The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-December 2020
Elizabeth Baines

July 2020
The Braid
Laetitia Colombani

This was our first-ever zoom meeting, conducted in lockdown. Most of us weren't much used to zoom at the time, and when John and I bumped into Jenny in the park beforehand - at a socially-responsible distance, of course - she suggested it would stop us interrupting each other, but in the event it did nothing of the sort! It was Jenny who had suggested this short book, an international bestseller and apparently a reading group favourite, translated from French. It alternates between the stories of three women in very different circumstances and different parts of the world - Smita in India, an untouchable who flees with her young daughter to save her from the life of clearing excrement to which Smita herself has been condemned; Giulia in Palermo, Sicily, who works in her father's wig-making workshop and must take over when he has an accident and face the fact that, due to the growing local scarcity of human hair, the business faces ruin; and Sarah, a Canadian lawyer whose role and identity as a forceful career woman is threatened by her diagnosis of cancer. These stories run along unconnected, until, through the very matter of hair, they are braided together like the hanks of hair with which Guilia works.

Although this sounds like an interesting proposition, I'm afraid to say that Jenny was alone in finding anything very much to praise about this book. We all thought the way the stories of the women were finally drawn together was somewhat superficial, and, much more seriously, we found the book not at all well written. It's sometimes hard to judge from a translation, as Jenny said in its defence, but there are so many cliches, repeated so often - for instance, Smita gets 'butterflies in her stomach' on the second line of the book, and the phrase keeps recurring throughout - and so much repetitive overstatement, that we felt that the clumsiness and naivity we found in the narration must lie with the original prose. Jenny conceded these things, and was perhaps more confused and irritated than anyone by interjected sections in italics set out like poetry, the unidentified first-person voice of someone braiding strands of various materials. Nevertheless, she said she found the book fascinating, as it taught her things she didn't know, about wig-making, and the fact that untouchables in India have to clear the excrement with their bare hands. Which goes back to a long-running argument we have had in this group - whether or not you go to fiction for factual information or something much deeper and metaphysical.

September 2020
Fiona Mozley

I recommended this Booker-shortlisted book as I had loved it when I wrote about the books on another shortlist it made: the 2018 Young Writer of the Year Award. It's the first-person narration of Daniel, who tells the story of how, at the age of fourteen, he lived with his father and elder sister in a house his father built in a Yorkshire wood, the remains of the wooded Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which once stretched right across Yorkshire. Neither children attend school. A sensitive boy, Daniel keeps house and makes a garden, growing vegetables and cooking, while his sister Cathy prefers to learn the tough, foraging ways of their father John. John is something of a giant of a man, renowned among the drifters and travellers on the edge of society for winning wagered bare-fist fights, somewhat lawless but fiercely moral when it comes to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, in particular against cruel landlords and landowners. As someone in the group said - I think Ann - he's a latter-day Robin Hood who is indeed name-checked at the start of the book when Daniel describes the wood in which the three settle:

The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up the undergrowth and back into our lives... Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants...

It is not long before the three begin to feel threat from the owner of the land on which they are living, and we are soon caught up in the violence that erupts when those on the edge of society come into conflict with it over land and property.

The book begins with one of several italicised sections occurring through the book, in which, in the aftermath of the shockingly violent denouement, Daniel is drifting throughout the country looking for his lost sister. The bulk of the story, seen through this lens, has too an elegiac and mythical, almost fairytale quality, and the prose in which it is told is both tough and lyrical. As I said in my earlier blog I found the book engrossing - exciting and moving, and drenched in an atmosphere that is entirely affecting. I said then that I found one fault with it, which was that perhaps the lyrical language and some of the thought processes were too sophisticated to have been expressed by the fourteen-year-old Daniel who has not long escaped the violent ending of the life in the wood. However, on my second reading it occurred to me that we are not necessarily meant to take this period of Daniel's life as the narrative time frame - the present tense in which the italicised sections are told could be read as historic.

