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Books in Translation: Festive Edition

By Jane Bentham, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson


What better way to get in the Christmas spirit than to be transported to another place such as the snowy landscape of a remote Japanese town or the wintery depths of Europe’s Black Forest? Whether you’re looking for a festive read to cosy up with this Christmas or searching for the perfect gift for your loved ones, we’ve got you covered with these festive recommendations.


Beartown by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

 

This novel, which is the first in the Beartown series by the widely celebrated Swedish author Fredrik Backman, is set in Northern Sweden. The book focuses on an isolated town in decline where ice hockey is entrenched in the culture and daily life, and residents pin their hopes on the junior hockey team. After a tragic incident, the town is thrown into turmoil. With a large cast of characters, Backman explores how pack mentality has gripped the town and skilfully captures the complex, realistic emotions of an entire community. The reader is encouraged to reflect on morality and loyalty, as well as on what it means to be human.

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker

 

Set in a remote hot spring town in central Japan, this book’s snowy landscape provides the perfect atmosphere for a Christmas read. The plot follows a blossoming romance between Shimamura, a rich married dilettante from Tokyo, and Komako, a young geisha. Their relationship, much like the scenery, is depicted in a cold, detached manner, but the author continually suggests the depths and contradictions of both characters through dialogue. Kawabata fuses the poetic form of the haiku into the novel, creating a unique style filled with visual imagery of the surrounding nature. This is a renowned Japanese modern classic, and after its publication, Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

 

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vessas, translated from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan

 

This classic of Scandinavian literature, reissued for Christmas 2019 by Penguin Classics, is a fascinating portrayal of early adolescence, and the profound relationships and loyalties formed between children.

 

The Ice Palace revolves around two eleven-year-old girls in a small Norwegian village, the extroverted Siss and the quiet Unn who has recently arrived at the school.  The girls commence an initially reticent relationship based upon shared glances across class and a tacit sense of mutual intrigue. This ephemeral connection eventually becomes material as Unn visits Siss at home and the two girls share an intense bonding experience. The next morning, when Unn disappears, Siss begins to withdraw from her friends and family. Entering into a silent pact with the absent Unn, we are given an insight into the far-reaching effects of loss.

 

Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitkin

 

Hanna Ørstavik’s moving novella shines a crystalline prose style on a mother-son relationship in a small Norwegian town, exposing the dependence of children on their carers, and the sacrifices made, or not made, by those responsible for their safety.

 

Love is a heart-breaking account of an artistic and vivacious mother and her curious young son. Aitkin’s beautiful and sparse translation was awarded the 2021 PEN America translation prize, and this slight book will bring the winter chill into your house at Christmas.

 

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes, translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle


Urs Faes’ cosy wintery read is set against the backdrop of the Black Forest in Germany during the dark, wild days between Christmas and Epiphany. These nights are a time of tradition and superstition, of ghostly tales as tangible as the past that haunts Manfred, the protagonist.


We meet Manfred as he treks alone through the forest on his journey to return home for the first time after forty years. The reason for his absence? A never-ending feud between himself and his brother Sebastian when his younger brother inherits the family farm which costs Manfred his inheritance and the love of his life, Minna. Minna went on to marry Sebastian following these events and the pain of the betrayal deepened. As Manfred makes his journey home, the solitude imposed by the harsh landscape forces Manfred to reflect on all he has loved and lost.


Twelve Nights plunges you into the wintery depths of Europe which ultimately leads to a haunting and dreamlike novel with folkloric themes adding to the eeriness but also nostalgic feel of the book. Urs Faes’ novel perfectly captures the magic of the natural world during this special period making it the ideal festive read.

 


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