Mariana Leky’s magical-realist bestseller What You Can See from Here is full of innocent animals standing in for something more sinister. There’s the okapi: a cloven-hoofed beast endemic to Congolese forests, which makes ominous appearances in the dreams of protagonist Luise’s grandmother, foreshadowing imminent deaths in their village. There’s also a huge Irish wolfhound called Alaska, “the colour of slush”, who was acquired by Luise’s father on the advice of his psychoanalyst to help him “externalise his pain”. The treatment is effective: the father embarks on a never-ending voyage around the world, leaving behind both his pain and his family in their home on the edge of the Westerwald, a mountainous region on the banks of the Rhine.
Neither of the two beasts turn out to be quite as terrifying as they sound. Wolfhound Alaska, the metaphorical pain, is miraculously immortal but also barely capable of a growl. And while Selma’s death-by-okapi dream is the Chekhovian gun that lends Leky’s eccentric tale constant tension – and a sudden and tragic twist – the big sleep harbingered by the giraffe-like animal can also be soft and agreeable.
“I have always been fascinated with okapis because they look like made-up animals, or creatures assembled in a drunken stupor,” says 48-year-old Leky, speaking from her flat in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. “This novel was similar: I wanted to bring together parts that didn’t necessarily feel like they belonged together.”
Leky’s coming-of-age novel, told in three sections set a decade apart, is populated by oddball characters with outlandish superstitions and peculiar verbal tics – “people who have been fitted into this world askew”, sy sê. Her taste for eccentrics was fashioned by her upbringing: her father is a psychoanalyst, her mother a psychotherapist, and while her parents weren’t allowed to talk about their patients in public, they discussed cases in bed at night. “I stood behind their bedroom door and listened,” Leky recalls.
What You Can See from Here has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany and been translated into 14 languages. Some readers have found the novel’s optimistic portrait of community living grating, a Pollyannaish flight from the challenges of globalisation. There may be infidelity and alcoholism in Leky’s nameless village, but even the philanderers and drunkards are good at heart. The only character who isn’t given a chance to shine is Luisa’s father, forever calling in from some far-flung location on a bad line.“The book’s success has shown an enormous yearning among readers for withdrawal, for a reduction in complexity, and for spirituality”, said one reviewer on Deutschlandfunk radio, who summed up its appeal as “cocooning in Westerwald”.
“Do stories set in a village automatically amount to escapism?” Leky responds. “I see village-like behaviour where I live in Berlin too – precisely because it’s a big city, people form together in little village communities. I don’t think it’s escapism, I think it’s more like a counter-movement against something that is perceived as too sprawling.”
“I wanted to write a book about such big and vague issues that I felt I needed to locate them in a place that could be contained,” she adds. “I write about love and death, and how they are connected – it doesn’t get more diffuse than that.” Philip Oltermann
What You Can See from Here by Mariana Leky, translated by Tess Lewis, w published by Bloomsbury on 22 Julie.
British readers might think they know what to expect from Nordic noir: a tortured detective, a bleak setting, a brutal crime that shakes a small community. Finnish crime novelist Tuomainen turns all of this on its head. His new novel The Rabbit Factor, which is being adapted by Amazon Studios and Mandeville Films starring Steve Carrell, kicks off with a joyous chase scene through a theme park after hours. “I dive inside Caper Castle. I overcome the first section – the wobbly stairs – and hear the man behind me,” Tuomainen writes. The ear of a giant plastic rabbit becomes a key weapon. It only gets darker and funnier.
Henri Koskinen is an actuarial mathematician, a deeply rational man who calculates everything in life to the nth degree. When his brother Juhani dies, Henri inherits his theme park YouMeFun, just outside Helsinki. Ongelukkig, he inherits all his brother’s problems as well, with financial issues including the loans that Juhani took out with some dangerous men.. As he struggles with his new life – “an unbearable lack of organisation, staggering maintenance bills, unproductive use of man hours, economical recklessness, promises nobody could keep” – he finds himself falling for an employee, Laura (who is “approximately twenty-five centimetres shorter than me, about average height for a Finnish woman”).
Tuomainen’s first five novels were more traditional Nordic noir. But around 2015, he started to introduce comedy, starting with The Man Who Died, in which a Finnish mushroom entrepreneur sets out to find out who has been slowly poisoning him. To date, he has been nominated for 12 awards, including the CWA International Dagger. His previous novel Little Siberia, in which a priest fends off attempts to steal a valuable meteorite from a museum, won him Best Scandinavian crime novel of the year at the Petrona awards.
“I just realised that I have to be able to use all I’ve got, the whole palette, and I brought in humour – dark humour,” Tuomainen says. “I came up with Henri after watching the news two years ago – it was nothing compared to today, but I thought back then that the world was a pretty crazy chaotic place. What if there was one person who insisted that everything should, and has to, make sense? I thought that permanent conflict with the world would make a really fun book.”
The Rabbit Factor, out in English in October, was a hit in Finland when it was published as Jäniskerroin laas jaar. Shortly afterwards, Tuomainen got a call from his agent to let him know that Amazon and Carrell were interested in adapting the novel. “I was quiet, and my agent asked, ‘Are you OK? Or don’t you know who Steve Carrell is?’” laughs the author. “I was pretty aware of who he is. It was just one of those moments. You can’t prepare yourself for anything like that.” Alison Flood
The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen, translated by David Hackston, is published by Orenda.
In the early hours of 4 April 2015, Shiori Ito awoke in a Tokyo hotel room to find a man on top of her. The last thing she could remember was sharing a meal and drinks with him. When it the alleged sexual assault was over, and she had returned from the bathroom, distressed and in pain, the man asked if he could keep her underwear as a “souvenir”. Ito crumpled to the floor. Staring down at her, the man said: “Before, you seemed like a strong, capable woman, but now you’re like a troubled child. It’s adorable.”
The attacker’s need to “dominate and subjugate”, as Ito puts it in her book Black Box, has rarely been so lucidly or chillingly conveyed. Written in 2017, Black Box was both a startling j’accuse (she outed the person she accuses of assaulting her as Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a prominent journalist and biographer of then prime minister Shinzo Abe), and a searing account of post-traumatic stress. “I thought I had control over my own body,” Ito writes, “but someone else had been able to take over.”
Four years later, Ito says she still can’t bring herself to reread the memoir, a bestseller in Japan that has been translated into Chinese, Korean, Italian, Frans, Swedish and now English. “I have only read it once since writing it,” she says in Tokyo, where she returned in 2020, having moved to London for several years to escape the backlash after her book’s publication. “It’s hard to describe, because I don’t want to revisit it even though I have to talk about it.”
Black Box is billed as the memoir that sparked Japan’s #MeToo movement, though few other women have trudged Ito’s lonely path. She pushed the police to investigate her assault, enduring humiliating treatment at the police station. She was crushed by her first press conference in June 2017, in a room filled with mostly indifferent male reporters. A flood of hate mail followed. These days an assistant opens her inbox first, shielding Ito from the worst of its contents.
“I’m trying to find a way to cope with it. I was worried that I would burn out, but I think it’s important to talk about this – not just rape, but the harassment that follows anyone who speaks out," sy sê.
When the criminal case against Yamaguchi was dropped, she took him to civil court for damages and won, in December 2019, although he has appealed against the decision. She has continued to fight, having filed libel lawsuits against three of her most prominent harassers. Yamaguchi’s career, intussen, appears unaffected. He insists their 2015 encounter was consensual and has filed unsuccessful countercharges against her. “It can happen to anyone who goes up against a powerful man," sy sê.
Ito’s career as a journalist prevented her from staying silent, sy sê; if she couldn’t face the truth of what had happened to her, how could she continue her work? “It has been difficult, but rape is visible now. We see more cases in the media, we’ve had demonstrations in Tokyo and in many other cities. I have no regrets.” David McNeill
Black Box by Shiori Ito, translated by Allison Markin Powell, is published by Tilted Axis.
Ondjaki’s novel Transparent City, originally published in Portuguese in 2009 and in the UK this year, is a moving mural of lives in the underclass of his home city, Luanda. Both his motley cast and the crumbling apartment block where they live appear tiny within the sprawling capital, home to 8 million people. His characters grapple with the fraught history of their country – Portugal’s colonial plundering, war and political upheaval have shaped Angola into an oil-rich nation in the grip of political corruption and inequality. In their everyday despairs and joys, Ondjaki reveals a snapshot of lives that he feels are seldom seen.
“It’s about asking who are the transparent ones in a country, and who makes them transparent," hy sê. “Who are the transparent people in Syria right now, in Palestine, the US? Why do politicians not see specific groups of people?”
Ondjaki’s central character, Odonato, is a mournful figure, nostalgic for a socialist past, feeling increasingly invisible as he searches for his son, who has become lost in Angola’s criminal justice system. From a sea-shell seller to tax collectors and politicians, Ondjaki’s characters feel stuck in time, mourning the past, or racing against it, trying to get by under capitalism. Their lives are bound by loneliness. “Luanda is a very big city, so if you are alone, you feel alone in the world,” Ondjaki says.
