Archives for posts with tag: IMPAC

This debut novel by the Norwegian author Kjersti A. Skomsvold was my second read on the IMPAC Dublin literary award shortlist.

An intriguing and intense book, I liked it when I read it, and it has lingered much in my thoughts ever since.

The central character is Mathea Martinsen, an elderly widow who lives alone, leading a solitary and almost agoraphobic life, “I Mathea am alone”. The details of her life are subtlely revealed, interspersed with Mathea’s own musings:

‘I never got the point of flowers, they’re just going to wither and die.’

‘I like it when I can be done with something. Like a knitted earwarmer, like winter, spring, summer, fall.’

We know that Mathea has been married to Epsilon, and that they did not have children, a loss that is not dwelt on but more obliquely alluded to:

‘I identify with bananas, for not only am I hunched over, I’ve also got a flower without sex organs and fruit without seed, and therefore I am, according to the Buddha, meaningless.’

Now widowed, childless and alone, Mathea spends much time considering her own approaching death:

‘It may take a long time before anyone realizes I’ve died.’

However, her thoughts are neither maudlin nor self-pitying as she considers, in a sometimes peculiarly detached way, her last moments:

‘It’s getting dark, I’m trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.’

Obituaries preoccupy, and distract:

‘LIVE LIFE. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally, I decide to do what I always do: read the obituaries.’

Yet she is also philosophical, and knowing, about her own life and its inherent solitude:

‘”MATHEA MARTINSEN – deeply loved, dearly missed,” I write at the top of the page and underline it.’

‘Today I’m glad my name isn’t there. Still, an obituary would be proof of my existence…’

‘I used to read obituaries to gloat over all the people I’d outlived, but now I don’t think it matters, we all live for just a moment anyway.’

She is not afraid to consider death, and does so with much pragmatism and wry humour:

‘I need to expose myself more and more to death – without going too far, it’s a delicate balance – but then at last I’ll be able to live with the fact that I’m going to die. I figure this can be done in two ways and so I draw up a list.

1. I can visit graveyards, go to funerals, or I can plan my own funeral…

…It must be terrible to plan your own funeral. It’s probably easier to plan other people’s.

2. I can begin living dangerously. I can cross the street without first looking left, then right, then left again.’

But part of her obsession with dying also connects to her struggle with living, and her solitary existence:

‘I’m still sitting here in my apartment and I’m just as afraid of living life as I am of dying.’

Mathea appears profoundly lonely, despite her fear of others, a loneliness that she has experienced all her life:

‘Now I hear ambulance sirens in the distance again, they should be coming to get me because I’m wearing clean underwear and will be dying soon. But no, there’s someone else in the ambulance instead…’

The tragic irony is that she does want to connect with others, but does not know how:

‘I usually buy what other people buy, it’s nice to have boiled cod for dinner if the woman in front of me at the checkout is also having boiled cod.’

‘I let myself imagine that someone might notice me on the way to the store. But what would I do if that happened, probably nothing, and whoever it is might be disappointed by what they see. I’ve never heard of anyone being impressed by nothing at all, and I don’t like to disappoint people.’

‘You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely.’

Ultimately defeated, Mathea arrives at her own denouement:

‘I’m not afraid of dying anymore, I’m just afraid of dying alone, and I’ve already done that.’

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am addresses very significant themes, around what it means to be human and to have lived, such as solitude, loneliness, the inevitability of death, the need to belong, to be visible and noticed, and to matter.

Big stuff, which lingers and makes you think…


I have set myself the challenge of reading all the books on the IMPAC (International Dublin Literary Award) short list – 10 in total – before the winner is announced in early June.

I am currently on number three, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane. Thus far, I have really enjoyed the idiosyncratic and diverse mix.

For now, I want to focus on my first read, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka’s novel tells the story of Japanese mail-order brides who embarked on a journey into the unknown hinterland of America during the interwar period, and into the arms of men that they had never met, and how their lives unfolded thereafter in an adopted homeland.

A large part of the magic of this book lies in its style, which is inextricably bound to the poignancy and tragedy of the narrative that it delivers.

The style is unusual and unique. The Buddha in the Attic is not about one woman, or any named women in particular, but about many. It is a composite narrative where individual stories and happenings merge to reveal, perhaps surprisingly, something in the plural that feels even more powerful than anything an individual voice might provide.

We first meet the anonymous group on the boat that is transporting them from the Japan they grew up in to a land they can only imagine. As they prepare for their new lives, they discuss amongst themselves how they should behave in their new homeland:

‘A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.’

They are excited and hopeful, and also clearly desperate to leave Japan for a better life:

‘I took one look at his photograph and told the matchmaker, “He’ll do.”‘

On arrival, hope for this better life is quickly shattered. The husbands, strangers who greet them, are not what they expected:

‘They were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors…’

The men are desperate too, and quickly claim their mail-order brides:

‘They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.’

Thus ‘owned’, the identity of these transported women becomes subsumed in their roles as wives, workers, and mothers, their own selves disappearing in an unwelcoming world:

‘Say “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” and do as you’re told. Better yet, say nothing at all. You now belong to the invisible world.’

Not all managed to overcome the disappointment and disillusionment that greeted them on arrival in America:

‘One of us filled the sleeves of her white silk kimono with stones and wandered out into the sea, and we still say a prayer for her every day.’

There were few alternatives. Returning to Japan was not an option:

‘If you come home, our fathers had written to us, you will disgrace the entire family.’

We follow the cycles of their lives. Babies arrive, rarely joyously:

‘We gave birth six weeks after our husband had left us to a child we now wish we had never given away.’

Despite all this, hope continued for some until the very end, ‘Still, they dreamed’, even though they knew for certain, particularly post Pearl Harbour, that their presence in this unwelcoming land was finite:

‘And we knew it would only be a matter of time until all traces of us were gone.’

As they gradually disappear, so too does the voice of the first person plural, shifting from ‘we’ to ‘they’:

‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town.’

It feels as if the ‘invisible world’ that they inhabited has finally engulfed them, and no trace of their ever being, and mattering, remains:

‘All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.’