Tag Archives: Peirene Press

Review: The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  The book was published in the original German in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Jamie Bulloch.

My Review:
the-empress-and-the-cakeThis psychological thriller starts innocently enough with a kind old woman offering to split a cake with a young woman she meets outside of a bakery in Vienna.  But Stift’s novella becomes gruesome, disturbing and haunting very quickly.

The old woman, whose name is Frau Hohenembs, is oddly dressed in all black and the young woman discovers that the old woman’s apartment is even stranger.  Frau Hohenembs has an extensive collection of pictures and mementos of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria or Empress Sissi as many referred to her.  The apartment is also packed with furniture, two caged parrots, an enormous dog and a portly servant named Ida. The young woman patiently observes these strange women while she has tea and eats her share of Gugelhupf.  The first shocking twist in the book happens when the young woman returns home to her own flat, finishes the rest of her Gugelhupf as well as everything else in her refrigerator and forces herself to throw up the entire contents of her stomach.


        Gugelhopf Photo by Dirk Vorderstraße

There are two eerie and gruesome threads that run throughout the story, the first of which is an obsession with food, weight and vomiting. Stift vividl describes the narrator’s grisly decent into the full grip of bulimia and her constant obsession with the cycle of binging and purging:

I was learning a new vomiting technique and was eating by colours.  I started with chemical sweets such as bright-green gummy frogs or pink foam bacon bits or claret so-called laces and snakes.  These took time to mix with the mush of food that followed, which meant that my vomiting could be monitored.  I would puke until I’d arrived at this tough, lurid mass, so I could be sure I’d got everything out.

The narrator also weighs herself incessantly every few minutes on a pair of scales she purchases.  She becomes obsessive about her weight and the size of her stomach.  She is so consumed with food and vomiting that she stops working and only goes out of her flat every few days to go on a grocery shopping binge.  She reveals throughout the course of the story that her mother and maternal grandfather also had an unnatural preoccupation with being thin and this fixation on weight affected her from a  very early age.  Her deep-seated psychological issues make her easy prey for the manipulative and controlling Frau Hohenembs.

Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

       Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

The second theme that is woven throughout the narrative is that of control, both losing it and gaining it over others.  Frau Hohenembs has an obsession with the Empress Sissi and pulls the young narrator into her plots to steal relics and artifacts that once belonged to the Empress.  Frau Hohenembs first invites the narrator to a picnic after which they take a bizarre tour through a sex museum.  Stift is a master at slowly developing the ways in which the older woman gains control over the younger woman’s life.  At first she can’t say no to innocent outings that involve picnics and museums.  The next significant turning point in this disturbing relationship is when Frau Hohenembs uses the young woman to steal a duck press from another museum in Vienna.  This rather macabre kitchen instrument is used to squeeze the blood, bone marrow and other juices out of duck carcasses. Frau Hohenembs loves to drink the meat juices extracted from the press and throughout the novel she has Ida use the press so that she can always have her favorite drink on hand.

Frau Hohenembs uses this theft of the duck press to gain more control over the narrator’s life.  She tells the young woman that if she doesn’t go on outings with her or help her out on her secret missions then she will report her to the police.  Frau Hohenembs becomes progressively sinister and appears to have connections around Vienna that would help her to have the young woman prosecuted.  The final, and most disturbing, theft that the trio carry out is stealing a cocaine syringe that belonged to the Empress Sissi from a pathology museum in Vienna.  Frau Hohenembs then instructs the young woman on how to use it properly to inject the old woman with daily doses of cocaine.

By the end of the novella, the young narrator is trapped and completely controlled, not only by her eating disorder but also by this strange old woman and her maid.  Straft is a master at building suspense and presenting an unexpected and frightening conclusion to her psychological thriller.

This is the third and final installment in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  All three books in the collection are very different but are all excellent.  I don’t think I can choose a favorite from the series.  I have also reviewed the other two Fairy Tale books:



About the Author:
l-stiftLinda Stift in an Austrian writer. She was born in 1969 and studied Philosophy and German literature. She lives in Vienna. Her first novel, Kingpeng, was published in 2005. She has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2009.



Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Interview: Annie Holmes co-author of Breach

I am so excited today to post an interview with Annie Holmes, co-author of Peirene’s new release breach.  The book will be released in August and below is information about the book tour and launch.

About Breach and the Peirene Now! Series:

breach“The Jungle is like a laboratory”

In the refugee camp known as The Jungle an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out. Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in  the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore. It is the first title in the Peirene Now! series. This exciting new series will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. breach beautifully captures a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. The story that emerges is an empathetic and probing mosaic, which redefines the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ as the plot progresses towards a moving finale.

