The books I read in August
August was Women in Translation Month; a time when we’re encouraged to celebrate and support works in translation from women writers around the world, to counteract how male dominated the translated literature market is. I always love getting involved in this project, and am happy to have committed my reading exclusively to it throughout the whole of August. I finished 13 books in all, bringing my total reads for the year so far up to 85. Here are some brief thoughts on each of them, with links to my full reviews if you’d like to know more.
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Set on an isolated fjord, this is a slow burn psychological cat-and-mouse game between two self-exiled loners; each determined to expose the other’s true nature while guarding secrets of their own. Though the outcome proves easy to predict, Ravatn is able to build tension with pin-sharp precision, imbuing even the most mundane interactions with a looming sense of threat.
Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Adrianna Hunter
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] There are undoubtedly some clumsy, outdated prejudices that show through in this novel from one of Belgium’s most well-known and divisive authors, but it has some interesting things to say about culture clashes, the role of women within the workplace, and the folly of serving corporate systems that serve no one in return.
Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Set in the author’s native Israel, this layered novel about guilt, blackmail, loyalty, and culpability is filled with morally complex characters and incisive commentary on pertinent social issues like racial prejudice and corrupt systems. Intelligent and compelling, it confirms Gundar-Goshen’s place among my favourite literary thriller writers.
Many People Die Like You by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] Several of the subtly discomfiting stories in this collection of domestic life gone awry had an interesting setup with lots of potential, but they almost uniformly fizzled out with little in the way of narrative or thematic impact.
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A woman awaiting execution in an Egyptian prison relays her life story in this damning indictment of systemic sexism. For all the suffering our heroine endures, her fierce spirit consistently shines through, with Saadawi exploring the notions of abuse and culpability in incisive ways that continue to resonate long after the book was first written.
Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is an imagined sequel to the classic tale, The Little Mermaid. It feels fresh and original but calls on fairy tale archetypes to pay suitable homage to the stories it so clearly draws inspiration from. It’s a fun, enchanting read, but it embraces the sinister undertones inherent to original fairy tales, and incorporates interesting themes.
Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Jordan Stump
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Set mostly in the author’s homeland of Rwanda, this collection of short stories chronicles the various hardships faced by Tutsi people during the Rwandan genocide. She reflects the richness of Tutsi culture very well, but aside from a couple of standout stories, I felt the collection would have benefitted from greater variation in voice and tone.
The Dog Who Dared to Dream by Sun-mi Hwang, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] I get why lots of people like this, but it’s presented in a style I struggled to click with. Feeling very much like a fable about perseverance in the face of hardship, the animal characters are personified just a little bit too much for me to be able to suspend my disbelief. It has its moments, but on the whole, I found it somewhat twee.
Happening by Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] An entirely unsentimental reflection on Ernaux’s experience of illegal backstreet abortion in 1960s France. For such a brief and focussed account, it manages to detail the lasting physical and emotional toll she endured, while pulling back to comment on the ongoing importance of victim testimonies, and access to safe healthcare.
Island by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen, translated from the Danish by Caroline Waight
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A quiet rumination on the intersection between place, home, history, and family, as a young woman journeys to her grandparents’ homeland in search of her roots. The Faroese setting is evoked well but I found the shifts in time and perspective a little convoluted at times, sadly.
A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Larissa Kyzer
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] An elderly woman who works in the theatre is drawn to a new, up-and-coming playwright, but her fascination with the young woman will force her to confront demons from her own past. This character study has some very interesting things to say about the healing power of the creative arts, and the conflict between duty and autonomy, but its kaleidoscopic narration holds the reader at a distance.
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A charming and incredibly readable novella that masks a surprising amount of thematic and emotional depth. With subtlety, Kawakami captures the trials of adolescence, when we must learn to be true to ourselves, find our people, overcome peer pressure, and face life’s most difficult goodbyes.
I Who Have Never Known Men by Jaqueline Harpman, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A uniquely contemplative take on the dystopian genre, this follows a group of 40 women who must make their way in a completely deserted world when they escape the underground bunker they have been held prisoner in for over a decade. It presents fascinating ideas about the value of knowledge and the persistence of humanity in the absence of society, but several holes in plot and logic require a suspension of disbelief.
There we have it! It was a pretty strong and productive reading month overall, but my favourite reads were probably Happening and The Bird Tribunal. What were yours? Did you discover any great new authors through #WITmonth?
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