Ebook reviews: Discovering new worlds with #womenintranslation

Another year, another new year’s resolution, but it’s no sacrifice to keep this one


Another year, another new year’s resolution. If last year was a year I made a deliberate effort to #readwomen, this year I have pledged myself to the #womenintranslation campaign. Neither of these resolutions has been a particular hardship , but the idea of making a conscious and considered choice to curate my own reading in line with a particular agenda excited me.

As did the first fruits of my newly energised reading list, which threw me deep into the world of contemporary Japanese fiction, where I encountered the continually surprising perspectives of Mitsuyo Kakuta.

Three of her stories recently received their first English language translations in digital form, on the Amazon Kindle Single imprint (£1.49 each).

Moving the Birds follows an almost-divorced couple as they move six parakeets from the narrator’s mother’s house to her new apartment. As the narrator mulls over their differences – their endlessly diverging preferences, for electric and manual toothbrushes, for example – she catches her nearly-ex-husband “lost in thought for a moment . . . ‘I was just thinking about when we cut the cake . . . at the wedding, when we cut the cake together,’” he explains.

“After, the MC said that thing they always do about it being the newlyweds’ first test as a team . . . I’ve been standing here thinking that if they want you to do something together for your first test as a team . . . they should make you move some birds.”

The birds survive the journey, and the intimation is that the narrator and her partner might just have survived it too. It is a brilliant, entirely understated story, in which parakeets provide a metaphor for the vagaries of human will and compromise.

Loveless marriage

He asks a colleague, who he sleeps with in a petty act of revenge, what she thinks his girlfriend might mean, but when his girlfriend finds out about the affair, the realisation dawns upon him: he isn’t a “mama’s boy”, he is his mama’s boy; doomed to repeat the patterns of submission that kept her in a loveless marriage for so long.

There are two other equally stirring Katuka stories available exclusively through Kindle Single, and she also has a story included in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction (Kindle format, £5.49).

The anthology is published by Comma Press, the independent UK publishing house that has been making strides in the digital world with McGuffin. Of the 10 featured authors in The Book of Tokyo, six are female, and every one is different in style, tone and subject matter.

What unites many of them is their uncanny oddness: read Banana Yoshimoto’s The Hut on the Roof and Hiromi Kawakami’s Mummy for some strange encounters with domesticity.

Chilling prose

Published by the AmazonCrossing imprint, Becoming Marta is the accomplished Canales’s first English-language translation.

Twenty- something Marta is ensconced in the upper echelons of Mexican society, but from her place of privilege she rages against the conditions for young women in a society that views them as playthings, no matter how much money they have. When her adopted mother dies, Marta inherits the family’s wealth and she sets about undermining her feckless father and his wife, and discovering the identity of her birth mother.

Canales’s prose is chilling in its dissection of Marta’s experiences. A description of her mother’s breast cancer, for example, is case in point. “Remember Saint Agatha? She didn’t have anaesthesia,” Marta’s mother says on her death-bed. “Paintings of the saint and martyr with her breasts on a silver tray immortalized in the galleries of the Uffizi and the Prado: obligatory sights on European tours that had made such an impression on Marta as a child and whose happy memories had faded. There remained only the image of mother’s severed breasts, full of blood and displayed like objects, as though they’d never belonged to a body.” Marta herself is treated as though her brain does not belong to her.

Canales has written a remarkable novel that I would not have encountered in paperback form.

My various digital devices, meanwhile, made reading Elena Ferrante’s much-lauded Naples Quadrilogy (Kindle Edition, £4.80 each) much easier. If I hadn’t also insisted on buying the paperback editions, for €18 each, it would have also saved me a fortune.

The books chart the relationship between two childhood friends over 40 years. As the narrator, Elena Greco, abandons her working-class roots for an intellectual life, Ferrante artfully charts the changes in post-war Italian society: the class struggle, the continued vice grip of Fascism, and the role of women within a notoriously patriarchal culture.

An enormous cast of characters appear and reappear over more than 1,200 pages, and Ferrante cleverly provides a cast list, grouped by family, at the start of each book. I found the character-map much easier to access in paperback than in ebook form, where the scrolling distracted me from the thrust of the story.

The books – particularly the first two parts, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child – are as addictive as a soap-opera, and Ferrante ends both with the sort of cliff-hanger that can only be satisfied by an instant progression to the next book. Here, the digital versions won out, allowing me to jump from one instalment to the next without getting up from the couch.

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