Most others in the group wholeheartledyly shared my enthusiasm. Mark, who couldn't attend, phoned beforehand to say how wonderful he thought the book was, and how amazed he was that a debut from such a young author (Mozley was 29 when the book was published) could be so beautifully written and so mature in its insights. Others entirely agreed, and there was much admiration for the convincing nature of the depiction of the tough and violent underside of society, of the simmering violence of those seemingly 'civilized' and in charge, and indeed, by implication, the fundamental violence of capitalism. We also found, in the way the characters of Daniel and Cathy upend conventional expectations, an insightful examination of gender.

There were just two waverers. John said he found the book 'long-winded' - which basically took our breath away; we simply couldn't see how he could have thought that of a book so compelling, the pages of which you just kept turning. He said it took far too long for something to happen, ie for the landowner Price to start threatening the little family. We totally disagreed and thought he must simply have been having an offday and unable to attend to the book properly: we felt that both the existential threat to the family and the threat of violence from Price are there from very early on. Jenny expressed some dissatisfaction: she found that there were too many things that were unlikely or unexplained. For one thing, people don't just build houses in the wood like that in this day and age, and what about the children not attending school, that would surely have been followed up. We all strongly disagreed. For one thing, the mythic, fairtale quality of the book allows suspension of disbelief, but in any case, children do sometimes scandalously fall through the net of contemporary social structures. As for the house in the woods, well, apart from the fact that some of us knew of makeshift woodland houses of homeless people to which the authorities are turning a convenient blind eye, there is a substantial plot twist involving the children's mother which explains (the character) John's sense of his right to the piece of land on which he builds (and also Price's impulse for revenge). Jenny also said she didn't think a girl could in any way manage the acts of violence and strength carried out by Cathy at the end, but we all disagreed - as (our) John said, at the end it would be a matter of the training she'd had in the woods, but also fundamentally it would be the element of surprise - after all, a main thing that had prompted the family's retreat from society was that Cathy, who has inherited her father's mindset and strength, had beaten up the boys who bullied Daniel in school, but was punished because no one could believe that a girl could do such a thing.

I don't think we convinced Jenny, as when Mark asked at the next meeting what we'd all thought of the book, she reiterated her criticisms, but she did also say both times that she'd enjoyed it and found it engrossing, and we praised it all over again.

October 2020
Distant Star
Roberto Bolano

John has read several of Bolano's door-stopper novels but the book of his he suggested for the group is short, a novella, and in fact an amplification - or correction, as the somewhat fictive 'author's note' has it - of the last chapter of a longer work, Nazi Literature in America. It consists of the reminiscences of narrator Artruro B (whom we can read as an alter ego for the author - in the 'author's note', the 'author' states that the whole book was recounted to him by Artruro B), along with reports he has heard from others down the years, concerning an enigmatic figure, Carlos Wieder. Artruro's first encounter with Wieder was as a student poet in Chile in the early 70s. At that time Wieder goes under a different name, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, and though clearly not a student - he calls himself an 'autodidact' - arrives on the student-dominated left-wing poetry scene. He stands out for his difference, his expensive clothes and accommodation and his somewhat distant manner, and immediately captures the hearts of the Garmendia sisters - the most accomplished poets in the group, with whom the other male members are unrequitedly in love. When the army takes power under Pinochet in 1973, the left-wing students are scattered, either arrested or gone into hiding or disappeared, and by the end of the first chapter, which began with wry depictions of student poetic and romantic passions, it is clear that 'Ruiz-Tagle' has been an informer of a most vicious kind.

The narrator's next encounter with Ruiz-Tagle, now known as Carlos Wieder, comes when the narrator is a prisoner arrested by the Pinochet regime as a suspected terrorist. The prisoners are exercising in the yard when Wieder, now a pilot in the Chilean airforce, appears on the horizon in a WW2 Messerschmitt (a 'distant star' - the motto of the Chilean airforce refers to the stars). Directly above the prison he writes in the sky the beginning of the Vulgate version of the Bible, which mesmerises and spooks those watching below. This is the first of his patriotic and repressive sky writings and part of his fascistic avant-garde performance-poetry project, for which he becomes generally feted and enamoured of the regime.

