Tag Archives: Older women in fiction

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the outcomes of the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

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The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

I was attracted to The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso when I found it in a list of recommended books by women of colour. It was the topic of the feud between two older women that attracted me. Here’s a novel with not one but two older women. Published in paperback in February 2017, it has been long-listed for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is the 26th post in the series of Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can find plenty more titles by clicking on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Woman Next Door

Hortensia and Marion are neighbours in Katterijn, an enclave of 40 houses in a nice suburb in Cape Town South Africa. Set in the present day, the Apartheid era is behind them, although of course its legacy is still present. These macro tensions are not the focus of this novel. Rather Yewande Omotoso looks at the small scale of individual relationships, antagonisms and antipathy.

Hortensia and Marion have in common their age, both in their 80s, that they have achieved success in their careers, and that they are widows. But they disagree about everything and their mutual animosity is well known to everyone, especially the women who attend the Katterijn Committee.

An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged is the novelist’s device that brings changes in the relationship of the two women.

The older women

The title leads you to expect only one old woman, but the subject of the novel is the relationship of the neighbours, and how they have got themselves into their mutual animosity, and what will bring them closer together. Both women have become rather set in their ways, in their approach to life and to opposition.

Marion was formerly a noted architect, indeed she designed the house that Hortensia now occupies, which is one source of tension. At the outset of the novel she commands the committee meeting that is concerned about issues within the community, and it quickly becomes apparent that Marion retains some of the attitudes of the Apartheid era. She is a white woman and knows nothing of the life of her African home help. Issues of land, reclamation and compensation, are still of keen interest to the inhabitants of Katterijn and to Marion’s committee. The Committee allows Marion to bully the other women, as in this beautiful put-down of Sarah who had asked what the Lands Claims Commission did.

‘The Lands Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name.’ (11)

Marion’s husband died without leaving her anything to live off and she must consider her options. She comes to see what has shaped her life but that a different future is possible.

Hortensia came to South Africa, via Nigeria, having been born in Barbados. She is a successful fabric designer. She came with her white husband, and at the start of the novel he is terminally ill. There is doubt in Hortensia’s mind about the value and honesty of their long marriage. Hortensia knew that her husband had had an affair that lasted for many years with a white woman, but she discovers that they had a child because Peter’s will requires Hortensia to acknowledge and meet this unknown daughter. This is very hurtful as Hortnesia’s lack of children was a burden to her.

Hortensia’s natural stance is oppositional. Here is an example of how she carried on.

The Constantinople Private Hospital staff didn’t take long to fear Hortensia. She’d arrived at the hospital on a stretcher but, on waking, had immediately managed to insult the paramedic. (85)

She offends the nurses who attended her husband, and later care for her when she breaks her leg. She questions every suggestion by Marion in the Katterijn Committee Meetings. Only the kindly Dr Mama and her own home help Bassey are able to tolerate her argumentative nature.

I wondered whether it wasn’t a bit of a cliché to portray women in their 80s as irascible, contentious, argumentative and difficult. However as the novel progresses we see what they have had to put up with in their long lives, their struggles, the opposition to successful women, their dubious marriages, Marion’s neglectful children and so forth.

The author is sympathetic to the difficulties, the physical incapacity the women encounter in their 80s. Both have been vigorous up to now. This is Hortensi before she broke her leg.

Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. (37)

In the event, it is in the small things, the details of two lives lived in concrete setting that understanding and warmth is created: in the favours done, the help proffered, the companionship enjoyed together.

The author, Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door is Yemande Omotoso’s second novel. You can read an interesting interview with Yewande Omotoso in June 2016 in Short Story Day Africa. She says that her novels confront not the macro aspects of hate, but explores it at the individual level, for example as neighbours. And about The Woman Next Door she says that she wanted to consider ‘what it might be like to have the bulk of your life behind you’.

Her first novel, Born Boy, came out in 2012. Both novels have received critical acclaim. She was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved with her family to South Africa in 1992. As well as her writing she has an architectural practice in Johannesburg.

