twelve

Translated from the original Latvian by Zanete Vevere Pasqulini;

published in the Peter Owen ‘World Series’: ‘read the world – three books at a time’. They publish 3 works of literature in 2 seasons each year from 1 country or region each season.

It’s an entertaining premise and the book is beautifully presented. I have not, as far as memory serves, read any Latvian literature before. This book is a great place to start, if you like something that is a bit ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, a bit ‘Harvey’/’Donnie Darko’ and a bit ‘Master and the Margarita’

The tale is told in two voices, both those of the narrator: one as a patient in the psychiatric hospital, talking to her fellow patients (Fright, F22 and Snow White), the doctors and other staff; and the other reminiscing for her previous life, outside the hospital, which mainly involve her husband and the boy/girl twins they have together and the Green Crow, an apparently imaginary bird that only the narrator can see or hear.

it’s an elusive novel, it seems to be talking about freedom, or the loss/lack of it, something about dispossession but also about an acceptance of things. A lot happens to her but she doesn’t seem to get angry about it. She can’t seem to fathom her children out, always presenting them to her fellow inmates, in the stories she tells them, as some kind of unified front against her, sent to confound her. Her husband seem to be a ‘typical’ husband to judge by her resigned acceptance of his different moods, his belligerent blaming of her for the everyday things that go wrong in life, his occasional lustful outbursts. The one time she confronts him is when he threatening the family dog at a barbecue, and places herself in the animal’s stead. It is a tense scene, difficult to read.

The stories of life outside the hospital are recollections of episodes that lead to her hospitalisation. When driving the family to the cinema, rushing to catch the start of the film, they see an apparently dead animal in the road, the narrator gets out and starts hugging the thing – it may also be a lump of earth or a tree stump – and the daughter whispers to her brother, ‘Mum is having a flash of one of her visions.’ Mum, is convinced the ‘animal’ is still breathing.

Despite claiming to be terrified of heights, Crow makes the narrator climb on his back and he flies her around the city at night. Along the way the meet Crow’s acquaintance, a seagull called Jonathan. They fly close to the airport, she worries about plane wings clipping off her ears, and through the window of one plane with ‘Aeroflot’ written along the side she sees, ‘A chubby-cheeked boy’ in a window, ‘eating a bun and waving’. Eventually they stand on the ledge of a high building testing each other’s trust and belief.

It is an odd book, well written – and of course some of this credit must go to the translator – it has a feel of ‘middle-European’ literature…but as with all the other comments, this does not quite nail it. One of the overarching impressions is just how ‘ungraspable’ this novel is. I like things that don’t give easy answers, or indeed any answers, so this book is right up my street, it may not be everyone’s taste but it’s worth giving it a go.

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