Book Review : Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum



‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina

Anna Benz is a bored housewife .An American, she is married to Bruno, a Swiss, and finds herself stranded as an ex-pat in Zurich. Following a crisis , she is undergoing Jungian analysis ( well this is Switzerland) with Dr Messerli and is finally resigned to trying to learn German. As a distraction, she has started an affair with a fellow student in her German class. So begins Essbaum’s impressive debut novel.

Gradually we learn more about Anna’s past whilst her present slowly begins to unravel.

Anna’s marriage to Bruno is loveless and held together by convention just like her namesake’s with Karenin. Bruno’s mother, Ursula, watches over her like a hawk, judging and waiting to trip her up – there are obvious echoes of Countess Ivanova in Tolstoy’s novel.

The narration is broken up by excerpts from Anna’s therapy sessions with Dr Messerli, providing a sort of moral conscience. I thought these were the least successful sections of the novel and they felt a little heavy handed at times. More interesting were Anna’s musings on German grammar rules and the way they seemed to mirror her life .

“This is basic, class. Present tense. That which happens now. Future tense. What will occur. Simple past : what was done. Present perfect? What has been done.”

But how often is the past simple? Is the present ever perfect? Anna stopped listening. These were rules she didn’t trust.’

Just like her namesake, Anna’s life begins to run away from her and she finds herself unable to control events. 

This is described on the backcover as a literary page turner and it is exactly that. Whilst Anna’s story has obvious comparisons with those of Anna Karenina and, to some extent, Emma Bovary, this is a strong work in its own right. An immensely enjoyable read.

Hausfrau was published on 26th March by Mantle and my thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

Guest Post : The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun trans. Deborah Smith

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I am pretty tied up at the moment trying to read my way through the Bailey’s Prize Long-list.I am still being sent some lovely books to read and review and feeling pretty stressed out by it !

When I received The Salmon , by best-selling Korean Poet Ahn Do-hyun ,I knew immediately who would most want to read and enjoy this book : my son Jack Chorley. He’s a real East Asian literature fan and is at home on holiday from Uni at the moment. He only has a dissertation to write so has far more time than me to review books for a blog. So without further ado , over to you Jack.

First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone, even if they don’t share my love of East Asian literature . It would make an excellent “first book” when dipping your toes into the often confusing waters of Asian literature. This book is set out almost like a fairytale (it even has pictures in it!!) and follows the story of Silver Salmon as he makes his journey back to the mighty Green River to spawn. Unlike the rest of the salmon in his shoal, however, Silver Salmon is different . He is covered in silver scales, unlike the blue and white ones of his fellow Salmon, and he is also inquisitive about the world around him.

At first, as with a lot of the Asian literature I have read in the past, I thought this book would be about finding identity in the face of normality, even the title of the book seemed to hint at this. I believed this book would be about finding adventure when faced with a strict regime but although the story does deal with this at the beginning, by the end it’s about something else entirely. It has more to do with realizing that there is something bigger than the individual. Silver Salmon struggles with finding meaning in his life and doesn’t understand why he must travel up the Green River to spawn, a fate that means certain death for the salmon. Through his eyes we see the importance of finding your place in nature. Silver Salmon learns these truths through conversing with other aspects of nature such as the leaves, a stepping-stone and the Green River itself.

This is also a love story. Silver Salmon meets Clear-Eyed Salmon, a female in his shoal, and even though biology dictates that they must mate, they decide to do so out of love. Clear-Eyed Salmon teaches Silver Salmon how the see through the “eyes of the heart”, which, for much of the book, means looking through the eyes of nature itself. This enables Silver Salmon to see beauty where he couldn’t before. This, along with some overt messages about the human relationship with nature, gives this book a certain conservational slant.

As a zoologist, I thought the language used by Ahn Do-hyun, and translated by Deborah Smith, and the message it sends is a beautiful and important one. Ahn Do-hyun highlights the human tendency to look at things as “other”, or below us, just like the salmon hawk looks down upon the Salmon. Throughout the story you realize that it is only by looking at nature as a whole and coming to peace with it that we will save it. We must put ourselves in the salmon’s shoes, as it were.

Finally this book is about passing on to future generations the message that the easy way is not always the right way. We must make our own decisions in our lives, even if they do not fit into our idealized view of the world. A salmon should take the salmon’s way, just as we must take the path that is set out for us and not for anyone else. The messages set out in this book are hard-hitting and speak  about a lot of aspects of humans relationship to nature. It may be written simply, but this means the messages are clear and free of pretension or ego. The message is the message, just like a salmon is a salmon.

Thank you to Jack for that wonderful review….not bad for a first attempt. A big thank you to Deborah Smith and Pan Macmillan for the review copy. The Salmon Who Dared To Leap Higher  is published on 9th April.

Shadowing The Bailey’s : Keep Calm And Carry On

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The Bailey’s Prize long list has been revealed. Now all I have to do is read them all ahead of the announcement of the shortlist on April 13th . No biggie then !

Prior to the announcement, I had confidently and, as it turns out, arrogantly assumed that I would have already read at least half of all the books chosen.The judges, of course, had other ideas and have selected a varied and interesting collection of books.

Obviously there are the usual unexpected omissions  – Jane Smiley and Marylinne Robinson to name but two Pulitzer prize winners; as well as All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews ,currently causing quite a stir and shortlisted for both the Folio and the Wellcome prizes. I could go on.

As it turns out, I have read only six of the long-listers already and only reviewed three on the blog : Elizabeth Is Missing; Crooked Heart and The Paying Guests. I suppose this is a good thing in some ways as it gives me  time to write a few reviews while I get on with the easy task of reading 14 books in just under six weeks, still trying to work full time and have a social life.

I have decided to post only short reviews of the long listed books I read , possibly even two at a time. I will maybe post longer reviews once books are shortlisted – but I reserve the right to change my mind and do things completely differently . Your statutory rights are unaffected.

Secretly, I am very much looking forward to discussing , shouting about and flouncing out over the books with my fellow ‘Shadows’ – Naomi from thewritesofwomen.wordpress.com ( @Frizbot) ; Antonia from http://www.antoniahoneywell.com ( @antonia_writes) ; Eric from lonesome reader.com ( @lonesomereader); Dan from theinsideofadog.wordpress.com (@utterbiblio) and Paola ( @paola_ruocco).

I had grown a little weary of blogging recently. Endless book reviews can become tedious to write as well as to read. This project has given me a fresh impetus. Thank you to Naomi for organising it ……………….and Ssssshhhhh!!!! I’m reading !

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The Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel 2015

I am very excited to be part it this ….looking forward to reading the books …..and debating with my fellow shadows.

The Writes of Woman

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that this year I won’t be shadowing the Bailey’s Prize alone. Oh, no. I’m joined by five fantastic bloggers/writers/bookish people who all will be posting, tweeting and discussing the books longlisted for the prize on Tuesday. Here’s a short guide to each of us:

Naomi Frisby blogs about female writers at The Writes of Woman. She is currently writing a novel and working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Twitter: @Frizbot

Eric Karl Anderson is an American-born writer who has lived in London for over a decade and runs the book blog www.LonesomeReader.com. He’s author of the novel ENOUGH which won the Pearl Street Publishing First Book Prize. He’s also keen on baking and watching disaster movies. Find him on Twitter @LonesomeReader

Antonia Honeywell is a teacher, a writer and an avid and promiscuous reader. Her debut novel, The…

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An Evening with Karl Ove

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Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of the books Zadie Smith described as being ‘like crack’ – the My Struggle series by Nordic publishing sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. On 2nd March Karl Ove was interviewed by Claire Armistead at Foyles flagship store on the eve of the publication in English of volume 4 Dancing In The Dark ( trans Don Bartlett).

This volume covers the years Knausgaard spent in the far north of Norway as a secondary school teacher when aged only 18 himself. He explained that this was a challenging time in his life. The community in which he lived was very different from the one in which he had grown up. It was small, isolated and inward looking with a rough macho culture.

At that point in his life he was holding on to two realities : arrogance and shyness. You think you know everything about yourself at that age but, of course, you don’t.

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Claire Armistead asked how much of that time he actually remembered as in the book he recounts many episodes of blacking out following heavy drinking.

