This look of sadness would last perhaps for a minute

Dear Amy, Jill (1884) is a fast-pacing coming of age story with subtle social commentary and strong feminist undertones. The novel centres on the eponymous heroine, Jill, the strong-minded, tomboyish daughter of a well-to-do squire. We follow her, as she narrates her adventurous life, from childhood onwards. From an early age, she has been forced…

I don’t want them to reward me for nonsense

Dear Nadezhda, The Boarding-School Girl, tr. Karen Rosneck (2000. Original: Пансионерка, 1861), very much like your sister’s novel City Folk and Country Folk, tr.  Nora Seligman Favorov (2017. Original: Городские и деревенские, 1863) is as layered as a Russian doll: inside the social satire and comedy of manners, we can glimpse a coming of age story;…

The milk of incomprehension

Dear Nora, Soviet Milk, tr. Margita Gailitis (2018. Original: Mātes piens, 2015) was this odd thing: a butterfly that, going in reverse, moults back into a chrysalis. What had started as a nuanced, enraged depiction of life under Soviet rule, gradually turned into a black and white, poor reproduction of what the book might have been….

Every abyss has its lullabies

Dear Julián, Tomb Song, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2018. Original: Canción de tumba, 2011) is an elegiac account of a writer who tries to reconcile himself both with a troubled past and with a present marked by imminent loss. We follow a mourning trajectory that begins with the narrator’s personal crisis – triggered by his mother’s illness – and…

It was a family of women buccaneers

Dear Gladys, The Matriarch (1924) is a family saga told in a fragmented way, weaving together vignettes, sketches and anecdotes that read like a series of family legends passed on from one generation to the next. The book follows the Rakonitzes, a cosmopolitan, wealthy Jewish family, from the early 19th century to the early 20th…

The first tear opened up that day

Dear Victor, ‘The Love of Singular Men‘ (2016. Original: O amor dos homens avulsos, not translated yet) reads like a delicate web, a coming-of-age tale of affection, woven in different forms of violence. Camilo, the narrator, is a disabled, middle-aged white man, living alone in a small apartment in the fictional Queím neighbourhood, in the…

All we see is a haze

Dear Carol, As if under the muffled atmosphere of a tense game, the storyline of Sinuca embaixo d’água (2009, ‘Underwater snooker’, not translated yet) circumscribes an absence: the white ball that moves the others and drives the game forward. Antonia, the main character, is at the heart of the story but never directly shows up…

I was giving the glad-eye like blazes

Dear Connie, The Laws (1993, tr. Richard Huijing. De Wetten, 1991) reads like a draft of a draft: the shadow of an idea, hovering over the page without ever really taking off. The novel is set in the 1980’s and centres around Marie Deniet, an Amsterdam-based student who sets out in search of ‘the laws’…

The point is not to negate reality, but to peel back its scrim,

Dear Chloe, Your novel The Immortalists (2018) seems to be cursed by the very premise it seeks to explore: the interplay between chance and destiny is not an easy subject to tackle. Your somewhat tamed approach to it, however, is a bad omen. The book is a decades-spanning story of a Jewish immigrant family. It…

The sky was red and all my life was in it.

Dear Jean, In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home,…

She was still her own indomitable self,

Dear Willa, A Lost Lady (1923) is a story drenched in melancholy. A short-lived world is coming of age and, caught in its remaking, its inhabitants seem to be constantly circumscribing a void and falling through to the other side. They are not so much losing themselves in its changing, as they are disclosing to…

I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise

Dear Anne, Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect. Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother…

Look at the colour of it

Dear Ali, It takes us only a few paragraphs of Autumn (2016) to recognize your characteristic marks: experimental writing; a collage of literary references; a narrative propelled through voice and voice alone; a narrative that mingles past and present, as if they were one thing, happening at once; and, finally, the creative reframing of contemporary…

I’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

We are more porous than we know

Dear Emily, Although centred around a murder, your debut novel Idaho (2017) does not revolve around the questions of who might have done it or why; yours is much more a book about atmosphere; a collection of first impressions and lost tracks, crossed through by the motif of loss. In the middle of summer, on…

Trespassing on one’s own ground

Dear Monica, The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive. When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with…

It has a fascination of its own, that bend

Dear Lucy, At first, I felt skeptical about your novel Anne of Green Gables (1908). Anne seemed too chatty, too imaginative, too eager to please – too good to be true. Or perhaps I simply should have met her earlier, as a child of eleven, and on her own terms. But, gradually, so as it happened…