The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake (2022) by Mark Weston #20booksofsummer22

What might life be like on Ukerewe, a small Tanzanian island in Lake Victoria? Mark Weston was given a unique opportunity to observe and investigate when his wife Ebru was seconded to the island to train teachers. He used the time to make friends with the local children and their parents, to examine their beliefs and fears and daily struggles. He also examines the boom and bust of the lake’s fishing industry on nature, the economy and the people who live there. An intimate and insightful view into a small section of Africa and the resilience of its people and the natural world.

“The lake was an ecological marvel. The evolutionary biologist Tijs Goldschmidt, who on one occasion grew so bored with discovering new fish that he dropped an unnamed purple and black specimen back into the water whose like would never be caught again, dubbed the lake Darwin’s Dreampond.”

At first, I found the level of detail and description dragged a little, but once Weston and his wife Ebru start meeting people, the account becomes more lively; first during their boat trip to the island, when they go to visit the departing teacher trainer, Gloria, and when they go to visit the immigration official the following morning. Only then does Weston start to write about the scant information about the island he has found online, none of it good. Previous foreigners, colonial and commercial, have come to a sticky end. Mark and Ebru are the only white people on the island, which was previously used as a prison island by the surrounding countries. It’s where civil servants are sent if they are out of favour. There are tales of witchcraft, but the island has also been a sanctuary for albinos; elsewhere they are in danger of being killed and their bones used in magic.

Finally the couple start to meet the locals. The first is Mabiba (real name Vincent), a man who has worked in Australia and returned to found a branch of the Winner’s Chapel International, a mega-church started in Nigeria that promotes ambition: faith, determination and patience. Mabiba’s church is built on the site of a bar where customers were being slapped by demons, highly reminiscent of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.

As I was reading, I was reminded of another book I read last year which also featured a couple moving to a remote island, one as an educator, one a writer. The stories of power cuts, water saved in tanks, food shipped in and the lack of modern medical facilities are the same. In both cases, the woman is the one employed to teach, the man faces the prospect of long days at home, expecting to spend his time writing a masterpiece. The other book was Maarten Troost’s The Sex Life of Cannibals, set in the remote Pacific island of Kiribati.

“When travelling around a country you can move on if there are difficulties, but being forced to stay in a place for many months gives you no choice but to find strength in your own resources.”

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is so big that it creates its own weather systems and the wind can whip up terrifying 6-foot waves (that’s 1.83 metres for the metrically-minded). Not surprisingly, 4,000 people a year drown there. It’s around half the size of England or twice the size of the Netherlands. Search your own meaningful comparison here

It is fascinating to read about how accurate oral histories have proved to be when archeological and other evidence is examined. The region’s omwanzuzi, the oral historians were not just tellers of tales, but passed on the equivalent of western case law by their recall of historical precedent. Ironically, since they have disappeared, we only know this due to a western anthropologist who wrote down one old man’s knowledge.

Family

Life expectancy on the island is 48, so ties with extended family are important. Orphaned children are often adopted by other relatives. Parents have extra children to compensate for the high infant mortality rate and make the grief more manageable. Parents have little time to spare for their children, which explains why Mark and Ebru are frequently surrounded by small children.

“Three children quickly become ten and then fifteen, draping themselves over my chair, resting their elbows on my knees, touching and commenting on the white skin of my arms, or simply sitting on the step and smiling, content to be near me. The spectre of loneliness fades.”

Fishermen spend 3 weeks away, in the deep waters or based on smaller islands, attracting fish to their nets with kerosene lamps. On the fourth week, the lamps are unable to compete with the brightness of the full moon, so the men return to their wives. Instead of going to bed early, the women take advantage of the light of the moon to stay up and chat.

It is not unusual for men to have more than one wife. This is legal, but the churches don’t approve. First wives theoretically have the right to veto the choice of subsequent wives, but in reality, this does not always happen. In spite of church disapproval, one in four women in Tanzania is in such a relationship. It is now also more common for men to take a mistress rather than an official second wife.

Environment

For centuries, the people of Ukerewe lived in harmony with Lake Victoria. Once western colonists arrived, the balance was disturbed as they wanted to commercialise fishing for profit. Their solution was to introduce a large predator, the Nile perch, the sangara, nicknamed the ‘Saviour Fish’.

In the boom times after the sangara became plentiful, around 20,000 people were directly or indirectly involved in the fishing industry, or providing services for those who were.

The figures are staggering, with numbers of fishermen increasing from under 60 thousand in the mid-1980s to 200 thousand by 2010. More environmentally damaging ways of fishing, with smaller mesh sizes and monofilament gillnets made it more difficult for fish to escape. Nature tried to fight back with fish adapting to reach sexual maturity when they are smaller. Of course, this means the fish caught are smaller, making them less interesting for export markets. Fishing is no longer profitable. The island is back to subsistence farming and fishing.

The introduction of the Nile perch changed not only the local economy, it completely changed the local ecosystem in sometimes unexpected ways. Weston goes into this in fascinating detail, in particular relating to the demise of the hugely diverse species of chiclid fish which originally inhabited the lake. Who would have thought that it would result in lowering life expectancy? However, there is a glimmer of hope as nature seems able to cope in unexpected ways.

The consequences for the local economy but also for the ecology of the lake were catastrophic. Mark Weston describes this in fascinating detail. In short, farmers from the mainland arrived to take advantage of the easy pickings and the industrial processing of the fish. This led to overpopulation, deforestation, pollution and overfishing. To add insult to injury, the famous biodiversity of the lake was destroyed as the smaller chiclid fish were decimated by the invaders, leading to increasing numbers of freshwater snails. As these carry the bilharzia parasite, 80% of people living near the lake are infected. Life expectancy in Tanzania has increased by 15 years, but the incidence of bilharzia has sky-rocketed.

Health

Approximately a quarter of adults in the archipelago are estimated to have HIV. In the fishing season, prostitutes are numerous and cheap. On the small fishing island of Kwero Mto, the population swells during the three weeks of the month when it is not full moon, when most of the dagaa fisherman go home to their families. When on the island, some sleep in tiny straw huts like single person tents. Some of the women on the island work as cooks for the fishermen. This reminds me of a book I read last year about Swedish fishermen, living together in a dormitory with a woman to cook for them, Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Or even the cowboys in the USA in TV shows like The Virginian or Bonanza.

When they visit a previously sacred island, there are several teams of young men hauling in illegal kokoro nets from the beach, a type of trawling using vertical nets arranged in a horseshoe; beach seining. The nets target the feeding grounds of younger fish and catch many juveniles, storing up problems for the future. The word kokoro reminds me of something I have noticed before when reading books about East Africa, i.e. the similarity to Japanese, in the way vowels are used between each consonant.

Health, disease and curses

HIV is common, as are accidents and tropical illnesses. Payment for treatment can cripple even those who have a reasonable income and can change an entire family’s fortunes for ever. Such misfortune is often attributed to curses. One disease that is less severe than it once was is malaria due to improved medicine and the distribution of sleeping nets impregnated with insecticide. I remember reading a book by a Dutch journalist (Julia Samuël) who was on a mission to distribute these. I’m glad to hear such measures really do have an effect. Weston mentions that the worldwide death rate from malaria has more than halved since the start of 2000, yet 500,000 people still die of it every year, and most of the people behind that statistic are African children. If it isn’t fatal, it can cause brain damage. The previous medicine was based on Donald Trump’s favourite drug, chloroquine, but the malaria parasite has become immune, so the latest treatment is derived from the plant artemisia. It makes you wonder if Trump’s campaign wasn’t being paid by chloroquine manufacturers to promote it after it lost its original market. The impact of malaria on the island of Ukerewe itself is huge, with tens of thousands falling ill and it kills 70 per year. Testing kits are cheap, but treatment isn’t, so the temptation is to assume an illness is malaria and spend precious funds on that, wasting valuable time if the problem is one of the other myriads of tropical diseases.

Superstition

The people are firm believers in witches who can be paid to curse others with bad fortune or illness. Witches are invisible, but you may see the signs: bats and owls. Flaunting your own good fortune is cause enough for someone else to buy a curse. Weston says that the superstitions make you feel nervous, even if you don’t really believe in them; I imagine it’s like that feeling of tempting fate if you walk under a ladder. As things so often go wrong in Tanzania, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There has been a progression in who was allowed to practice witchcraft. Before the start of the 19th century, only chiefs could do so, but as the island had more contact with the outside world, death rates rose and witches were given the blame. Witch doctors then began to take on the role of healers of curses. There was also reportedly a mysterious killer on the loose, possibly a lion or a man dressed up as one, leaving telltale scars on its victims; Graham Greene mentioned something similar on his trip to West Africa.

Two thirds of Tanzanians are Christian, the rest is mostly Moslim. Christian churches are as evangelical and restrictive as Moslim teachings, but they coexist peacefully, some people ignoring the parts that are too difficult to  live by. Traditional belief in witchcraft and traditional cures run in parallel with these imported religions.

The people

It strikes me how generous the locals are. They show their friendship by sharing their good fortune with their friends, and that includes Weston and his wife. One touching instance is the little boy who crushes the sweet he was given to share with his friends, but there are many occasions where Weston’s friends and even strangers offer hospitality, even when they have almost nothing themselves.

“A further unexpected benefit of our long stay was the opportunity to learn more about the lives of women. […] Most women are either too busy to waste time chatting to foreigners or too worried by what their families and friends will think.”

Women have to carry water in 18-litre buckets on their heads. N.B. A typical bucket here is only 10 litres. As a consequence, their spines are compressed, causing back pain and they shrink as they age. I realise how much better those rolling water caddies would be, but proper plumbing would be infinitely better. Or this project, ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Children

As they do all around the world, children always find ways to play. One of the amusements mentioned in this book is tying a thread to tether dragonflies so they can be flown like kites. This lends more credibility to the story I was reading recently about a man who could lasso flies. This was in Stephen King’s The Death of Jack Hamilton, a short story about Dillinger’s gang I recently read in the anthology Everything’s Eventual, in which gang member Homer van Meter catches flies to distract the dying Hamilton.

Education 

Parents believe education is important so they will sell possessions or go without so they can afford for their children to go to school. They have to pay for uniforms and materials like exercise books and pencils, yet the education is extremely basic. If they are unable to buy these things, their children have to stay at home until the money is available. One of the Westons’ neighbours teaches rudimentary reading and writing to his pupils. As there is absolutely no source of entertainment on the island, the Westons spend a lot of time talking to these local children, building up a close bond.

