#RivetingReviews December 2023 – Introduction by Max Easterman

Festive greetings from all of us at the European Literature Network!

Once again, my stint as Editor of #RivetingReviews has coincided with winter, rather than with a warmer, brighter season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but at least I have a basket overflowing with festive literary fodder. Our reviewers this quarter have covered a wide and varied collection of delicious European literature, for your delight and delectation (as we used to say in the Good Old Days!).

Among the 15 books we review this December, Lizzy Siddall has three quite different books to offer, not least Juli Zeh’s latest, About People, which takes a hard look at one of the key issues of the day: the polarisation of society into entrenched positions and the emergence of cancel culture. Lizzy has also contributed a fascinating review of Irena Brežná’s Thankless Foreigner, which likewise deals with a current and highly divisive topic: immigration. The foreigner in question is an immigrant to Switzerland, and Brežná delivers some scathing comments on the Swiss – which didn’t stop them awarding her the Swiss Literary Prize!

We have two tales set in the East – not of Europe but of Asiatic Russia. West Camel has reviewed Elisa Shua Dusapin’s latest novel, Vladivostok Circus, an exploration of personal relationships and family life; of misunderstandings, false starts and unresolved conflicts – all of which provide a stark contrast to our other Russian story, The Man Who Loved Siberia, written by the Norwegian husband and wife team of Roy Jacobsen and Anneliese Pitz. This is based on the real-life story of the German entomologist Fritz Dörries, who spent more than 20 years in the 19th century criss-crossing the Siberian wastes in search of … butterflies, braving all the while everything from snow, shamans, gangs of violent robbers and a stint in a Sakhalin coalmine.  

Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Kairos, is also about the east, in this case the breakdown and break-up of the former East Germany, woven around a deeply-felt but ultimately tragic and abusive love story. It’s reviewed by a newcomer to #RivetingReviews, Mandy Wight, whom we are delighted to welcome to ELNet. But, as Mandy tells us, the real core of the story is the way Erpenbeck deals with the layers and the weight of history, as both the country and the love affair are torn apart and eaten up by the voracious West.

From Italy, Clarissa Botsford is not reviewing Igiaba Scego’s The Colour Line, but using it and its theme of separation as the basis for an in-depth and fascinating conversation with its outstanding Italian-Somali author. They discuss the meaning of colour and the ‘line of colour’ that separates the life and attitudes of Italians and the Italian state to those who are different because of their colour and racial origins…another contested and controversial issue across much of Europe today. An entirely different view of Italy is brought to us in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Roman Stories, reviewed by Enrica Ferarra. Once again, Lahiri counts the cost of identity, place and exile in her adopted country and language.

Trauma and unresolved lives appear again in Marie NDiaye’s Vengeance is Mine, reviewed by ELNet’s Editor-in-Chief Rosie Goldsmith: a story about the psyche of a French lawyer, an unattractive woman of strange intensity. Reading Ndiaye is unsettling, Rosie tells us, because it leaves you both disturbed and elated. Another related issue, the portrayal of women in history, is the subject of According to Her by Maciej Hen. This is the story of Mariamne, the Mary of Christianity, but told as a fictional account in her own words, shorn of the prejudice and icon-worship of male historians and now told by a Jewish author living in a country, Poland, where the Marian cult is probably the strongest.

And finally, something perhaps a little lighter, certainly utterly page-turning: two thrillers. I have contributed my thoughts on the latest Millennium series, featuring the ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, Karin Smirnoff’s The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons. Smirnoff has taken over from David Lagerkrantz and is for me a most worthy successor to Stieg Larsson. She keeps you guessing to the end. I also review the latest Hansjörg Schneider outing for grumpy Swiss detective Peter Hunkeler: in The Murder of Anton Livius, life on the Basel allotments will never be quite same again.

Read all 15 reviews here on our website! Happy reading! Don’t forget, #RivetingReviews run four times a year. Our next editor for the spring is ELNet’s Anna Blasiak and she will welcome your reviews of both poetry and fiction. The deadline for March reviews is 18 March and they will be published here on our website on 22 March. Do get in touch: reviews@eurolitnetwork.com.

Max Easterman 

Category: December 2023

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