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Note: This novel was WINNER of Japan’s Akutagawa Prize in 2016.

“In a short-staffed convenience store, a store worker can sometimes be highly appreciated just by existing, by virtue of not rocking the boat. I’m not particularly brilliant compared to Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara, but I’m second to none in terms of never being late or taking days off. I just come in every day without fail and because of that I’m accepted as a well-functioning part of the store.”—Keiko Furukura

cover MurataSayaka, Convenience store womanKeiko Furukura has been working at her local Smile Mart convenience store for half her life, for the eighteen years since she finished high school, and she is completely comfortable in her job and in her ability to manage her life. Though she works only part-time because she says she is “not strong,” she knows where everything belongs in the store, how to restock shelves and supplies, how to update displays, and how to avoid conflict with her co-workers and customers. She likes her job, they like her, she never gets angry, and she is as happy as she can be in her role – one which that she regards as “not suitable for men.” It is the other women in her life who eventually begin to question her role at the store and her future there. She is, after all, a woman in her mid-thirties, approaching the age at which she may soon be “unable” to marry and have children, goals her family and friends have already achieved for themselves and which they hold for her for the future.

Sayaka MurataIn a short, simple narrative very revealing of the main character, her satisfactions, and her lack of aspirations, author Sayaka Murata details the life of a woman who is, unlike most female main characters, someone who is completely happy, satisfied with her job, and not interested in change. She has never had any particular interest in being married or having children, and it is not until she offers to help a friend prepare a barbecue for over a dozen people that she realizes that only two other women there are not yet married. As she describes it, “I hadn’t thought anything of it since not everyone had come as a couple, but unmarried Miki whispered to me: ‘We’re the only ones here who can’t hold our heads up high, aren’t we?’ ” Keiko’s life changes, however, when the convenience store hires a middle-aged man who is shabbily dressed, does not follow directions, disrespects the job, insults Keiko, and arrives late to work. When she asks him what is his reason for working there at all, he admits to her that that he is “marriage-hunting,” looking for someone who has money to invest in his business. As he puts it, “We men have it much harder than women, you know. If you’re not yet a fully fledged member of society, then it’s get a job, and if you’ve got a job, it’s earn more money, and if you earn more money, it’s get married and have offspring. Society is continually judging us. Don’t lump me together with women. You lot have a cushy time of it.”

A cashier moves a customer's purchases at a checkout counter at an E-Mart Co. store, a subsidiary of Shinsegae Co., in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, June 27, 2014. South Korea releases monthly consumer price index (CPI) numbers on July 1. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Turning the structure of the typical romance on its head, author Murata then introduces complications to Keiko’s life, reversing the usual societal expectations as Keiko tries to help a man who constantly insults her and contributes nothing to a relationship. Her family and friends, however, see only the surface of what they regard has her budding love life, and they are thrilled for her, even as she deals with a man whose goal in life is to be supported and do nothing. They want her new male friend to attend social functions with her, even as his verbal abuse of her is so outrageous that no reader will believe that any woman, no matter how desperate, would put up with it. She has made her own deal, however, and will let it play out.

Food selection, Smile Mart, Japan

Food selection, Smile Mart, Japan

The scenes here are so visual that they beg to be included in a short film.   Japanese culture, which in many key areas here is similar to American culture, also reveals a kind of patience and respect for tradition here which few American women would be likely to tolerate. Siraha, a male with extreme views who enters Keiko’s life through his job at the convenience store, believes that his society has not changed since the Stone Age, though Keiko proves that belief wrong by actually listening to him instead of hitting him over the head with a Stone Age club. Banging his fist on the table and spilling his tea, he insists, however, that “This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village….We live in a world which is basically the Stone Age with a veneer of contemporary society.” Keiko herself reveals her lack of thought about the implications for the future with her own simplistic conclusion, that “[Stone Age life] was probably the same as the convenience store, where it was just us being continually replaced while the store remained the same unchanging scene.”