The city is brimming with surreal and incredible stories, voeg hy by. “You could go to a funeral and think you’re going to get an interesting story for your writing. You will leave with so many that your publisher will say, ‘Please! Not so much.’ Luanda writes far better than you can write.”
One of Angola’s most prominent authors, with a career in poetry, novels and stories spanning two decades, Ondjaki is attracting growing acclaim overseas. Transparent City was a bestseller in Portugal and has been translated into Spanish, German and French. “We African artists feel that it’s time for us to tell our story, our fiction, ons geskiedenis, to the world," hy sê. “It’s not that our version is the correct one, but what I cannot tolerate is that the European one is the correct one.” He hopes Transparent City does two things: “First, be honest. And second, that it doesn’t offend the reality of my people.” Emmanuel Akinwotu
Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan, will be published by Europa Editions on 7 Oktober.
Over the last few years, there has been a rise in young Chinese authors writing memoirs about their upbringings as illegal children under China’s notorious one-child policy. In Chinese jargon, they are called “black” children; a reference to their lack of a birth permit. According to Chinese government statistics, in 2015 ten minste 13 million people – or 1% of the population – had such a status.
Now that the one-child policy has been relaxed, the stories of these illegal children will soon be a part of China’s national collective memory. But to those who grew up tainted with this humiliation, the scars are permanent. One is Chinese writer Shen Yang, who wrote her story in part to extinguish the nightmares that still haunt her.
Haar memoir, More Than One Child, is not intended as a piece of neatly crafted literature, but as an open and honest collection of memories from China’s transition years. Shen Yang says it was not easy to write; she was born on 1 Januarie 1986, by which time her mother had been on the run from the authorities for nine months. “I broke a law simply by being born. If the family planning authorities discovered my existence, my mother would be carted off to the clinic to have her tubes tied, and our family would be heavily fined. I may have been born on a lucky day, but I could not change my destiny.”
Outside her birth home in Shandong province, slogans were papered everywhere: “If you have children illegally, we will legally demolish your house”, and “One excess birth and the whole village gets their tubes tied!” Local authorities used this propaganda to stop “extras” like Shen being born.It was even worse for a girl; Shen was the second daughter, with a sister who was four years older. In rural China, despite the stringent one-child policy, authorities would sometimes allow couples whose first child was a daughter to have a second – as long as he was a boy. Boys could be used as manual labour to help feed the family, go to big cities to work and, when they married, sustain the family’s bloodline.
Shortly after she was born, Shen Yang was smuggled to her grandparents’ house in a nearby city. At the age of five, she was adopted by her uncle and aunt until she was 16, to avoid the authorities’ attention. But they had an unhappy marriage, punctuated by rows and bouts of domestic violence.
As Chinese society evolved, egter, so did Shen Yang’s destiny. Nou 35, she’s married to an Italian designer and has been living in Shanghai for the past few years. Her childhood trauma of being an illegal “extra” is still there, but writing has been a process of reconciliation with her past. Vincent Ni
More Than One Child, translated by Nicky Harman, will be published by Balestier in September.
Claudia Piñeiro is widely regarded as Argentina’s most popular crime writer, with a string of international awards and praise such as: “Hitchcock is a woman […] and she lives in Buenos Aires.” She is prolific across multiple forms: young adult novels, plays and screenplays (her latest is a high-profile Netflix thriller premiering later this summer), and she is also well known as a political activist for causes including abortion rights, femicide and writers’ rights.
As with the very best crime fiction, her novels often feature incisive social and historical scrutiny. Her third novel for adults, Elena Knows, is a perfect example: a complex character study of three women affected by their society’s oppressive rules, within a murder mystery. Elena, an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, is investigating the death of her daughter, who has been found dead in a church belfry. The case has been hastily closed and deemed a suicide, but Elena is convinced it was murder.
There is an array of potential suspects – ranging from the comical to the pathetic, often both – and the stakes are high, not just because of the intrigue. Elena must travel to the other side of Buenos Aires in order to have a crucial conversation that, she thinks, will give her the key to her daughter’s death. With her illness, the trip is an odyssey and every step an impossible quest: the pills she has to take for her body to follow the orders of her brain provide the skeleton of the story. As she travels, Piñeiro deftly reveals how Elena knew her daughter less well than she thought.
“Often, to tell of the society certain characters live in, you must tell of its crimes,” Piñeiro says. Abortion, which is central to Elena Knows, only became legal in Argentina in December 2020, and the gruelling and clandestine process women previously had to follow haunts the book. Piñeiro wrote Elena Knows in 2007, when “it was so out of the public debate, even the word ‘abortion’ was forbidden”. The novel surged back into popularity as abortion became the subject of an increasingly heated national conversation.
