Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Harvill Secker, £14.99)
Insincerity, said Oscar Wilde, “is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities”. It’s a principle that María Gainza applies with brio to her dazzling novel about art and authenticity, seeing and not seeing, evocatively titled La Luz Negra (The Black Light) in its original Spanish. There are plenty of unknown ladies in the book. Our narrator is unpicking the life of her late employer Enriqueta, “the single, despotic authority on the price and authenticity of all paintings”, who turns out to have been providing fake authentication for forgeries, particularly of works by the real-life artist Mariette Lydis. An assemblage of literary quotations, court papers, auction catalogues and the “fairground kaleidoscope” of memory, the novel packs a huge amount into its 208 pages. If the reader is never quite sure what’s fact and what’s fiction, that’s just part of the fun.
The Trouble With Happiness and Other Stories by Tove Ditlevsen, translated by Michael Favala Goldman (Penguin Classics, £10.99)
This compilation of two volumes of very short stories from the 1950s and 60s – most are under 10 pages – provides an intense reading experience. They feature people numb to life’s commonplace pleasures: mostly women, occasionally children. “Hanne was only seven, but already possessed a great deal of formless anxiety.” The astringent prose sets itself against sentimentality: one woman, disabled from childhood paralysis, loves that her husband offers “none of that horribly considerate sympathy”. So clear is Ditlevsen’s eye that it’s impossible to tear yourself away from the fates of her characters, however grim. And there is black comedy too: in the title story, which reads like preparatory work for Ditlevsen’s exceptional trilogy of memoirs (Childhood, Youth, Dependency), the teenage narrator goes to visit her estranged brother, explaining to the landlord that she is his sister. “They all say that,” comes the reply.
The Land of Short Sentences by Stine Pilgaard, translated by Hunter Simpson (World, £13.99)
In this charming and funny novel, a woman tries to settle into a remote Danish community with her boyfriend and baby son. She struggles to make small talk with locals (hence the title), tries very hard to learn to drive and resents the way parenthood has reduced her vocabulary to “compound words”: “wet wipes, high chair, sippy cup”. Her job as a newspaper advice columnist reveals that others aren’t any better at navigating social interactions: one correspondent wants to talk to her parents about philosophy but finds that “they try to turn the conversation back to wind energy as quickly as possible”. “Everyone you meet is on the way somewhere,” a friend advises, and the buzz of people coming and going through the pages, and the warmth and wit of the narrator’s voice, make it a pleasure to be in her company.
The Old Woman With the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Canongate, £14.99)
“Hornclaw” is a 65-year-old hitwoman in Seoul whose blade skills and “killer body” (pun intended) make her an unconquerable asset in the busy contract killing industry. It’s a world that works by evasion: real names are concealed; the job is referred to as “disease control”; and nobody thinks too hard about the victims. (Hornclaw cries only when her hips ache.) But victims sometimes bite back. As Hornclaw begins to worry she’s losing her mojo after a target almost gets the better of her, she’s about to discover that a bereaved son has, for decades, been drawing his own plans against her. Gu gives her story plenty of energy, whether writing about Korean society or the politics of the workplace, and depicts burning flesh, garroting and exploded limbs with insouciance: it’s all in the spirit of an enjoyable romp that doesn’t try to dig too deep.