At this point Wieder drops out of Artruro's narration as Artruro recounts the subsequent fates of some of his fellow poets, including a heroic tale about their former poetry professor Julian Stein, which when Artruro's friend Bibiano O'Ryan tried to track Stein down, turned out to be probably not true. Inevitably, however, Wieder pops up once again in the narration, and in Artruro's life, like a bad penny: after his release (without charge) from prison, Artruro, like so many, left Chile and wandered in Europe, and he tells now of then hearing occasionally of Wieder's exploits, in particular of a photographic exhibition of the worst atrocities of the regime, a graphic representation that so offended its officials that Wieder was subsequently sidelined and disappeared from public view.

Artruro narrates how he was finally settled in Barcelona when he was approached by a Chilean private detective, Abel Romero, and we are now treated to Romero's story - inevitably entangled with the country's recent history - and it seems as if Wieder once again has dropped from the focus of the novel just as he dropped from public consciousness. But guess what, Romero turns out to have been employed by an unidentified avenger to find Wieder, and he has come to Artruro bearing various neo-fascist avant-garde magazines in which he would like Artruro, with his poet's eye, to look for possible pseudonymous writing by Wieder. After some searching, Artruro does identify Wieder's writing in one magazine, after which Romero is able to track him down living under his new pseudonym surprisingly close by. The two set off there by train and Wieder is finally 'dealt with' by Romero.

John and I had thoroughly enjoyed and admired this novel, and were surprised by the reactions of some of the group - those of Jenny, Doug and, most especially, Mark. Mark had found it tedious, lacking in narrative drive and all over the place with its stops and starts and changes of focus. John had indeed begun the discussion by saying that the book was 'all over the place', but that this was deliberate, and artistically interesting. The novel doesn't so much centre on Wieder as circle him, and the way he drops out of the narrative (making it seem to switch periodically to a new focus) is a formal representation of the way Wieder drops in and out of things with his dissemblings and changes of persona, as well as the switches and uncertainties of life under a totalitarian regime. I said I found very satisfying (and horrifying) the sense it gives of the impossibilty of escaping the sinister forces of such a regime, the way they underpin and connect everything even when they seem to disappear from view. I said too that the uncertainty about Juan Stein's fate, which others, in particular I think Jenny, had found unsatisfying, was surely instructive, illustrative of those horrifying uncertainties.

Basically, though, Mark's opinion was that this wasn't a book with an easy entry for an uninitiated audience. He and the others had said that they were bored by the early pages concerning the poetry workshops - nothing happens, they said, until the atrocity at the end of the first chapter and the revelation of Wieder's true role. If you guess from the start that Ruiz-Tagle/Wieder is an informer in the student camp - as did Ann, who had lived as a child under a similar regime, and as did I with my personal experience of political organisations - then those early pages are charged with tension, but this was sadly lacking for those who, with no familiarity with the experience, did not. I'm thinking now, as I write this, that perhaps one difficulty for an uninitiated readership is that at this point the narrative takes the viewpoint (though ironically) of the unsuspecting students, an irony to which an audience familiar with the experience would be much more readily attuned. Mark also really disliked the long lists of poets, which for me and John graphically signalled the tragedy of a regime that suppressed poets - they are a kind of memorial - (and the irony of the fact that in our own country poets would never be considered so important as to need to be suppressed). As a result of this difficulty in engaging with the book, Doug (agreed with by Mark) said he had not been at all able during the reading to get to grips with the point of Wieder's so-called artistic exploits, the sky-writing and the photographic exhibition, and he didn't seem immediately convinced by our explications - that they were illustrative of the fascist avant-garde, and the way that art, including poetry, can be subverted for immoral and political ends. Jenny agreed with them both. She didn't like the lack of clarity or the lack of a decent narrative arc, and was unimpressed when I said that I felt that these were functions of the postmodern aspects of the book, the fact that it was about the unreality and uncertainty of both life and literature.