smile martMurata’s satiric humor is similar to that of some of the classical writers of Japan, with ironies and clever twists not unlike those found in some novels by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most famous and respected twentieth century novelists. Almost a hundred years ago, Tanizaki was writing about the changes in traditional Japanese society as a result of western contact, and Some Prefer Nettles (1929) and A Cat, a Man, and Two Women (1935), especially, highlight similar issues to those of this novel. Obviously, many changes have occurred in Japanese society since then, and recent novels by contemporary Japanese authors, especially by some female authors, show a society recognizing the changes that have occurred in the past hundred years while also showing the care the country takes to preserve their long traditions of civilization and behavior. Contemporary Japanese writers recognize the freedom which women have achieved within society, and readers interested in pursuing this and other cultural themes may want to click the “Japan” link in the right column of the Home page for links to reviews of twenty-eight other Japanese novels, many of them contemporary. Murata herself is obviously comfortable in her own personal life – she has won major writing prizes, such as the Akutagawa Prize for this novel and was Vogue Japan’s Woman of the Year in 2016 – and she still works by choice in a local convenience store!

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://twitter.com

The photo of a convenience store clerk is from https://www.gettyimages.co.uk

The food picture and the picture of the shelves are both posted on Smile Mart Japan’s Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Japan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Sayaka Murata
Published by: Grove Press
Date Published: 06/12/2018
Edition: First English edition
ISBN: 978-0802128256
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

NOTE:  Each year I enjoy checking to see which reviews are getting the most attention on this website, and each year I am always surprised by the number of older books (and reviews) which remain in the Top Ten. For this new list I wanted to see which books published and reviewed in the past five years would be in the Top Ten if I removed the recurrent “old favorites.”

Gone from this list as a result of the “purge” of recurrent favorites (books that have been among the Top Ten Favorites for at least five years) are Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel (from Nigeria, 2004), Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer (Norway, 2011), Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (New Zealand, originally published in 1995), and Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography (Pakistan, 2004), all of which would have been in the Top Ten.

cover-ru-197x300Here is the new list of Favorites so far this year, and it has some surprises over last year’s list. Only three books on this list have ever been on the Top Ten at all until this year! Most are exciting recent books getting some great reviews, but some are older books getting some publicity and achieving popular success at last.  Link to review provided with each listing.

1.  Ru by Kim Thuy (set in Vietnam and Canada, released in 2012). This book appeared in the Favorites list for the first time just last year, five years after its publication, and it has now become established as one of the great stories of immigration, beautifully told. (#2 on last year’s Favorites list).

2.  The Thirst by Jo Nesbo, the eleventh novel in the Harry Hole series of thrillers (Norway, released in May, 2017). Though the book was not released in the US until May, 2017, it managed to make the Favorites list in third place in December, so great is Nesbo’s popularity.  In the past six months it has moved up another notch.

3.   Shifu, You’d Do Anything for a Laugh by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan (China, released in November, 2012, appearing on the cover-henrik-groenFavorites list for the first time this year). Seven short stories and one novella create a sometimes mystical or mysterious mood, often akin to horror, and guaranteed to make readers take notice, even as they may be lulled by the “folksy” and confidential attitude of several speakers from Mainland China.

4.  The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, a novel written under a pen name purportedly by a man living in an assisted living facility (Netherlands, released in the US in July, 2017.) Thoughtful and often ironically funny, this book discusses real issues, from the clique-ishness of the population to the difficulties of finding time and space to be alone, and the problems of living, full-time, with people who may have nothing in common with you except age. One of my own big favorites, new to the list!

cover-golden-age5.   The Golden Age by Joan London (Australia, published in the US in 2016, and new to the Favorites list). Winner of four major literary awards in Australia, the novel is set in a rehab facility for children suffering the paralyzing aftereffects of polio in the sparsely settled outskirts of Perth, Australia, which, during the early 1950s, had a disproportionately large percentage of child polio victims. Filled with realistic, straightforward details and a complete lack of easy sentimentality, the novel describes life during the days before the Salk vaccine.

6.  The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (Germany, released in the US in translation in 2011, and appearing on the Favorites list for the first time last year). Originally published in Germany in 1932, when author Irmgard Keun was only twenty-two, The Artificial Silk Girl, a bestselling novel of its day, is said to be for pre-Nazi Germany what Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) is for Jazz Age America.

7.  The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville (Australia, published in the US in January, 2011). Basing this fine novel about the settlement of Australia’s New South Wales on the real life and notebooks made by Lt. Wicover-tricklliam Dawes from 1788 – 1790, author Kate Grenville subjects the empire-building attitudes of the Crown and its representatives to careful scrutiny and creates a novel filled with conflicts and well-developed themes. New to the Favorites list.

8.  Trick by Domenico Starnone (Italy, Neapolitan Noir, released March 6, 2018). Already on the Favorites List though it has been out only three months, the novel features Daniele Mallarico, a man in his seventies, who is on his way from Milan to Naples, where he has agreed to care for his four-year-old grandson Mario for three days. Here the author uses irony and dark humor for his primary dramatic effects, contrasting the age and thinking of the elderly grandfather and his precocious grandson as he raises questions about how we become who we are, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

cover-bolano9.  The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano (Chile, first released in the US in 2011). Five stories and two essays provide unique insights into the work of Bolano. Throughout these stories, the reader becomes hypnotized by the succession of Bolano’s images, by the lives he depicts (including his own in the two essays), and by the metaphysical suggestions and possible symbols of his stories, despite the fact that Bolano does not make grand pronouncements or create a formal, organized, and ultimately hopeful view of life as other authors do. First time on the Favorites list for this new “classic.”

10.  (Tie) Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, released 2004). Nazneen, a bride married at sixteen to a 40-year-old man, is wrenched from the only life she has ever known in the countryside of Bangladesh and conveyed to England, where her new husband, Chanu, has a job.  Ali recreates Nazneen’s life in all its mundane details, showing her acceptance of a new culture through tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions. The gradual evolution of a new Nazneen is neither simple nor without conflict, and no member of the family escapes her transformation.  New to the Favorites list.

cover-memento-park10.  (Tie) Memento Park by Mark Sarvas (Hungary, US, released in March, 2018). On the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to a 1925 painting by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis. As Matt traces the painting, he learns much about himself and his family, leading to a grand conclusion and belated coming of age. Already on the Favorites list after being on sale for only three months, unusual for literary fiction!

Hope you have fun perusing some of these books and that you find some offerings that appeal to you during your summer vacation!

“I’ve allowed myself to love someone, what a mistake,” what a clichéd sentence, what a cliché of an experience, what a cliché that he should say that, it sounded like a script, the end of a film, which he then followed up with an email that said, “This won’t work. I’m a crater, and you are too. And crater plus crater doesn’t work.” What a cliché, what a cliché! [but] she’d hoped he would turn up all the same….”—Trine, an artist.

cover wait blinkIn her debut novel, just translated and published in English, Norwegian author Gunnhild Oyehaug explores many facets of love among three different women and their lovers, a novel which led in her own country to her involvement with the acclaimed film “Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts” in 2015, based on a repeating image throughout this novel. Here men believe that women in oversized men’s shirts – and little else – are inherently attractive, and most of the female characters find themselves in oversize men’s shirts or pajama tops at some point in the novel as they search for the perfect love. The primary character, Sigrid, a literature graduate, has an inner life that “seems luminous, only not many people have seen it, her secret, sparkling life.” For certain, her present love, Magnus, an older man, does not recognize it. Just recently, twenty-three-year-old Sigrid was wandering around the city, and rather than face going into a café alone, she decided instead to go to a bookshop, where she randomly chose a book with the “life-affirming” title An Empty Chair, and when she looked at the picture of the author on the back, “she met the eyes of the author, Kare Tryvle. Yes, that was exactly what happened she felt that he met her eyes…[and] it was as if they saw deep inside her…saw her infinite loneliness [that] had been there in the bookshelf. Eyes that seemed to say: hello you.”

Author Gunnhild Oyehaug

Author Gunnhild Oyehaug

Kare, the author to whom Sigrid is instantly attracted, is forty-three, and he has just broken up with Wanda, his girlfriend of the past three years. Speaking as the “entertainment” at a business conference in Bergen, where Sigrid lives, Kare appears wearing worn jeans, a hoodie, and new blue Adidas, and he makes his audience of “suits” laugh with his statement that everyone has the perfect golf swing inside – you just need to find it – and it is not always simple (not exactly a new idea). He then picks up a book that he has written himself and starts to read to his audience, mentally questioning the authenticity of his observations, even as he keeps reading. At the same time and in another place, film director Linnea, age twenty-seven, is wearing an oversized man’s shirt belonging to Goran Faltberg, professor of comparative literature at Uppsala University, standing in front of a window of a hotel in Copenhagen, though Goran is not with her. Instead, shy Robert, her producer, appears at her door, while Goran, at this moment is home in bed with his wife.

Hotel Norge in Bergen, Norway, where Kare is holding forth about literature to a group of "suits" in the early pages of the novel

Hotel Norge in Bergen, Norway, where Kare is holding forth about literature to a group of “suits” in the early pages of the novel.

Trine, age thirty-two, is an artist in Oslo, someone who has thrown her whole self into her life and art, with no regrets. Seventeen months ago she had seduced Knut, whom she believed she loved, but now thinks was a mistake, noting, as she thinks, that this is a clichéd sentence. In the same time frame, she had attended an exhibition “where she’d been part of the opening, with her performance ‘half naked, half dressed,’ out in the foyer wearing a straitjacket on top and a G-string below. Now, by contrast with those days, she drinks practically nothing, does not smoke, and doesn’t kiss anyone, nor has she ever done so since she found out she was pregnant seventeen months ago.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Sophia Coppola attends 'The Bling Ring' premiere during The 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 16, 2013 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Sofia Coppola, author of the Best Original Screenplay for LOST IN TRANSLATION in 2003. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

A change of time period to ten years previously, in 1998, also introduces yet another new character in Viggo, who lost a gold tooth when he had an accident while cycling to his grandmother’s funeral. The tooth went down a drain, where it was gobbled by a salmon on the way to Greenland. Ten years later it would be discovered when the salmon was caught. With little transition, the action returns to the present with Sigrid, the literary grad student, who is working with Sofia Coppola in the film “Lost in Translation,” which features Charlotte, a woman walking around in an oversized man’s shirt, played by Scarlett Johansson. Within the next few pages, Kare, Linnea, Robert, Goran, Viggo, Sigrid, Kare’s ex Wanda, and Trine all have vignettes, independent of each other, in sometimes different times, places, and circumstances, which do not overlap.

Paul de Man, mentioned several times throughout the novel, was a Belgian literary critic famed for including philosophy and the “epistemological difficulties inherent in any textual, literary, or critical activity."

Paul de Man, mentioned several times throughout the novel, was a Belgian literary critic famed for including philosophy and the “epistemological difficulties inherent in any textual, literary, or critical activity.”

What these vignettes do have in common is a tendency for the characters to be supremely self-conscious, self-absorbed, and even “cute,” as they try to connect their own thoughts to those of important people in literature. Dante’s Divine Comedy with its quotation on the Gates of Hell appears several times in vignettes by different characters, as do many references to Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Virgil’s Aeneid and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway occupy space with poems by Olav H. Hauge and Richard Brautigan. One character gives a lecture on Don Quixote as the first novel ever written. Paul De Man, a Belgian literary critic famed for including philosophy and the “epistemological difficulties inherent in any textual, literary, or critical activity” are mentioned several times by various characters. “Absurdity carried to extremes even for absurdity” is discussed by some characters at the same time that other characters are intensely over-analyzing subjects like love, or entering dream worlds and experiencing “a sudden revelation as to the inner being of stars.” And one writer, particularly fond of George W. Bush, is determined to include scenes of him and his father on a golf course as part of a serious writing project.

One character is determined to include George W.Bush and his father in a serious writing project.

One character is determined to include George W.Bush and his father in a serious writing project.

As can be seen in these examples, Gunnhild Oyehaug does not lack for imagination, literary credentials, or intelligence. The book is great fun as often as it is annoying for its extreme self-consciousness. Ironies abound, even including what constitutes a cliché, as seen in the opening quotation of this review and some of the events and descriptions which follow. The never-ending and problematic love stories, all involving women between twelve and twenty years younger than their lovers (for reasons not even hinted at by the author) are strangely off kilter much of the time, though these “intellectual” characters take great delight in analyzing them to death. The academic and literary population and those who take them seriously are presented as serious characters here, and it was only when I assumed the novel to be “absurdity carried to extremes even for absurdity” that I was able to work my way through it to the end.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://alchetron.com/

Hotel Norge in Bergen, Norway, where Kare is holding forth about literature to a group of “suits” in the early pages of the novel.  https://www.agoda.com

