is Karolina’s fears about being a single woman in her forties, childless and alone.

What would she be remembered for? She might end up with neither children nor a partner; what had she done to make an impression on the world? Her writing didn’t interest many people. Maybe she ought to write more, something really radical. Surely she ought to express her opinion when she had one, for example in the debate on the columns in the new subway station? If everything else was doomed to disappear into oblivion, the least she could do was to write what she really thought.

It’s difficult not to consider how different Karolina’s situation might be or appear if the character were a man. She has a reasonably successful career and is comfortable financially. Her work and social circle at the University remain unchanged after her separation. She is attractive, intelligent, and her life is very much her own. And, yet, Bohman understands how gender affects perception. Lennert is meant to function as Karolina’s male counterpart. He, too, is single and financially well-off. He is considered something of a ladies’ man, though Karolina doesn’t see it. The difference is that Lennert has been more successful professionally. He is an opportunist. He has benefitted from all the advantages of white, male privilege, and Karolina understands that, in contrast to her own sense of self, “Lennert thought he deserved the acclaim”.

Examinations of the lives of older women are becoming more common. The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, even has a new book on that subject No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History (I’m buying multiple copies for Christmas this year). For those familiar with Minae Mitzumara’s, Inheritance From Mother — Karolina has more in common with Mitsuki, the book’s fifty-something heroine, than with the lost young women of Boehman’s previous two novels. Both characters, Karolina and Mitsuki, are used to explore what a fulfilling life looks like for a middle-aged woman existing outside of the societal expectations of lover, daughter, and mother. Karolina’s story, like Mitsuki’s, is one of persistence and continuity versus revolution and reinvention.

Because few people possess the courage to sell their belongings, cut off ties to their family and friends and move to an Ashram in India. Or have the luxury of spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Or the financial resources to eat, pray and love their way around the world. But, more often than not, these are the stories we are told. Bohman writes different stories. She portrays a woman’s life without resorting to extremes in characterization and reaction. Her heroines are allowed to misstep, behave badly and make morally questionable decisions. They are transgressive. Karolina is a refreshing respite from characters like Emma Bovary, April Wheeler and the entire literary canon built around women disproportionately punished, and/or made ridiculous, for aspiring to more. And while the stories Boehman writes are not as rare as they once were, they are still very welcome.

Title: Eventide
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2017)
ISBN: 978 159051 893 9

Women In Translation Up To No Good

So here we are again. Another August and my Twitter and Instagram feeds are filling up with photos, lists and reviews of books by women in translation. Five years in and #WITMonth is bigger than ever. All thanks to Meytal, who founded and continues to grow what has become an international event. (If you want to learn more about Meytal, click the link to see last year’s thank you post or visit her blog to get the latest news, updates, and links to WITMonth content).

This month, like everyone else in the translation community, I’ll be posting reviews — new and old — of books by women in translation. One thing I’ve noticed, possibly because so few books in translation are published in general and even fewer of those are by women, is that we all seem to be reading the same books. It’s unavoidable, of course, but there it is. You can’t even say we’re all just reading new releases because that’s not the case either. It really reinforces how small the pool to choose from actually is. (Two examples of what I’m talking about occurred in the last week or so: Meytal mentioned she plans to post a review of Suzanne Dracius’ The Dancing Other and someone else, I can’t remember who, posted on Twitter that they were reading Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Both books are sitting on my TBR&R pile. This happens all the time). It also highlights how small presses are carrying the load in publishing translations. And how so many of the reviewers I follow, and I myself am guilty of this, seem to focus on literary fiction in translation and overlook genre in our coverage.


In other news: I’m always on the lookout for novels that feature interesting, middle-aged and above female protagonists. I’ve had some success, but I wouldn’t call it a huge category. Betty Boo by Claudia Pineiro, Eventide by Therese Bohman (which I’ll be reviewing later this month) and Minae Mizumara’s novels immediately come to mind. Last year the Best Translated Book Award judges received a little book titled An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good: Stories by the Swedish writer Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy. The only word for it is DELIGHTFUL. It was a favorite among the judges, even though it didn’t make the longlist. Tursten is best known for her Detective Inspectors Irene Huss and Embla Nystrom series, which I need to read. Both Hus and Nystrom make an appearance in the last of the five stories, but it’s the elderly lady who steals the book.

My favorite in the collection is An Elderly Lady Has An Accommodation Problem. Maud, who is 88-years-old, has been living in her rent-controlled apartment (rent-controlled = free) in a now gentrified (gentrified = expensive) section of Sweden since she was a child. The building’s housing association wants rid of her to no avail, her contract is ironclad. Her family is all dead, she never married, and she mostly keeps to herself. So when her young neighbor, a flighty artist named Jasmin, becomes extremely — even intrusively — friendly Maud can’t quite figure out why. Is the girl looking for a friend? A mother figure? A project?

It wasn’t until she read a new entry in Jasmin’s blog one day that things started to become clear. I’m so excited! I might soon be moving into a bigger apartment! Which means a bigger studio, of course!!!! I really need more space. And when I say bigger, I mean BIGGER! MUCH BIGGER!!!

…That little bitch was after her apartment.

Obviously, something will need to be done.

All the stories are Maud’s and each one is more deliciously wicked than the last. Tursten injects just the right amount of joie de vivre into the old biddy’s activities. It comes as a surprise to learn, in a brief note at the end, that Maud was a character born out of necessity. Her creator needed a short story for a Christmas anthology and had no idea what to write. Until she hit upon the idea that a frail old lady would make the perfect criminal. No one would suspect her. She could get away with murder! And so she does, quite literally, to all our amusement.

Which sounds a bit twisted when said out loud. It goes without saying that nobody likes a serial killer, even a clever one. And yet… there’s something truly endearing about Maud and her antics. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. Honestly… all her victims had it coming. *side eye*

Title: An Elderly Lady Up To No Good
Author: Helene Tursten
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Soho Press, New York (2018)
ISBN: 978 1 64129 011 1