It was left to John and Ann and me to praise the book. I said that it had shocked me with the gut reality of something that I had only heard about at the time on the news in the corner of a suburban living room. Ann said how the book opened one's eyes to the multinational nature of Chile, as marked in the multinational names of the characters. John was very affected by the links you can make between elements of the book and our present day political situation - Wieder's religious sky writing and the religious fundamentalism embraced by the contemporary right, the way that the regime embraces a popular figure and the way politicians do so now, and the link that occurred to him between the regime's obsession with Wieder's aerial career and Trump's obsession with appearing everywhere with Air Force One in the background. And by the end of the meeting both Mark and Doug were saying that they would go away and look at the novel again and reassess.

November 2020
Emily Ruskovich

Warning: spoiler - maybe!

This debut novel, suggested by Mark, won the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award (for which books are nominated by public libraries worldwide). Its narrative touchstone is an incident in the past of the novel, the hatchet murder of a small child, May, by her mother Jenny, in the family truck, on a seemingly placid and routine family outing to cut trees in a mountainside wood. At this Jenny's elder, nine-year-old daughter June fled into the woods and has never since been found in spite of years-long dissemination of posters depicting what she might look like as she grows. Jenny, who confessed immediately to the murder, was jailed for life. The focus of the novel, however, is not so much this past incident itself as its aftermath, and in particular the speculations about it by Ann, a teacher in the local school who afterwards married Wade, the father of this lost family. Very soon after their marriage Wade begins showing signs of early onset dementia, which his father suffered before him, and he is now losing his memory, so while Ann feels the need to carry memories of the past for Wade, and naturally wants to understand why the murder happened, the truth of it all is shrouded from her.

There was general agreement that this book is beautifully written on the level of the prose. The depiction of Ann's interiority is impressive and moving and the descriptions of the natural world spectacular, and Clare, accompanied by nodding agreement, pointed to the amazingly truthful portrayal of childhood in scenes between the two girls June and May. However, there was disagreement about the book's structure. It is strikingly non-linear, moving constantly back and forth between various time levels, and eventually into a future beyond our own present. Mark, agreed with by some others, said that he found this structure confusing, and constantly needed to check back to find out which incident had actually happened before another. Our Jenny and I, however, weren't so negative: although I agreed that it was sometimes a bit hard to keep up, the fragmented structure admirably replicates the workings of Ann's speculating and remembering mind, as well perhaps as the mental fragmentation caused by dementia.

Mark also found unsatisfying the fact that in spite of all Ann's speculations - and all her various and vivid mental recreations of the murder scene - she never comes to know why or even exactly how the murder happened, and neither do we, the readers. I suggested that the book's message is that the truth is sometimes just unknowable, but the fact is that most of us had found unsatisfying the way the book prompted us into speculations like those of the character Ann, only to have them frustrated.

We now began a detailed discussion about this matter. With regard to this, one aspect of the book in particular took our attention. Although Ann's speculations dominate the book, there are in fact passages outside of her consciousness, and which take the viewpoint of other characters. Thus we have an evident authorial consciousness which we would expect to know things of which not all the characters are aware, including of course the truth about the murder. The second part or chapter of the book begins with a new character, Elizabeth, a prisoner who eventually comes to share a cell with the character Jenny, and later in the prison scenes - scenes where Mark said his engagement with the book waned - we move into the viewpoint of Jenny herself. Never, however, in the conscious moments of the imprisoned Jenny that we share, does she once even think about the murder. It might seem obvious to argue that she is repressing the memory, but there is no apparent authorial indication of this. Indeed, there is an implication that she is suffering a self-imposed penance - for a long time never leaving her cell for exercise, for instance, and choosing to remain doing the most menial prison task - which would imply perhaps that her guilt, and therefore the murder, are overwhelmingly central for her. Authorial withholding of the information in these passages therefore seemed to us tricksy.

