As Britain hurtles towards the cliff edge of Brexit, and the President of the United States pays compliments to a dastardly dictator while referring to migrants as animals, it’s as if we’ve learned nothing from the run up to the Second World War. If politics were fiction – if only! – we’d be approaching the crisis point known as the cave.
Do houses harbour the shadows of those who lived in them before?
A few months ago, I reviewed two novels about houses with secrets. Here are two more on a similar theme, with a younger couple taking over the home an older woman’s been forced to leave. In the first it’s because she’s dead, but her spectre lingers on; in the second she’s had to move into a retirement home. In both, the young wives become almost obsessed with the previous owner, while their experiences on Valentine’s Day prove a barometer for the state of their marriages.
Annecdotal is marking refugee week with two new translations: a novella and novel by authors with direct experience of being a refugee. The first is an innovative collaboration between current residents of the Palestinian camp in Shatila and a London-based publisher; the second is by and about a Bosnian Muslim exiled to Croatia who later arrived in Scandinavia as a refugee.
Hot on the heels of two novels about the messy aftermath Zimbabwean independence, come a couple more set in erstwhile outposts of the British Empire as the colonisers depart. Both focus on the experience of minorities favoured by the British who find themselves relegated in the new regimes: Indians in Kenya in Dance of the Jakaranda; the Karen in Burma in Miss Burma. Along with the politics, both explore the impact on identity of religion and race.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
3. Yet, much as I’m drawn to the dark side, I don’t want my reading to be totally bleak. There are ways of writing about trauma that allow for a sliver of light.
While these two points still hold for me as a reader, I’m not sure I can identify exactly where the balance lies for me between dark and light, either in relation to what I want from a novel or in how to find it.
When the press release described Speak No Evil as “a novel about the power of words”, I thought it would fit nicely with Missing, about a translator who has personal reasons for using precise verbalisations. But, although I could see what the publishers were getting at, it didn’t chime strongly with my reading experience. Nevertheless, these short novels – the first from the UK, the second from the US and Nigeria – have something in common: the grief and guilt that has diverted a woman’s life after a tragic misunderstanding at the age of eighteen. But, given that exactly how that happened is part of the mystery, you won’t find much about that in my reviews. Don’t let that stop you reading on, as both these novels are well worth your time.
I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
These two novels reimagine well-known stories from the perspective of women who find themselves banished in disgrace from their parents’ homes. The first is about a witch who features in Homer’s Odyssey; the second about a nun who proves to be a keen observer of Tudor politics. In carving out her own place in the world, each woman discovers there’s not much to envy in the upper echelons of society.
No prizes for guessing why I’ve connected these two novels; I don’t think I’ve ever read another book with gravity in the title – although The Weightless World is about a antigravity machine – and then I find two published in the same month. But rest assured, they’re very different reads: in the first, Lotte feels a stronger pull towards the stars in the sky than her earthly attachments; in the second, love is a force that can furnish reconnections across continents and years.
Our species has enslaved our fellow human beings for millennia, an abomination that continues to this day. While literature quite rightly reminds us of the industrial-scale trade in people between Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean, some historical human rights abuses are less well known. So, painful as the subject matter might be, I was pleased to widen my knowledge through these two novels: the first focusing on African slavery of other Africans in 19th-century Ghana; the second about people forcibly transported from 17th-century Iceland to Algeria. Both feature strong women from a period when female voices were often silenced and consider the psychological and political complexities beyond the polarised roles of victim and villain.
After my last post featuring two novels about fictional teenagers going missing in the Peak District, the link between these reviews is more tenuous. While both feature men who have found a salaried position after art school – the first going into the gaming industry without completing his degree; the second joining the ranks of fictional therapists as a rare art therapist – these novels seem quite different. Yet both also feature obsession: the first with the alternate reality of computer games; the second with an estranged daughter. See what you think.
Oh dear! As a Ranger in the Peak District, albeit only as a volunteer on alternate Sundays, I carry a sense of responsibility for the safety of visitors to the National Park. So it’s rather disconcerting to read about two teenage girls, on holiday from London, going missing there in a matter of weeks. Fortunately, both were characters in novels, and both providing the foundation for an engrossing story about the repercussions: the first for the residents of a fictional Derbyshire village; the second for the family of the girl who is found after four agonising days.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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