Author Interview- Annie Holmes:

Q. This book is very comprehensive in that it covers so many aspects of the refugee experience.  What do you hope is the biggest lesson that readers will take away from your stories?

A. At least two of the non-refugee characters in the book comment on the surprising normality, the village vibe, of the camp in Calais. I hope that when readers put the book down, they too will have met and will remember a host of individual refugees as normal people, albeit in exceptional circumstances – triumphant or defeated, morally compromised or steadfast, amusing or tragic, or the common human mix – each with a full life before her or his journey, looking to the future with some blend of hope and trepidation, just like you or I do. Through fiction, the reader can come to know a character inside as well as from the outside, as a human being rather than a statistic or a type. That’s the effect that I hope our book achieves.

Q. Why did you choose Calais to study and conduct interviews of refugees?  What are typical aspects of the refugee experience there and what is unique to that refugee camp?

A. For the UK and for those seeking to get there, Calais became a symbol. This was the place to across from Europe to the English-speaking refuge you hoped to reach. The last hurdle for would-be refugees to cross. From the other side of the Channel, Calais encapsulated the problem – whether you saw the problem as a threatening “horde” of migrants or as the failure of your own and other European governments to respond to a major human rights crisis and to abide by international law. Refugees headed to Calais – old, young, from many countries, alone or in families or groups – and so too did British and other volunteers, individuals and groups spurred to make up in good will and practical support the shortfall on the part of governments and most international NGOs. Into this convergence flowed the news media, storytellers like us, actors and artists, along with the French authorities, most visible marching bullet-proofed through the camp, and the smugglers, largely invisible. Every player in the migration saga was represented, and then some. The Jungle was a pressure cooker.

Who knows what Calais will come to mean now? Will the town continue to be the platform for dreams and dread, or was the Jungle a short-lived world of its own? Either way, that camp at that time contained multitudes – the many varieties of refugee experience as well as its own unique experiments.

Q. Why did you choose to write short stories instead of focusing on a novel or novella?  Why is the short story a more appropriate genre for your project?

A. We could invoke Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s maxim about the stereotyping danger of the single story. By contrast, in eight stories we could present a real range of experiences and characters. But I wouldn’t like to rate different genres as less or more appropriate. A novel format worked brilliantly for Dave Eggers, for example– Zeitoun burned the experience of Hurricane Katrina into the memory of anyone who read it. The more perspectives, the better.

Q. After visiting the refugee camp and speaking with so many displaced people, what is the one memory that most stays with you?

A. I lived in the Calais camp in memory for a long time, writing the book – re-walking paths, re-living conversations, remembering images. Here’s one that didn’t make it into my stories in any way. On the tiny veranda of a brightly painted shack hang three baskets of flowers, as if it’s a beach cottage or a holiday chalet. Beyond, a young man pedals like a maniac on a stationary red cycle, generating power to charge the cell phones lying in a basket fixed to the handlebars. He looks up, catches my eye and waves, a smile on his sweaty face. A bright blaze of energy, despite everything.

About the Authors:
Annie HolmesAnnie Holmes was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Her short fiction has been published in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the US. She now lives in the UK. “This is the third continent I’m calling home. My life here in the UK is somewhat precarious (African passport) and somewhat privileged (education and ‘white’ skin). This is also the third continent where I’m witnessing migrants and refugees vilified.”


PooplaOlumide Popoola is a Nigerian German writer of long and short fiction. She lectures in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “breach is my answer to the new wave of racism, views that are becoming acceptable again because of old ‘the boat is full’ narratives, because of the fear of the Other. These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”


All of the dates for interviews and reviews are listed on the banner below:



Filed under Author Interviews, British Literature, Opinion Posts

Review: Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  This English version has been translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

My Review:
Her Father's DaughterFrance is a four and a half year old little girl, growing up in war time France with her mother.  Her father left to fight in World War II when she was an infant, so she only knows him through photographs.  In fact, the very concept of a father is alien to her because there are no other examples of fathers to which she is exposed.   I was immediately captivated by this short book and drawn into this small child’s recollections about the war and its lasting effects on her family.