One striking speculation of the character Ann's left one member of our group convinced of its accuracy, so vividly was it told. The way that Ann and Wade had met was over a problem with nine-year-old June at the school where Ann was the music teacher, after which Wade began coming to Ann's schoolroom for piano lessons. Ann imagines Jenny, having guessed that something was developing between them, sitting in the truck for a break on the day of the murder, joined by her younger daughter May, and flipping when May begins singing the song that Ann has taught Wade to play, and turning in a moment of mad jealousy and swinging the hatchet at May's head. However, that did not seem to me a convincing motive for any mother, leave alone for Jenny: there is a striking section which is not in Ann's head but is authorially conveyed, so that we may take it as fact, in which Jenny is portrayed as a particularly understanding and empathic mother, empathising deeply with May who has been rejected by June, and eager to distract and comfort her.

Few in our group however entertained any notion other than that Jenny had indeed, for some unfathomable reason, killed May. Our member Ann and I however had both wondered at times if in fact the murderer was June, the nine-year-old runaway sister and daughter, and that Jenny had covered for her by confessing to the murder. We weren't at all sure, however, as it seemed so unlikely: there didn't seem enough grounds. Looking back at the book now in order to write this, however, I am wondering more strongly if that was the authorial intention, or at least a deliberate authorial red herring.

It is made clear that June is, at least, a particularly emotionally charged child. The thing that brings Ann and Wade together at the start is the fact that June has stolen one of the decorated knives that Wade makes, in order to give it to an older boy with whom she is obsessively in love. Unaware that the boy, Eliot, has just left the school, she leaves it in his locker - unaware too that Ann has observed her doing so - along with a note: With All Of My Deepest Love in My Heart. The fact that June attends Ann's school sets her apart in the first place: it is a 'charter' school for 'high-achievers', though when Wade comes to the school to retrieve the knife, he makes it clear that the reason she has been sent there is because she had to be taken out of the 'normal school', as he puts it - and one wonders if this coinage is meant to be taken as significant. The reason for this move, it seems, is June's overemotional nature: she is constantly falling in love with boys and getting her 'heart broken', he says, and he and his wife 'don't know what to do, really'. (Although that seems to me a somewhat tenuous reason for changing a child's school - particularly as it has clearly not solved the problem.) The stealing of the knife in itself could of course be seen as potentially sinister, although it would be little more than symbolic, since Wade assures Ann that June would never have used the knife for any violent purpose as she is 'very gentle' (and there is no real indication that Wade is wrong about this), and the act is of course done in the name of love. Another example of her obsessiveness is the occasion when Jenny needs to comfort May for being rejected by June. Having settled May, Jenny goes upstairs to June, and finds her seated on the floor whispering to herself as she acts out in her head one of her imagined scenarios, the obsessive nature of which unsettles Jenny enough for her to back out of the room quietly. There is a following scene in the garden in which May feels the rejection of the growing June's emotional movement away from her into her private (and romantic) mental world. Thus emotionally abandoned, May ruminates on the fact that June has a particular smell, a smell which is not pleasant, but like that of a 'frightened dog'. This again marks June out as different and strange and perhaps unwholesome, but again it is symbolic rather than psychologically indicative of her likely behaviour, and in any case the smell is characterised as that of fear rather than anything more dynamically sinister. And after all, while reading we in our group had all seen these scenes as admirable depictions of the typical behaviour of little girls and between sisters.

