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That it is the first Comoran novel to be commercially published in English almost feels irrelevant. The author of my latest book of the month is a rare exception. I dived in and was quickly absorbed in what has turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Taking place in the space of a month, the novel follows the experiences of Alphonse, a musician-turned-decorator who has moved with his girlfriend to the rural district of Belgian Westhoek. Discovering that his work and manner often encourage clients to open up to him, Alphonse is quickly immersed in a web of personal tragedies, comedies and intrigues that spreads out across the pages of the novel, binding together everyone he meets and leaving no-one, but especially the protagonist, unchanged.

This is an immensely stylish book. With a strong instinct for the loose connections and quirks in human interaction, Verbeke presents a large cast of memorable and compelling characters.

No matter how slight their involvement in the narrative, each of them feels rounded and finely drawn, and comes to us in the midst of pressing dilemmas. From the furious, butterfly-obsessed translator Alphonse encounters at a retreat building he is contracted to paint to the kebab-shop worker with a penchant for ice sculpture who slices off his finger in the process of preparing a shawarma, they all command attention and convey the impression that what we see of them is the merest tip of a deep iceberg of experience and feeling.

This is particularly true of the protagonist, Alphonse.


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The manner in which his history is revealed is incredibly skilful and invites readers to interrogate their assumptions. All the facts it features have an impact on the story and the writing hardly ever feels showy. The result is a profoundly moving, insightful and witty piece of work, a book that has the capacity to make readers laugh and cry. It is, quite simply, fantastic.


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  5. I can well believe it. Among the numerous things I enjoy when I learn about other international reading quests is finding out what specific parameters the reader in question has set themself. Although many global book projects look similar at first glance, no two are identical because each becomes a reflection of the concerns and interests of the person at the centre of it.

    People might choose to categorise books by setting, for instance, or to seek out works in a particular genre or from a set time period. Sometimes, these parameters illuminate important issues about the way stories circulate.

    Having challenged herself to journey through some books by women by , Sophie has shone a light on the serious imbalance in international publishing, which still sees female-authored works making up only around 30 per cent of the books translated into English each year. This is a problem that a number of campaigners are working to tackle, perhaps most notably translator Meytal Radzinski, who established Women in Translation Month back in Certain that Sophie must have discovered some gems on her literary travels, I contacted her recently to pick her brains for recommendations.

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    Duong Thu Huong has an exceptional instinct for the way that tension fuels a compelling story. Replete with dramatic encounters, this book is a rare beast: a literary novel with a gripping plot.

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    Although many of the most powerful scenes centre on the main characters — with exchanges between Hang, her Aunt Tam, her mother and her uncle all working to reveal the complex web of emotions that snares them — there are some striking cameo appearances too. Their shadowy past seemed to be both a bond and a yawning chasm between them, wedding their destinies and sundering their souls.

    There are numerous examples in the text but one of the most memorable involves the account of the villagers being goaded to turn against their neighbours following the classification designed to root out wealthy landowners. The rapidity with which people denounce their friends is chilling.

    In her foreword, co-translator Nina McPherson warns that the Orwellian quality of the Communist rhetoric spouted by certain characters is deliberately satirical, as if worried that such sections might jar or disconcert readers.

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    However, to my eye, the narrative shifts gears smoothly, moving seamlessly between descriptive passages of sometimes spine-tingling beauty to the harsh registers of many of the exchanges. Nevertheless, the book is not without its flaws. Although for the most part deftly handled, the complex, flashback-laden structure yields the occasional jolt and sag. The device of harnessing something in the present to evoke a past event is a little overused in the early half of the book, with the result that a few of the transitions feel artificial.

    In addition, with the exception of intriguing figures such as the sinister married couple mentioned earlier, some of the walk-on characters seem redundant, almost as though they are remnants of threads or scenes cut from earlier drafts. It is at once engrossing and enlightening, a compelling narrative that leads readers through experiences and settings rarely represented in the English-speaking world. This week saw me heading to Amsterdam. I went there at the invitation of international bestselling Belgian author Annelies Verbeke.

    As part of this, Verbeke was keen for me to speak about my journey through international literature. It was a great pleasure to be back in Amsterdam. I caught myself half-wondering if I might bump into her in Vondelpark. The visit was also a lovely opportunity to catch up with writer friend Gaston Dorren. Dorren and I have stayed in touch since we shared a stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in My visit coincided with a special day for him: his latest book, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages , had just come out in his mother tongue, Dutch.

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    When we met for lunch, he had just picked up his copy from his publisher. As you can see, from the photo, however, he was very self-effacing about this achievement. I was intrigued to hear about her work at VU, which, among other things, has involved gathering volunteer translations of short stories from around the world. I was also thrilled to discover that Verbeke has been inspired to mount her own international literary quest and has so far read books from 75 countries.

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    We talked enthusiastically about some of the many questions around cultural identity and authenticity that such armchair travels uncover, and I picked her brain for recommendations. The evening event was an extravaganza. Everyone was extremely gracious and welcoming, however, and the staged discussion Verbeke and I had with fellow author and host Abdelkader Benali was fascinating.

    Over a drink afterwards, I asked Benali more about his work. Although we English speakers only have access to his first novel, Wedding by the Sea , the Moroccan-Dutch writer is prolific, particularly as a theatre-maker. His explanation of the process he goes through to develop shows and the emotional investment that each of the performances requires was wonderful. A little while ago, I was contacted by Anna, a teacher at Go-English language school in Blagoveshchensk city on the border with China in far east Russia — in fact, she tells me, you can see China just across the Amur river pictured above in one of the photos she sent me.

    Anna and her students had been discussing this project and wanted to know about my Russian choices. I sent back a reply and a question — which book would her students choose for me? Information about the That's not my monkey On the blog Browse our catalogue of over 2, books Find books, ebooks and apps for children of all ages. Get Usborne books in your country Outside the UK? Check worldwide availability. Free weekly activities! Where Are You? That's MY Cake! Christmas Wishes For You Choose four wishes for a child you love.

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