Despite the fact that there is war raging on around her, France’s world is very small and happy.  She lives with her mother in a two room apartment in occupied Paris and as a spoiled and indulged child she does whatever she pleases.  She draws on the walls of her apartment, draws in books, sings at the top of her lungs and has awful table manners.  Her mother showers her with constant attention and affection and calls her “my darling.”  Her grandmother, who seems to the chid like a cold-hearted disciplinarian, visits France and her mother often but the child has no affection for her.  In fact, the child gets rather jealous when her mother and grandmother are talking privately to each other the child does everything she can to interrupt them.

One day France’s mother causally mentions that daddy is coming home.  France goes into a panic because she knows, rightly so, that her cozy world with her mother will never be the same.  When she meets daddy for the first time she is reticent and fearful.  Her father was captured by the Germans and spent years in a German prisoner of war camp.  When he is finally able to come home from the hospital, all of France’s routines are completely shattered.  Her father loses his temper easily at the ill manners of his small child.  When she refuses to finish her dinner he slaps her and when she throws a fit he makes her sit out in the hallway of the apartment by herself.  France develops a contempt for her mother for her once beloved who does not intervene on her behalf.  But at the same France gradually develops a fondness for her father.

Once he is able to settle his anger and impatience, France’s father is able to show her affection and attention.  He begins painting with her and telling her stories.  The transformation of this heartwarming father-daughter relationship was my favorite part of the book.  As France begins to trust her father, she confides in him a secret about her mother that has been bothering her for a long time.  This secret is what finally manages to break apart what was already a fragile marriage.  When France’s father moves out and remarries, she must once again navigate the world without a consistent father figure in her life.

I found this book to be clever in its dealing with the point of view of a child.  The entire story is seen through the child’s eyes, yet the narrator also interprets for us the underlying feelings and emotions of the child, so we get a deeper glimpse into the thoughts of her life and her surroundings.  The sentences are short and sometimes only a word or two which is fitting for a narrator who is a small child.  And throughout the book she is rarely called by her name but instead she is referred to as “the child,” as if she were unimportant, a non-entity to the adults around her.  This is another beautiful and powerful book from Peirene Press and it gave me a new perspective about the tragedies of war and how they affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

This is the second book in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  I am always eager to read another Peirene and this book was absolutely fantastic.  I can’t wait for the third, and final book, in the Fairy Tale selections.  Please visit the Peirene website for more information on this book and to read a sample: http://www.peirenepress.com/books/fairy_tale/peirene_no_20/PLINK

About the Author:
M SizunMarie Sizun is a prize-winning French author. She was born in 1940 and has taught literature in Paris, Germany and Belgium. She now lives in Paris. She has published seven novels and a memoir. Marie Sizun wrote her first novel, Her Father’s Daughter, at the age of 65. The book was long-listed for the Prix Femina



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Novella

Review: The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press . It was first published in the original Dutch in 2013 and this English translation has been done by David Colmer.

My Review:
The Man I BecameI don’t normally read Dystopian, Orwellian type novels with talking Gorillas.  But since this book is published by Peirene Press I decided to give it a try anyway and I am glad I did.  The narrator tells us that he was living a happy life in the wild until one day members of his family start disappearing from their idyllic home.  He then finds himself drugged and dragged out of his natural habitat against his will.  He, along with his family, are chained together and forced on an arduous journey during which they are given just enough food and water to survive.  Some of them die along the way and the living are forced to march on and leave their loved ones behind..  I found this to be the most heart wrenching and sad part of the book.  Their fear was palpable and it was difficult to read about these innocent animals as they are taken out of their natural surroundings, and forced on a journey towards the unknown.

After a long ride on a ship in cramped quarters, the animals reach what they call The New World.  They are given clothes, taught how to clean and groom themselves and are given speech lessons.  They practice walking upright, which is very uncomfortable to them and they practice carrying on polite conversations.  It is clear that their captors are trying to turn them into something as close to human as possible.  After a period of time the animals are given a test to see how far their human training has come; they are dressed up and attend a coctail where they meet other animals that have also been trained.  This part of the book is an interesting commentary on what it means to truly be human.  If one can look the right way, and speak the right way and have manners, is that person truly human?  Are a bath, the ability to walk upright and to carry on a conversation really the only things that separate us from animals?

There is one other important social criticism that comes through in the narrative and that is our reliance on technology, especially the cell phone.  When the gorillas reach a certain point in their training they receive a phone and are told that it is their identification and they  must carry it wherever they go.  At first they can only receive calls on their phone and it is another way that their captors keep track of them.  As the narrator becomes more human, he gains more privileges for his phone, such as the ability to dial out to other numbers.  The humans who are in charge of the animals possess multiple phones  and are always seen answering their phones, looking at their phones and talking on their phones.  Is this electronic contraption really another thing that separates us from the animals or does it separate us from other humans and our sense of humanity?

