Books in brief: A Japanese pilgrimage and a mysterious violent end

From Marion Poschmann’s absurd Japanese adventure to Mikita Brottman’s superb page-turner

 

The Pine Islands

By Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja

Serpent’s Tail, £12.99

The German award-winning poet, Marion Poschmann has written a witty and meditative parody on the pilgrimage taken by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. In fewer than 200 pages the reader is drawn in to an absurd and poignant narrative that begins when the protagonist, Gilbert Silvester, whimsically escapes to Japan. Gilbert, a lecturer on beard fashions in film, embarks on a journey to see the pine-clad islands of Matsushima Bay, aligning himself with the excitable souls who travelled there, “they were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty”. He fancies himself a poet, and along the way he meets the suicidal student Yosa Tamagotchi. Japanese literary history, current beard fashions and a book called The Complete Manual of Suicide all feature in the remarkably comprehensive and tender exploration of modern life and its interaction with nature. Poschmann pokes fun at her characters with her pithy prose and reveals the still beauty to be found in life beneath a mask of black humour.

In the Full Light of the Sun

By Clare Clark

Virago, £16.99

“ ‘What I do may be a kind of lie,’ Vincent had written to his bother Theo, ‘but only because it tells the truth more plainly.’ ” Based on a true story of previously unknown Van Gogh paintings that came to light as the Nazis began their rise to power, In the Full Light of the Sun considers the human response to art, the nature of truth and deceit and the casualties of love. Set in a sumptuously illustrated Berlin, we follow the stories of art dealer Julius, bohemian artist Emmeline and Jewish lawyer Frank, whose life and family are in increasing danger as fascism accelerates. The three narratives interconnect as the newly discovered Van Goghs fall under suspicion, while love affairs, fear and distrust leave their watermark. Gleaming throughout are the paintings and life of Vincent himself, the pain and beauty that left an imprint on the world. A vivid novel that carries traces of The Goldfinch in its central truth: “We don’t choose the deepest desires of our hearts. Our only choice is whether to act on them.”

Homeland

By Walter Kempowski

Granta, £14.99

In the year before the Berlin Wall comes down, journalist Jonathan Fabrizius is commissioned to write about a new car rally route in the contested region of East Prussia. But the journey is really a return because Jonathan was born there in 1945, among refugees fleeing the advance of Russian forces. First published in 1991 as Mark Und Bein (Marrow and Bone), Walter Kempowski’s short novel centres on the likeable if unremarkable Jonathan as he tries and fails to engage meaningfully with the story of his own origins. Kempowski tackles traumatic themes of suffering and cruelty with a disconcerting brevity throughout as the relationships and divisions between Polish and German culture are thrown into painfully sharp relief during Jonathan’s strange road trip. With Charlotte Collins’s translation at times sparse and even jarring, Homeland never allows its readers to experience a sense of belonging or catharsis. Memory and history become players in a wider conversation about subjectivity as Jonathan’s personal vacillation around his past renders his present life superficial and unfulfilling.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere

By Mikita Brottman

Canongate, £14.99

In May 2006, Rey Rivera, a handsome, talented, ambitious, recently married 32-year-old, went missing. Two weeks later his decomposing corpse was sniffed out in a disused swimming pool of the Belvedere, a once grand hotel in Baltimore. He had crashed through the ceiling from the hotel’s 14th-floor roof. Had he jumped or … ? From that moment Brottman, who lives in the building, began an obsessive investigation into Rivera and his violent end. And the result is an absolute page-turner. Her deceptively simple prose is both elegant and eloquent, and has the effect at times of making you feel as if you are the protagonist in a Raymond Chandler novel. She digs as deeply into her – and our – own need to understand as into the facts themselves. Those facts include a non-existent police investigation, investment fraud and the physics of a falling body, with detours into automatic writing, psychoanalysis, poisoning, schizophrenia and more. Superb.

The Rosary Priest

By Tom Mulligan

Veritas, €14.99

Fr Patrick Peyton, from a humble Mayo background, became “one of the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century”, Fr Tom Mulligan believes. Suffering a serious bout of TB while studying for the priesthood in America, he attributed his recovery to the Virgin Mary and resolved to dedicate his life to promoting the family Rosary to strengthen the Catholic faith in the home. He began with an extensive letter-writing campaign, followed by a radio campaign, in which he enlisted the help of Bing Crosby, Gregory Peck, Shirley Temple, Maureen O’Hara and many other celebrities. “His humility, shyness and spirituality won them over.” This led to a Radio Family Theater of the Air (1949-68), with its repeated mantra of “The family that prays together, stays together”. He also effectively harnessed the new media of television and film. His “rosary crusade” began in Canada in 1947 and spread all over the world over the next 50 years, during which he spoke at rallies sometimes comprising 100,000 or more. Four popes praised his work. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary

By Gillian Smith

Somerville Press, €20

Olive Smith was a determined and persuasive woman at a time when, as her daughter says in this affectionate but level-headed biography, “the Irish Free State began to establish itself upon the world stage”. The status of classical music, however, was not a national priority. The culture of politics and the politics of culture were minefields to be negotiated, not always with tact or patience. The role of Olive Smith, Brian Boydell, Frederick May and others in founding the Music Association of Ireland in 1948 was crucial not only to the establishment of the Irish Youth Orchestra and, eventually, the National Concert Hall but to the widespread acceptance of classical music through education. Smith was, in Charles Acton’s words, “a vigorous and controversial personality”; her place in the early years of Irish feminism is assured through this account – often in her own words – of her insistence on acceptance and recognition of women in all walks of life, her dedication to family, and her quest for honesty and integrity.

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