Foreigners

Having foreign people in your town to educate locals is prestigious. Sometimes those who stay for an extended period of time like the Westons can help in some small way by teaching English or raising money back home for a local project like building a school. But Weston is dismissive of those such as the small group of men from the Rotary Club who visit every year to paint the hospital and do menial jobs, whilst spending the evening in the bars with local women. The work should be given to locals who could benefit from the wages.

Drinks

The locals drink mainly beer or rum in sachets, or a combination of both. A local drink is made from fermented millet and maize porridge, kinti. It seems like every society has, or used to have, something similar, often brewed communally by the women. I am reminded of the alcoholic beverage brewed from maize in remote Mexican villages by the Tarahumara, tesgüino. They make it even more potent by adding the hallucinogen datura. I read about this in Dutch traveller Karin Anema’s book Mexicaanse sneeuw (Mexican snow). She also spent many months living together with the local people. Mark  Weston knew about yet another alcoholic beverage from Tanzania, banana beer, mpahe, but virtually nobody on the island knew how to make it as most prefer mass-produced drinks. There are also few banana trees on the island due to a disease. However, Weston eventually managed to see the Labour-intensive process, the last stages of which are speeded up by adding a few grains of roasted millet; much more wholesome than the spit or baby poop the Tarahumara use for the same purpose.

Book serendipity: ice in the tropics 

The one thing I knew about Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast before I read it was that it was about an inventor who wanted to bring ice to the jungles of Honduras. So it was amusing to read about how much the local children enjoyed visiting Mark Weston’s house, first to cool water in their fridge, then to produce ice in their freezer for the amusement of the local children.

Zero waste

“Anything that can be repaired is taken to a fundi, a job title that seems to cover anyone who can fix or make anything. Torn plastic buckets are sewn up with wires, flip-flops with glue or string. Shattered mobile phone screens are patched with sellotape or sticking plasters. Children wear their T-shirts until the holes are bigger than the fabric.”

Climate change and hope

Annual rainfall has dropped by a fifth. Crops fail, food prices rise, nobody can pay workmen like Weston’s friend  Joshua, a house painter. 

“The African informal sector is idealised by many economists, who regard it as an enterprising, resilient system that compensates for the continent’s lack of formal sector jobs. But working in the black market is fraught with risk.”

With the breakdown of traditional society, people no longer trust each other and there is more criminality. As far as fishing is concerned, colonialism brought competition and industrialised fishing, rather than traditional distribution by community leaders. The resulting distrust makes western-backed cooperative ventures such as fish farms unlikely to succeed.

For many years, there has been an economic theory that says that farming on common land or fishing in common waters is doomed as individuals fail to restrict grazing/fishing as they would if they were limited to their own property. The overfishing of Lake Victoria seems to bear this out. And yet, in the epilogue, Weston gives us hope as more recent research has found that local communities, if allowed to make their own rules, can fish sustainably. And there is even hope for the resilient little fish of Lake Victoria which, against all the odds, seem to be fighting back.

My first impressions of the book were disappointing because Weston’s writing style was initially oddly static, with short sentences, oddly constructed. I can’t put my finger on why it seems so stilted. It’s probably the lack of flowing sentences and connections between each sentence. This may work in a short news report, but soon becomes wearing in a book. There is also too much description of unimportant things. He refers to the curtains in his hotel room twice, for instance. Only once he is well into chapter two, does the writing start to flow. If I was a prospective reader checking out the preview online, the first pages would have put me off. However, after this slow start, I found the book so fascinating that I was swept along and I found it flowed well. It’s amazing how much information he managed to pack into such a short book.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy as an ebook via Book Sirens. It is available in paperback and ebook formats, according to Goodreads.

20 Books of Summer 2022

Last year was my first year taking part in the 20 Books of Summer reading and reviewing challenge. Three themes this year for me: insects, climate and weather, road trip, plus some set reading and random unread books. Decisions will have to be made. This is my exceptionally long longlist.

This is my second year joining the 20 Books of Summer challenge run by Cathy at 746Books. Last year I (more or less) completed my 20 books, but only managed to write short reviews for most of them. This year I will be extremely surprised if I don’t have to reduce the number to 15 or even 10 because of the size of some of them. On the other hand, several of those thick books are actually trilogies so will count for three if I run out of time. Due to chronic indecision, my longlist consists of 37 books, so not everything on this list will be read this summer. It’s so difficult when you want to read everything on your book pile, now!

2022 themes of summer

Every year, I take part in a challenge with monthly reading themes. This summer the themes are insects and bugs (June), weather and climate (July) and road trip (August). I have split my possibles into 3 piles to match the themes, bar a couple on the wrong pile to even them up for the photo. There are a couple of non-themed library books and even invisible books, i.e. ARCs in ebook form from the newly-discovered Book Sirens. Other challenges I’m trying to include are books from or about different countries and one or two 1001 books. The 20 Books of Summer challenge is a fantastic way of including Books I Never Seem to Get To, though this year I’ve tried to stick to the main three themes.

