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The best new translated works by women writers

Elena Knows; So We Look to the Sky; The Antarctica of Love; Suiza; Island; Blind Spot

In keeping with August as Women in Translation Month – a project to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English (#WITMonth) – this month's fiction in translation column focuses exclusively on women writers.

To date, the translated work of Argentine writer Claudia Pineiro has been in crime fiction, but she has long been an advocate on a range of issues such as abortion and femicide. In Elena Knows (Charco Press) we get to see both of these aspects. This circadian novel follows Elena, a 63-year-old woman with Parkinson's disease, as she persists in trying to understand the apparent suicide of her daughter, which she suspects to be murder but which the authorities see as a closed case.

This is not a conventional crime novel in that the case sits in the background as we focus on Elena’s quotidian experience as a Parkinson’s sufferer, her neck muscles frozen so that she must spend all day staring at her shoes; her brain is a “dethroned emperor” no longer obeyed by her deteriorating body.

The novel is a masterclass in characterisation with its human, unsentimental portrayal of physical deterioration contrasting with Elena’s tenacity and sharp mind. Its true brilliance, though, is in how it flips Elena’s insular daily reality into a much broader commentary on how the hypocrisy of Catholic society manifests in the lives and judgments of ordinary people. A highly accomplished and original novel, translated with great sensitivity to tone and atmosphere by Frances Riddle.


So We Look to the Sky (Simon & Schuster) by Japanese writer Misumi Kubo, and translated by Polly Barton, centres around an affair between a 15-year-old boy and a married woman 10 years his senior. They meet and have cosplay sex, dressed as anime characters, neither knowing much about the other. The videos of these sexual encounters end up online and the ensuing sensation becomes the common joint for five interlocking stories, each with its own narrator.

If mishandled, this technique of multiple perspectives on a central incident can seem contrived, but here the writer uses it cleverly to draw out a wider range of subjects and create a keyhole view of closely-narrated lives. The novel’s fulcrum is sexuality, though not as something salacious – instead it is used to convey the sense of frustration and the attritional disappointment felt by those struggling to find a foothold in the world. This is also a novel about how poverty weighs down the spirits of young people and exacerbates their sense of alienation.

The book encapsulates much of what is impressive about contemporary Japanese writing in its sensitivity, its grasp of nuance and its ability to show sympathetically the plight of individuals in an unsympathetic society.

The Antarctica of Love (MacLehose Press) by Sara Stridsberg, translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, is recounted from beyond the grave by a woman who has been brutally raped and murdered. In detached prose she revisits the experience in all its vivid detail – her severed head sinking into a slurry pit, her intestines "dragged away by a vixen whose young were in a den nearby". We learn of her past as a sex worker and heroin addict; we observe the sad entanglement of her alcoholic parents; and we track the lives of the children she surrendered to social services. In all this she is a powerless observer of her own absence from the world and of all that she cannot change.

Though the book piles layers of misery on its characters, it’s not after our heart strings. There is a philosophical neutrality to the darkness being portrayed: “a human is neither good nor evil; she is like a wasp, part of an ecosystem.” This makes it an interesting experiment in narrative and emotional detachment, but at a price – the novel’s disavowal of wider meaning leaves the reader wondering what to salvage from such a dark reading experience.

Suiza (Europa Editions) is by Bénédicte Belpois, a writer living in France, who spent her childhood in Algeria. Translated from French by Alison Anderson, the novel is set in a small town in Galicia, in northeastern Spain, where a gruff, macho landowner named Tomás has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He falls for a waitress who has recently arrived from Switzerland and who is known to everyone as "Suiza", meaning Swiss. Suiza is barely literate and doesn't speak Spanish, and throughout the story characters make crude references to her child-like simplicity. Though there are signs of Tomás softening under her influence, their highly sexualised relationship is characterised by brutishness.

The novel gambles on using Tomás as a first-person narrator. As a sexist, homophobic egotist who seems to live his life in the brief periods between hard-ons, he’s not an appealing character. However, the writer makes us see Tomás as he sees himself, in all his shallow self-regard. Just as the book seems to be veering towards a familiar Beauty and the Beast tale of transformation, the narrative takes a darker turn.

Island (Pushkin Press) is by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen and translated from Danish by Caroline Waight.

Jacobsen is of Faroese descent and the novel is a fictional history of a family’s connection to the Faroe Islands over three generations. Like the work of Annie Proulx and Roy Jacobsen, the novel works by offsetting an austere setting with idiosyncratic characters. The anecdotes and characters are like a deck of cards shuffled out of sequence. While this mirrors the haphazard way in which family histories are often learned, it makes the narrative quite fractured and hard to follow.

The writing often reaches for unusual imagery, some of which works (“winter simply fell off like a scab”) but at other times overstretches – the new concrete church “weighty as a dead cow”.

The novel is strongest on the question of falling between identities – being part of “Generation neither-nor” – and captures well the tension between wanting to belong and resisting conformity with a grander emigrant narrative.

A similar theme is handled with meticulous virtuosity in Blind Spot (Seagull Books), by Myriam Tadessé, who was born in Ethiopia to a French mother and Ethiopian father. Having grown up in cosmopolitan Addis Ababa among Indians, Italians, Armenians and Russians, she flees with her mother to France in 1978 after the Ethiopian revolution. In France, she is repeatedly perceived and referred to as "métis", because of her mixed parentage – the state of métis becomes the blind spot of the book's title.

The book is a brilliant dissection of the term “métis”, its connotations, its use and misuse, and the revealing psychological and societal assumptions that underpin it. She is careful to refer to it as a state of being métis – it is not her identity. However, regardless of her self-view, she is continually confronted with the perceptions of others and their expectation that she would declare herself as one thing while suspecting her of being another – “The fatality of being a métis in a society that looks at you in terms of your absent country: one plus one equals zero not two.”

A perspicacious novel, written with sharp intelligence and gentle humour, conveyed with great care and skill by the talented translator, Gila Walker.