The Cover

The cover of the Vintage edition of the book, with its garland of purple flowers around green binoculars seems to suggest some kind of chicklit, perhaps for older readers (henlit?). I prefer the hardback cover, being more edgy and less pretty feminine.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso Vintage (2016) 288pp

Related Posts

Most recent posts in this series

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Long-list for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

Over to you

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What do you think its chances are in the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize?

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The top 5 posts about older women in fiction on Bookword in 2016

In the last 12 months the same reviews from the older women in fiction series have continued to be read, more or less. There has been a slight change in order for four of the top reads, and a replacement for the 5th: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, from August 2014, replaces Mrs Dalloway is Ageing.

The older women in fiction series now has 25 posts. My purpose in starting it was to counter the invisibility of older women in fiction, and to introduce some novels and sort stories in which readers can enter lives and other worlds that they might not otherwise understand. We need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about the less visible to understand their experiences.

The five most read posts on older women in fiction in 2016

Here they are, with links.

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor explores some of the painful and amusing aspects of being older and neglected by family. A key word might be dignity. It was her last published novel appearing in 1971.
  2. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, A Canadian novel, first published in 1964, telling the story of Hagar Shipley as she resists the consequences of her family’s attempts to do what they believe is best for her as she ages.
  3. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I loved the respectful portrait of Maud who is becoming increasingly confused. There is much humour in this book, but not at her expense. It does reveal the confusion and debility of cognitive decline. And it raises important issues about family and intergenerational care for people with dementia. The only recent novel in this top 5 lists, it was published in 2014.
  4. A Passage to India by EM Forster. The portrait of Mrs Moore is one of the many attractions of this classic novel, first published in 1924. Mrs Moore infuses the action long after she departed.
  5. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Lady Slane is the widow of a very great man and she surprises everyone by her choices in her final years: choices of place to live, friends, activities and interests. Her passion is not spent, even if her former husband’s was. This novel was first published in 1931.

    Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Over to you

There is a list of over 70 titles, all relating to older women in fiction on the blog. It was compiled with the help of readers. You could add your suggestion to the list!

Does the most read list surprise you? Which book would recommend for the top five stories of women ageing? Is it included in the Bookword list?

Please add your comments and suggestions.

 

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The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

I grew up with Margaret Drabble’s novels, keeping step as she pushed the boundaries with A Summer Bird Cage and The Millstone, looking at the lives of intelligent young women in the 60s. The Dark Flood Rises is her 20th novel and still she is asking questions that concern me, and people of my age. This novel is about growing older and facing death in the 21st Century.

The title is taken from DH Lawrence’s The Ship of Death.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

Has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

302-dark-flood-cover

This is the 24th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can see the complete list of reviews and readers recommendations on the page About the Older Women in Fiction Series at the top of the blog.

‘What I do worry about is living’

Margaret Drabble wrote about death and approaching death in an article in the Guardian in October just before the publication of this novel. She referred to ‘the delusion of an afterlife’, no longer shared by many, if it ever was. But we still ‘struggle with the meaning of death’, she suggests. And she has this to add about increased longevity, faced by many of us.

Through our mortal ingenuity, we are reaching a biological phase when we are beginning to fear old age and longevity more than we fear death. We can no longer look forward to the possibility of a sudden, unexpected, merciful release, or falling asleep in bed reading a book (as my mother did), or ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Nor can we make plans to celebrate our departure as a grand culmination of our life’s endeavours, with gracious and grateful and possibly public farewell. That’s because we know that officious folk are going to strive to keep us alive for as long as they possibly can, until we can no longer enjoy anything. Just to prove that hey can. [Guardian 29th October 2016]

I disagree with much of this, believing we should celebrate increased longevity and take advantage of it in others as well as in ourselves. Indeed I have co-written about this and published a book on it this year. (The New Age of Ageing).

