Happening by Annie Ernaux
This (past) year, I went from having read zero books by Annie Ernaux to having read like three or four in just one month. Happening was by far the most impressive one, which is probably a weird thing to say about a harrowing piece dealing with abortion. The topic is, to say the least, difficult, and Ernaux’s depiction of it is adequately challenging.
Opting to depict a highly personal story with a collected, occasionally detached tone might seem like an unusual choice to make, but it only adds to the gravity of Ernaux’s experience. The story takes place in the early ’60s, back when abortion was illegal in France. The decisive Ernaux wastes no time on explanations or justifications of her situation: upon realizing she is pregnant, she is decisive in getting rid of that thing. After a period of trying to simply wish it away, she embarks on an emotionally draining journey of carrying out her plan.
As readers, we are not spared of any unpleasant situations she finds herself in, nor of the graphic descriptions of the act of abortion and its physical consequences. However big an impression these images may leave, the main strength of Happening lies in the details portraying the social context of the situation: the reactions of people she tries to ask for help, the solidarity—or lack thereof—between people in a precarious situation such as this, and, ultimately, the role that class plays in it. (The unwanted pregnancy being a sure way back into the poverty of the working-class background the author is trying to escape via education; the inaccessibility of the procedure in question—even if it’s an illegal one—depending on class; etc.)While Ernaux’s habit of occasionally breaking the fourth wall by offering comments on the act of writing itself doesn’t always sit well with this particular reader, in Happening it seems to work, further reinforcing the necessity of a raw and disarming approach to telling her story. Happening is a brief but strikingly powerful account of a traumatic event and one of those books you’ll want to come back to, despite the discomfort you may have experienced while reading it.
Popisho by Leone Ross
Earlier this year I made an account on Netgalley, a website where book reviewers can request ARCs (advance reader copies) from publishers—a great place to scout for upcoming releases. That’s where I stumbled over Popisho by Leone Ross. Naturally, I adored the cover, requested a copy, received an e-ARC, and proceeded to never read it. When the book came out this summer, I guiltily got myself a copy not knowing it would become one of my favorite books of all time.
Popisho is a magical archipelago off the coast of ”where?”—you may ask. Where butterflies get you drunk, the people have special gifts, and sometimes even vulvas fall out. We follow a group of characters, all struggling with their unique situations, whose lives delicately intertwine throughout the story. Possibly an epic fantasy written as literary fiction, Ross pulls us into a narrative reveling in black indigenous excellence and decolonization of magic, nature, and relationships.
The things that usually bother me in books and stories—whimsy, dream sequences, a lack of time—were all parts that I loved in this one. Never have I read anything so nuanced and brilliant, filled with wonder, humor, struggles, and truth. Ross invites us on a journey asking: what would it look like if black indigenous living and spirituality were centered at the core of society, and what could possibly threaten the peace?
If you love food and sensuality, pick this one up. Do yourself a favor! I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s not all the buzz, getting prizes left and right. Or maybe Popisho is for the few to enjoy and indulge in, to experience the magic and power—our world to conjure.
The Lady and The Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc
My 2021 didn’t start nicely: I was dumped, lost, without a job or a place to live and I couldn’t even go and get drunk because, you know, pandemics… I basically spent the beginning of the year feeling miserable and full of anger.
One day in March, while looking through the French section of Ark Books, I found The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. The topics? Loneliness, hunger, poverty, aging… One might think that that’s not the book I should read at that moment, but just a look at the first pages and I found myself underlining sentences with excitement. “She was breathing the oxygen meant for people who had spent their day working. To cry out that it was impossible to begin her life all over again would be useless.”
The main character, an old poor lady who lives in a tiny apartment in Paris, has all the cards to feel sad and angry but, instead, she is vivid and full of imagination. In her loneliness she is able to create a world where the city becomes her only companion, spending her only money to travel by metro, so she can gain nourishment from the company of the others. The household and street objects become alive, with their own personalities, and provide her with dialogues that are sometimes humorous and sometimes existentialist. Until she finds a fox fur thrown by another person that becomes her obsession.
In her interactions with daily themes and objects—the sounds of the tube, the street furniture, or the things she finds in the garbage—I found a kind of a contemporary and dark humane fairy tale written with an extreme delicacy and beauty. Violette Leduc’s novella, translated to English by Derek Coltman, is set down in a way that almost every sentence could be taken separated from the whole and they would still gain my admiration.
The Lady And The Little Fox Fur saved my rest of the year and helped me to see the world and the people around me in a different way.