The ending is very interesting and I don’t want to give it away.  But I will say that the gorilla’s life does appear to have a happy ending.  He no longer remembers his previous life and he has found some peace with his human existence.  He is a bit smarter than the rest of his family and he gradually begins to realize that conformity isn’t always the best decision; he questions and investigates his surroundings and those who have positions of authority.  I am sure that there are additional layers of meaning in the story that I did not understand.  I can’t wait to see what other readers make of this story.

This is the first release from Peirene Press this year in their Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  The Man I Became is a powerful and thought-provoking first book with which to start the Fairy Tale series and I look forward to the other novellas with great anticipation.  Please visit their website for more details: http://peirenepress.com/

About the Author:
peter_verhelst_0Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and playwright. He has written more than 20 books. His work has been praised for its powerful images, the sensuality and richness of its language and the author’s unbridled imagination. His breakthrough came in 1999 with the novel Tonguecat, which won the Golden Owl Literature Prize and the Flemish State Prize for Literature. The Man I Became is his eleventh novel.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

I received an advanced review copy of this novella from Peirene Press.  This is the third book in their Chance Encounter Series.  This title was originally written and published in Norwegian and this English translation has been done by John Irons.

My Review:
Looking Glass SistersThis is an emotionally intense and sinister book that will leave you thinking about relationships with close family members long after you finish the last page.  The focus of the book is on the codependence of two sisters who are each other’s only remaining relatives after their parents die.  When the book opens they are middle-aged and have been living together in isolation on the outskirts of rural Norway for almost 30 years.

The first sister, the one who is the unnamed narrator of the story, has been physically handicapped since she was a little girl.  She contracted a high fever which caused her to be in the hospital for several weeks and the illness left her paralyzed from the waist down.  She must rely on her parents for all of her needs and when her parents die the only other person she has left in her life is her older sister, Ragna.  The sisters live in a remote house that no one ever visits and the only way to reach the local village for supplies is by snow sled.

But one day the routine of the sisters’ lives changes when a man named Johan moves into the area and starts to court Ragna.  We get the sense that Ragna has been resentfully taking care of her sister for years and has never really developed any life of her own because of the constant needs of  her invalid sister.  Ragna seems bitter and at times she is emotionally and physically cruel to her disabled sister.  There is one scene in the book that is particularly painful to read;  the handicapped sister has to use the bathroom and drags herself out of bed with her crutches and just before she reaches the bathroom, Ragna runs in and locks the door.  Ragna refuses to come out of the bathroom and the crippled and helpless sister is forced to relieve herself in her pants.  Her dignity is further eroded when she then must be cleaned up and carried back to bed by Ragna.

When Johan comes along and decides to marry Ragna, it seems that Ragna could not be happier now that she has the opportunity to rid herself of the burden of her sister.  At times I felt sorry for both sisters.  On the one hand, the handicapped sister cannot help her situation and she has no choice but to be constantly asking her sister for everything she needs.  On the other hand, Ragna must constantly be at her sister’s beck and call and Ragna feels that her sister is never grateful for what Ragna does for her.  We also get the feeling throughout the narrative that the disabled sister has a very narrow view of the world and doesn’t understand what is going on outside her room or how her constant demands affect her sister.  At times she appears paranoid and melodramatic.

This novella brings up some interesting thoughts about family members and our obligations to them.  If we are the only ones left to take care of a loved one are we obligated to do so to the detriment of our own lives?   But if we can’t rely on our family, then who else is there to depend on in times of need?  In the end, Ragna and Johan make a selfish decision in favor of making peace and quiet for themselves.

The novellas published by Peirene are meant to be read quickly, in a matter of a few hours.  But I found this book so dark and intense that I could only read it a few pages at a time over the course of several days.  The final book in the Chance Encounter series is a stunner that is the perfect way to finish out this set of novellas.

About The Author:
G GabrielsenGøhril Gabrielsen, born in 1961, grew up in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway, and currently lives in Oslo. She won Aschehoug’s First Book Award for her 2006 novel Unevnelige hendelser (Unspeakable Events), and was the recipient of the 2010 Tanum Scholarship for Women. Since the publication of her debut novel she has brought out two further books to great acclaim in her native Norway, Svimlende muligheter, ingen frykt (The Looking-Glass Sisters) and Skadedyr (Vermin). Her fourth novel is due out in 2015.





Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella