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Works in translation: Lola Lafon’s novel on exploitation of women

Plus new thrills by Lara Moreno, Christine Angot, Elena Medel, Jana Bodnárová, Adrienne Yabouza

The complexities of the relationship between two sisters are central to Wolfskin, by Lara Moreno, translated by Katie Whittemore (Structo Press, 253pp, £8.99). This arresting novel introduces us to Sofia and Rita, whose differences emerge early on when their father insists that their brawling be punished by each putting their favourite doll on the street until somebody takes them. Sofia picks her favourite; Rita chooses a doll she never plays with.

Many years on, Sofia’s husband has left her and she has taken their son to the home of her now-deceased father. When joined there by Rita, their shared experiences and conflicts come to the fore.

The author’s descriptive writing and dialogue are both exceptional, as is Whittemore’s translation. Sofia’s attitude to her son is contrasted with Marina Tsvetaeva’s treatment of her daughters in a diary Sofia struggles to read. “Who holds the weak, who protects them... Does life really push so forcibly, with so much violence?” That violence and abuse can happen, be evident and yet be ignored is Moreno’s searing observation. A wolf can appear in a wolf’s skin and not be categorically seen as a wolf.

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A similar conclusion is reached in Reeling by Lola Lafon, translated by Hildegarde Serle (Europa Editions, 297pp, £12.99). This of-the-moment novel that scrutinises how working-class girls' ambition to be dancers or excel at sport is used to manipulate them for abuse by wealthy men. That the procuring of these girls is done by a woman makes this novel especially pertinent. But there is, to the author's great credit, no hint of sensationalism in the presentation of this exploitation.

What seems at the outset to be a predictable story soon develops layers of elaboration which deepen the plausibility of these characters’ lives, especially that of Cléo, who is by turns both gullible and complicit in the acquisition of other girls.

We see the consequences of the abuse play out in the adult lives of these women and how much the unresolved turmoil of their self-worth is exacerbated by the demands of society, including the insistence on being “strong”. “Being fragile has become an insult. So what will happen to those who are unsure? Those who don’t pull through, or only with difficulty, without glory? We end up celebrating the exact same values as this government that we boo: strength, power, conquering, winning.”

The narrator of An Impossible Love, by Christine Angot, translated by Armine Kotin Mortimer (Archipelago, 215pp, £13), might regard herself as having just about pulled through but only with great difficulty and no sense of glory. From early in the novel, as she details the peculiar dynamics of the relationship between her parents, it becomes clear that her father was a man with a carefully calibrated sense of superiority.

When Rachel, the narrator’s mother, gives birth to Christine, her father, Pierre, maintains his refusal to marry her and for many years will not agree to have his name formally registered as the girl’s father, which would give her the name of the author, Christine Angot.

That her intense longing for a father will be shamelessly exploited by Pierre is almost expected from a person whose allure is a mystery. His conversations have a stilted, forbidding element. The same is true of the novel itself, which has a formal, dispassionate style of language. Towards the end, this yields to an emotional depth when mother and daughter – after years of discord due to Rachel’s failure to acknowledge what happened to her daughter – reach a point of clarity and concord about the person who ruined their lives.

The economic pressures which many have to cope with every day is another determinant of people's assessment of themselves and their position within society. The diminution of choices which poverty forces on people is superbly well explored in The Wonders by Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead (Pushkin Press, 222pp, £14.99).

The novel’s main focus is on Alicia and Maria, two women whose lives are decisively changed by inauspicious occurrences: teenage pregnancy in Maria’s case and the suicide of her father in Alicia’s. Both events are too consequential for the characters to be able to eliminate their significance from their lives. Maria, who became pregnant at 16, moved to Madrid, leaving the care of her baby to her family. But that physical distance brought its own anxieties as well as a determination to surpass those who see no value in her job as an office cleaner.

The author takes us fleetly between different eras – often significant in the recent history of Spain – creating a connection which gradually emerges between Maria and the much younger Alicia, whose expectation of a life of privilege and easy acceptance is destroyed in her teens after her father’s death. She sustains a certain arrogance but, without the buttress of wealth, is not tolerated by her peers. Now, like many of the fatigued characters in this novel, she must accept a life lived without the security and assurance so readily available to the wealthy.

Jana Bodnárová's Necklace/Choker, translated by Jonathan Gresty (Seagull Books, 154pp, £15.99), is subtitled "a small novel in fragments" but it's a novel of large ambitions. In the present time of the novel, two women, Sara and Ijoba, reminisce with awe and regret about the experiences of their parents and grandparents, who lived in Czechoslovakia when one form of totalitarian oppression gave way to another.

The blight spread by deception, cruelty and the fear of acknowledging the evidence of one’s eyes is acutely observed as we move back and forth between different times and characters. In some cases, it is individuals’ inability to continue to live in such circumstances that forcefully impacts on those closest to them; on those who must, somehow, continue to exist.

For Ijoba, who as a young girl witnessed something deeply troubling, the fear of knowing something forbidden is carried through her life. “I’ve learnt not to forget what I’ve seen . . . something has changed in us – in the structure of our brain and heart,” she says. The glimpses we get of what she has observed and fathomed make for a crepuscular, reflective novel.

The impact of politics is also an element of Co-Wives, Co-Widows by Adrienne Yabouza, translated by Rachel McGill (Dedalus, 124pp, £8.99), though here it serves as a counterpoint to the daily striving of the characters.

The president of the Central African Republic has somewhat overdone the fixing of the election, gaining 120 per cent of the vote (though he is happy to settle for 60 per cent). But for Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, the two women who shared marriage to Lidou – a successful builder whom we get to know well enough to miss when he dies – the necessity is to counteract the corruption of their late husband’s brother.

In a novel suffused with both humour and observations of venality, it is the friendship of the two women who had to share one man that becomes the most notable and unexpected aspect. Using a straightforward narrative style, the book demonstrates the tension between the hold of tradition and the pull of new possibilities.