Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb translated by Alison Anderson
Having slept through pregnancy, the birth of her daughter feels like an affront. When friends and family admire the baby, Marie feels envy rather than pride. What a relief to leave Diane the care of her parents and begin work as an accountant in her husband’s pharmacy.
But this is Diane’s story: a child deprived of maternal affection not because that mother is depressed but because she’s so narcissistic she envies her own daughter. Fortunately, her maternal grandparents (and, later, the parents of a friend) can compensate to a certain extent (p26):
Above all, Mamie looked at her and spoke to her. With Mamie she didn’t only exist in the morning in the evening. She existed non-stop, and this was thrilling.
A classic wounded healer, Diane resolves to become a doctor, and not just any doctor, but a cardiologist, a doctor of the heart. At university, she befriends Olivia, an assistant professor around her mother's age. Eager to please, Diane helps the older woman work towards university tenure and, when the relationship begins to smack of exploitation, masks her disappointment with overwork.
Given that the envious mother-figure is a fairytale archetype, I’m curious how infrequently it crops up in my reading. First Love and Magnetism address envy as one aspect of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (and I have half-baked ideas for a novel of my own on the theme, as well as my short story “Reflecting Queenie”, based on the story of Snow White, which will appear in my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone.) Strike Your Heart explores the dark consequences of such an attack on a girl’s developing identity, alongside the potential for redemption. (My recently published short story “With a Small Bomb in Her Chest” illustrates the potential violence of such an attack.)
Diane’s story unfolds with a fairytale-style straightforwardness verging on bluntness, with emotions named rather than implied, which seems more characteristic of French novels than English. While I found Diane’s repetition compulsion credible, I was sceptical of a two-year-old’s grasp of her mother’s limitations. But this might be due to my own envy. Thanks to Europa editions for my review copy.
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones
In addition, winters on the high plateau can be cruel, with most of her neighbours returning to the city as the air begins to chill. As one of only three remaining, Duszejko checks on the empty properties and puts in a few hours teaching English at the village school, a hair-raising icy drive away. She rarely speaks to the men in the other two occupied houses, and now one of them, fortunately the most menacing, is dead.
As other mysterious deaths follow, Duszejko tries to persuade the police the Animals are asserting their revenge. She’s dismissed as a mad woman, especially as she demands the deceased’s dates of birth in order to calculate their Horoscopes.
Duszejko is a deliciously eccentric character, an older woman who refuses to toe the line. Olga Tokarczuk portrays her with compassion and humour, balancing her absurdities with her ethical stance. While the reader can’t condone how far her beliefs take her, many would share her revulsion at killing animals for sport.
While none of her few friends share her passion for Astrology, she has a strong bond with a younger man, a former pupil, through their fondness for the poetry of William Blake. It's from his work that the book takes its title, so the American spelling (which I’ve encountered in other translated European novels from British publishers) of plough was particularly surprising.
Author of several novels, short story collections and essays, Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is Poland’s most widely translated female novelist. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ English translation of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead came to me courtesy of British publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions.