Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated by Alex Valente

can you hear me elena varvelloI sometimes feel I am missing something. Other people love a book, people whose opinions I respect and often share, but I just don’t get it. I feel a bit like this with Can You Hear Me? It is marketed as both suspense and coming-of-age. It is a coming-of-age story, but I am struggling to find any suspense.

The narrator, 16-year-old Elia, begins by telling you the climax of the story. His father is having some kind of mental crisis. Elia suspects he was involved in the disappearance of a boy and he will go on to take the teenage babysitter from next door into the woods.

Of course many great books employ this technique and yet still manage to pique your curiosity because you want to know how they get there, books as diverse as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. However here, I didn’t feel that there was any interest or anything to feel curious about, because there is no struggle or conflict, no sense that anyone is trying to influence events.

Elia drifts through the summer, doing coming-of-age stuff, hanging out with a kid his parents disapprove of, challenging him to dares, getting the hots for his mate’s mum, and meanwhile his father is disintegrating. Elia signals his unease by putting a picture of the missing boy on his wall and saying inarticulate teenage boy things to his mum along the lines of, what about that boy, though?

The characters speak in abstractions so you know that they’re deep, such as when Elia’s mother says to him, ‘I’ve thought about some things, you know? I don’t know why they felt so important. They don’t matter at all now. You have your life to live.’ And so it goes on to the inevitable.

There’s a sense of overwhelming passivity about it, there’s no suspense because the characters don’t do anything or even look remotely as if they might. It’s very moody and atmospheric but you feel like you want to puncture it, like ask them why no one thought to contact the police or a mental health professional. Elia’s mum works in a library, she could have looked it up.

If it weren’t for the fact that it came highly recommended, I wouldn’t have finished it.

I received a copy of Can You Hear Me? from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin translated by Megan McDowell

Fever Dream by Samanta SchweblinTwo people are in a hospital. Amanda is feverish and believes she is near death. David is a boy who is not her son. David is pushing her to recount the events that led up to her illness.

She tells a story of her family and his. It begins as an innocent holiday friendship but has a sinister undertone. David’s mother tells Amanda that her son fell ill before they met, apparently due to exposure to something in the environment. She is convinced that she lost his soul when his body recovered, that this was a bargain she made with a healer.

The tension builds as the story unfolds in a long, breathless narrative (it’s a short novel, but conversely one very long chapter). As she tells the story, David pushes her to remember certain incidents, while dismissing others which she wants to pursue.

I read on, intrigued at first, then a little impatient, but anticipating that there would be clues and allusions to the meaning of the narrative. Is the story chronological? What is hallucinated and what real? Where is David’s mother and Amanda’s daughter?

Then I got to the end and it just sort of – well, ended. And I’m deflated. Am I being dense? Did I miss something? I didn’t expect a neat resolution tied with a bow, but I thought that there would be insights and inferences, ideas which would resonate and send me back through the key scenes to interpret them anew. Now I’m not sure what the themes of the book are, apart from ‘pesticides are bad’ and ‘parenting is scary’.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Fever Dream is innovative in its form and beautifully written (and translated) but I feel like I wanted something more.

I received a copy of Fever Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Fever Dream on Goodreads

Want to know more? Read this interview with Samanta Schweblin on Lithub


The Angels Die by Yasmina Khadra translated by Howard Curtis

the-angels-dieThe Angels Die is set in Algeria between the two world wars. It tells the story of Turambo, a young, poor Arab boy who grows up to be a promising boxer. It is narrated by Turambo and begins when he is in prison, awaiting execution.

Turambo grows up with his mother, uncle and his family. His own father is absent after he went to fight in World War One. The early part of the book is a series of increasingly bleak vignettes showing the poverty and cruelty that Turambo experiences in the slums. It was hard to stay focused without a narrative but the story begins to flow as Turambo reaches adolescence, when he and his friend Sid Roho run away to the city of Oran.

Life in Oran remains tough but Turambo at least sees possibilities, that life can be different from the slums. He forms a significant friendship with a boy called Gino. In the city he experiences different cultures – and prejudices. He meets Europeans (‘Roumis’) of various nationalities, experiences racism against Arabs and sees the ambiguous status of Gino, who is of Italian descent but Jewish.

Turambo takes a number of menial jobs but his temper gets him into trouble. His refusal to accept low-paid work and humiliation and his willingness to stand and fight win him the chance to train as a boxer. Life opens up for him but he faces new challenges and ultimately finds himself in prison.

Turambo kicks against the limited opportunities offered to him, and this is one of the key themes of the book. You can admire his spirit, for insisting on making choices where it appears that none exist, or you can see his behaviour as self-destructive. Neither the risk takers like Sid Roho, nor conformists like Turambo’s uncle, find peace and security. Perhaps Turambo’s nature means he couldn’t behave differently, but even if he could there are no success stories in his life for him to emulate.

The Angels Die asks profound questions about choice and fate, about the subtle and overt ways people are constrained, and about why some submit and some fight.

I received a copy of The Angels Die from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Angels Die on Goodreads