Then there is the strange matter of how June got her name. She wasn't always called June: she was initially Lily. We learn that Wade's father, in his dementia, came to believe that he had fathered a woman neighbour called June Bailey Roe, and when he died turned out to have left all of his money to her, dispossessing Wade. During their marriage Jenny writes several times to this June to try to retrieve Wade's lost inheritance, never to receive any reply. Then one day Wade tells Jenny that he wants their baby Lily to be called June. His motive is somewhat mystifying: he says that he doesn't like the woman she would be named after, but he does admire her for her tenacity. Jenny suggests that it could mess a child up having her name changed (though Wade overrides her by saying that the child is so young she will never know). Once again, if the authorial intention is to cast some kind of discordant or troublesome air over the child June, then again, it's only symbolic, without any real psychological or factual substance indicating a potential for violence in June herself.

The character Eliot is surely, however, significant in this matter. He features only briefly and offstage at the start of the novel as the boy with whom June is in love and whom Ann teaches singing and is particularly fond of - a boy everyone falls in love with and who had lost a leg when the jetty at the edge of the lake in the school grounds collapsed beneath him. He suddenly reappears as an adult late on in this lengthy novel, and we share his memories of the accident: his rucksack placed by someone on the jetty, little girls at a table nearby giggling in hero worship at his presence and writing in secret games before getting up for their bus, and the horror for Eliot of falling through and being left alone, stuck all night. However, a girlfriend overturns his view of it all by suggesting to him that maybe the whispering little girls placed the rucksack on the jetty with malicious intent, knowing that he would fall through. Very soon after this in the novel we are witness to a scene between June and May in the woods where they are playing a writing game which is meant as a charm for predicting one's romantic destiny. June says that she doesn't need to do the game as she has already chosen her romantic love, whom we can assume is Eliot. As Eliot reassesses his memory, he remembers that there was a piece of paper on the top of his rucksack carrying just this charm game, so we can link June with the little girls by the lake and with Eliot's accident. It is hard, though, to believe that her motive was malicious, since it is after this that she will leave her gift and passionate note in his locker. Again, the authorial intention may be to show the witch-like character of obsession and its unfortunate consequences, but this does nothing to suggest the likelihood of the kind of violent act that killed May.

If it was June who committed the murder this would be a better explanation for why she ran away than the unsatisfactory reasons our group had pondered (Was she just too horrified to stay? Was she afraid of her mother after seeing her kill May? But then why didn't she run to Wade? And why would she never return - she was only nine, after all? Did something happen to her in the woods to prevent her doing so? So why then was her body never found?) When Jenny is finally released from prison Ann feels the need to look after her by giving her the money that has finally been returned by June Bailey Roe and setting her up with a new life, and critics have seen this as a huge act of forgiveness and redemption (and forgiveness and redemption as the main themes of the book). If Ann suspected that June was really the murderer then this would be a more concrete motive for such an act of restoration. However, I noticed no hint within the text that she does have such a suspicion. Indeed, as far as I remember all of the above hints about June's potential strangeness occur in the sections that take the viewpoints of others or are located in a more authorial consciousness.

In addition, those sections seemed less significant as we were reading the book than I may have made them seem here, as there are other sections that focus on the lives and preoccupations of more peripheral characters - the character Elizabeth who comes to share a cell with Jenny, Wade's dying father, the childless couple whose house Wade knocks at immediately after the murder, and even the bloodhound who fails to pick up June's scent in the wood. This last is a piece of quite virtuoso writing, and the short section concerning the childless couple is very moving and a set-piece in itself. Our member Ann said it read like a short story, and both she and John voiced the suspicion that the novel had been compiled by drawing several short stories together, and that this explained what to us was a lack of cohesion and rationale.

While I felt that a lack of rationale in life, the impossibility sometimes of ever knowing the truth, was indeed the point of this novel, and a message that I consider in theory to have integrity, I didn't feel the satisfaction in it that I might have, since the authorial hints and mystifications (deliberate or otherwise, it's hard to tell) prompted me, like the rest of our group, not to accept this message, but to want the solution that was simply not available. And I think it was this lack of textual redemption that for me made the book unbearably sad. I am normally perfectly happy to read dark books about tragedy, but on this occasion there was no catharsis: once I had finished reading I was left with a feeling of utter bleakness, and nearly all in our group agreed. Though Doug, whom I had expected to like the book for its fine writing, said that he simply hadn't been able to engage with it at all.

