Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Saturday, December 16th, 2017

Anna Enquist is the pen name of Christa Widlund-Broer, born in 1945 in Amsterdam, Holland. Enquist learned to play the piano at the music academy in the Hague Conservatory of Music while studying clinical psychology at Leiden University to become a psychoanalyst. From 1976 she led a dual career of pianist and psychoanalyst.

In 1987 Enquist decided to drop her other activities and devote herself entirely to writing. She published a collection of poems while working as a psychoanalyst in 1991 and in 2014 was named Amsterdam’s poet laureate after publishing several books of poetry. She has also written some novels, her first one, The Masterpiece, which made her fame, was released in Dutch in 1994 and English in 2003. Through the years Enquist has won several literary prizes and is one of the most acclaimed writers in the Netherlands. She lives in Amsterdam.

The Masterpiece is the story of a family who, under the power of an embittered, tyrannical and manipulative mother, succumbs under the tension linked to the organisation of the great painting exhibition of the younger son, Johan Steenkamer, in the national museum.

Alma, the matriarch, who is seventy-year-old, was abandoned over forty years back by her painter husband, Charles, who decided to start a new life alone in the USA. He left her with their two young boys, Oscar and Johan, who hate each other due to their mother’s wicked scheming. Watching the fratricidal war seems a source of pleasure for Alma’s twisted, perverse psyche by dividing and ruling.

The eldest son, Oscar is a museum curator and an art critique. He is a lonely, tortured soul, living in the shadow of his domineering mother, whom, since childhood, he endeavoured to please for the sake of gaining her love. He is consumed by jealousy of his brother, Johan, a painter like his father and consequently his mother’s favourite. Out of jealousy, Oscar does not miss an opportunity to take revenge on his younger brother, Johan, like writing scathing articles in the newspapers about modern painting.

The forty-seven-year-old, Johan Steenkamer is an ambitious, highly talented painter; he is egocentric, lustful, matrimonially unfaithful, compassionless and detached. He is obsessed with his art and is thus only able to channel all his passion and emotions through his paintings, hence, hindering any possible communication between himself and his thirty-five-year-old wife, Ellen. Furthermore, having incompatible characters creates an insurmountable chasm between the couple leading to their separation.

After his young daughter, Saar’s tragic death, Johan paints his wife’s best friend, the psychiatrist, Lisa, with his former wife, Ellen. He manages to capture Ellen’s overwhelming grief in a masterful painting which will constitute the centre of his exhibition, his ultimate achievement, his masterpiece.

This compelling, dramatically touching novel is composed of three parts. Each part is increasingly intense, leading to the third and final one, the fitting culmination after excessive tension. The author describes with diligence the development of events which shape the destiny of her characters according to their psyche.

The women in the novel are depicted more positively than the men, apart from the perverse matriarch, Alma, who even in some parts appears to be worthy of sympathy. In contrast, the men are egoistic, possessive and pathetic, each one of them living in his bubble, preoccupied with his own affairs.

An insightful, psychological analysis on the vulnerability of human psyche, the complexity of people’s minds driven by jealousy, possessiveness, egotism and disloyalty. The mysteries of emotional manipulation by family members as well as the consequences of such machinations on family relationships. A well-written novel without “hitting a wrong note”, worthy of a psychoanalyst.

• Friday, October 27th, 2017

Nina George was born in 1973 in Bielefeld, Germany. In 1991 she left her studies before finishing high school and worked in catering before becoming a freelance journalist, a columnist in magazines and a managing editor for a wide range of publications.

Nina George is a prolific writer; she has published novels, mysteries and non-fiction as well as many short stories. Her work consists of books written under different names: Nina George, Anne West and Jean Bagnol. In 2012 and 2013 she won the Friedrich Glauser prize. The Little Paris Bookshop made its author famous when it became a best-seller. It was first published in German in 2013, in English in 2015 and has been translated into several other languages. In May 2015 Nina George was elected to the board of German Pen and is now an official adviser for the topic author’s rights.

