My Man Booker International Prize shadowing duties continue with two more reviews this week. First up is War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans which has been translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Hertmans inherited his grandfather’s diaries after his death in 1981 and eventually used these personal memoirs to create a compelling narrative of his life as an ironworker, soldier and amateur painter. Born in 1891, the first part of the book focuses on Urbain Martien’s childhood in Ghent in a working class family with his father Franciscus and mother Céline. Hertmans also inserts himself into this part of the story as he unravels his family history in the present day. The second part is a more conventional narrative of Urbain’s experiences in the trenches following the German invasion of Belgium. The final part recounts the post-war years during which Martien sought solace in painting and a secret at the heart of his marriage to Gabrielle is revealed.
Overall, I enjoyed ‘War and Turpentine’ a lot. In some ways, it is reminiscent of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler in which the quiet “ordinariness” of a character’s life turns out to be rather extraordinary and has an enormous amount of power. Even though memoirs and fictional accounts of the First World War are not exactly hard to come by in the middle of the conflict’s centenary, I think Hertmans has produced a compelling portrait of his grandfather in this novel and the ambiguous cross-genre experimentation bridging biographical elements with Hertmans’ fictional interpretation of events is also very accomplished. However, the three parts are a little uneven. Although harrowing, the middle section lacks the originality of the passages describing the lives of Urbain’s extended family before and after the war. I still think ‘War and Turpentine’ has a good chance of making the official shortlist based on the strength of the prose and could also be included in my personal top six preferences.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors is one of the shorter titles on the longlist and is only my second foray into Danish fiction after reading The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul last year. Translated by Misha Hoekstra, it follows Sonja, a single forty-something woman who works as a translator in Copenhagen and is learning to drive. She doesn’t get on with her instructor Jytte, eventually ditching her for another one who turns out to be not much better. Sonja also has a strained relationship with her older sister Kate who keeps avoiding her calls.
There are numerous parallels between the problems in Sonja’s personal life and her driving abilities – both of which seem somewhat directionless with a lack of control, difficulty with blind spots and lots of encounters with dead ends. Nors has a very distinctive offbeat style of prose which at times reads almost like a stream-of-consciousness and the writing could not be more different from the gory Scandi crime thrillers which Sonja translates for a living. The prose in translation is quirky with a lot of interesting colloquial expressions although some of the Americanisms might jar with other readers. Although I liked that the story was ultimately about resilience, I felt as though I was mostly drifting through the book rather than absorbing it. I am not expecting to see it on the shortlist when it is revealed on 20th April.