But increased longevity does mean paying more attention to that period we call old age. ‘What I do worry about is living,’ says Margaret Drabble. I agree with her. This is new territory, and as the author has said, (in the Paris Review in 1978) it is the function of fiction to explore it, and she has made an accessible approach with The Dark Flood Rises.

A summary

Fran and older people connected to her, and some younger ones, look at death. Fran is in her 70s but fit, caring for her bedbound ex-husband by preparing and delivering meals for him. Her son Christopher lost his partner suddenly in the Canaries. He returns there and is befriended by two gay men, Bennett Carpenter renown but sinking slowly into genteel disability, and Ivor increasingly acting as Bennett’s carer rather than his partner. They are trapped by European economics, and the failure to invest when they had capital. Fran’s daughter Poppet is concerned about the death of the earth. Two of Fran’s older female friends face and then undergo death.

Fran

It is Fran’s story with which the novel opens and to which we return at frequent intervals. She is doing ageing very well: she has a no-nonsense approach to it, keeps healthy and active, even undertaking paid work advising on meeting the housing needs of the elderly. This is a good device for some discrete observations about how these needs are widely neglected. Fran is determined not to become a burden on others, in fact to remain useful. She is, we can see, doing all the right things. This does not make her happy (see below for the opening paragraph).

Margaret Drabble is not afraid to enumerate the physical aspects of the ageing body. Or to refer to those things that are no longer problematic. There is a kind of tongue in cheek pleasure in the writing about these, for example the dream Fran has about Tampax. She has driven to a hotel the day before and in the morning she puts her reaction to the dream in order.

… she wonders whether it had sprung from the redness of the meal of the night before, or from her motorway thoughts about Macbeth, or from some new and about-to-be-apprehended aspect of time and the ageing experience.

For ageing is, says Fran to herself gamely as she presses the lift button to go down to her breakfast, a fascinating journey into the unknown. Or that’s one rather good way of looking at it. The thin flow was the blood of life, not of death, reminding her that she is still the same woman, she who once had been the bleeding girl. (20)

The writing

The novel is not divided into chapters, but into short segments. And it is written in the present tense. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, from Fran’s point of view.

She has often suspected that her last words to herself and in the world will prove to be ‘You bloody old fool’ or, perhaps, depending on the mood of the day or the time of the night, ‘you fucking idiot’. As the speeding car hits the tree, or the unserviced boiler explodes, or the smoke and flames fill the hallway, or the grip on the high guttering gives way, those will be her last words. She isn’t to know for sure that it will be so, but she suspects it. In her latter years, she’s become deeply interested in the phrase ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’. Or no woman come to that. ‘Call no woman happy until she is dead.’ (1)

The present tense narration brings a curious slow but immediate impact. It reminds us that these people live alongside us, are us. Time moves onwards, but we can linger in this time of life. The prose has a slightly superior tone, which may be intended to represent the mindset of this group of older people.

The novel does not stay with Fran, but roams among the other characters as they pass their days in the shadow of death’s approach. We see the preoccupations of Fran’s women friends, her ex-husband Claude, Bennett and Ivor trapped in the Canaries and attend a hospital bed and a funeral or two.

43 Wreath & Hide

There are many erudite references in The Dark Flood Rises. One I especially enjoyed was to Elizabeth Taylor, and her novel A Wreath of Roses. Margaret Drabble is very well read and her well-educated cast of characters have various interests which enable her to refer to many other writers and what they said about ageing and dying.

There is a great deal of humour, and pathos, in the doings of these characters. There is selflessness and selfishness, affluence and poverty, friendship and admiration. Some of these people have been very eminent in their professional lives in earlier times. Bennett Carpenter is a notable historian of Spain. Claude was a highly regarded surgeon. Some of the older people are immersing themselves in rather narrow interests. For example, Jo develops a researcher’s interest in novels about marriage to the DWS (deceased wife’s sister). Claude wants to listen to endless Maria Callas, while cuddling his carer. Many of these old people are lonely, have lost partners and are fearful of intruding upon their children’s lives.

And I want to mention that the story references population movements too, especially across the Mediterranean and especially the treacherous, desperate voyages that see the end of so many lives as people escape violence.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble, published by Canongate in 2016. 326 pp

Related posts

Margaret Drabble’s article in the Guardian, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I worry about living’ October 2016.

My review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses.

The previous post in the older woman in fiction series was A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

 

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A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

With such a name, how could you go wrong? Marvellous Ways is an 89-year old woman, living in a caravan in an isolated creek in Cornwall in 1947. The author, Sarah Winman, did very well with When God was a Rabbit, so we are in the region of popular fiction. How do older women appear in popular fiction? The clue is in the title!

This is the 23rd post in the series looking at older women in fiction on this blog. You can find previous posts by clicking on the category: older women in fiction.

288-yr-of-mw-coverThe Story

This is the story of Francis Drake, a soldier deeply damaged by his experiences of the Second World War. That he did not prevent a rape by fellow soldiers is haunting him. He returns to London in 1947 to search for his childhood friend, Missy. He finds her and falls in love and thinks his future can be with her. But she disappears into the River Thames before his eyes.

Drake has a letter for a doctor from his son, who did not survive the war. In search of the doctor, he comes to the creek in Cornwall where Marvellous Ways lives. Marvellous has been waiting for him, she tells him. She cherishes him and restores him to health, both physical and mental. Into their lives comes Peace Rundle, who has been taught how to bake bread by Wilfred Gently. She too is restored by the relationships in the creek, and finds contentment and love living nearby. These characters are all oddities, seeking a life out of the mainstream, different, regarded by others as best with a bit of distance.

It turns out … well everyone is connected to everyone else in this story. And they all need to be a and a little more forgiving and a little kinder to themselves and to each other.

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

The Old Woman

Marvellous lives up to her name. She is just what everyone’s granny should be, the ideal older woman: a little eccentric, very wise and all-seeing. And she is patient, waiting on her mooring stone, for what? For a man of course. As she waited for the return of Paper Jack, the love of her life, so she waits for Francis Drake.

Well, this is whimsical, magical, a bit of a fairy story, and Marvellous Ways owes quite a bit to the popular image of the little old, odd, cronky woman. She is, however, independent, experienced, a raconteur, skilled in the arts of healing, and capable of reflection on her past life and her present. She is more like a white witch than a grumpy old sod. Mostly she manages her ageing but as she nears her death she reflects on her life.

And it simply didn’t make sense. Who she was then and who she was now. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense. (250)

Marvellous is 89, and very wise. She has loved (two men and a woman) and learned the craft of midwifery, and to live alone in her caravan beside the creek. She believes she is the daughter of a mermaid, a black woman brought by her father to Cornwall. She has the gift of foresight, knowing when important people will come, their troubles and how to cure them. It is an unrealistic but strong version of an older woman.

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

The writing

Rich in imagery, this is a feel-good book to curl up with. It owes something to magical realism. Here are the opening paragraphs of A Year of Marvellous Ways.

So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting.

Ever since she had entered her ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Jack Paper’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it is coming. (3)

There are many stories in this novel. Every character has an interesting name and a back-story and, like a spider graph, they are all somehow linked to Marvellous Ways. It turns out … how many times does the reader find that it turns out?

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press in 2015. 314pp

Related posts

A review on Girl with her Head in a Book blog has some pertinent observations, including this: ‘the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root’.

A more enthusiastic review comes from Savidge Reads. He enjoyed When God was a Rabbit as well.

A Year of Marvellous Ways was chosen for Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club in 2016.

The previous post in the older women in fiction series was The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.

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The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I like this novel. And I like Olive Kitteridge. I am so pleased to have found this book and this writer. Elizabeth Strout was included on the Baileys Women’s Fiction longlist in 2014 with The Burgess Boys, and was longlisted this year with My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn’t pay attention. So now I am looking forward to reading more of her fiction.

259 Olive K UK cover

The Novel

The framing of this novel is unusual – thirteen short stories, in which Olive Kitteridge plays a role, often quite a minor one. All the stories are about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive was a math teacher in the local school, and her husband a pharmacist – so both are well known.

The themes of the novel concern the community and people’s places within it. Elizabeth Strout writes on her website that,

It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.

Murkiness of human experience, that’s a good phrase. And that’s what we get in Olive Kitteridge. We meet all kinds of people, some of whom have made a success of their lives, others just seem to be getting along, not always happily. Some are in agony, others have lived through bereavement or infidelity and made their accommodation to the discomforts and the murkiness of their lives.

As the stories progress we find that a clearer picture of Olive emerges, as a woman who knew most of people who live in Crosby, who endured her husband’s passion for another, younger woman, disappointments with her son who married and moved away, her husband’s severe stroke, and finally widowhood.

Through the stories the threads that connect the lives of the community are revealed. We see the longevity of some marriages, the rural rather closed community on the coast of Maine, the importance of small acts, the significance of social events – funerals, weddings, visits, eating donuts. Elizabeth Strout shows us broken social skills and people not coping. She shows us the warmth that communities can bring when they help people.

259 Strout

Elizabeth Strout has a very clear and sparse way of writing. She shows us what is and what is not said. And in the background the landscape of Maine is always present, the rocky coastline, the light from the sea.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Her she is, taking a moment for herself at her son’s wedding.

Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age: her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. (62)

She is not especially wise or heroic, comforting or generous. She is not an attractive woman. Elizabeth Strout frequently refers to her size. But Olive is perceptive, and sometimes knows exactly what to say and do for other people, although with her own son she seems less surefooted.

Here she is sitting with Marlene, a not very bright but sweet and gentle woman who has just learned that her husband may have been unfaithful with her cousin, Kerry. This little scene is played out at the gathering following his funeral. They are watching Kerry sleep.

For a while neither woman speaks, then Marlene says pleasantly, “I’ve been thinking about killing Kerry.” She raises a hand from her lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress.

“Oh,” says Olive.

Marlene bends over the sleeping Kerry and touches the woman’s bare neck. “Isn’t this some major vein?” she asks, and puts the knife flat against Kerry’s neck, even poking slightly at the vague throbbing of the pulse there.

“Yuh. Okay. Might want to be a little careful there.” Olive sits forward.

In a moment Marlene sighs, sits back. “Okay, here.” And she hands the paring knife to Olive.

“Do better with a pillow,” Olive tells her. “Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

A sudden, soft, deep eruption of a giggle comes from Marlene. “Never thought of a pillow.” (177)

And Olive knows when not to say what is in her mind. But the reader gets her reaction. Earlier in the same story Olive is waiting to go to Marlene’s house to help Molly Collins prepare for the funeral guests.

Molly Collins, standing next to Olive Kitteridge, both of them waiting along with the rest, has just looked around behind her at that side of the grocery store, and with a deep sigh says, “Such a nice woman. It isn’t right.”

Olive Kitteridge, who is big-boned and taller by a head than Molly, reaches into her handbag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say. Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, “She’s a nice woman, it’s true,” turning and looking across the road at the budded forsythia near grange hall. (164)

In case you think Olive is impervious to life’s difficulties, here she is responding to another comment by Molly. Olive’s husband Henry has suffered a stroke and is completely incapacitated. Olive goes to talk to him every day in the local hospital.

“Is Henry able to understand, then?” Molly asks a few minutes later.

For Olive this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone. But she answers simply, “Some days, I think so, yes.” (165)

What we learn about Olive is that Henry kept her grounded. And when he suffers a stroke, and later dies, she finds herself ‘out of life. This phrase recurs, referring to the importance of social connections, meaningful ones, to make an older person’s life worth living.

In the final story Olive does make a connection, with a man who voted for George W Bush, to her horror. But she is learning to compromise, to see that this new relationship might offer her something in an otherwise bleak life. Jack’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

259 Olive K US cover

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2008. Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster 270pp. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Older Women in Fiction Series.

This post is the 21st in my Older Women in Fiction series. Recent posts include

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

And still the most popular of all the posts is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The next in the series will appear in August, a Hungarian novel: The Door by Magda Szabo.

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Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

OMG the assumptions we make! I thought that this was a translated novel. Silly me, silly assumption. Rabih Alameddine may be of Lebanese origin, but he writes in English. Towards the end of the novel I even began to question my assumption about the gender of the author. But Rabih Alameddine is a man.

This is the 20th in the series of older women in fiction.

244 Un Woman UK cover

The story

The events that frame this novel take place over about 24 hours, but we also learn about the narrator’s life through her extended flashbacks. It is set in Beirut, and for the most part in an apartment in the city. Aaliya is the unnecessary woman of the title. She is 72, and she has lived in her flat since she was married, despite being quickly divorced. The apartment itself is subject to dispute as accommodation is short in Beirut, and Aaliya has family who would traditionally expect to take the flat in her place. But she has a champion in the woman upstairs, Fadia, who owns the block.

Aaliya’s half-brother tries to make her take responsibility for their mother. He has brought her to the apartment. The mother simply screams, and screams, and it is only when Fadia instructs them to leave that her brother takes the elderly mother away again. During the night there is a plumbing disaster in the flat above, which first brings chaos and then reassessment to Aaliya’s controlled and isolated life.

My mother raises her wraithlike head and looks at me. Her furrowed face contorts, shrinking the wrinkles and multiplying them tenfold. Her mouth draws open in toothless horror. Her gnarled hands rise, her palms face me, warding off evil. My mother tries to draw back from her daughter-in-law’s arms. The black shawl falls from her bony left shoulder, but doesn’t fall off completely. Her eyes display strident, unspeakable dread. She screams, a surprisingly loud and shrill shriek. For such a frail body, a defiant skirl of terror that does not slow or tire. (72)

During the narrative we also learn about Aaliya’s childhood, failed marriage, friendship with Hannah, and how she survived the Civil Wars in Beirut. It has not been an easy life.

The older woman

The novel begins when Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair blue.

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration (1)

She has been thinking about which book to translate next. It is a day near the end of the year and Aaliya is looking forward to beginning the translation of another book. For about 50 years, Aaliya has been translating books (often themselves translations eg Sebald) into Arabic, for her own pleasure. She has acquired a library, thanks to her job in a bookstore. She is well versed in the Western and largely male literature of the 20th Century. Her favourites are Sebald and Yourcenar’s autobiography of Hadrian.

Aaliya is a loner, her friend Hannah (also a single woman who made herself useful to her ex-fiance’s family) died years before. Since she retired from the bookstore where she worked Aaliya has seen almost no-one. While Beirutis ignore her, she gets on with her chosen occupations, reading and translating.

In many ways for most of the 72 years of Aaliya’s life she has been in conflict with the normal rules of Lebanese society. Her family found her difficult, and married her off while she was still at school. The marriage was a failure, and she was divorced soon after. She has held onto her independence and the apartment, even through the dark days of the Civil War.

Some aspects of her life were a little shocking and unlikely: that she would acquire an AK-47 and sleep with it, and the manner in which she acquired it was also a stretch to the imagination. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Beirut was an anarchic place at that time, so …?

Aaliya maintains her independence, but at the cost of mattering to no-one, being unnecessary. Yet in the end it is the response of the other women in her apartment block who help when the water overflows from the flat above, and she is forced to reassess her life and friendships.

It was this scene that made me wonder if Aaliya’s author was a woman. The three ‘witches’ and our protagonist getting together to solve the problem seemed a supremely female approach.

The novel

Really this is a book about Twentieth Century novels, European and American novels.