Nina George and her husband, the writer, Jens Johannes Kramer, live between Hamburg and their cottage in Concarneau in the Finistère department of Brittany in north-west France.

The protagonist of The Little Paris Bookshop, Jean Perdu, is a book lover. He is a “peculiar” fifty-year-old bookseller, whose bookshop is inside a barge, moored on the river Seine in Paris, which he named “Literary Apothecary”.

Perdu believes in the power of reading to cure the ills of the spirit and that it is “the only remedy for countless, undefined afflictions of the soul”. He always finds the appropriate book for each of his clients according to their needs and their moods. He has books “about growing old, about contracting an incurable disease, about dying slowly, quickly, alone somewhere on the floor of a hospital ward”.

Perdu admits to one of his clients that he would “rather write an encyclopedia about common emotions; from A for Anxiety through to Z for Zealous”. Nevertheless, the “literary pharmacist who writes prescriptions for the lovesick” is helpless when facing his own heartbroken, inconsolable problem.

Manon from Provence, Jean’s love of his life, parted from him twenty-one years previously, leaving him a farewell letter while he was asleep that Jean never had the courage to open. Since then he has been unable to keep his liveliness from decelerating. However, his destiny shifts the day Catherine, the forsaken new neighbour in his building, whose husband left for a younger woman and to whom Perdu feels attracted, hands him Manon’s unopened letter and encourages him to open it.

Finally, upon reading the twenty-one-year-old letter, Perdu uncovers Manon’s terrible secret, which will fill him with intense sorrow and self-reproach and will trigger his quest for self-discovery as well as self-healing. He realises that he has to undergo a series of actions before making a new beginning.

He decides to travel to Provence on his barge with his two lodger cats, Lindgren and Kafka, leaving Paris, his customers and Catherine behind. As the barge is about to depart, an acquaintance, the young, acclaimed author, Max Jordan, jumps onto the barge to travel with Perdu. Jordan wants to escape the pressures of fame and publicity caused by his first successful novel. During his voyage, Perdu takes a forsaken, eccentric, Italian cook, Salvatore Cuneo on board to save him from his undesirable chasers.

While sailing to the south of France, Perdu and Jordan pass by rivers and canals and several locks, at the same time as having entertaining, stimulating conversations on various subjects. They visit charming places, they come across and meet interesting people, while savouring delicious local food. On their way they pass places like Saint-Mammés, Montargis, Briare, the Saône and the Loire, passing Chalon-sur-Saone, arriving in the book town of Cuisery going all the way to Bonnieux, the birthplace of Perdu’s beloved Manon and continuing to Lourmarin, Aix en Provence, Sanary-sur-Mer where Perdu decides to stay.

Perdu revisits his past and nurses the guilt he feels over Manon’s long-unopened letter, the contents of which implored one last visit before her death at the hands of cancer. He grieves and goes through periods of doubt before making peace with himself and adapting to a new life without Manon, but with his new love, Catherine.

The Little Paris Bookshop has multiple themes: the magical effect of books, the wallowing in the food of the mind and spirit as well as the tasty food for the pleasure of the body. There is also a genuine friendship, regrets over missed opportunities, mourning over lost love and how to overcome it to make a fresh start. The description of breathtaking picturesque sceneries is an essential component in the story.

The idea of a ship loaded with books came to the author when she was sailing to New York on the ocean liner, Queen Mary II, which has the world’s most extensive floating library of eight thousand books.

All the essential characters in the story are different and well depicted. Each one in their way and style is seeking love and companionship. After going through periods of readaptation, they eventually become content and at peace with themselves. As for Manon, we learn about her personality through her diary, which is interspersed between the chapters.

This story is for people who believe in the power of books and how books can be one’s best friend as well as one’s best healer and support in hard times. Although dark, touching and at times poignant, this engaging novel is a hymn to life and an ode to love. It ends on an encouragingly optimistic note, conveying that life wins and “la joie de vivre” prevails.