Finally John made the comment that usually when we discuss a book we come to a greater understanding of it, but that the more we discussed this book the less sense we made of it.

December 2020
The Artificial Silk Girl
Irmgard Keun

Ann suggested this short book which, newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, was a bestseller on its publication in Germany in 1932 but banned by the Nazis a year later, all German copies destroyed. It's the fictional journal of eighteen-year-old Doris who, longing to be a 'star', leaves her provincial home town for the heady lights of Berlin, only to end up in poverty and living off men in various ways.

The greatest admirer of the book in our group was Jenny, and most others appreciated it as a vivid portrayal of Weimar Berlin and a searing indictment of the plight of women in such a society, forced into a bitter choice between two types of transactional relationships with men, sexual or domestic. We noted the similarity to Jean Rhys's protagonists, but also the differences: Doris is a feisty working-class girl, and the diary mode is lightly satirical, exposing Doris's moments of naivity or lack of self-awareness in spite of her cynicism about men. Similarly, although she is spectacularly politically unaware, there are moments when she brushes against the political situation, such as the episode when 'blond windbreakers' enter a Jewish bar where she is drinking and trash it. She simply makes the vague comment: 'they are their enemies and it's got something to do with politics', and muses after the intruders have left, 'What was that all about?', her very innocence of the political implications underlining their import. There is an even stronger resemblance to Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's later novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which we discussed here. (We suspected that Isherwood was influenced by Keun's novel). As John pointed out, however, the fundamental difference is that this book is written from the woman's point of view (whereas Sally Bowles is of course seen through the male narrator's eyes), making it more politically dynamic and indeed feminist.

One problem with the book that Ann, John and I had was that at times we found it difficult to grasp Doris's tone. We wondered if this was a problem of the 2002 translation used in the new Penguin edition which we'd all read. Certainly we were brought up short by occasional Americanisms, and even anachronisms - 'women's lib' was a phrase that jumped out at us all. There were also frequent unfamiliar idioms I assume to be literal translations surviving from the original English translation, which sit oddly with the linguistic updating and are slightly confounding. (Ann said she had read that Doris's diary was in fact written in a very colloquial pre-war working-class German, which must have been difficult to represent in translation.) For instance, at one point a man asks Doris if she's a Jew:
My God, I'm not - but I'm thinking: if that's what he likes, I'll do him a favour - and I say: 'Of course - my father sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.' ... and he got all hostile ... At first they pay you all sorts of compliments and are drooling all over you - and then you tell them: I'm a chestnut! - and their chin drops: oh, you're a chestnut - yuk, I had no idea.

While reading I found the unfamiliarity of that word 'chestnut' disconcerting, and later looked for it without success as a slang or abusive term for a Jew. Further investigation reveals that the German der Fuchs, meaning 'fox, or 'cunning devil', is also used to mean 'chestnut' (the colour of a fox), and so the racist pun becomes clear, but it doesn't survive the literal English translation.

Some of us also found that the novel dragged a little in the middle as Doris becomes involved with men in a string of identically doomed transactional relationships. Clare appreciated this as formal depiction of the static trap in which Doris is caught, but though I could see this, it didn't stop me being frustrated by the lack of forward narrative movement, and the sense of repetition without much variation, encounters and liaisons merging one into the other with, for me, a consequent retrospective lack of vividness or memorability. John, in fact, felt this more strongly than I did.

However, the only entirely negative response came from Doug. He wasn't at all convinced that a young girl from such a provincial background would run away to the city as Doris did. And none of our objections - that she had a violent father, that she had stolen a fur coat and was afraid of being arrested for it, and above all, isn't that what young girls with stars in their eyes classically do? - cut any ice with him: he still found the book unconvincing and unengaging.


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