Sofia Coppola, author of the Best Original Screenplay for LOST IN TRANSLATION in 2003. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images) http://www.hungertv.com

Paul de Man, mentioned several times by several characters throughout the novel, was a Belgian literary critic famed for including philosophy and the “epistemological difficulties inherent in any textual, literary, or critical activity.”  https://thecharnelhouse.org

One character is determined to include George W.Bush and his father in a serious writing project.  https://www.history.com/

WAIT, BLINK
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Literary, Norway
Written by: Gunnhild Oyehaug
Published by: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Date Published: 06/05/2018
ISBN: 978-0374285890
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“He hated these old gangsters. On intimate terms with the cops and the judges.   Never done time. Thought they were better than anyone else. Zucca had a face like Brando in The Godfather. They all had faces like that. Here, in Palermo, in Chicago. Everywhere you went. And now he had one of them in his sights. He was going to take one of them out. For friendship’s sake. And to give vent to his hatred.” – speaker of the Prologue.

coverWhen Jean-Claude Izzo published Total Chaos in France in 1995, he had no way of knowing that this and the two sequels he published shortly afterward would come to be known as the Marseilles Trilogy. Nor would he know that these three books would wait twenty years to be translated and re-published in the US and the UK. A consummately noir author at a time in which hard-boiled noir writing was more generally associated with film than with novels, Izzo, the son of an Italian father who emigrated to France, sets his novels in Marseilles, a city very different from the settings of other noir writers, such as William McIlhenny’s Glasgow, home of the Laidlaw novels in the 1970s, and more recently, Massimo Carlotto’s Padua, Maurizio de Giovanni’s Naples, and Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo’s Scandinavia.

author photoMarseilles, unlike these other noir settings, has always had a large number of culturally diverse populations within the city, each with its own special characteristics, values, and relationships with the French people, the police, and the political establishment. This cultural variety comes into play in this complex novel involving French criminals, Italian criminals who have moved to Marseilles, Algerian immigrants who believe they have been driven to crime for economic reasons, and other criminal elements who cross international borders with their influence. As a result, this novel feels broader, darker, and more challenging than most other noir novels. Main character Fabio Montale, the child of immigrants, grew up in an under-populated seaside area in the north of Marseilles, and chose ultimately, to avoid the life of an outsider by becoming a Marseilles police detective, a job he has held for twenty years. When Fabio’s two closest friends from childhood are murdered, however, he decides that his own honor demands that he investigate and avenge these deaths himself. He recognizes that he “needed boundaries, rules, codes. Something to hold on to. Every step I was about to take would move me farther away from the law…[and] I knew that when it came to [my friends], I wasn’t thinking like a cop. I was being swept along by my lost youth.”

Les Goudes

Les Goudes, the underpopulated northern area of Marseilles, where Fabio lives in a house he inherited from his parents.

During that youth, Fabio Montale, Manu, and Ugo, while still in their late teens, had broken up and gone in different directions following a holdup gone wrong involving all three of them. During the robbery, Manu had shot and nearly killed the victim, an event so traumatic for Fabio that he eventually enlisted in the Colonial Army for three years and later became a policeman with the Neighborhood Surveillance Squad in northern Marseilles. Most of his work over the years has been with teenage “punks, junkies, and dropouts,” along with “a whole mass of kids who have no story other than that they were born here. And that they’re Arabs. Or blacks, or gypsies, or Comorans. High school kids, temporary workers, the unemployed, public nuisances, the sports fans.”  Out of the loop with the police inner circle which has been investigating organized crime, Fabio is not attuned to the subtleties of allegiances inside and outside his department, and he trusts no one. The disappearance of Leila, a smart and studious young woman from the neighborhood where Fabio works, and with whom Fabio has been having a flirtation, draws him into a new case, while he is also investigating Ugo’s death.   Soon he is wondering whether there is a connection between Ugo’s death and that of Manu, three months earlier, and he still had no idea who would have abducted Leila or why.

The Roucas Blanc area of Marseilles, where Fabio was tailing one of the organized crime leaders of the novel.

The Roucas Blanc area of Marseilles, where Fabio was tailing one of the organized crime leaders of the novel.

As the organized crime investigation which underlies the killings of Manu and Ugo continues to occupy Fabio’s time, the novel becomes increasingly complex, with a large number of characters whose roles are small but important. One of the crime bosses in Marseilles has financial connections to Germany and Switzerland, while being protected by the Camorra in Naples, which controls heroin and cocaine trafficking. An Arab mafia has taken over some of the gambling, prostitution, and night clubs, and a route for laundering money also involves a connection between Naples and the Dutch part of the island of Saint-Martin in the West Indies. Throughout the novel, the city of Djibouti in the tiny country of the same name also appears and reappears. When Manu, Ugo, and Fabio were involved in the robbery and shooting as teenagers, they had regarded Djibouti as an escape, not just from their potential legal problems if they were to be caught, but as a place where they could start over. Fabio had gone there briefly with his two friends, only to return home, join the Colonial Army, and later the police force. Ugo had stayed there permanently, only recently returning to Marseilles after twenty years because he wanted to investigate and avenge the death of Manu. He also wanted to see a woman whom he and Manu had both loved, a woman whom Fabio loves also.

Notre Dame de la Garde, on the harbor to Marseilles.

Notre Dame de la Garde, on the harbor to Marseilles, perhaps the ocean view where the conclusion takes place.

In the course of the action of this novel, Fabio, in fact, has relationships with at least four women, and these relationships seem to start at will and stop when Fabio realizes that he cannot commit to anyone. None of the women who appear in the novel seem to have anything much on their minds, except for the thoughtful and educated Leila, with whom Fabio eventually declines to pursue a relationship, just before her disappearance. The others all seem ready to restart with him if he is interested, the surest way for a woman in this novel to waste time. The conclusion comes after a grand climax involving many characters, many killings, and many complications – financial, political, and personal – as relationships often cross national borders on one level and ethical boundaries on another. Some aspects of the conclusion involving Fabio feel artificial – and convenient – as he decides to explain to one of the women what motivated Manu and Ugo in their criminal careers, and then describe what is happening with his own life. Though the novel has little warmth or real romance in its structure and main plot, the last page is over the top emotionally, saved only by the fact that there are two more novels which will undoubtedly continue Fabio’s story – thereby giving the lie to the excessive sentimentality and expectations of the last hundred or so words of this novel.

The main street in Djibouti, capital of Djibouti, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea.

The main street in Djibouti, capital of Djibouti, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://partageonsnoslectures.over-blog.com

Les Goudes, the underpopulated northern area of Marseilles, where Fabio lives in a house he inherited from his parents.    http://www.weloveprovence.fr

The Roucas Blanc area of Marseilles, where Fabio was tailing one of the organized crime leaders of the novel.  http://www.tourisme-marseille.com

Notre Dame de la Garde, on the harbor to Marseilles, perhaps the ocean view where the conclusion takes place. https://www.notrehistoireavecmarie.com

The main street of Djibouti, the capital city of Djibouti, at the junction of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, a place regarded as a refuge for the three young men – Fabio, Manu and Ugo – after the robbery and shooting of a victim when they were teenagers.  https://www.travelthewholeworld.com

TOTAL CHAOS (Book I of the Marseilles Trilogy)
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Thriller, Noir
Written by: Jean-Claude Izzo
Published by: Europa, World Noir
Date Published: 06/21/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454401
Available in: Paperback

“When Claude was in full flow, it was hard to disagree with her. “Masculine, feminine,” she said. “I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” – Suzanne Malherbe.

cover never anyone but youIn a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly on the fringes of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two such women who live on their own terms.  Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends upon their first meeting  in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen.  Soon they are  almost inseparable, as they quickly develop very strong feelings for each other. Of the two, Suzanne is more stable, with Lucie dealing with anorexia and other issues, and it is Suzanne, who, at Lucie’s father’s request, accompanies Lucie when she needs to go to a convalescent home for several weeks in an effort to recover from a suicide attempt as a young teen.