20 Books of Summer 2022 longlist

20 Books of Summer, the longlist

Insects & bugs theme

  1. De vrouw van de imker (2007) by Amulya Maladi (The Sound of Language, trans. from English to Dutch by Mieke Trouw-Luyckx). TBR since 2015. An Afghan refugee in Denmark.
  2. The Mosquito Coast (1981) by Paul Theroux. Honduras. TBR since 2014. Half-read. An American man emigrates to Honduras with his family, expecting the locals to accept him as a saviour.
  3. The Murmur of Bees (2019) by Sofía Segovia (El murmullo de las abejas, trans. from Spanish by Simon Bruni). TBR since 2021. An abandoned baby, protected by a swarm of bees, who can see the future. Set during the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Mexican Revolution.
  4. Het luizenpaleis (2002) by Elif Shafak (The Flea Palace, trans. from Turkish by Margreet Dorleijn and Hanneke van der Heijden). TBR since 2021 (library book). Stories about the inhabitants of a decaying former palace in Istanbul.
  5. Melmoth (2018), Sarah Perry. TBR since 2021 (library book). An English translator in Prague learns of the dark presence of the legendary Melmoth the Witness.

Weather & climate theme

  1. The Hungry Tide (2004) by Amitav Ghosh. TBR since 2012. An American-Indian marine biologist wants to study rare river dolphins in the Sundarban Islands off India, helped by a local fisherman and a translator.
  2. Wilding (2018) by Isabella Tree. TBR since 2019. NF. Allowing nature to reclaim land spoiled by intensive farming, restoring biodiversity.
  3. The Song of Wirrun: The Ice is Coming (already read), The Dark Bright Water, Behind the Wind (1984) by Patricia Wrightson. TBR since 2008. An Australian fantasy epic with a young indigenous boy investigating strange climatological events caused by ancient spirits and the forces of fire, ice and water.
  4. The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (2019) by Amelia Gentleman. TBR since 2021. NF. A change in government policy led to the enforced ‘repatriation’ of Caribbean immigrants, some of whom had lived their entire lives in Britain, all of whom were entitled to stay there. An investigation.
  5. What If Solving the Climate Crisis Is Simple? (2020) by Tom Bowman. TBR since 2020. NF. An optimistic view of the future.
  6. Spring (2019) by Ali Smith. TBR since 2020. The third in Ali Smith’s topical seasonal quartet (now with a 5th volume).
  7. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance) (2014) by Jeff VanDerMeer. TBR since 2022. Expeditions into a mysterious remote ecological anomaly.
  8. The House of Drought by Dennis Mombauer. Ebook/ARC via Book Sirens. 106pp. Deadline 14 July. Creepy novella about a presence under a house in Sri Lanka that has survived colonisation and climate change.

Road trip theme

  1. The Return of the Native (1878) by Thomas Hardy. TBR since 2012. 1001 book. Romance and unhappy marriage.
  2. South Riding (1936) by Winifred Holtby. TBR since 2019. A feminist story of life in a pre-WWII rural community in Yorkshire. Half-read.
  3. Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996) by Doris Pilkington (real name Nugi Garimara). TBR since 2019. The true story of three mixed race girls who walked across Australia to return home after the government took them away to indoctrinate them into white culture.
  4. Riddley Walker (1998) by Russell Hoban. TBR since 2017. Post-apocalyptic verbal shenanigans told by a 12-year-old boy.
  5. The Places in Between (2006) by Rory Stewart. TBR since 2022. NF. A solo walk across remotest Afghanistan in 2002.
  6. A Time of Gifts (1977) by Patrick Leigh Fermor. TBR since 2021. NF. A memoir of a trip across Europe in 1933 from Hook of Holland to Hungary, first part of a trilogy.
  7. The Road Home (2007) by Rose Tremain. TBR since 2019. An Eastern European immigrant adapts to life in England.
  8. Heimwee naar de jungle (The Lost Steps) (1953) by Alejo Carpentier (Los pasos perdidos, trans. from Spanish to Dutch by J.G. Rijkmans). 1001 book. TBR since 2015. A composer travels with his mistress to the remote South American jungle. Half-read.
  9. Het verschil [The difference] (2000) by Monika van Paemel. TBR since 2010? Three men and a woman travel on horseback from Belgium to Sarajevo.
  10. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) by Jonathan Coe. TBR since ? Satire or silliness about social media and a lonely man who goes on a road trip.

Books I Never Get To

  1. Pachinko (2017) by Lee Min-jin. TBR since 2017. In 1911 a Christian minister takes a pregnant Korean girl to be his wife in Japan. A family saga.
  2. The Quincunx (1990) by Charles Palliser. TBR since 2008. A Dickensian tale of a young boy and his mother who become destitute, with a family secret to be discovered. Half-read earlier this year.
  3. Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021) by Sathnam Sanghera. TBR since 2021. How the colonial attitude still affects daily life.
  4. The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2007) by Andrus Kiviräk (Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu, trans. from Estonian by Christopher Mosely). TBR since 2017. Medieval fantasy dark fairytale set in the Estonian forests.
  5. The Golem and the Djinni (2013) by Helene Wecker. TBR since 2013. A mix of Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore meet in New York in 1899.
  6. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 1001 book. TBR since 2013. A Nigerian woman in America. Half-read.

