A review of THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL by Helen DeWitt.
If you wish you could relive “the pleasure one felt as a child reading a marvelous book from cover to cover in an afternoon” then you should definitely treat yourself to all the delightful novellas in the new Storybook ND collection from New Directions publishing. THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL by Helen DeWitt was my introduction to the collection and is my selection for this year’s Novella November! It’s sixty-nine pages of sharp-witted satire and worldly haute couture humor bursting with a charming spirit of anarchy. The collection also contains THE FAMOUS MAGICIAN by César Aira, SPADEWORK FOR A PALACE by László Krasznahorkai, THE WOMAN WHO KILLED THE FISH by Claire Lispector, and EARLY LIGHT by Osamu Dazai. All of these will immediately hook you from their book descriptions alone, and based on my experience with THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL I can’t wait to get my hands on them.
Without spoiling too much of the brilliant brevity of THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL, I’ll tell you that the book is written from the point of view of Marguerite as she attempts to write a book about her international childhood. Marguerite was raised by a fabulous, wealthy French mother and a distant English father. And, as she talks about her childhood with Maman (her mother), she explains at length her mother’s beliefs about how different countries and cultures are good at particular things. For example, the irony that the English are the best at making wool fabrics but that you should not ask an English tailor to create a garment for you. Instead, Maman takes the fabulous fabrics to their Thai seamstress in Paris.
Marguerite’s charming and peculiar stories about growing up with Maman’s strict high-brow opinions are interspersed with letters from the editor, Bethany, who keeps pushing Marguerite to talk about some mysterious sensational situation from her childhood. Off of the propulsive reveal, there are several sharp, hilarious, and surprising narrative turns that build the story well beyond what I would expect of its slim page count. Truly a one-sitting wonder!
Buy it HERE.