Hope Gained and Lost, in New Fiction From Around the World
AS YOU WERE
By Elaine Feeney
392 pp. Biblioasis. Paper, $16.95.
In 2022, it’s almost standard to confess a medical crisis to Google before telling your husband. Sinéad Hynes, the 39-year-old Irishwoman at the center of Feeney’s debut, types her terminal cancer diagnosis into her search engine — and discloses it to a bird sitting on the hood of her car — but keeps it from her family. “Dwelling in my body had become complicated, and negotiating language for its actions and more specifically the actions of my wayward cells was far from simple,” she thinks. She continues to withhold even as she’s admitted to the hospital, fibbing to her fellow patients and nurses about why she’s there. For solace she consults Google under the covers and banters in emoji with her husband, Alex, who knows little about her prognosis. She figures telling him, forcing him to think about death, would be selfish. Her childhood conditioned her to repress her feelings and evade attention; around her volatile father, “I kept bad news to myself.”
Though Sinéad divulges little out loud, the novel is intensely confessional; her mind is always “busy, like an insect.” Her internal monologue is frantic, even incantatory: “Chanting,” she says, “I use it now to control the pain.” Sinéad calms herself by fixating on the catheter bag of another patient, or on two hung-over student nurses sharing an orange energy drink. The palpitating rhythm of her thoughts is reminiscent of trying to distract yourself from a Pap smear or a blood draw.
Feeney intersperses that inner focus with the chatter and gossip in the ward. Sinéad avoids her own reality by inhabiting the lives of others: Margaret Rose, who makes endless calls to her family on her Nokia phone, and Jane, who asks Sinéad if she can borrow a bra. The novel reads almost like a humorous screen adaptation of an illness memoir, its gaze trained more on the lived experience inside a hospital than on looming death. Feeney’s prose is intentionally not morbid; there is more levity than self-pity or wallowing in the remorselessness of fate. But lurking just beneath the chipper tone are the protagonist’s repression and guilt — in Jane’s words, “I think ’tis afraid of living ya are, no?” Sinéad laments the “incarceration of the body of the woman, of her mind” in contemporary Ireland, and insists: “I would decide my death date.” Losing control of her body, she retains control of her narrative. “This is hers. Choice. She made it.”
THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE
By Sara Stridsberg
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
265 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
At the edge of a forest, a nameless woman lies naked in the black mud, her lungs full of blood and her vertebrae broken; her killer is cutting her remaining body parts into seven pieces, putting the rest into white suitcases. As Stridsberg’s narrator notes in the aftermath of her own gruesome death, people love crime stories, “but really the only person of interest to them is the murderer, and of course the dead woman doesn’t feature. Yes, it is usually a woman and she is just a brief glimpse, a blur of green body, and then she is gone, out of the picture, disappearing into the depths of nothingness whence she came.” In a beautifully told counterpoint to this phenomenon, Stridsberg writes an elegy to the murdered woman’s life, from her point of view.
Though the crime gets covered extensively in the press (“no other news item that summer held the same fascination as the one about my body in white suitcases”), her identity remains shrouded: The killer leaves no trace of the narrator’s body, the people she loves carry on without her, and the main relic of her existence is the passport photo in her murder file. Stridsberg’s project is to give a voice to this woman and the narrow world she inhabited, sifting through her memories “as if through cold, clear water” — her first syringe of heroin, the daughter she gave up at birth, the accidental drowning of her younger brother when she was 12, which left her with “a disillusionment so deep, so penetrating,” that she compares it to the “freezing point of blood.”
In a translation from the original Swedish by Bragan-Turner, Stridsberg recapitulates the image of the dead girl: Instead of “death’s vantage point, the hunter’s angle,” she renders the victim’s life in lucid images from her posthumous perch on high, “fluttering up there like a trembling angel.” She writes with chilling poise, sustaining the immediacy of the event of death throughout the book. The narrator regards herself as a “pile of flesh,” revisiting the scene of her murder over and over again to splice it with scenes from her preceding life. Ultimately, she takes comfort in deciding to see her own decomposing body as “the precursor to earth and stardust.” Somehow the gore mingles with glimmers of hope, and she finds resolution in the thought that “whatever happens to us, it has been only one second in eternity.”
TALES FROM THE CAFE
By Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot
255 pp. Hanover Square Press. $19.99.
Day after day, a woman in a white dress sits in a cafe in central Tokyo, reading a novel. Around her are people who have come to the cafe to travel back in time; when she gets up to go to the bathroom — as she does only once a day, and “no one can predict when that will be” — another customer can take her seat, a portal into the past. In the opening pages of the novel, a character called Gohtaro quotes Dostoyevsky: “The most difficult thing in life is to live and not lie.” The cafe gives him the chance not to lie, exactly, but to briefly inhabit an alternate truth — at least until the coffee he’s been poured cools. He can’t alter his fate, however; house rules.
In four vignettes, translated from the Japanese by Trousselot, Kawaguchi reveals characters enraptured with this fanciful legend, which he created in his 2015 debut, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold,” and has expanded here to include new patrons and their story lines. At the cafe, Gohtaro and the other customers are buoyed by the possibility of reconciling dashed dreams. So, Gohtaro wonders, “If it is not possible to change the present no matter how hard you try while in the past, then why bother?”
Kawaguchi’s answer: not out of mere nostalgia, but to reorient your feelings about how a circumstance unfolded, even if it can’t be altered. When an aspiring potter named Yukio returns from the past to the cafe, he observes, “The world hasn’t changed, I have”; he’s no longer “imprisoned by the thought: I don’t deserve happiness.” Characters come to the crisp realization that joy is allowed, that they don’t have to live burdened by regret; they are set free by a shift in perspective.
The effect on the characters is like what the best talk therapy claims is possible: to reprocess past events to see them differently. In Kawaguchi’s third-person narration, these four optimistic tales are so endearing that it’s a feat the book mostly manages to avoid the saccharine. (Some sincere observations do border on cliché takeaways: “After any winter, spring will follow.”) It’s easy to be cynical, though, and far rarer to encounter narratives that end with earnest tears of joy. As Kawaguchi repeatedly urges, “You absolutely must try to be happy.”