Germany is newly unified when sixteen-year-old Maya Wiesberg leaves her homeland to spend a year in upstate New York. So reluctant is she to leave her family, she refuses to say a proper goodbye to her beloved grandmother, something she will have cause to regret when her grandmother disappears. Twenty-seven years later, a landslide uncovers Martha Wiesberg’s body on a resort not far from where Maya went to school. Although phobic about flying, Maya decides to travel out to see the spot where her grandmother died. But the Montgomery family who own the resort don’t welcome her enquiries, especially when it turns out Martha was murdered.
I’ve recently read two novels in which a widower has an uncanny encounter with someone from the fringes which, for them at least, feels replete with meaning. Jim Crace’s widower is also mourning the end of his musical career; whereas, twenty years younger, Rebecca F John’s widower is offered a fresh start in caring for his newborn baby daughter.
Two historical novels addressing Spain’s internal conflicts: the first, set in Granada, takes us back 500 years to the last Muslim Court; the second, set mostly in London, begins eighty years ago with the International Brigades and resistance to Franco. Both weave a thread of hope for humanity with a romantic storyline – or two.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
I’m sharing my reflections on two novels in which sensitive men share their reflections on life and love. Both begin with the narrators at a loose end during the university summer vacation, the first in Barcelona, the second in London. Wabi-Sabi is the lighter of the two, in which a university lecturer travels to Japan where he is beguiled by a young woman. In The Only Story, a man’s entire life is shaped by a ten-year relationship with a vulnerable older woman he began as a nineteen-year-old student.
An epic story of cultural change in Uganda and a novella set in an idyllic English community, these debuts have little in common apart from the strange affliction and that I’m happy to recommend them both. In the first, multiple branches of an extended family at the beginning of the twenty-first century are affected by a curse on their ancestor 250 years before. In the second, James probably feels cursed when he wakes up one morning to find he can’t move half his face.
I like fiction that shows the characters at work, but it can be difficult to pull off convincingly. While approaching it from very different angles – British writer Lucy Atkins in a thriller about a highflying TV presenter and historian; American Helen Phillips in a satire about a data entry clerk – both have produced extremely satisfying reads.
Scouring my shelves for a book to accompany The Athenian Women, I thought I was “making do” when I picked up Such Small Hands: two translated and disturbing reads. So it was a bonus that the latter included a strand narrated in the first person plural (very like a Greek chorus as Edmund White points out in an Afterword), while the latter, set in Athens 411 BC, takes its characters to the theatre where a genuine Greek chorus stands on stage. Add in the similarities of the authors’ names (I’m assuming Italian and Spanish versions of Barber) and I couldn’t have linked them better if it was planned.
Given the chance, wouldn’t you live in a comfortable right-on community where none of your neighbours voted for Brexit or Trump? Where people read books, and supported libraries, and no-one hung plastic bags of dog poo from the trees? But you know what would happen if you packed up and moved there? You’d have the neighbours on your back for putting out the bins too early, or letting your dandelions run to seed. Because it’s in the nature of utopian societies to have a downside, often manifest in a denial of our baser human instincts and/or excessive control. It makes great fodder for fiction, however, as I hope to show in my review of Celeste Ng’s latest novel set in 1990s suburban America. Alongside that, I’ve gone back to basics with my first-time read of the original Utopia, published 500 years ago.
As 2018 started a few hours earlier in Australia than in the UK, it’s fitting that I should begin my reading year there. Or it could be the coincidence of kindly publicists sending me advance copies of two Australian novels published in the UK this month. The first namechecks various Sydney suburbs, while the second begins near Melbourne before circumnavigating the country. The first contemporary, the second set in the 1950s, they explore the socio-politics of Australian identities and their links to migration and colonialism.
Some moral questions to end the year and see us into the next! Is it okay for some to go hungry while others feast? Is it okay that the accident of where we are born, and to whom, determines our life chances? Does it matter that, with modernity and the march of capitalism, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening? Neither this tragicomedy set in Edinburgh nor this scattershot novel set in India have the answers, but they can entertain us while making us reflect on the issues.
When I’m not sure what to make of a recent read, it sometimes helps if I couple it with something equally enigmatic. A common thread, even if it’s not the theme the author intended, affords me at least the illusion of understanding. So following White Tears, in which a young white man in contemporary America experiences the terror of a black man in the 1920s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, with My Falling Down House, in which a former Tokyo “salaryman” experiences homelessness, helped me gain my bearings on both.
With my own short story collection scheduled for November next year, I thought I should give more blog space to the short story. But although I managed to pick the winner of the BBC short story award, the first two of these collections knocked my confidence in my ability to review the short form. Listed in the order I read them, the third has me fizzing with excitement about what the short story can achieve. See what you think!
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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