In this bimonthly series, “Best of the B-Sides,” critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed.
Certain secrets weigh heavy on those who carry them. Many times these dark secrets metastasize—their consequences reverberate beyond the secret’s participants and are passed down to subsequent generations. Each of the novels recommended in this edition of “Best of the B-Sides” explores the legacy of a secret and the unforeseen consequences it has on those who unwillingly, and sometimes even unwittingly, inherit it.
Inês Pedrosa’s English language debut, In Your Hands (AmazonCrossing, 2018, tr. Andrea Rosenberg), captivates from its very first pages. The novel is the luminous saga of a Portuguese family, spanning the interwar years through the 1990s. It opens during a vacation in Greece in the summer of 1935. There Jenny meets and falls passionately in love with Antonio, a charming and sophisticated young man. The two are set to marry, and they return to Jenny’s opulent home in Lisbon where, joined by Antonio’s best friend, Pedro, they soon become the coveted guests of the city’s glittering social scene. But Jenny’s romantic imaginings of her life with Antonio shatter on their wedding night when Antonio affectionately escorts her to their bedroom door and then walks across the hall to Pedro’s room, sharing the night with him instead. Jenny’s diary recounts her decades-long, unrequited love for Antonio and her fidelity to the secrets shared by the three: the sham marriage, the passionate love between Antonio and Pedro, and the circumstances of their daughter Camila’s conception.
The novel’s subsequent sections are narrated first by Camila, who uses family photographs to recollect and interpret the family’s history, and finally by Camila’s daughter, Natalia, in letters that she writes to Jenny. Pedrosa’s tale of three generations of women portrays not only the political events and cultural influences that shaped Portugal at the time but also how the long-suppressed truth about Jenny’s marriage ripples through the women’s private lives, even decades later. Pedrosa’s extraordinary prose is colorful, thought-provoking, and emotionally rich. This is a novel that rewards the reader on every page with the thrill of great storytelling and the satisfaction of deeply etched characters whose lives are indelibly marked by the legacy of a forsaken love.
Secrets play a central role in the novels of Spain’s prolific and inimitable Javier Marías. In A Heart So White (New Directions, 2002, tr. Margaret Jull Costa), a palpable foreboding is created in the opening scene, which depicts the violent suicide of a young woman just returned from her honeymoon. Decades later Juan, the novel’s protagonist, and his new wife, Luisa, are back in Madrid after their own honeymoon and beginning to adjust to married life. Nonetheless Juan feels a sense of unease about his marriage. He is haunted by his father Ranz’s quiet caution to him on his wedding day, “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.” Some months later Juan and Luisa are dining with an old family friend who recalls the incident of the young bride’s inexplicable suicide and reveals this woman was Ranz’s first wife. While Luisa is eager to uncover the circumstances that led to that ill-timed suicide, Juan is undecided, fearing that he will learn that Ranz played a role in her death. With psychological depth and acuity, Marías explores a marriage’s ecosystem—the intuitions and suspicions about one another that flicker in the minds of a couple and the internal deliberations regarding whether to speak or remain silent about them. Marías parallels the married lives of Ranz and Juan to illustrate how one generation’s memories and experiences fold over into the next. It is a fascinating reflection on how knowledge can scar as deeply as deception.
In Troubling Love (Europa Editions, 2006, tr. Ann Goldstein), Elena Ferrante examines the reliability of memory and how we create narratives around long-held secrets. When Delia’s mother, Amelia, is found dead under strange circumstances, the unexpected tragedy unleashes disturbing and fragmented memories of Delia’s childhood. Returning to the Naples neighborhood where she grew up and where her mother lived until her death, Delia attempts to find clues about her mother’s final days. There she encounters Caserta, a man who shares a troubling history with her family. Caserta was an old friend and business partner of Delia’s father and uncle until suspicions arose that he and Amelia were having an affair—suspicions that young Delia stoked when she went to her father after witnessing an encounter between the two. Delia’s fraught and frantic search for answers, particularly around what Caserta might know about her mother’s last hours, bring Delia to the brink of physical and emotional collapse. It is in this state of near hysteria that Delia unbraids the complex and buried feelings for her mother that she has carried throughout adulthood. In this concise, urgent novel Ferrante once again demonstrates her remarkable talent to capture the intensity and emotional volatility of a fraught female relationship.
Personal shame is the great instigator of secrets. In Marie NDiaye’s novel Ladivine (Knopf, 2016, tr. Jordan Stump), one woman’s denial of her race and parentage creates a legacy of pain and estrangement. Clarisse leads a seemingly ordinary life, working and taking care of her husband and young daughter. But she hides from everyone, even her husband, the monthly trips that she takes to Bordeaux to visit a modest, mixed-race cleaning lady, Ladivine, who also happens to be her mother. No one in Clarisse’s life knows a thing about her mother and, in fact, Clarisse has led them to believe that her mother has been dead for years. In turn, Ladivine, who knows her daughter only by her birth name, Malinka, is totally ignorant of her daughter’s life to such a degree that she is unaware that Malinka has a daughter of her own. During Malinka’s visits, Ladivine is cowed into silence, certain that any curiosity she demonstrates about her daughter will cause the visits to end.
NDiaye lays bare Clarisse’s conflicted and intense feelings about her mother, “the servant”—a toxic slurry of distain and pity, contempt and respect. The author’s skill in depicting this mix and sustaining its palpable immediacy is breathtaking. Although she recognizes her outrageous cruelty to Ladivine, Clarisse remains steadfast in her refusal to be “the daughter of a woman of no consequence.” The repercussions of Clarisse’s choice are painful and lasting. Instead of setting her free, Clarisse’s ostracism of Ladivine entraps her in self-denial, estrangement, and overwhelming guilt. Clarisse/Malinka transforms herself into something unknowable, empty, yet pulsating with silent, angry regret. When Clarisse dies, the novel’s focus turns to her grown daughter, who now has her own family and the unsettling memories of a mother who was, and will remain, an enigma.