Tag Archives: Laura McGoughlin

5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.


What world books would you recommend?


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Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Readers need something different from time to time. It’s the equivalent of a palate cleanser; or a short sleep in the afternoon when you had a really bad night; or a ballad when you have bombarded yourself with 19th century Austro-Germanic music. Sometimes poetry will do, or a short story. And here’s a perfect way to refresh the reading mind: a translated novella. But be warned, this is not fiction lite.

Written originally in Catalan in 1985, Stone in a Landslide was translated by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell and published by Peirene Press in 2010. It’s a gem.

112 Stone coverThe story is told in 126 pages by Conxa, looking back in her old age. At the age of 13 she leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt and uncle in a nearby village on the hillside. It is the 1920s. Conxa lives a patient and level headed life, supported by Tia and Oncle, and later married to Jaume with whom she has three children. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change. Even Barcelona is a distant place, from where cousins visit every summer. In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken away.

This is the quiet story of a woman living on the land, valuing family connections, friends, differences and respect built up by years of honouring and community interdependence. Large events shape life, as do poverty, the seasons, the demands of land and animals. And inevitably the modern world forces its changes and the family can no longer subsist in the village and by the conclusion of the novella Conxa has gone to live in her old age with her son in Barcelona.

The title’s significance becomes apparent in the third section as external events intrude increasingly upon her life. Taken to a prison with her children because of Jaume’s Republican connection, she likens herself to a stone.

They take us to Montsent prison. I didn’t even know where it was. The worst is not knowing anything. Elvira [her daughter] moves around and talks to everyone, even the jailers. She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days … (p89)

A stone is lost among others in a landslide, but the landslide depends on the individual stones. Each stone is affected by those around it; a landslide is dangerous and changes the landscape. The stone is an image that reappears in later pages. For example: moved to a camp the family endure a long period of waiting. She says, ‘The days weighed on my heart like flagstones.’ (p99)

Reflecting on the disappearance of Jaume, she employs another image that stings when you read, and lingers in the memory:

I knew he was dead and I would never again have him at my side because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.’ (p95-6)

The imagery arises from the harsh rural landscape into which she was born, and where she worked and raised her family. You can see from these short extracts that Stone in a Landslide is written in simple, short sentences and in language relevant to the rural community.

There are moments of exquisite pleasure, as when Conxa and her friend Delina go picking mushrooms.

We left at daybreak and at the beginning we were as excited as little girls because finally we had enough time to talk to each other properly. When the going got steep, though, we held our tongues to save our breath.

I liked this outing. I was in the meadows, following the darker grass of the tracks thinking about nothing except finding a big patch of mushrooms and filling my basket. The walk was hard but, after going up so far, it was easy enough to walk down again. From where we were we could see all the villages as if they were close by, with the black slates of the roofs and the occasional plume of smoke revealing signs of life. We stopped at the top to eat, red-faced and with a light wind on our necks, before we started the painstaking search for mushrooms. (p66-7)

But you do not get the feeling that her life has ended as she wanted. The landslide has brought her, as so many others, to the city. In this case to Barcelona. Conxa is estranged from the urban life, emphasised by paragraphs that begin ‘Barcelona is … ‘

Barcelona is having the sky far away and the stars trembling. It is a damp sky and very grey rain.

Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes, hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sounds of the animals at home as you look at dogs chained at dusk.

Barcelona is a small loaf of bread which is finished every day and milk from a bottle, very white, with no cream and a thin taste.

Barcelona is wordless noise and a thick silence full of memories. (p124-5)

Maria Barbal

Maria Barbal

Once again, congratulations to Peirene Press for the innovative approach to publishing and bringing to English readers such a wealth of translated novellas. You will find reviews of The Mussel Feast by Birgit Venderbeke, and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, both published by Peirene Press, on this blog.

Another blog review of Stone in a Landslide, in the context of translations, can be found on Book Snob.


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