I enjoyed it a lot, especially for the thoughts about literature. And for giving strong agency to an older single woman. I have read reviews that were less fulsome, saying that Aaliya was simply mouthing Alameddine’s words. And that may be true, but I found the idea of this old woman very compelling.

233 Unnecess woman cover

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine published in the UK by Corsair in 2013. 291pp

An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for National Book Award for Fiction 2014 (USA).

Related posts

A critical review from the Irish Times by Ellen Battersby in February 2015.

A more favourable review from the Guardian by Siri Srinivas in January 2015.

Recent posts in Older Women in Fiction Series

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen (February)

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey December (2015)

 

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Books in translation

Reading habits in the UK do not embrace diversity. Notoriously we rely on English being a dominant world language, so books in foreign languages are left to students of languages and those strange bilingual people. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Books by women in translation form a disproportionately small percentage of that 4%.

Gender is only one aspect of this general lack of diversity. Most published fiction is written by men and reviewed by men (see the VIDA statistics for the figures for several prestigious review publications here and in the States over some years). Novels by and about people of colour feature less frequently in our reading. Novels that deal with sexuality, transgender, disability, age and any combination of those are rare.

Fiction in Translation

Let’s praise those who are trying to bring more translated fiction to our attention. Peirene Press champions European literature, specifically novellas. I mention Peirene frequently on my blog because their books are beautiful objects as well as good reads, and subscribers are offered salons, supper club, newsletter and blog as well as three books every year. Their founder, Meike Ziervogel is also a published novelist: Magda, Kauthur.

Loving lists, I don’t hesitate to offer you the top 5 from Peirene’s List of 100 Translated Books Everyone Should Read, from their newsletter last year and chosen by readers.

235 b of chameleons cover

  1. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons, translated by Daniel Hahn.
  2. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, translated by Robin Buss.
  3. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin.
  4. Marcel Ayme, The Man who Walked through Walls, translated by Sophie Lewis.
  5. Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Sylvia Raphael.

I’ve only read the second and third on this list and 17 of the whole 100. I haven’t even heard of some of the titles. The list reminds me of how much foreign literature I am missing and don’t know about. Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

235 HofSp cover

Women in Translation

Meytal Radzinski has done a great job reviewing the figures for women in translation. She put up two posts on her blog: Biblibio Life in Letters in January. She looked first at publishers and in part 2 at languages and countries. Whichever way you cut the statistics they tell the same story. Books in translation by women only represent about 30% at best. And the year on year picture does not appear to be improving. People always dispute figures about discrimination and if you want to do this you can look at the figures and her analysis yourself. She is transparent about the figures and how she interrogated them. In a third post she challenges the publishers to publish more women writers in 2016.

So novels in translation in the UK add up to about 4% of the total, and books in translation by women form at most 30% of that 4%. I think that means that novels in translation by women form about 1% of fiction. I notice that only one of Peirene’s top five is by a woman (but three of the translators). In the whole list I could only see 15 by women. Come on readers 15% is too low! The combination of foreign language and female author seems more than many publishers, booksellers and readers can deal with.

235 God dies coverWhat we can do

Read more translated fiction, and more translated fiction by women.

Support the initiative English PEN Writers in Translation.

Seek out more foreign fiction in bookshops and encourage them to stock more.

Look at the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Here’s a list of possible inclusions suggested from the blog Tony’s Reading List.

Take out a subscription to Peirene Press and receive three translated novellas a year.

Bloggers, you can join in #WIT month (Women in Translation) in November, and post recommendations on your blog. Also available is the twitter hashtag #translationThurs.

You don’t have to wait for November to read and post more about books in translation, of course. Join me in April, when I am reviewing An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddie, the next in my older women in fiction series. And I’m extending my tbr list to include another from Peirene readers’ top five.

80 Summer Bk coverOver to you

Any more ways you promote fiction in translation? Any recommendations for readers here and now? What is the best book in translation by a woman that you have read so far in 2016?

 

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