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.

Me, You by Erri De Luca (translated from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert)

Sea of Memory by Erri De Luca was originally published in 1999 (in English) by the independent publisher Ecco Press.  It was re-released this month by Other Press as Me, You.  (Note: it seems to be the same translation – from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert).

Me, You begins as a 1950’s coming of age/summer love story.  It is narrated by a 16-year old boy staying with his uncle in Naples. WWII is still a fresh memory. The narrator, whose real name we’re never told, is on the cusp of adulthood and curious about the war. His curiosity draws him to Nicola, a former soldier turned fisherman, who patiently answers his questions.

From the start it is apparent that this boy is uninterested in young people his own age. Instead he spends his time as part of the circle of young adults who congregate around his older cousin, Danielle. Through them he meets Caia – an orphan girl, beautiful, mature and mysterious.  Unsurprisingly, he falls in love. Not a teen’s hormonal-fueled passion, but a chivalric and romantic love. As he learns more of Caia’s history, her Jewish heritage and the fate of her family, the recent past becomes intertwined with our narrator’s present.

There’s nothing typical about De Luca’s unnamed narrator (I have this overwhelming urge just to call him Bob to make this easier). His actions and thoughts are out of sync with a typical 16-year old boy.  He seems too serious, too old for his years.  And as this small novel – a novella really – progresses his behavior becomes increasingly strange and erratic.  His interactions with Caia become awkward (apparent to the reader, if not to the characters). 

This is because Me, You contains a plot twist.  Someone from Caia’s past wanders into the narrative in an unexpected way.  And as that person reveals himself the dialogue (in my opinion) becomes a tad overwrought.  The couples’ exchanges take on an unnatural intensity.  They’re too formal.  And while the prose is beautiful – particularly in the descriptive passages – it is also densely lyrical bordering on claustrophobic.

I thought about that evening on land with Daniele and Caia not wishing to turn around and look at the island.  On the sea I did not feel distance.  A third of a moon rose, losing its red rind on the pavement of still water.  A powerful smell of bait filled the air now that we were stopped.  With my fist I splashed the baskets with water.  The wood of the oars fit snugly into the palm of the hand, legs placed one in front, one behind, to support the body’s push on the oars: and so there I was conforming to custom, to the métier, to the hour of the night; there was a place for me in that vastness of the sea, a place to put feet and hands and do what was needed.  Caia was solid ground, eternal woman in a century that held me by the throat out of love and rage, but not out there, not on the sea.  There, I was in the commingled nights of the earth’s numberless summers, I was a coeval of the planet, one of its wakeful species.

Me, You progresses from a coming of age/summer love story into a ghost story.  In many ways the author’s style suits this transition, but left me with mixed feelings.  On one hand the book grows heavy as the narrative progresses until, in its final pages, it becomes almost unwieldy.  Is that a bad thing?  The last scene is a trap, our narrator left without an escape or options.  Does the lyrical density I’ve already mentioned, the feeling of claustrophobia, highlight this?  De Luca’s prose really is beautiful… but that dialogue!!  I could go back and forth, pros vs. cons, all day long.

As you can see, I’m caught on the fence about this one.

Publisher:  New York, Other Press (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 479 5

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Books can develop personalities separate from the characters and author.  This is not true for every book – I’m not endorsing some new form of literary theory based on the psychoanalysis of literature.  But sometimes it does happen.

For example – Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy is definitely a sociopath.  Mundane day-to-day existence and violence are so enmeshed that they easily transition in and out of each other without missing a beat.  It has no morality.  The sentences contain no boundaries separating the characters’ speech from the action.  It begins and moves in a single, linear path to its end.  It is written in swarms of words and sentences which decimate whatever lay in their paths like locusts.  It sees and relates to the world only in terms of itself.

You see, books with personalities are so themselves that we don’t need to wait for some reviewer or critic to tell us what they are about, what we should think about them, or worst of all – what they mean.  It’s all as plain as day.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is another.  If you’ve read it, you’ve probably reread it.  And possibly re-reread it again.  It’s that girl who everyone wants to talk to at parties, or the favorite aunt we look forward to seeing at the family reunions.  The one who knows all the family gossip.  Yet, it’s so happy, so witty, and so much fun to be around.  It has the entertaining ability to tell a good story, to point out everyone’s character flaws.  And all done in such a good-natured way that no one is offended.

This leads me to the point:  Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a magician, an illusionist, a master of misdirection.  It’s the rarest of all books – with a plot that midway through changes trajectories and becomes a different book from the one you thought you were reading a few pages ago.  You zig, the story has zagged.  But Marisha Pessl does it in so clever, so subtle a way that there’s no discordant note jarring you out of the story.  You don’t sit there trying to figure out what the hell just happened or locate the jump in continuity.  Instead you thumb back through the pages wondering how you could have been so dense as to have missed the connections.  It all seems so obvious when you reach the last chapter… like the scene when the detective looks around the office at the end of “The Usual Suspects”.  You’ve been so confident in the preconceptions you established all the way back when you read the back cover in the bookshop, that you never saw the twist coming.  And THAT is brilliant storytelling.  Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

So how do I give you a plot summary, without giving away the plot?  Obviously, it is a mystery (the book, not the question).  It is also a coming of age story.  It’s a first novel, and like many first novels it’s written in the first person.  It’s a damn good read.

This is the story of Blue van Meer, told by Blue van Meer, one half of what must be the most engaging father/ daughter team since Atticus & Scout.

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.

“Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond – James Bond – you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began – with a wheeze.”

Dad is an award-winning, famous in his field, poli-sci professor.  He and Blue have been traveling in a Volvo station wagon between backwater colleges for the last 10 years, since Blue’s mother died in a car accident.  The total number of schools Blue had attended in that time I think was 24 (don’t quote me).  She was the perpetual new girl, except that “that glittery title was always stolen from me within minutes of my arrival by someone fuller lipped and louder than I”.  At the beginning of this story her father surprises her with the announcement that her entire senior year of high school (prior to attending Harvard) will be spent in one place:  St. Gallway Academy.

During her first week at St. Gallway Blue is begrudgingly befriended by the Bluebloods.  The name pretty much speaks for itself:  they are rich, beautiful and privileged.  The Bluebloods – Jade, Charlie, Milton, Leulah and Nigel, – are in the thrall of Hannah Schneider.  She is their film teacher, their friend, and their muse.  It is to please her that they allow Blue into their inner circle.    In the normal course of events, if they noticed her at all, Blue would be their prey.

Early on, (i.e. – when you pick up the book, turn it over, and read the blurb) you learn that the climax of this story is the death of Hannah Schneider.  The plot hinges on questions:  Who is Hannah Schneider? Why her connection to the Bluebloods?  What is her interest in Blue?  Intertwined with these questions are the stories of the Bluebloods, Blue’s parents, the June bugs and a strangely normal boy named Zach.  But mostly this is Blue’s story.  A story she has unknowingly been at the center of her entire life.

______

Quick Note on the format of the book, which I loved.

Pessl has written the book like a curriculum – divided up into 3 parts, and then into Chapters.  Each chapter title is the title of a book which is on the Required Reading list.  Citations sprout throughout.  In one chapter we even get footnotes.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics could be Blue’s entrance application essay for Harvard.

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2007)
ISBN:  978 0 143 11212 9

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Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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La Revolución remolque libro continúa!

The book trailer REVOLUTION continues!

I’m still trying to get into this book trailer thing.  On the whole – not going so well.  But this landed in my Gmail the other day and I found myself intrigued

The book is Revolution:  The Year I Fell In Love & Went To Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth.  It’s not every day a girl finds God, a husband and her inner Sandinista.  Probably for the best.  And yet, it could make for good reading.

What do you think?  Is your interest piqued?

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