B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

  1. October 17, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Oh my goodness, you do need a change of pace! You know I like dark literature as well that tackles social issues, but after a while I just need to let some light, colour and oxygen in or I suffocate.


    • October 17, 2021 at 6:32 pm

      To be honest, I alternated between bleak and comfort.
      That’s the bonus of the big TBR : you always have something that suits your mood. I was glad to be able to pick something lighter right away.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. October 17, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Oh dear, I’m glad you found other things to read!
    I’ve read Please Look After Mom, I really disliked it.


    • October 17, 2021 at 6:34 pm

      You’ll see I tried different comfort reads.
      I’ve seen your review of Please Look After Mom on Goodreads. I didn’t dislike it as much as you did but as I said, the chapters with “you” as narration bothered me.


      • October 18, 2021 at 3:36 am

        Yes, it’s difficult to get that right, I think.
        *chuckle* Especially in French! Tu v vous!!


        • October 18, 2021 at 9:23 am

          I’ve read the English translation. It must be worse in French.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. October 17, 2021 at 1:21 pm

    Good grief! I think I would need a few weeks of comfort reading after these – bleak sounds an understatement….


    • October 17, 2021 at 6:35 pm

      Thankfully I was able to alternate: bleak, comfort, more bleak, higher comfort… It was a bit too much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vishy
    October 17, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    Loved your post, Emma! You’ve read such challenging books! I loved Please Look After Mom, though it was tough to read. Haven’t read the others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊 Looking forward to your next post in which you talk about bright sunny reads 😊


    • October 17, 2021 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks Vishy! I can’t say I had a lot of fun with these books and play but they have a common point, they were good.


  5. October 18, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    These sound incredibly bleak! I hope the comfort reading antidote worked for you.


  6. October 20, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    On the surface, these stories seem quite different, especially with a speculative story in the midst, but, in the end, they all revolve around how we know and understand other people’s experiences, how we decide who and what matters and take care of them/that (and do not take care too). I’m enjoying the sense of piecing together a better understanding of Sandrine Colette, than I had from simply reading the single novel of hers earlier this year. (And this is how we can shorten another reader’s pressing TBR just a little, for awhile anyway. Hahah)


    • October 23, 2021 at 9:05 am

      You’re right. These stories have that in common, and that’s probably why I managed to write a single billet about two books and a play.

      Please Look After Mom describes the dynamics of a specific family but I suspect they represent a typical Korean family of that era.
      Children go to school, leave their village, live in the capital or a big city…The children change of social class and struggle to connect with their parents. That happened in the West too.

      Here, there’s also a change in culture, in leaving behind some customs and traditional behaviors as the country gets “westernized”. It shows the condition of women under a new light and especially all the sacrifices the mother did for her children.

      I wanted to read your take on the Collette you’ve read but I couldn’t find it on your blog. Which one was it?
      She’s an excellent writer but she seems haunted by dark stories. I almost abandoned it 70 pages before the end because of a bleakness overload. I couldn’t take it anymore.


  7. October 20, 2021 at 9:36 pm

    Ouch, can’t wait to see how you lightened up the mood, lol


    • October 23, 2021 at 9:05 am

      Coming up this weekend! 🙂


  8. October 23, 2021 at 12:03 am

    Quick, grab the antidote: something very funny…


    • October 23, 2021 at 9:06 am

      That’s not what I did but it would have been great.


  9. October 23, 2021 at 12:04 am

    PS. Watching a Dany Boon film tonight about COVID lock down. It’s supposed to be funny….


    • October 23, 2021 at 9:07 am

      I haven’t seen it. Was it good?


      • October 23, 2021 at 5:59 pm

        I wasn’t sure how it would work: covid and humour, but I think the film carried it off. It focused on behaviour and how people responded to the lockdown. Yes, good. Made me laugh out loud.


        • October 23, 2021 at 6:56 pm

          Good to know. I’ll check out if it’s available on Netflix.


  10. October 23, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    I actually like the sound of all three of these, especially the Collette and Zeldin. That way of thinking of poor people as delinquents or problems to be disposed of seems very relevant given the direction so many of our societies are heading. And as climate change starts to bite and more people start to need more help, I really worry about what this lack of compassion will lead to. I suppose I like bleak reads because the reality of life for so many people is so bleak, and I’m lucky to be shielded from most of that in my own life, so dipping in for the length of a book seems the least I can do. But I agree, it’s good to balance that out with other books. Drowning in bleakness (or in beer!) doesn’t do anyone any good.


    • October 23, 2021 at 7:01 pm

      They are good books and play. The Zeldin is excellent and I wonder what response it got in the UK when it went out.

      They deal with real life problems and they are draining because I don’t agree with viewing poor people as delinquents and like you, I worry about the lack of compassion in today’s societies.
      People live in their universe (and social media help you do that. You stay among like-minded people) and besides others but not enough with others.
      Like you, I feel lucky to be shielded from hardship and that’s why I pushed through and didn’t abandon the Collette.


  1. October 23, 2021 at 6:55 pm
  2. January 8, 2022 at 7:40 pm
  3. October 2, 2022 at 2:37 pm

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