Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller
Published by Bloomsbury, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Though it’s often said actions speak louder than words, in Gratitude, de Vigan argues the importance of language and communication; to express our emotions, to expunge ourselves of guilt, and to tether us to the world.
The story centres around elderly Michka. Growing increasingly frail, and suffering from aphasia (a condition that hinders your ability to communicate, causing you to repeatedly forget and misuse words), she moves into a care home. Marie, a young woman indebted to Michka, and Jérôme, Michka’s speech therapist, both determine to help her recover enough words so she can open up about her past, and gain the closure she needs.
Understated yet incredibly poignant, de Vigan does a fantastic job of crafting a convincing voice for her elderly protagonist, reflecting the pathos, frustration, and unexpected humour that come with her condition. Though never preachy, the novel pushes us to reach out to people while we can, and to never undervalue the weight of a sincerely spoken, “thank you”.
Acrobat by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, translated from the Bengali by Nandana Sen
Published by Archipelago, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐
This posthumous collection, sensitively translated by the poet’s own daughter, was the last project Dev Sen completed before her death in 2019. The pieces are wide-reaching in theme, with some particularly evocative lines throughout that reflect the landscape of India, and the differing worldview of men and women due to cultural roles. Beyond this, there’s a strong focus on womanhood in general, and Dev Sen’s experiences as a mother, as well as pieces on love, loss, language, memory, and so on.
With that said, I felt the collection would have benefitted from a more coherent thematic focus. There are several very short poems peppered throughout that felt stylistically jarring when held up against the flair of the other pieces. Take for example this lovely line from one of my favourites in the collection, which talks about the elusive nature of language, and the contrasting beauty and frustration felt throughout the writing process: “Words stand aloof / like the false modesty, many hued, of a setting sun that leans against the sky – / unattached, unreachable, alone / yet gently touching the earth’s tamed mane with caressing fingers.” Compare that to the piece entitled, “Unspoken”, which in its entirety simply reads: “Each time you say, ‘Forever, forever,’ / I only hear, / ‘Today, today!’” These strangely youthful sounding, angsty pieces read more like Instagram captions, and without wishing to sound flippant, the cutting of these “filler” pieces would have allowed the strongest poems the breathing space they needed to shine.
All-in-all, I admired this collection for its intent, but ultimately found the poetic voice too inconsistent, and thus failed to connect emotionally.
Thank you to the publisher for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.