rupert thomsonIronically, Suzanne and Lucie are further aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives as “sisters.” As they grow older, writer Lucie attends the Sorbonne, and artist Suzanne attends the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they come into contact with the leaders of France’s many avant-garde movements, such as the surrealists and the Dadaists, becoming friends with writers Andre Breton and Robert Desnos, and exploring political philosophies of all varieties. Lucie eventually shaves her head and dresses as a man, full-time, announcing that henceforth she will be known as Claude Cahun, and Suzanne will be Marcel Moore. They experiment with Marxism, even as, inspired by Freud, they also practice automatic writing.  They become friends with Joan Miro, who compliments Marcel for his/her work, and both enjoy Salvador Dali. Soon they know many of the most important people involved in the avant-garde movements in Paris, while celebrating their lives and love for each other.  Claude has several more psychotic episodes during this time when life becomes too challenging.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

All this biographical and historical information in the first part of the book, while necessary to set the stage for the rest of the book, feels somewhat academic – less personally involving than the rest of the novel – though it is exciting intellectually as it includes dozens of references to famous artists and writers, such at Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Salvador Dali, who add interest to the story. The chronology of the book parallels the lives of its real subjects, of course, and as the action develops and many famous and not-so-famous characters appear, I sometimes found myself waiting for the next famous person to make an appearance to provide some excitement. Additionally, Claude, throughout, is self-absorbed and psychologically damaged, and Marcel is so busy playing nursemaid, and in a sense, mother, that the true, deep characters of Lucie and Suzanne are not really clear until the midpoint of the book. This occurs when, in 1937, Claude and Marcel think about moving to the Channel Island of Jersey, a place they have known since they were teenagers. At this point, the book begins to catch fire and move forward powerfully and at great speed.

CahunAndMooreInMirrorsForWeb

Claude Cahun (top) and Marcel Moore (bottom)

Part Three, “Self Portrait in Nazi Uniform,” takes place largely on the island of Jersey, and when it is bombed, Claude and Marcel really hit their stride, with Claude, surprisingly, taking the lead in an effort to defeat the Nazis. Both are completely aware of what will happen if they are caught, but Claude, who has always seemed to embrace death, has no fear of it. S/he is willing to take great chances, hoping to make great differences in the waning war effort, however naïve she may be. Creating their own personas, fabricated, in part, from their experiences in the theatre, Claude and Marcel get close to some officers in the Nazi leadership, especially when part of their house is requisitioned. Their interactions with Nazis and with local residents on the island show them both to be heroic and clever for three full years. The Germans have twenty thousand men on an island of forty-thousand people, and they have the access to the food, leaving most of the people there close to starving during that occupation. In addition, captured Russians, who raise the sympathies of Claude and Marcel have also been brought in as slaves, most of them regarding this sentence, rightly, as their death sentences.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Two short sections at the end bring the postwar years to a powerful conclusion and bring the time frame to 1970, showing the changes which time has wrought since the main chronology of the novel started in 1920. Here Thompson shows his control of his themes and his characters, veering in and out of reality and ghost worlds, mirrors and truth, and exploring the psychic worlds of both Claude and Marcel.   Marcel, a caring “mother” figure, something which Claude has never otherwise experienced positively in his lifetime, continues to offer succor when it is needed and to follow up when Claude disappears periodically, whereabouts unknown. Many readers may become frustrated with the behavior of Claude as s/he continues to act spontaneously, selfishly, often dangerously, despite the devotion of someone like Marcel. At times, when Claude attacks Marcel viciously, the reader yearns for Marcel to take a stand. Ultimately, however, no reader will ever doubt the depth of their love for each other or their willingness to sacrifice to maintain it.

Map-of-Channel-Islands

Channel Islands. Click to enlarge, Jersey is the island nearest St. Malo.

In a poignant moment late in her life, Marcel/Suzanne shares her thoughts with a young friend, “When you are old, no one can ever imagine what you were like when you were young. It’s as if you’ve always been old – or as though you’ve lived in two different lives, one of which seems made up and overblown, hard to believe. It will happen to you as well, of course, in time. But you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”  Something for all of us to explore here.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.otherpress.com

Robert Desnos, a surrealist author, is a friend of Claude and Marcel over three decades.  http://www.lelivrealamer.fr/?p=495

Claude Cahill (Lucie Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe) are shown here as they appeared during most of their lives together:  http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/

Salvador Dali enjoyed some of the work of Suzanne Malherbe.  https://www.biography.com

The map of Jersey in the Channel Islands shows Jersey as the island closest to France, and the largest one.  http://collarcitybrownstone.com

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