Promised to Read / Book club

  1. Watermelon (1995) by Marian Keyes. TBR since 2012. Family saga, recommended to me by my daughter several years ago.
  2. Utopia for Realists (2014) by Rutger Bregman. TBR since 2020. NF. Examples of how the world could be improved by implementing innovative ideas. I’ve been promising my son to read this for a couple of years now.
  3. The White Girl (2019) by Tony Birch. For June’s book club. Deadline 29 June. An indigenous grandmother has to risk everything to save her light-skinned granddaughter from being sent to an Australian government indoctrination centre.
  4. Some Tame Gazelle (1950) by Barbara Pym. This is really a placeholder for my July book club book, Excellent Women (1952). Deadline 27 July.
  5. A Caribbean book for our book club in August. Either When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo (Trinidad and Tobago), How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (Barbados) or These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card (Jamaica/New York). Deadline 24 August.
  6. The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake (2022) by Mark Weston. Ebook/ARC via Book Sirens. 216pp. Deadline 29 June. NF. An account of two years on the Tanzanian shores of Lake Victoria, learning about the human cost of interfering with nature, pollution, overfishing and deforestation.

Library books

  1. Een bizarre bibliotheek [A very peculiar collection] (2012) by Barnard Quiriny (Une collection très particulière, trans. from French to Dutch by Wilma Beun). A library full of magical books with strange characteristics.
  2. Mijn ex, de dood en ik (2015) by Thees Uhlmann (Sophia, der Tod und ich, trans. from German into Dutch by Herman Vinckers). Death gives the narrator three minutes to live, but then they get into a discussion about life and the things that matter.

Obviously I won’t read all of these books. I’ll pick and choose out of the piles and try to remember to read the ones that have deadlines in time. And somehow I have to find some time to write reviews, too. I’m almost tempted to make a spreadsheet, but that would just be procrastination. Let the mad reading begin!

Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps by Lucy Fuggle

A quietly philosophical book about how the nature of Switzerland brought inner peace to a young woman stressed by life surrounded by people. A journal of personal reflections, poetry, beautiful photos and tiny watercolour paintings of alpine flowers.

“So much seems impossible until it happens. But perfect opportunities do exist and when they come into your life, you can either feel unworthy or not ready and push them away, or you can accept them with a heartfelt thank you. It’s so easy to say no to everything you’ve ever wanted. The hardest thing can be to say yes.”

Lucy Fuggle is living the dream! My dream. She not only moved to Switzerland and got a job as a writer, she isn’t living in one of the big cities like Zurich or Lucerne, she’s living in a quiet village largely off the tourist trail, with a view of two mountains and a glacier. At least, she was when she wrote this book.

Unexpected trigger warning: self harm.

The reason I requested a review copy of this book was firstly the beautiful cover illustration of mountains and a waterfall and the word ‘mountain’ in the title. But what really hooked me was when I saw that the author lives in Meiringen. It may be a tiny town, but I have camped there a couple of times and walked in the surrounding mountains. Meiringen was one of the first campsites we stayed at when we started walking in the Swiss mountains about 35 years ago and we have returned many times to the country.

I remember turning off the main road to drive between Swiss chalets covered with red geraniums, then turning in to the campsite. It’s on the flat U-shaped valley floor and flat as a pancake, with huge mountains on either side. The only disadvantage is that the wind whistles up the valley. Not ideal when you’re living outside. Anyway, suffice it to say, I understand the beauty of Switzerland and couldn’t wait to read what Lucy Fuggle had to say about it.

Personal reflections

My first surprise was that Lucy Fuggle is British, brought up on a sheep farm in the south of England; somehow I had expected her to be American. After reading just a few pages, it was obvious she can write, so the fact that her job in Switzerland was writing for a ‘travel software firm’ took no great leap of the imagination. Her job was based in Interlaken, but after living in shared accommodation for a while, she couldn’t wait to escape to somewhere more rural. Who can blame her? It always amazes me how other people manage to find these dream jobs in perfect places. Jealous, moi?

The book is told in the style of a personal journal, with flashbacks, poems, watercolours and beautiful photographs. Sometimes it is gently humorous, often poignant and shows a lot of self-knowledge. She describes her lonely and miserable school life, relieved by the respite of her own imagination and the woods near her home. She is a loner with social anxiety and says that she recognises many of her traits as being on the autistic spectrum. It’s unclear if she has an official diagnosis, but she is definitely someone who enjoys being alone, needs space and enjoys the calming influence of nature.

Lucy is perfect for the apartment she wants to live in. “I told her that the women in my family didn’t have a problem with low ceilings, and heard her joy through the phone. ‘I’ve been inundated with enquiries from tall men, when all I’ve wanted is a nice small woman’”, says the landlady. I love the humour.

In a flashback, Fuggle describes why she self-harmed as a teenager. “I don’t think I wanted others to know I needed help. In hindsight, I think I just wanted to suffer. I wanted to morph the pain I was feeling inside into something real and legitimately painful. Pain that had a logical reason for it and could be fixed with antiseptic and a plaster.”

At university she was overwhelmed by a pressure she felt sure other people didn’t feel. She felt unable to participate in seminars and her supervisor told her she wouldn’t be able to graduate, something that must have added to the pressure she felt. Fortunately, the powers-that-be relented. Fuggle was lucky; there was a story on the news just two days ago about a girl with social anxiety who was so stressed by the prospect of giving a presentation to a full lecture theatre that she took her own life. Her parents took the university to court in the hope of making it easier for future students.

April 31st?

The third section of the book is titled Things Fall Apart. Fuggle talks about feeling that there is something wrong in her relationship with her boyfriend. One of the chapters is called April 31st, a date that doesn’t exist; I was expecting something odd to happen, but it is a perfectly innocent tale of a walk to view a waterfall, the Alpbachschlucht. I am intrigued to know if the date is a misprint or put there deliberately to see if anyone notices; that doesn’t seem like her style.

One chapter, titled Why, why, why consists of a single sentence: “I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara and it destroys me.” I have read so many reviews of that book that say something similar, yet I don’t know why. Am I ready to be destroyed in the course of a doorstopper book or will I find out I am insensitive? One day I will read it and find out. This one-line comment is powerful in its starkness. Sometimes a chapter is a simple poem. Others contain reflections on life and relationships and self-belief. Nothing too startling, but I appreciated the intimacy of the things she writes.

“I judge myself on what isn’t right according to photographs of beautiful women I’m led to believe are normal and let my sense of self become fainter and smaller. I forget how I love people without really giving thought to their appearance at all, how I adore and appreciate their quirks as a beautiful part of them without even seeing their flaws. I forget to be my own friend and treat myself as my loved ones do.”

The flavour of Switzerland

Personally, I would have preferred a little more about life as an expat in Switzerland, about the quirky traditions and food specialities. There are always things you miss and discoveries you make when you live in a foreign country, even if you do keep yourself to yourself. Not to mention the irritations of foreign bureaucracy. As someone who has spent many holidays camping and walking in the Swiss mountains, I would have liked more discussion of walking. I can’t imagine she walked so far and so often in the mountains without having some adventures or disasters or getting lost. I could probably fill a book with stories about our walking. Fuggle walked the entire length of the country in sections. Surely she could have found more to say?

Of course, not everyone is as fascinated as I am by these things, but I felt the lack of walking adventures. After all, one of the books she references in her reading list is Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed whose Wild went into the depths of emotion and vivid details of the walking experience. She does however mention a particularly strenuous walk from Altdorf to Engelberg over the Surenen Pass, in a part of the country we’ve never explored. I found this video online of the route in reverse and it looks amazing.

“The mountains are good for many things, but they don’t help me get out of my own head. Rather, I go to them to think deeper and differently. To look at life from new angles, with a backdrop of alpine flora and a pair of eagles soaring in circles above me. Nature doesn’t always offer solutions, but it shows that the landscape is always changing. And that, especially now, is what I need to know.”

We go to Switzerland for the walking and my husband is keen to get to the top of the biggest mountains he can. As we age, we can do less, sadly. We’ve always had ‘rest days’ when we visited the bigger cities like Interlaken and Berne, but we’re not good tourists. We go to Switzerland for mountains and nature, not for culture and museums. Lucy Fuggle has made me want to visit some of the less physically taxing sights and visit museums or explore local specialities. We’ve been there hundreds of times (only a slight exaggeration), but we’ve missed so much.

I was astounded to discover that Meiringen may have been the birthplace of the meringue! I might have known this myself if we did more touristy stuff instead of being self-sufficient. I’m sure there must be a hotel restaurant or bakery where I could have found this out and enjoyed the historical delicacy. Any dessert with meringue is my absolute favourite.

Inspirational

Lucy Fuggle sometimes refers to historical celebrities who visited Switzerland. Churchill climbed there as a young man. The multitalented adventurer and diplomat Gertrude Bell visited the area and climbed several peaks in 1901, one of which is named after her: Gertrudespitze.

Apparently it was the Lauterbrunnen valley that inspired Tolkien when, aged 19 he walked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen, up to Mürren, over Kleine Scheidegg, across to Grosse Scheidegg, and down to Meiringen and along to the Grimselpass. This used to be the start of every Switzerland trip for us, staying at the far end of the valley on a simple campsite at Stechelberg. It cemented our love for Switzerland, though I haven’t been inspired to write any epic fantasy, more’s the pity. It is a good place to read it, though.

Fuggle also mentions a few things we have missed on all our visits to the area and I have now added to my wishlist. The Aare gorge and Tatzelwurm cake from the local bakery for starters. I found the whole story behind this local legend and am intrigued. Another addition to the places to visit is to investigate the view across to the Jungfrau from ‘Interlaken’s mountain’ Harder Kulm.

I enjoyed reading Mountain Song for its thoughtful meditations on life and nature, none of which were life changing for me, but undoubtedly were for the author as she fashioned a life that fitted her needs. At the end of the book she was moving on. I wonder how her journey has continued.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy as an ebook via Book Sirens. It is available on Kindle from Amazon.

Daphne du Maurier reading week #DDMreadingweek 2022

Last week was Heaven-Ali’s annual Daphne du Maurier reading week, so I have indulged myself in all things du Maurier: podcasts, the divine Daphne herself on Desert Island Discs and, of course, a novel: Jamaica Inn. And an astounding revelation about the cover illustrator of this edition, Charles Raymond! #DDMreadingweek

Monday 9 May – Sunday 17 May 2022

When I was in Canterbury in October last year, I spotted a copy of Jamaica Inn and snapped it up, with Heaven Ali’s #DDMreadingweek in mind. I’m still reading and thoroughly enjoying it, so will add my comments about that later. I also took the opportunity to listen to a few podcasts, linked below. What a wonderful author Daphne du Maurier was!