It is not an autobiographical work, but Piñeiro took one aspect from her own life: her mother had Parkinson’s too. Piñeiro knows intimately all the quotidian things that happen that are “not mentioned in the research books”, how “degraded” the disease can make a person feel. She was drawn, during the writing, to Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor and her notion that people avert their eyes from ill bodies. This happened to her mother, and in some way Piñeiro sees Elena Knows as a work of “literary revenge”: “I wanted to give the gaze back to her, and whoever wants to read this novel will have to look in extreme closeup at Elena’s body, the whole time.” Marta Bausells
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle, is published by Charco.
When Fatima Daas was growing up in Clichy-sous-Bois, a high-rise suburb north of Paris, she didn’t see people like her in novels. Born in France to an Algerian family, she was a lesbian, a Muslim, a teenager from the stigmatised banlieue suburbs who spent hours on overcrowded buses to get to the capital to study. She knew what it was to feel different. “As a teenager that quickly meant incomprehension, anger, injustice and the feeling of being out of place," sy sê.
Laas jaar, bejaardes 25, Daas was hailed as the voice of a new generation for her first novel, La Petite Dernière (published in English this autumn as The Last One), a first-person narrative of a young woman called Fatima navigating the contradictions of her own identity – asthmatic, not conforming to gender norms, gay, devoted to her Muslim faith, a bolshy rebel who got top grades.
Daas won the Les Inrockuptibles first novel award for the poetic, straight-talking and often comic account. She says she wanted to create a fictional character everyone could recognise themselves in and to lay bare the multiple identities of being French.
“Through fiction, I was able to explore everything that had made me,” Daas says. “Being a woman, but not what was expected of a woman. Being a north African woman, but also French, the only member of the family born in France. Being lesbian, being Muslim. It was almost a luxury for me, through fiction, to make all those identities coexist in my central character. I knew that those identities were in tension and confrontation in society, but for once, through fiction, I felt like I was liberating and reconciling them.”
The musical quality of the novel is key – the story races along with the pace of a song or a poem, punctuated by the repeated line “My name is Fatima Daas”. It deliberately reads as if being spoken aloud – in contrast to the “absolute silence” the character grows up in. Daas says it was a way for her to say, as a novelist: “I exist, I am, ek is lief vir, I want”.
Fatima Daas is a pseudonym, chosen to match her central character. She began writing fiction aged 14, and her talent was spotted in high-school writing workshops. She later took a creative writing master’s degree.
One of the many labels the fictional Fatima gives herself is “liar”. In the novel, lying is surviving, but brings its own suffering. Not everyone has the “privilege” of being able to tell the truth about who they are, sy sê: “Often we resent people who lie, people who don’t say they’re gay, byvoorbeeld. But it’s a privilege to be able to say: ‘I’m this’ or ‘I’m that’ – to tell the truth and not risk losing someone like your mother or father.”
Daas’s depiction of Paris has been hailed by critics, showing young people marooned in suburbs only 15km from Paris, but with no direct transportation. Her beautifully drawn descriptions of endless hours on public transport were Daas’s way of exploring a commute she once considered “normal”, then grew to see as an “injustice”.Daas’s overriding message is that you don’t have to give up any part of yourself: you can inhabit a host of seemingly clashing identities at once. “I wanted to smash the codes and norms that everyone has to navigate,” Daas says. “I wanted to talk to everyone who ever felt they had to give up a part of themselves and say: ‘No, we don’t have to.’” Angelique Chrisafis
The Last One by Fatima Daas, translated by Lara Vergnaud, is published by Other Press in the US on 9 November and by Small Axes in the UK in January.
Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Just the Plague is not, as its title might suggest, an early mover in the field of “corona-lit”. It refers instead to the little known and potentially disastrous outbreak of plague in Moscow in 1939, which was swiftly thwarted by the secret police. Written as a screenplay in the late 1980s, it was submitted by Ulitskaya, then an unknown, as part of a scriptwriting course application. It was rejected and buried among her discarded papers. “Thirty-two years have passed,” she writes in the epigraph, “and the script has now acquired a new significance.”