He conceded that there are a lot of things about that time he doesn’t remember. He was drinking a lot. When writing this volume it had been interesting for him to reflect that his first published novel, Out Of This World, concerned a young man who goes up North to teach. Essentially it was this story but it was fiction. In Dancing In The Dark he tries to say what really happened . He has found it is difficult to write the truth – perhaps by volume 6 he has managed to get it right. It is difficult to negotiate the ground between fiction and memory.

His  inner life at this time  was chaotic and he was drinking too much. He was drinking and partying with students. It was very difficult to write about this. He had feelings he was not supposed to have. He kissed a student – nothing more happened but it was very uncomfortable to write about it as a grown man. It was the chaos of being 18 years old, full of desires but with no idea of who you are.

Claire Armistead remarked that it seemed that in this volume he was obsessed with sex. Karl Ove raised an eyebrow ironically , he was 18 and he was obsessed with sex but he hadn’t had it yet! He was living in a small community of 200 people where everyone knew him and they knew exactly what he was doing, even the pupils in his class.

Did this circumscribe his ability to write about these events ? Writing a book is a zone of freedom for Knausgaard. What he means is that as he is writing he feels completely free in his thinking. This volume is a lot about shame. There is no shame in literature and he does not feel shame as he is writing. The shame comes when he has finished writing  and the work is complete.

He was careful to censor a lot of things that happened to other people. The project was very sensitive and  in fact there were lawyers reading over the drafts and forcing edits.

The person in the book is him and not a character. He tried to recreate himself at 18 but of course at 40 you know so much more.He doesn’t allow the ‘character’ to have any reflection in a mature sense. He joked that he has a sense of what it is to be 17 or 18 still but he tries to have more dignity in his life now.

He didn’t feel that he was betraying his 18 year old self in writing about him in this way. He had wanted to write a novel about his experiences at that time and was writing everyday. He just couldn’t do it. As it turned out he had to wait 25 years before he was able to write a novel about that time.

His view is that this is a very funny book. Having said that, when he was writing volume 2 he thought he was writing a tragedy – it was only after it was finished and he read it back he realised it was a comedy.

Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are not chronological. Volumes 3 to 6 are and the complete work is circular.

The project started because he wanted to write about his father’s death. He gave his publishers 1200 pages. From that it was decided there would be 6 volumes and it was then he constructed the arc that leads volume 6 back to volume 1. He then had to write 4 books very quickly.

Armistead asked him about the 240pp digression which appears in the book going back to his father. Knausgaard doesn’t make decisions when writing. He just follow what comes. He wanted to see all the people in his life from different angles and insights.

His father had changed profoundly at age 40. He went from being a very straight-laced , proper school teacher to becoming a kind of a hippie. He started to drink and then he became an alcoholic. It was so hard to relate to him.

After his death, he discovered that his father had left notebooks recording his feelings.The lawyers told Knausgaard he couldn’t quote directly from them. In these diaries his father recorded his struggle with drinking, he wanted to stop and couldn’t. Knausgaard had wanted to explore how and why this had happened to is Dad. He really didn’t think his father had an inner life until he read these diaries.

Armistead asked him what he thought of the English translation of My Struggle  done by Don Bartlett. He hasn’t read the translation in its entirety. He trusts Don Bartlett completely. He has read from the various volumes at literary events and his voice is completely recognisable and the atmosphere of each volume has been faithfully captured.

Had writing about his past changed him, he was asked? This project was always about writing novels. It doesn’t help you to know your faults. When you write about memory you inevitably change it. Memory isn’t fixed, it floats and evolves.

Armistead asked him about the importance he puts on looking at art. When he is writing he doesn’t read at all, he does however look at art a lot. Art is enigmatic and has no language. He discuss the importance of art to  him in volume 6.

A member of the audience asked about the storm his books had created in Norway where reportedly 10% of the population has read My Struugle. He confirmed it was a sensation  and his books had been on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks. Not since Henrik Ibsen had there been so much publicity about writing in Norway. He can only think this is because Norway is a small society and,  as members of his family had objected to their portrayal in the novels, this was regarded as a scandal.

He had thought that this kind of fuss about appearing in print was a peculiarly Scandinavian phenomenon however he recently wrote a travel piece for the New York Times.  This followed a journey he made across the States and the people who appeared in that piece made just as much fuss about their portrayal. He has discovered that people want profound things said about them not realism.

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