March roundup

In just before the end of April!

My 2023 goal of reading longer books continues, which means that while I read a fair bit in March there’s not that many titles to talk about. It is satisfying though to have engaged with some really lengthy works and it makes a change from my usual reading and my fondness for novellas and short novels.

So, without further ado:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Rosamund Bartlett)

I had mixed views on War and Peace. You’re not really supposed to say that, but it’s true. It was rich, epic, but also had lengthy non-fiction sections where Tolstoy shared his ideas on historical theory which sometimes robbed it of momentum.

No such concerns with Anna Karenina. This is an extraordinary and rewarding work packed with complex and fascinating characters. Bartlett’s translation is lively and I highly recommend it. She avoids ‘smoothing’ Tolstoy’s prose where the original was jarring or repetitive. (It was an intentional technique on his part, often ‘tidied’ by translators. Lispector has had the same issue).

Seriously, this is superb. Yes it’s a classic of Russian literature which can be a bit daunting, but the pages flew by. Money back guarantee if you don’t like it*.

Thanks to Guy whose post here made me pick up this translation.

Intimacies, Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell is a fairly recent discovery for me. She’s a Northern Irish writer and an absolute master of the short story form (apparently her recent novel is pretty good too).

This collection is about parenthood, motherhood really, and it’s exceptional. I don’t have kids and barring surprising advances in science it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be a mother. Even so, the sheer quality of the writing, the emotional intelligence and the ability to see the drama of the everyday meant that I absolutely loved this.

Further info in Jacqui’s review here.

Our Share of Night, Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell)

I loved both of Mariana Enriquez’ short story collections, but even so like many I was taken aback when she went from short stories to a 700+ page behemoth.

Enriquez is still using horror to explore Argentina’s past, but on a larger scale. A cult dedicated to an entity known as the Darkness lives in extraordinary wealth and privilege, sacrificing children and perpetrating horrors to maintain their position. The Darkness devours its sacrifices, who literally disappear into it never to be seen again. What could that be referencing?

The story opens following a medium, Juan, a large and handsome man and a skilled sorcerer. The cult depend on him as he can summon the Darkness which is key to their rituals. They believe that they can use the Darkness to achieve immortality by passing their consciousnesses on to children’s bodies, and they plan either to transfer Juan’s into his son Gaspar’s body or to make Gaspar into their pawn in Juan’s place.

Gaspar later becomes a character in his own right as we see him grow up and the slow battle between the cult and Juan over Gaspar’s future unfold. I enjoyed this, but then I enjoy horror. Here I think the horror elements are more to the fore than the social and historical aspects. The metaphors are clear enough, but on this scale you’re spending more time in the actual situation of the characters than what it reflects in Argentinian history.

Oddly, most reviews I’ve seen have taken it as read that the immortality thing works. That’s not in the novel though. Juan is concerned it might but there’s no clear evidence it will, just that his son will be harmed as the cult tries. For him the Darkness is a mad god, if it’s even an entity at all, forever hungry and he believes the prophetic messages the cult think they receive from it are just self-delusion. It makes for a more ambiguous book and perhaps a better one, since the cult’s real motive is more plainly perpetuating their own power.

As is probably apparent by now, it’s a hard one to sum up. I enjoyed it which is good at over 700 pages, but I’m not sure it actually needed all that space or quite what the point of it all was. I’ll definitely read more Enriquez but I hope she goes a bit smaller scale next time.

Final caution, this very much is horror. It involves scenes that are genuinely difficult to read including the torture and maiming of children. The passages of real world historical barbarism are no better than the cult’s magic-fuelled psychopathy, which of course is intentional. If you do decide to try this one, be prepared for some strong content.

And that’s my March reading! Few books, but rewarding ones.

*Terms and conditions apply. Cash refunds may be replaced with unsatisfying apologies at blogger’s discretion.



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5 responses to “March roundup

  1. Chunksters are good! And although I take your point about W&P, I loved it as much as I loved AK – particularly as I responded quite differently to AK than Tolstoy might have expected, and also as might have reading it at a young age, finding the lovers a bit selfish… But both books are wonderful – despite Tolstoy’s personal flaws, he was a hell of a writer!!!

  2. Hi Karen, they are indeed! I didn’t love W&P as much, but I wouldn’t put anyone off reading it. It’s hugely rewarding and notably different people have different things they love about it which is always a good sign.

    I found the lovers a bit selfish too, but there’s an element of Greek tragedy to them. It is wonderful though and Tolstoy definitely is a hell of a writer as you say.

  3. I’m thrilled to see how much you loved Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies – lovely! She’s a superb short-story writer, up there with Sarah Hall, I think. Interestingly, they’ve both been nominated multiple times for the BBC National Short Story Award (that’s where I first came across Caldwell 8-10 years ago), so they’re clearly getting something right.

    Funnily enough, I’ve been listening to an abridged reading of Anna Karenina on BBC Sounds this month, while on walks etc. Beautifully read by Juliet Stevenson, who I could listen to all day. It’s probably based on the Maudes’ translation, which I read back in the day, but I’m tempted to try the Bartlett at some point, especially given your experience with it. (I actually have a copy of that edition from Oxford WC, and it’s very nicely produced.)

  4. Caldwell is great. Interesting you put Hall up with her. Is Hall that good then?

    If I hadn’t chosen the Bartlett I’d have gone with the Maudes. Their W&P was very good.

  5. Thanks for the mention. Have you seen the recent series version of War and Peace?

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