What two people can make of the same view

Dear Elizabeth, In your novel A View from the Harbour (1947), we are sea watchers, guided by a faint beam. It feels very much as if we were inside a lighthouse, following the light as it shifts from one character to another. The novel centres around the inhabitants of a small seaside town in England…

Trust is fine, but control is better

Dear Elfriede, Your novel The Piano Teacher, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (1988. Die Klavierspielerin, 1983) is vile and uncompromising: it dwells on the grotesque, crossed by an undercurrent of violence that, by striping everything of fineries and superficial niceties, almost acts as a cleansing element. The novel centres around Erika Kohut (Erika K.), a piano teacher…

The various crimes of sadness

Dear Fleur, Most of the twenty-one stories in your collection I Am the Brother of XX, tr. Gini Alhadeff (2017. Original: Sono il fratello di XX, 2014) have a claustrophobic feel to them: like when we are aware that we are dreaming, but we cannot wake up, no matter how much we try. The stories are set…

I believe in the god of carnage

Dear Yasmina, Threading the thin line between civility and barbarity, you manage to convey, with acerbic wit, how civility and good intentions are slowly but steadily sacrificed to The God of Carnage (2008, tr. Christopher Hampton. Original: Le Dieu du carnage, 2007) The play revolves around two middle-class couples who meet to discuss a fight…

Marriage had been shockingly debased

Dear Amantine, In a strange way, your novel Valentine (1832) made me feel at home. Not a home I currently inhabit, nor a place where I am particularly inclined to come back any time soon, but my first literary home: the books I used to read as a child; tragic stories, full of impassionate heroes who…

Like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture

Dear Dorothy, The Home-Maker (1924) does a good job at portraying a situation where people are forced into restrictive roles not only by external expectations and social pressure, but also by their own internalised beliefs of what is expected of them. Set in the early twentieth century in small town America, the book centres around…

Hardened to stone by the Medusa head of misery

Dear Mary, Like a daughter who never really got to know her mother, your novella Mathilda was not published during your lifetime. Written between 1819 and 1820, it had its publication denied by your father, William Godwin, because of its scandalous nature. The book only saw the light of day in 1959, after being discovered…

There was always a wind blowing

Dear Monica, Do you know this feeling of slowly being enveloped by coldness? Like at the end of a sunny day: with the faint memory of the sun on our skin, we are caught unawares by the first wind. That’s more or less how your novel The Winds of Heaven (1955) feels like: as an…

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,…

Strange can be quite normal

Dear Samanta, Your novel Fever Dream (2017), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Distanca de Rescate, 2014) takes the form of a conversation between a woman and a boy, going back and forth between past and present, in a fragmented series of flashbacks. It also reads like a confession of guilt, and a nightmare….

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…