Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)

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Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.

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Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

 

 

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A Beautiful Young Wife – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

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Scribe have done a great job this year in bringing the work of Dutch author Wieringa to an English speaking audience with translations of his back catalogue by Sam Garrett.  This is the British publication of his 2014 novella “Een Mooie Jonge Vrouvo”

This is the fourth of Wieringa’s novels I have read, enough evidence to strongly suggest that he is an important contemporary European writer with great depth and range in his published works.  One of his novels republished by Scribe in 2016 “Joe Speedboat” became my reviewsrevues Book Of The Year. In “A Beautiful Young Wife” he exquisitely examines a relationship between a couple with a 14 year age gap.  Edward has buried himself in his career as a microbiologist and has missed out on romance until the day he encounters Ruth cycling past the cafe he is in.  The couple meet, fall in love, get married and plan a family.  Edward finds himself having to face up to commitment, fatherhood, respecting another’s values and beliefs with varying success.

I found the whole thing compelling and beautifully written.  There is an explicitness and openness that I hadn’t really picked up on the previous novels.  This might actually upset a few readers but in the context of the relationships he depicts it is powerful and vibrant.  No Bad Sex Award for Mr Wieringa, I’d hope.

Behind this tale of getting on with another is a study of pain.  Ruth, a vegetarian, believes Edward causes pain in animals used as part of his research.  Edward moves towards her point of view as they begin to increasingly inflict pain upon one another.  This study of a relationship is raw and sparse as well as poetic and thought-provoking and is my second favourite of the four books I have read by this highly talented Dutch author.

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A Beautiful Young Wife was published by Scribe in  August 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Little Caesar – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

Day 45 from the date I was told I would have internet access and I have it!! Hallelujah!  It’s a Christmas miracle – not even an apology from BT so far.  Anyway, I’m feeling jubilant, I’ve just been to the panto (“Cinderella” at Shanklin Theatre) and to celebrate here’s a review of a second good book by Tommy Wieringa that I have read this year……….

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Scribe continue their English publications of Dutch author Wieringa’s works with this translation (by Sam Garrett) of his 2007 novel “Caesarion”.  This is the third of his books I have read to date and although it is not quite up there with “Joe Speedboat” it is a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Strout and Deborah Levy have both published highly acclaimed studies of the daughter mother relationship this year but Wieringa here focuses on mother and son.  This relationship is the most dynamic aspect of this novel.

Ludwig Unger returns to Suffolk for a funeral.  He and his mother had settled there some years ago until their cliff-top house collapsed into the sea.  His mother has recently died and all this revisiting of the past sees Ludwig recalling events.  Ludwig is an odd combination of talented pianist and rugby player and is not that sympathetic a character.  His mother lives her life without responsibility or even being able to account for her actions.  His frustration towards her is palpable throughout and totally understandable.  His father, who left when Ludwig was very young is even more morally dubious, an artist who specialises in demolishing natural environments in the name of art.

Wieringa writes beautifully and this is an unpredictable read and I was drawn into this young man’s search for support.  There is throughout a coolness and detachment which was reminiscent of the author’s “These Are The Names” yet in its strength of characterisation it feels closer to “Joe Speedboat”, but the warmth and humour of that novel is replaced with a degree of impassivity with the character’s dealings with one another.  Both this and “Joe Speedboat” can be seen as coming of age novels but the latter faces adulthood with energy and vivacity whilst Ludwig has been aged by parent/child role reversal and faces this part of his life with a wandering listlessness.  Both are valid responses, given their circumstances, but I must confess I found it more rewarding to spend time in Joe’s company.

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Little Caesar is published by Scribe in the UK in January 2016.  Many thanks to Scribe for the review copy.

The Evenings – Gerard Reve (Pushkin 2016)

 

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I was really looking forward to this book.  The Society Of Dutch Literature voted it the greatest Dutch novel of all time and some 59 years after its first appearance it is making its debut in its first English translation.

I have recently discovered Dutch author Tommy Wieringa and after reading the excellent “Joe Speedboat” was keen to read more from a country whose literature I had pretty much ignored.  I was even more thrilled to discover that the translation was by Sam Garrett, who was  responsible for bringing “Joe Speedboat”, a book which is going to be battling it out amongst the front runners for my Best Read of The Year, to a new audience.

Reading the blurb it reminded me of my last year’s best read “Alone In Berlin” by Hans Fallada, a novel which took 62 years to arrive in English and which has since been acknowledged as a modern classic.  “The Evenings” is also published by the rather marvelous Pushkin Press.  All of these positives made me eagerly await my review copy.  It seemed like the perfect match for me.

It is set in Amsterdam in the last couple of weeks of 1946.  The main character is 23 year old Frits Van Egters and it starts very much in a simple, unfussy style which can be quite common in European literature and is really quite appealing.  I settled down and prepared to enjoy.

However, it soon became clear that it was not going to match my expectations.  It didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Basically, Frits leaves the home he shares with his parents most evenings, visits friends, says things without thinking, worries about anyone’s impending baldness and goes to bed where he dreams and that’s about it.  There’s no plot development and the characters did not come alive particularly and the whole thing comes across as sadly, for this reader, insignificant.  It was at this point that I realised that I was not quite so attuned to Dutch literature as my limited experience of it had hoped.  Compared to “Joe Speedboat” this is a damp squib.  It might end with the odd firework on New Year’s Eve, but it was without any explosive writing.

