Tonight I am here to tell you about my first experience with a book club. This book club is a bit particular because it only meets once a year at the Southbank Centre during the London Literature Festival. I must admit that I randomly discovered the First Look Book Club when I was browsing through the London Literature Festival’s website, looking for events to attend. This is how I found this book club based on a very interesting principle: reading a book before its official release. Without knowing anything about the book that would be discussed, I bought my ticket.
Then, I started to be a bit skeptical about this book club. A “printed or electronic version” of the book was supposed to be sent to ticket holders about a month before the event and 3 weeks before it, I still hadn’t got anything. I started chasing the Southbank Centre Customer service and finally received a PDF of the book. Problem: it’s the PDF file that had been sent to the printer, which means that I could not even read it on my wonderful boyfriend’s e-reader…
This is when I really started to think that I should never had bought my ticket for this event. Even if the book looked quite interesting, I really felt little inclined to read a 300-page book on my laptop’s screen. However, when I started reading this novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of its writing. In the end, I did enjoy reading this novel a lot (even if was quite tiring as you may guess…) and read it much quicker than expected.
You’re probably wondering what book was the subject of this year First Look Book Club and I am not going to make the suspense last any longer: it’s the novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Swedish writer Lina Wolff. This novel is published by a small independent literary publishing house, & Other Stories (if you don’t know this publishing house and are into translated fiction, then I’ll definitely tell you to check it out, it has a great list of translated novels) and will be released in January 2016.
The novel takes place in Spain and revolves around the mysterious Alba Cambó, a writer who has only a few months to live because of a brain tumor. One of the main narrators of the novel, Araceli, tries to understand Alba’s intriguing personality and lifestyle. Araceli, who studies translation in a school filled with girls without any hope to find a proper job after their studies and sour teachers, lives with her mom in a tiny flat above Alba Cambó’s one, and both are fascinated by the latter. Little by little, various protagonists who have been more or less close to Alba Cambó shares a bit of her story with us, and also a lot of their own stories. There are many stories inside the story, all of them linked by the shadowy figure of Alba Cambó. Among the characters and narrators of this polyphonic novel feature a frivolous young student who falls into prostitution, a man working in the timber trade who is trying to save his marriage with a depressive wife while being blackmailed by another man wishing to get into the timber trade, a woman from Guatemala who struggled for all her life until she met Alba Cambó and many others.
I really liked this novel because of its lively and very human characters with whom you quickly sympathize and even identify with, for some of them. As I was saying in the beginning, the style of this book is also beautiful: Lina Wolff is a wonderful author who is very attentive to every details of the world that surrounds us, and this is very perceptible in her writing. I also really liked the Spanish setting of this book (Lina Wolff has lived in Spain for several years and she married a Spanish man): some of the desolated, arid and isolated areas described in this book feels really authentic. I must admit that I am not a big fan of the disjointed structure of the book – which was of course intentional from the author –, I found that the novel lacked a strong narrative plot uniting all the characters’ stories. However, this original and disconcerting structure really allows a new reading experience and even if I felt sometimes a bit frustrated because I had the feeling a character’s story had been left pending and I wanted to know more about it, I also think that this multitude of stories keeps the reader interested and gives a real rythm and energy to the novel.
Now that the “review” is done, time to tell you about the event itself, which was thousands times better than what I had expected. As it was not mentioned in the description of the event, I had the pleasant surprise to discover the author of the novel, Lina Wolff, as well as her translator, Frank Perry, as the guests of this book club event. The event was presented by a woman who, I believe, discovered the manuscript (or at least knows it very well and worked on it with its editor), and & Other Story’s publisher, Stefan Tobler, was also there. The presenter discussed various aspects of the novel with the author and it was so interesting to hear where the idea of the novel came from, what inspired Lina Wolff, how she sees her novel, what she thinks of its characters… Lina Wolff was very generous in her answers and shared so much with us, not only about the novel and its creation but also about her life and her experience as an expatriate and, most of all, a foreigner in a country with a totally different culture than hers. That was so enriching! Franck Perry read many extracts of the novel and also talked about the way he worked with Lina Wolff to translate her novel. And I also had the pleasant surprise to be given, as all the attendants, a printed copy of this beautiful book (yeeey!), which had just been out the press and which I could have signed by Lina Wolff.
To conclude, I would just say that this was a great event and that I really really feel like doing it again next year and checking more carefully out the titles of & Other Stories.
See you next week!