Born in 1943, Ultiskaya grew up in Moscow, the daughter of Jewish parents, and entered the workforce in the 1960s as a geneticist, before a run-in with the KGB closed the lab where she worked. This episode was later fictionalised in her novel Big Green Tent, one of many novels, plays and short stories that depict the lives of private individuals getting by within the Soviet machine. Through these works – notably Sonechka, Medea and Her Children, The Kukotsky Enigma, Daniel Stein, Interpreter en Jacob’s Ladder – she has amassed numerous literary awards, including Russia’s most prestigious book prizes, France’s Prix Medicis and a nomination for the Man Booker international prize. In 2020, Ulitskaya had the same odds (6/1) as Margaret Atwood and Maryse Condé to win the Nobel.
Departing from her sweeping sagas, Just the Plague is thin, coming in at just under 120 pages. It is written nearly entirely in dialogue, with short descriptive interruptions that read like stage directions. “Each author’s idea, each story requires its own genre,” Ulitskaya says. “This one wanted to be born in the form of a film script.” She may hop between forms but her style remains consistent: observant, distant, favouring plot over psychological introspection, and conveying biography through exemplary details.
Her script has yet to find a director, but Ulitskaya thinks Just the Plague is “begging to become a television series”. (From the first line – “Across vast wastes of snow, a freight train makes its way, its headlights cutting through a maelstrom of swirling white flakes” – it’s easy to imagine.) In Just the Plague the microbiologist Rudolf Mayer is working on a vaccine when he unknowingly becomes infected with the deadly disease and travels to Moscow, putting dozens at risk. The ensuing drama documents the urgent attempts by the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) to thwart the outbreak, orchestrated by Stalin’s notorious right-hand man, Lavrenti Beria. Stalin’s purges had reached their grim apex only several years before, so when Ulitskaya’s characters are visited by the NKVD in the dead of night to be quarantined, they assume their next stop is the gulag.
In blurring the threats of the NKVD and the plague into a single, deadly organ, Ulitskaya tells a larger story about the mechanics of fear in the Soviet Union. There is an even more uncomfortable subtext to the work, egter; that the NKVD “carried out at least one useful, ‘humane’ act”, as Ulitskaya writes in the book’s afterword, by stopping the spread of disease: “The security forces of the time proved to be stronger than the predatory force of nature.”
How does the current Russian government’s response compare? “In 1939, with the help of the NKVD, the epidemic was avoided. In 2020, it failed," sy sê. “But we do not know which is more dangerous for humankind: the plague or the secret police.” Matthew Janney
Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon, will be published by Granta on 2 September.
“Let us pray for him, and for all the ships out at sea,” writes Sandro Veronesi, in both the opening and closing chapters of his novel The Hummingbird. Bookended like a call to prayer, Veronesi’s most acclaimed work, recently published in English, is a reflective and hopeful contemporary take on the Italian family saga, following Marco Carrera, a middle-class family man who manages to hover over the chaos of his life as winds of change threaten to blow him off course.
The Hummingbird has captivated European readers, selling more than 300,000 copies in Italy alone and making Veronesi only the second author to win the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, twice. The film adaptation is in production in Italy, starring Nanni Moretti (winner of the Cannes Palm d’Or) and Bérénice Bejo (nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Artist) and the novel hashe work has already been translated into 24 languages, with Elena Pala’s English translation lauded by Ian McEwan among others.
The book is unconventional, cutting between narrative passages, emails and phone calls over eight decades, even reaching into the future to 2030, thus keeping the reader constantly alert. “It is rhapsodic,” Veronesi says; he structured it around the workings of human memory. “It shows that even the most dramatic and painful moments have an ‘after’ in which one can return to live peacefully.”
With many of Veronesi’s past works drawing heavily on his own life, it’s tempting to look for him in Carrera, his protagonist, but he rejects the comparison: “I don’t reflect myself in Marco Carrera. He is not even a projection of who I might have been … If he were a real person, I would like to be his friend, en, above all, his tennis doubles partner.”
But Veronesi and Carrera do share a similar concern about the future of western society. In the penultimate chapter, Carrera rails against the tyranny of individualism and laments that rationality, compassion and generosity are fading away; all of which is undermining our societal structures and putting the world in “great danger”. “The word freedom itself has become an ‘open sesame’ to the lowest forms of selfishness and social dysfunctionality,” Veronesi says.
Uiteindelik, Carrera finds hope in the deep relationship he builds with his granddaughter. He sees in her all that is good in humanity and instructs her to lead the fight for truth, a challenge that she is ready and willing to accept. “It is for all of us that the novel, at the beginning and end, invites even secular people to pray,” Veronesi says. As the father of five children, he wants his readers to know how much of our future lies in the hands of younger generations, and that it is they, in particular, who need our prayers Sophia Seymour and Nina Brown
The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, translated by Elena Pala, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.