Frits, an anxious outsider, becomes annoying.  He describes himself, fittingly, as a small time neurotic; believes everyone over sixty should be done away with, that male baldness is one of the worst things that could happen to a man, that’s there is little point in women and who has a need to fill in gaps in conversation with observations that are often idiotic.  At times he comes across as a young Dutch Alf Garnett! Johnny Speight’s creation was ironic but I’m not sure if we should view Reve’s Frits as an example of Dutch humour.  I don’t know if we should latch on to what are some underlying mental issues.  I really don’t know what I am supposed to feel for him, other than irritated.

I needed to find out more about the author.  “The Evenings” was Reve’s first novel in a long career, originally written under a pseudonym.  A film has been made of it as has a graphic novel.  Reve’s work, I discovered, is credited with making homosexualiy acceptable to his Dutch readership, largely through humour and irony.  I don’t know how much this statement applies to this particular work but reading the book I didn’t pick this up.  Frits displays misogyny ( probably) and narcissism (definitely) but I didn’t pick up on any coded references to his sexuality.  True, he did seem to like going to the toilet together with male friends but I put that down to the amount of alcohol consumed!

Is this a novel, which on its first British publication, is now too dated?  Are the concerns I’ve raised the reason why it has taken so long to arrive over here?  It’s certainly enigmatic  and I haven’t cracked the puzzle.  It is a book I thought would be ideal for me and as it didn’t grab me it makes it seem an even bigger disappointment than perhaps it deserves to be.  I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for other reviewers to see just what they made of it.  I don’t want to be the one sat by the wall if a party is in the offing.

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The Evenings is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd November 2016 .  Many thanks for the publishers and Netgalley for the advance  review copy.

100 Essential Books – Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

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I was introduced to Dutch author Tommy Wieringa by newbooks magazine issue 84 and a five star review for “These Are The Names”, later short-listed for Bookhugger Book of The Year.  This was a chilling, thought-provoking novel of a  search for a modern Promised Land.  Fuelled by its success publishers Scribe have embarked upon a series of reissues of his earlier works.  “Joe Speedboat” was his debut from 2009 and is translated as was the last book by Sam Garrett.  On domestic release it became the best selling debut novel in Dutch but didn’t find that much of a worldwide audience.  I think it’s time to change this with this 2016 reprint.  It is one of the best books I have read this year and surpasses, in my opinion, “These Are The Names”.

Teenager Frankie Hermans awakes after a horrific accident to hear his parents talking about a new arrival to their village, a boy called Joe Speedboat with a predilection for making bombs.  His arrival in Lomark was equally explosive- through the wall of a house in a truck in a crash which killed his father.  Joe is adamant no-one knows his real name as he transforms the lives of those around him.  I felt that “These Are The Names” favoured themes over characterisation but here it is the marvellous characters that take central stage, especially the refreshingly energetic Joe, full of schemes to rock a sleepy village and narrator Frankie, left without speech and with limited movement who is soon incorporated into Joe’s big plans.

This book it touching, eccentric, laugh out loud funny and completely unpredictable.  I found myself hanging onto  every word.  It is a marvellous achievement.  It is a coming of age novel with a difference and has immense vitality and like the very best novels it is life-enhancing.  Other novels by Wieringa are being republished in the same format.  If they are as good as this then we have found ourselves an important European writer.

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Joe Speedboat is republished by Scribe in this new edition in 2016.

These Are The Names- Tommy Wieringa (2015)

wieringaThis is the eleventh publication from this Dutch prize winning author (he has now published twelve in his homeland –three are available as English translations).  Set on and around the steppes of Eastern Europe a Police Commissioner Pontus Beg finds himself forming a bond with the only Rabbi left around.  As he embarks on his own personal odyssey a much crueller one is taking place.

In a parallel narrative a group of refugees who have paid to cross the border are dumped on the steppes and left to make their own way to who knows where .  Without the resources to survive the only options are death, madness or dehumanisation to a basic primitive level where superstition becomes linked to survival.  This is a chilling tale with Beg seeking hope in an age-old faith and and the refugees on a fruitless search to their modern Promised Land.  Not all readers respond well to the parallel narrative structure  (I don’t really have a problem with it).  This is something that Wieringa is aware of.  In an interview with Guy Pringle and Lydia Revett for New Books Magazine (NB 84) the author had this to say;

“You might have noticed that every chapter has the same length of more or less 200 words – I did that to give the book a pounding rhythm and to overcome the problem of the parallel narrative : if the reader favours this or that storyline, he doesn’t have to turn the pages impatiently; because of the steady rhythm he knows when to expect his favourite storyline.”

As a result of this the structure works very well.  The depth of the novel is within its themes rather than characterisation.  We are distanced from the diminishing group of refugees just as they are distanced from one another in an environment where support and care for their fellow humans could be deemed as weakness but this certainly does not diminish the horror of their plight.  Wieringa in this translation by Sam Garrett has produced a very readable, thought provoking novel which has already garnered the Dutch Libris and could be expected to appear on a number of “Best Of 2015” lists at the end of this year.

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These Are The Names was published in 2015 in the UK by Scribe