Peirene Press: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Having read and enjoyed ‘The Mussel Feast‘ by Birgit Vanderbeke and ‘The Dead Lake‘ by Hamid Ismailov, I have been seeking out more titles published by Peirene Press, a small independent publishing house who specialise in contemporary European novellas translated into English, which the Times Literary Supplement describes as “literary cinema for those fatigued by film”. So far, I’ve found six more in charity shops and Hay-on-Wye bookshops:

Peirene Press

As August is Women in Translation Month hosted by Biblibio, I’ve been reading ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’ by Kristina Carlson translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Title No. 11 from the Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments series) and ‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin (Title No. 14 from the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series). It’s a happy coincidence that the books I have chosen have both been written and translated by women.

Originally published in 1999, ‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik tells the story of Johanne, a young woman living in Oslo with her mother Unni. She begins a relationship with Ivar who works in the canteen at the college where she studies psychology and they start planning a six week trip to the United States. However, on the morning of their planned departure to Pittsburgh, she wakes up to find her bedroom door locked with no means of escape.

Ørstavik’s work had been translated into eighteen languages before making her English debut with ‘The Blue Room’ last year. Although Johanne has been locked in a room, it is her reflections on the events leading up to this which are truly claustrophobic. While the images which flood Johanne’s mind are undoubtedly brutal, the complex nature of Johanne’s interdependent yet emotionally distant relationship with her mother is the most disturbing and manipulative aspect of the story leading to a chilling ending. Interestingly, the original title of the book ‘Like Sant Som Jeg Er Virkelig’ translates as ‘This Is What I Really Am’ and yet it’s a story where psychology, fantasy and reality overlap and become increasingly muddled. Powerful but subtly written and translated, ‘The Blue Room’ is a tightly controlled story with a constant atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty.

I’m pretty sure ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’ by Kristina Carlson is the first Finnish translation of a novel I’ve ever read yet it has the most English of settings in the Kentish village of Downe during the late 1870s. It tells the story of Thomas Davies, a loner who works as a gardener for Charles Darwin and has recently been widowed. He is also an atheist and avoids the village church where the local inhabitants congregate.

Described in the blurb as a “postmodern Victorian novel”, ‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener’ is definitely the most unconventional and experimental Peirene title I’ve read so far. There is little in the way of plot and the chorus of multiple voices of various villagers often in the form of a stream of consciousness takes some getting used to with no clear breaks between the different narrators. Darwin himself doesn’t feature in the story although his theories of evolution are central to the main questions of the novel around the value of faith and humanity. Although perhaps a little too odd for my personal taste, on a technical level, it’s one of the most intricate translations I’ve read and based on the prose, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Carlson is also a poet as well as a novelist.

The other Peirene titles I have are:

  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman by translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (Title No. 3 from the Female Voice: Inner Realities series)
  • Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Title No. 4 from the Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy series)
  • Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Title No. 5 from the Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy series)
  • Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis (Title No. 6 from the Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy series)

Which Peirene Press titles have you read and which ones would you recommend I try next? What have you been reading for Women in Translation Month?

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Peirene Press: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

  1. I haven’t heard of this press, but I will start looking for them. I wonder if they will be available here in the US (in bookstores, that is–I’m sure I can find them on Amazon).

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  2. I haven’t heard of Peirene Press before, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. The Blue Room sounds really interesting and creepy! Can’t wait to read it.I’m currently reading Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami. Barely a few pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far.

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  3. I have also read and enjoyed The Dead Lake

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  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post and I’m amazed and jealous you should find any of these books in charity shops! I possess one – Chasing The King of Hearts, which I must read soon!

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  5. The Blue Room is rather unsettling, isn’t it? I thought it might make the IFFP longlist earlier this year. Of the other Peirene titles you have to read, I loved the short stories in Maybe This Time.

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  6. What a lovely collection! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Peirene Press titles are always among my highlights of the year. I particularly liked The Blue Room – like Jacqui, I thought it would make the IFFP long list.

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  8. Peirene Press are one of my most treasured finds since joining Twitter last year… have 7 of the titles – inc The Blue Room & 3 others for #WITMonth & adding to them when I can. The ones I’ve read linger – especially Beside the Sea. A subscription is top place on my birthday wishlist.

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  9. I love the philosophy of Peirene Press and, although I haven’t adored all of their titles, they are always interesting choices. I found The Blue Room quite a difficult read, very sinister and claustrophobic (as intended, I suspect). I really recommend The Dead Lake, Beside the Sea, Sea of Ink and Maybe This Time. I am currently reading their latest ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’ – another Norwegan offering about a very dysfunctional family. And to think I used to love Norway… 😉

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  10. Tony

    Yes, ‘The Blue Room’ really should have been on the iFFP longlist…

    As for what I’m reading for #WITMonth, well, the answer is – lots 😉

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