Podcasts

Not surprisingly, Daphne du Maurier is a popular author for bookish types to chat about, so I managed to find a couple of podcasts that fit the bill.

Backlisted. This is my current first port of call for book podcasts. They didn’t let me down . Episode 104 discusses Du Maurier’s creepy short stories in the collection The Breaking Point. Searching on the Backlisted website, I also discovered DDM in episode 78 about Edith Wharton’s short stories, Ghost. Co-presenter Andy Miller talks hilariously about Du Maurier’s final novel Rule Britannia, which seems to fit perfectly with the ongoing mess which is Brexit; in it the ‘failed European experiment’ has been abandoned and Britain has merged with America to form the nation of USUK. Heaven-Ali also reviewed it on her blog in 2019. It sounds like a book I’d like to get my hands on.

Desert Island Discs. On 5 September 1977, Daphne du Maurier was a guest on Desert Island Discs, talking about her life and choosing music to take to the hypothetical island. The only reason I thought of looking this up was that an excerpt was played on the Backlisted podcast, with Daphne being rather arch at the end of the show. The whole programme is available on the BBC Sounds website. It’s so odd to hear the voice of an author who I had always assumed was long gone by the time I read Rebecca for the first time in the ‘70s.

The Bookcast Club, episode 53: Is it worth reading classics? This starts off with a definition of classics (at least 100 years old) and modern classics. Both presenters refer to Rebecca a couple of times as a definite classic that didn’t fit into their category, but felt too old to fit in the ‘modern classic’ category. It found this episode particularly interesting because the hosts discuss set reading at school and one of them, Sarah K. (who I know personally) is Australian and considerably younger than me. The set books at her school have virtually no overlap with what I had to read. Incidentally, Rebecca was not a set book. I wonder how I knew it was a classic. Cultural osmosis?

One sentence reviews

At the back of my 1972 Penguin edition of Jamaica Inn, there are two pages listing Daphne du Maurier’s books. Not an exhaustive list, but useful nevertheless for anyone wanting to read more Du Maurier. What’s more, it’s not just a list, there is a one-sentence review of each book (o two at most.

Jamaica Inn and the Joy of Sex connection!

The cover of this 1972 edition of Jamaica Inn was illustrated by Charles Raymond. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t read the novel because at no point is Mary Yellan described as wearing an off-the-shoulder green dress with her bosom on the verge of escape. And the way that dress is is attached to her body just doesn’t look like it is it physically possible. In an idle moment, I decided to Google Charles Raymond and was astounded to discover that not only was he the artist for many Penguin covers between 1962 and 1965, he was the hirsute male model for the illustrations of The Joy of Sex! The female half of the couple was his wife, Edeltraud. They posed for photographs which were then used as the basis for the pen and ink drawings by Chris Foss. Raymond was responsible for the colour illustrations. Amazing what you find when you look things up on the internet!

My review of Jamaica Inn will probably take a few more days. I have a completely different book to read for my book club on Wednesday, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I wonder if I will find any book serendipity between the two?

Heaven-Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week 2022

Royalty and aristocracy books TBR in April 2022

This month’s reading theme is royalty and aristocracy. I was surprised to have so many that fit, but it’s already the 12th of the month and I haven’t even started yet.​ An interesting range of books, from historical to fantasy to non-fiction, with settings from medieval Europe to immigrants in contemporary America and cross-cultural relationships in Africa. Priorities will have to be set.

Left: right royal books

Arthur, High King of Britain (1994), Michael Morpurgo. I’ve read several of Morpurgo’s books and they’re usually very enjoyable. On my shelf since I don’t know when.

Transcendent Kingdom (2020), Yaa Gyasi. I have to read this before my book club on 18 May, so this is one book on the pile that will definitely be read. It’s about a Ghanaian family in Alabama and the opioid crisis. I loved Gyasi’s Homecoming, so I’m looking forward to this. Entered the house the day before yesterday!

A Distant Mirror (1978), Barbara Tuchman. One of my medieval history professors repeatedly recommended we read this. I never did, but I still feel the guilt and never forgot the name of the book. On my shelf since 2008 and still not read! Could this be the month?

The Sunne in Splendour (1982), Sharon Kay Penman. Even though I was enjoying this history of Richard III, the Wars of the Roses, I put it to one side halfway through, when the author made the bad tactical move of starting Book Two, telling the story from Anne’s point of view. I will have to reread my notes and peer at the excellent family tree at the start of tbe book, as I cannot for the life of me remember who Anne is. I am determined to finish it this year. TBR since June 2009.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), E.M. Delafield. I may reserve this for a later date, perhaps for 20 books of summer? I suspect I’ll adore it and assume it would be a perfect summer read. TBR since 2014.

I Capture the Castle (1948), Dodie Smith. Another half-read book a-languishing. As I want to keep it, I may delay again. TBR since 2017.

Anna & the King of Siam (1943), Margaret Langdon. This is the book the wonderful musical The King and I was based on. It’s a keeper, so I may not get to it until I’m desperate to read a book about an Asian country, in this case Thailand, or Siam as it once was. Permanent collection. No rush.

Koning van Katoren (How to Become King) (1971), Jan Terlouw. A Dutch preteen’s classic I have never read, about a 17 year-old boy who volunteers to become king when there is no heir to the throne. But in the best fairytale tradition, he must first carry out seven difficult tasks. TBR since 2014.

Middle: pretenders to the throne

Le petit prince (The Little Prince) (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Non, je ne l’ai jamais lu. I intended to read this years ago when I started reading books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die List, but I lost it when it fell down the back of a shelf. Je l’ai redécouvert, so I should read it before il est disparu again. Sadly, I’m not sure if my French is up to it.

The Castle on the Hill (1941), Elizabeth Goudge. Set at the beginning of WWII, a book about fear, bravery and hope. It seems likely I will see parallels with the situation in Ukraine, so I will try to get to this. Inherited from my mother and TBR since February 2022.

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953), Roger Lancelyn Green. TBR since August 2014. It would be interesting to compare this with the Morpurgo book.

Het woud der verwachting (In a Dark Wood Wandering) (1949), Helle S. Haasse. The Hundred Years’ War, Charles of Orleans, Henry V, Joan of Arc. Recommended to me by many Dutch historical novel fans. I doubt I’ll read it this month.

Het fort van Sjako [Jacko’s castle], Karel Eykman, Peter Vos. A short children’s historical novel set in Amsterdam. TBR since 2014.

Vegas Knights (2011), Matt Forbeck. Urban fantasy. Two trainee wizards try to scam Las Vegas, only to discover the whole place is run by magic. TBR since 2015.

Koning van de baracca’s (2014), Femke van Zeijl. An intercultural relationship between a man from Mozambique and a Portuguese woman. TBR since 2016.

The Shadow King (2019), Maaza Mengiste. Women at war in Ethiopia in 1935. Booker nominee. TBR since November 2020.

Maanpaleis (Moon Palace) (1989), Paul Auster. Dropping out and a road trip from Manhattan to Utah. On the 1001 list. I’d like to read it this month, but time is ticking. TBR since March 2018.

Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) (2002), Elif Shafak. I’ve been wanting to read a ‘proper’ book by this Turkish-British author for ages. I will try to squeeze this in, even though it won’t help reduce the physical TBR as it’s a library book. It tells the stories of the people living in a rundown former palace in Istanbul. On second thoughts, I’ll reserve this for June’s theme: insects and bugs!

Right: lesser nobility

Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), Stephen Donaldson. Fantasy. My husband has half a shelf full of this series. I keep meaning to read one, but doubt I’ll have time this month.

De vrouw met de zes slapers [The (1953), Antoon Coolen. Set somewhere in a sleepy village in the east of the Netherlands. The local castle is deserted until the lady of the house returns to sleep alone, but always with one of six villagers in the corridor outside. Nostalgic with some interesting insights into times gone by. I almost finished this in January 2020. Time to read the rest.

Under the Net (1954), Iris Murdoch. An imposter, hanging on from last month’s 1954 Club. Maybe during 20 Books of Summer. TBR since May 2018.

Jamaica Inn (1936), Daphne du Maurier (not pictured). An atmospheric tale set in Cornwall. Reading now for Heaven Ali’s #DDMReadingWeek. What a writer!

Rabbit-proof Fence (1996), Doris Pilkington = Nugi Garimara. The heart rending tale of indigenous sisters walking across Australia to find their way home, escaping from an internment camp for mixed race children. I may pair this with The White Girl by Tony Birch, an Australian indigenous author. My book club will be reading that in June. TBR since July 2019.

Things I Want My Daughters to Know (2007), Elizabeth Noble. This is really only here for the photo shoot. I only got it recently, so it will have to wait its turn, but I loved her novel The Reading Group so have high expectations. TBR since October 2021.

Jews Don’t Count (2021), David Baddiel. I read an excellent article in the Guardian by Baddiel, pointing out that Jews are often not mentioned when it comes to discussions of discrimination. I will read this sooner rather than later. TBR since 2022.

Looking for Alaska (2005), John Green. Just here for the photo. Maybe later this year, for the ‘colour’ theme. TBR since 2017.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman. My husband always buys interesting books at the airport. He probably gives them little more than an executive skim. If only I could read faster! This one’s about cognitive dissonance and taking decisions impulsively or in a more considered way. It does sound fascinating.

Alles is eventueel (Everything‘s Eventual) (2002), Stephen King. Fourteen creepy short stories and an introduction. If I read one a day from now until the end of the month, I can finally clear this space-hogger off my shelf. It’s been TBR since April 2017.

Realistic plans

It would be lovely to read all these books, all this month, but that is unrealistic, especially since I have had two extremely long translations to do. Realistically I hope to read:

  • Jamaica Inn for Daphne du Maurier reading week, deadline 15 May
  • Transcendent Kingdom for book club, deadline 18 May.
  • De vrouw met de zes slapers, 90% done
  • The Shadow King because it’s new and counts towards reading the world
  • Koning van de baracca’s because if I don’t read it this month, it won’t fit into any other theme
  • Jews Don’t Count because it’s short, important and I expect one of my sons to want to read it
  • Alles is eventueel because I can read a story a day but it all adds up to help clear my shelves
  • The Sunne in Splendour because it’s a guilt-inducing half-read book that also takes up too much space. Perhaps this one will stretch into June

Every month, I pull out a selection of books that fit a certain theme, but choosing which books to read is still difficult. I suppose it’s my own fault for having so much choice, but I am unrepentant. How do you decide what to read next? Do you take part in challenges that help narrow down your choices?