The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin

Dr. Matthew Prendel is an enigma.  Attractive, quiet, independently wealthy – he is the perennial subject of cocktail party gossip.  The most persistent rumor being that he was once shipwrecked on a deserted island.  We’re told Prendel’s tale, the “true” version of what happened to him, from his lover.  The conceit of the novel is that she,  Phoebe Westore, is the author, not Flavia.  The book is written in such a way as to support this illusion, opening with a preface where Phoebe explains her relationship to Dr. Prendel.  She reveals the promise she made to Prendel to write down the story of the shipwreck only after his death.  The Island of Last Truth is her fulfilling that promise.

We were lovers for almost seven years.  One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck.  As if some kind of rivalry or a competition could be established with something like that.  “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there.  You take after your mother.”  My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck.  It is like a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.

I don’t want to give too much away.  The plot is full of unexpected shifts.  Company wastes no time getting her protagonist onto the island and, once there, piles on the suspense.  Prendel is not alone on the island. Nor does the story end with him escaping it.  Nor is it all about him.

“…Part adventure story, part noir, and part mystery…”* I would add psychological thriller to that list.  Laura McGloughlin has written a nuanced translation that captures all of the melancholia and foreboding of Flavia Company’s strange and wonderful novel.  What works best in The Island of Last Truth is the perspective from which it is told.  The main body of the book, describing Prendel’s experiences, are told to us in the third person by Phoebe.  The rhythm of her voice remains consistent as it moves from Preface, to storytelling, and the end of the book where she attempts to fill the gaps in the story she’d been told.  So fully realized a character is she that an image begins to form in the reader’s mind: of Phoebe listening to Prendel as he tells her his adventure.  And then later writing it all down, occasionally pausing to stare into the distance, lost in her memories.  It’s all very intimate.  This is not only a book about a shipwreck, but about a woman trying to make sense of the enigmatic man with whom she had a relationship with for over seven years.  A man, she comes to realize, she never knew at all.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 081 6

*taken from the jacket copy

Drowned by Therese Bohman (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy)

Stella lives in Skåne, a small town in rural Sweden, with her boyfriend Gabriel.

Gabriel is devastatingly attractive, a successful novelist and 15+ years Stella’s senior.

Marina is Stella’s younger sister.  She attends University in Stockholm and is caught in a stalled relationship.

Everything about Stella’s life appears to be  organized and picture perfect – she and Gabriel live in a beautiful “yellow wooden house” with a garden; she has the perfect job at the local parks and gardens department; the perfectly attentive boyfriend.   (Who also happens to be an amazing cook and helps with the housework, thank you very much).

Trifolium pratense,” Stella murmurs as she adjusts a drooping flower head.

“Bloody know-it-all.” Gabriel smiles, his voice kind, as if he’s proud of her really.  Stella knows the Latin names of all the plants, sometimes she doesn’t even seem to be aware that she’s saying them.

Marina by contrast is adrift and directionless.   Everything about her is nebulous… undefined.  She and Stella, we’re told, are nothing alike.

Over the sweltering hot Summer holiday a dark love triangle develops between these three.  Marina narrates as events take shape.  And while this may sound like a fairly typical story of betrayal between sisters, it’s anything but.  Stella and Marina have a strong bond, which shows in their interactions.  Several times Marina is reminded of happy memories from their shared childhood.  At no point does the reader detect a rivalry.  Making what happens all the more disturbing. Drowned is a psychological thriller pulled taught by sexual tension.

Therese Bohman throws a net of gorgeous prose over her readers – erotic and oppressively sensual.  Early on it becomes apparent that something is not right about Gabriel.  Delicate cracks appear on the surface of his and Stella’s relationship.  He is prone to unexpected (and out of character) rages.  At one point he seems fumbling, unsure and haunted.  A few pages later a controlled violence surfaces.  Bohman keeps her readers unbalanced, asking questions and quickly turning the pages.  Even after reading the chilling conclusion it’s difficult not to want more.

The novel is divided into two parts.  The first part takes place in Summer, the second during a brutally cold Swedish Fall.  Attention is lavished on meticulously rendered details.  The seasons and landscape are pivotal characters in this stringently constructed narrative.  Inanimate objects like a bottle of nail polish lacquer, an angora sweater, a hothouse orchid and a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are laden with symbolism.  Each element has obviously been carefully considered.  Everything is imbued by Bohman with a menacing prescience.

It is with a mixture of fear and pleasure that I close my eyes and sink beneath the surface of the water.  I have the same strong feeling now, that I don’t belong in the water, but I think that perhaps it can be changed, perhaps I can become someone else.  Perhaps it’s already happening.  Even though the water is warm, almost too warm, it feels cool against my face.  I think about Gabriel’s kiss, his firm hand behind my head, on the back of my neck.  When I open my eyes underwater my hands  look white in the yellowness, my nail polish looks orange, it looks grubby, dirty.  I lie on my back instead, feeling my hair float out across the water around my face.  A few black alder cones are bobbing on the surface of the water a short distance away, and a dragonfly darts just above, its movements jerky.

Drowned is a good example of why I read translated lit.  It is the rare thriller that wasn’t written with a film adaptation in mind.  There’s nothing cookie cutter or trite about the plot – and the writing is exceptional.

Bohman’s prose contains a strange poetry.  Her descriptions of sex are understated, and at the same time threaded with real violence that goes far beyond the caricatured eroticism of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey.  Her translator, Marlene Delargy, does an excellent job of interpreting Marina’s voice.  She captures the contradictions in Gabriel’s character and clarifies the motivations behind Stella’s decisions.  All of which I believe could have been too easily lost in the translation (cultural as well as linguistic) into English.  Drowned is a complicated, intense and haunting narrative.  It is among the best of debut novels I’ve encountered this year.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 159051524 2

Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin (Advance Review Copy)

I suppose the plot of Not Untrue & Not Unkind went sideways for me at the end of chapter 3, when it suddenly became something unexpected.  Zaire is falling apart. The tight-knit band of journalists at the center of the story head in the direction of the abandoned presidential villa in search of some “bang-bang” (cant for “action” or “fighting”).  At least that is what we’re led to believe… until they reach the palace and begin looting for souvenirs.  “You do realize  that by rights this stuff belongs to the people of Zaire?” one says as she stuffs perfume flasks into a pillowcase.   “It’s the thing to do,” answers the story’s narrator.  “It’s a story to tell afterwards.”

The passage that followed had me hooked.

Outside the squall had passed but a wet wind was spilling from the highlands.  A half-dozen soldiers in Kagame-brand wellingtons were huddled in the shelter of the gatehouse, watching through what was left of its windows as we came across the lawn.  Tommo and Fine were waddling ahead with a heavy crate of bottles swinging between them, but when they saw the soldiers their pace slowed and Beatrice took the lead.  She was carrying one of my clinking pillow cases, smiling brightly, and as we trudged past the gatehouse she gave the soldiers a cheerful greeting and moved on towards our car.  We were out of the gate, almost clear, when a voice called after us.  A soldier stepped out of the gatehouse and stood there, waving one hand palm downwards.  He looked a little older than the others and his rifle was slung muzzle down to keep out the rain.  He took a step or two after us, out of the lee of the gatehouse, and then he stopped, shivering in the wind.  The faces of his comrades stared from the window behind us, indifferent with fatigue. The soldier considered us, his face screwed up, anxious, and then he spoke, very politely, in good mission-school English.  Could we please tell the other mzungus not to come here again, he said.  There were Interahamwe near by, and the area was not safe.  And besides, he said, someone had been looting.  He looked sadly at my bundle.  Looters, he said, could be shot.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons, a journalist who spent the mid-1990’s as a foreign correspondent in Africa.  Now (a decade later) securely ensconced behind a newsroom desk, the death of a colleague causes him to look back on his former life and remember the friends who were a part of it.   Owen has a low opinion of his younger self (one we come to share) portraying him as wet behind the ears, with a chip on his shoulder and a romanticized image of his life.  He doesn’t even seem all that talented – at finding stories or writing them up afterwards.  It’s the author’s, and the book’s, greatest strength.  Ed O’Loughlin has developed a character, a whole cast of characters, that most readers will not find sympathetic.  Yet they are not unsympathetic.  The author asks us to withhold  judgment – just like in the lines of the Larkin poem from which the book gets its title – and it is surprisingly easy to comply.  Because his characters feel real  – each with his or her own fully developed, unique personality.  Fine, chasing his Pulitzer; Tommo, the earnest photographer; sophisticated Laura; hard, cynical Brereton and the enigmatic Beatrice who Owen falls in love with.   There is something of the mercenary in each.

O’Loughlin’s entire plot builds towards one final, tragic event  which hangs over the narrative like a dark cloud.  To be honest, for the purposes of the story, it’s the only event that matters. The chapters leading up to it are stuffed full of anecdotes, character development and beautiful prose.  Sentences that have been scrubbed clean of emotional content jump from one brutal scene of war to another.  And if some decision or memory is momentarily clouded by the narrator’s perspective, 10 years on Owen seems very much aware of his human frailty.  He makes it clear that acts of humanity and heroism took place despite the characters’ best intentions, not because of them.  The men and women who inhabit his story are not missionaries or idealists. They are more akin to tourists, sending dispatches home on the atrocities happening in Africa for general (and safe) consumption with coffee.  Everything is about detachment and if the novel does have a flaw it is that we are left to some extent feeling ambiguous. So much so that when the big secret (because of course it would have to be a secret) on which the story pivots is finally revealed – it has become anti-climactic for both Owen and for us.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind reminded me of the film Blood Diamond – without  redemption at its end.  Which is why I’m not surprised that the novel received mixed reviews when longlisted for the Man Booker last year. Personally, I found it to be  an impressive achievement for a first novel, if problematic.  Cartwright, the character whose death is the impetus for Owen’s reminiscences, always felt superfluous.  And the plot does sag a bit in the middle – just a bit.  There are too few feel good moments and the fact that nothing is explicitly labeled as morally right or wrong can be frustrating (usually I prefer my books to take a stand).  But the story is intriguing, the prose beautifully constructed and Ed O’Loughlin kept me reading until the end.  I enjoyed Not Untrue & Not Unkind and I believe that if others don’t go into it expecting the Africa from The Poisonwood Bible, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or even Out of Africa, they will as well.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 295 1

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