This year for the annual #WITmonth in August, our host Meytal at Biblibio has decided to curate a list of the top 100 women in translation. Everyone is invited to join in and let Meytal know. Here are how it’s going to work:
Here are my nominations. Links to my reviews are in the titles:
It wasn’t until I’d sifted through all my reviews and made my choices that I realised that my top ten exclusively fell into two languages – French and Japanese! 7 out of 10 are also translated by women. I hope you enjoy my selection.
1 – Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes
First in a ‘state of the nation’ French trilogy following the ups and mostly downs in the life of the titular hero. Vernon Subutex is a former record shop owner, occasional DJ and friend of the late rock star Alex Bleach. When Alex died, Vernon found he couldn’t keep the shop going, or pay his rent (Alex had been helping to keep him afloat). Evicted, Vernon turns to sofa surfing with friends and lovers, but manages to outstay his welcome with all of them, endlng up joining the homeless.
Volume 2 continued to develop Vernon’s new down and out life in Paris, and Volume 3 is due next year in translation – I can’t wait! Translated by Frank Wynne.
2 – A Winter’s Promise: The Mirror Visitor Book 1 by Christelle Dabos
One of the best books I read last year was a chunkster in translation – the first volume of four, no less. A political and dystopian, fantasy adventure, written with YA readers in mind, A Winter’s Promise was just under 500 pages of sheer delight. In this first volume, Dabos introduced us to a fractured world, broken into ‘Arks’ orbiting each other by an angry God. Each Ark’s families have particular magical talents. Ophelia from the Anima Ark is a reader; she can sense all about an object and its owners from handling it. She also has the rare talent of being a ‘mirror visitor’; she can pass through mirrors as long as she’s seen the mirror at her destination.Ophelia has been promised in an arranged marriage to Thorn, of the Pole Ark, and travelled there with her aunt as chaperone, only to find herself a political pawn in a dangerous game of courtly intrigue, and her fiancé an aloof and man, treasurer to the court, whom she will never warm to. The first book finishes as she discovers why she was chosen. (Volume 2 is just out – reviewed here). Translated by Hildegarde Serle.
3 – Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe
This was my first encounter with Belgian-born Bourdouxhe. This novella was first published in 1943 as A la recherche de Marie. I must admit that had I known of its original Proustian title, I might have approached it with more trepidation, but let me assure you, no knowledge of Proust is required to appreciate this short book. It’s the story of a holiday flirtation that once home turns into a full-flung affair for Marie, despite being ‘happy’ with her husband Jean. Suffused with longing and desire, Marie pleasantly surprised me. The story manages to achieve balance without melodrama, but plenty of passion as we are exposed to Marie’s inner mind. Charming and thoughtful, it was a perfect one-session read, and its innate optimism made it preferable to Bourdouxhe’s darker 1937 novella La Femme de Gilles. Translated by Faith Evans.
4 – Mend The Living by Maylis de Kerangal
NB: Mend the Living was published with different translators in the UK and the US – I read Jessica Moore’s UK one.
This is an intellectual novel full of medical terms with few concessions for the reader, but once you get into the author’s particular style, it will hook you as firmly as any thriller, yet keep your brain totally engaged. The novel begins with a single sentence that sprawls over an entire page. It introduces us to twenty-one -year-old surfer Simon Limbeau – and his heart. You start reading this book knowing that Simon will die and that his heart will live on – that’s not a spoiler. Yet it is a shock to find out that the accident in which he will be critically injured doesn’t occur in the surf – but in the van with his mates on the way home – Simon was the one sitting in the middle without a seatbelt. The novel follows his heart through its donation into its new recipient. Jessica Moore, has done an incredible job to render her myriad phrases from French to English. The translator’s note after the novel is fascinating – discussing the author’s precise choices of names for all the characters; her ‘language hold-up’ style of writing; the complex vocabulary she uses. One word that struck me was ‘sagittal’ used to describe Simon’s view of the cliffs as he waited for the wave to come, this medical term means a line bisecting the human body vertically. I loved this metaphysical experiment of applying medical language to the world surrounding Simon’s heart. Translated by Jessica Moore.
5 – Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb
Belgian author Nothomb writes taut novellas about flawed heroines that are always interesting (see here and here) and they always read like fables or fairy tales in one sense or another, despite being resolutely modern. Her newest, published last autumn is no different in that respect, and is all about female relationships, specifically those between mothers and their daughters, (including mother-substitutes) – there’s a real Snow White feel to it!
Nothomb writes all her novels as cautionary tales. They’re not overextended, they’re precise with some cracking dialogue, but still have a strong visual sense. The title of Strike Your Heart also resonates throughout the novel in as many different ways as you can imagine. This is my favourite of those I have read. Translated by Alison Anderson.
6 – No & Me by Delphine De Vigan
When first published in English translation in 2010, No and Me was a true crossover bestseller. Although not written for the YA market, Bloomsbury brought it out in adult and young adult editions. As an issue-based story with adolescent protagonists, teenagers will definitely love it too. Lou Bertignac is an ‘intellectually precocious’ thirteen year old with an IQ of 160. Ahead by two years at school, she’s pushed into choosing a project and says she will do a case study of homelessness among teenage girls, and she strikes up a friendship with a girl, No, she meets while people-watching at the Gare d’Austerlitz. Gradually Lou gets to hear a little of No’s story and her life on the streets, she’s eighteen but looks younger. Eventually No moves in with Lou and her parents who have their own problems… With Lou as our narrator throughout, we see all the events through her youthful eyes. Thanks to the author’s lucid prose in Lou’s voice, however, we can read between the lines to grasp No’s predicament as a homeless girl, Lou’s parents’ sadness and Lou’s own feelings of being a geeky outsider. The issues are many but are discussed clearly, although not at length. Translated by George Miller
7 – Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima
This is a beguiling novella following the story of a young mother and her young daughter after she has separated from her husband. It was originally published during the late 1970s in installments in a Japanese literary magazine, mirroring the passage of the year in the text. The first chapter, named for the book’s title, concerns itself with how the mother, who is never named, finds a new home after the split. She soon discovers that being a single mother of a toddler is not only hard work, but as a separated woman on the track to divorce, her status isn’t approved of. Everyone else in the world wants to tell her what to do, but she must learn how to take control of her own life again, so she can do the best for herself and her daughter. Parenting doesn’t always come naturally to her; we wince when she gets it wrong and breathe a sigh of relief when she gets it right. It will take time before she achieves some sort of equilibrium, the passing of the year exemplified by the cherry blossom in the park, one of the havens from the otherwise urban environment. In the young mother’s narration there is a translucency to the prose that takes you deep into her mind through her detachment from life. Read in one sitting, the repetitiveness of the daily grind comes through strongly, something you wouldn’t feel so much read in the original installments. There may be a dullness to this life in that respect, but it’s far boring to read. I loved it. Translated by Geraldine Harcourt.
8 – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This is a darkly comic novel about a socially awkward single woman in her late thirties who has worked for eighteen years in a convenience store. One would say she’s obviously on the spectrum but this is never stated. Her family despair of her non-normality; she shouldn’t be still working in a dead-end job at her age when she should have been married and having children long ago in their society. Keiko feels no need for a relationship, sex, or children (seeing her nephew, her sister’s child, as little more than a pet), that is her normal; her sister helps her with excuses she can tell the world at large. Keiko lives for her work, striving to do it perfectly. She is superb at her job, surrounded mostly by short-term workers, and longer-term managers. It’s only when she has to work with a rather chauvinist male worker who has ‘stone age’ views of women and mens’ places in society that things come to a head. Shiraha is useless at the work, and is let go, and when Keiko find out he has been thrown out of his home for non-payment of the rent, she adopts him – as you would a pet, and lets him lodge with her, doing nothing to dispel the rumours that she’s finally found a man, and this is when her ordered life starts to unravel. This book will likely appeal to those who’ve enjoyed The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (below). It is funny, but it’s darker and more surreal with Keiko’s skewed outlook on life – something the author remains entirely true to throughout the book, which has an apt resolution. I really enjoyed this novella. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
9. The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a delightfully funny novel – its humour is so gentle, yet already we are getting the measure of Mr Nakano, owner of the second-hand store of the title. His shop has been there for over twenty-five years, and his latest assistants are our narrator Hitomi, and Takeo who drives the truck on pick-ups and house clearances. Each chapter is named after and focused around a particular object in the shop, and this gives the novel the feel of being a serial – a set of episodes with an underlying story arc. Hitomi is an endearing narrator, quietly observant, slightly wistful in nature yet often frustrated over her attempts to make Takeo fall in love with her. You can’t help but like her for her matter of factness and her wry commentary on her daily life – she’s very different to Keiko above though. This book is written with restraint and gentleness, written in understated prose which is beautifully translated, but the rivers of emotion run deep underneath. The Nakano Thrift Shop is also delightfully light-hearted and I loved reading every page of it. Translated by Allison Markin Powell.
10 – The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
This may have been the first Japanese novel in translation that I’ve read – if so, it was a superb introduction to Japanese literature.
A young housekeeper is sent to work for an old mathematics professor. She’ll be ninth to have this job as he can be difficult – the Professor’s brain was injured in an accident and now he has only eighty minutes of short-term memory. The Professor asks her questions – what is her shoe size? her telephone number? This happens each morning when they meet as if for the first time for him. The Professor clips notes onto his suit to help him with vital information. Although she has to reintroduce herself every day, they settle into a routine. When he’s not working on maths problems, he tells her about the beauty of prime numbers, won’t eat his carrots, and is every inch an absent-minded Professor. When she tells him about her son, he insists that he comes to the house after school rather than be at home on his own until she finishes work. They make a lovely threesome, the Professor is good and patient with children and Root makes him happy. The Housekeeper begins to see herself as a friend rather than employee, and arranges an outing to a baseball game which the Professor and Root both love… of course it’s not as simple as that! I loved this book, it was gentle, beguiling and quirky, yet utterly serene in that Japanese sort of way. Translated by Stephen Snyder.