I love September. I love that the world beyond my desk is winding down, my garden yielding the last of its harvest before clocking off for winter, while the pencil-sharpening back-to-work feeling – honed by decades of education and relished now without the accompanying dread – is igniting in my head. The return of some to school means the outside world is quieter and less crowded for those of us with the freedom to choose our hours of work and play, and September often brings better weather than August (although, having resorted to turning on the central heating a couple of times last month, there’s not much competition – nor any sign of improvement on that so far this month).
Allow me to introduce you to two novels looking back on Ireland’s recent history through the eyes of a man whose life has been limited by secrets, subterfuge and hypocrisy.
I decided to pair these novels after reading blurbs suggesting both were about young women adapting to significant losses: the mother’s disappearance in Swimming Lessons and a close friend’s suicide in Our Magic Hour. But, on reading the latter, I felt the main character’s issues predated that particular tragedy, originating with a highly ambivalent mother in a difficult marriage. Unfortunately for the character, but very accommodating for my reading and blogging schedule, the same applies to the first novel. I hope one or both of these will appeal but, if not, you’ll find several other posts and reviews on the theme of family dynamics if you follow the link.
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
As the first African-American president approaches the end of his two terms of office, the politics of the creature waiting to replace him send shivers down many a spine. So timely to remind ourselves how western wealth was built on the trade in human beings with two novels about the slave trade between Africa and America and its aftermath. It’s not an easy subject to write – or read – about and, although I’ve read a couple of good ones (Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo and Property by Valerie Martin come to mind, but there may be others), I believe these are the first I’ve reviewed.
A man who’s always been suspicious of computers goes to buy an iPad. Unfortunately, he’s also highly suspicious of people, especially the white-shirts who seem intent to frustrate him with paperwork. The ensuing argument almost has him evicted from the shop. Meet Ove: a crotchety old geezer who’s thwarted every way he turns. He can’t even be left in peace to end his own life.
I’m always intrigued when a novel worms its way so deeply under my skin I start behaving like the main character. So what if this was a million-copy bestseller, I wasn’t going to trust a writer who reckons the first thing I need to know is the age of his main character (fifty-nine), closely followed by the kind of car he drives (a Saab). To hell with the respectful approach I’d outlined in my post on my reading for reviews, this one was going to be a meditation on the minutiae of getting it wrong. Never mind that, in going to test drive a new car (not a Saab) recently, my husband and I found ourselves embroiled in a disagreement similar to the one Ove engenders in the computer shop. My grumpiness was nothing to do with me, or even the fact that I was reading the novel while still enraged about the result of the recent election.
She knows it’s futile to try to explain what’s going on inside her – she can’t even explain it to herself – so she makes no more reference to it, focusing instead on giving the best impression of herself she can.
One of the most painful aspects of mental distress and disorder can be the inability of other people to acknowledge the lived experience, the need to cover up for their sake an additional strain on an already fragile psyche. So no wonder Grace is relieved when her husband, Gordon, leaves her alone on their narrow-boat home to go on a fishing trip with a friend. A couple of days earlier Grace saw what she took to be the ghost of her deceased first husband, Pete, her deepest and most disturbing love. Gordon, fearing a repeat of the breakdown that had her hospitalised following the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah, wants her to go to the doctor. Grace herself just wants time to revisit the memories of the handsome man who used to beat her, and the daughter who withdrew into the solace of illegal highs.
As some of my reviews will testify (e.g. My Real Children; Indigo; Hidden Knowledge), I can feel disorientated when a novel fails to unfold according to my expectations. But isn’t that often the case initially when we come to read fiction? Unless it’s ploddingly formulaic there’s an interval, before we settle into both story and style, when we don’t know where we are. Part of the pleasure of opening a new book is that sense that, despite the clues from title, cover and blurb, it could lead us somewhere new. But, as I’ve intimated time and again in my reviews, there needs to be balance between novelty and familiarity, and each of us have our own preferences for where we position ourselves between them.
Completing the initial round of my publisher’s edits for my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, I’m reminded of the potential for disorientation I’ve built into the story. My narrator, Diana, has a secret she is unable to share with the reader initially; when you get it, you might look back on what she’s previously told you in a new light. I have to hope I’ve hit a reasonable balance between surprise and security, but I know it won’t work for all.
I write to satisfy a difficult-to-pin-down need deep within my psyche, but writing is tough, and publication tougher and, at this stage of my life, I want to prioritise activities that bring me some satisfaction. Before I came out as a writer, I would scribble intermittently and intensively, emotionally-laden narratives that left me demoralised and deflated. About twelve years ago, I enrolled on an online short story course which enabled me to begin the arduous process of learning how to share and edit my words. Although I’m now in the joyful position of having one novel accepted for publication and another doing the rounds, somewhat less joyfully I have several unfinished novel projects and I can’t say I really know how one goes about the process of getting from idea to finished product.
Winter being the best time for me to get some serious writing done, as the days grew shorter last year, I was excited when a new idea took shape in my mind. But I didn’t want to make the same mistake as the year before and end up losing interest at around 30,000 words. (I might write a post one day on deciding to abandon a project, although Emma Darwin has done this better than I ever could on her wonderful blog This Itch of Writing.) Hitherto suspicious of NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d make use of its slipstream to knuckle down to my project, albeit with a less ambitious target of an average of 1000 words a day.
Have I achieved my goal?
We might be marking the centenary of start of the First World War this year, but here on Annecdotal there’s been an unexpected focus on the Second. From Louise Walters’s Polish pilots and land girls to Elizabeth Buchan’s code breakers and Danish resistance workers, from Audrey Magee’s Nazi marriage of convenience to Richard Flanagan’s Japanese prisoners of war, and forward in time to Peter Matthiessen’s Holocaust Memorial, we’ve viewed it from a range of angles but hadn’t, until now, considered the dynamics of the occupying powers overseeing the de-nazification process of a defeated Germany in the years immediately following the war. Step forward Rhidian Brook and his cast of characters strutting the rubble-strewn stage of a bombed-out Hamburg in 1946: Colonel Lewis Morgan, trying to bring compassion to the reconstruction of the city of shattered buildings and broken spirits; his grieving wife, Rachael, with mixed feelings about being reunited with her husband, blaming him for the death of their eldest son; Edmund, their eleven-year-old, whose pre-programmed prejudices cannot withstand his adventurous spirit; and the widower, Herr Lubert, and his teenage daughter, Frieda, whose palatial home they come to share. Add in Ozi, leader of the bunch of feral kids begging cigarettes from the soldiers to swap for bread or other items on the black market of use to the post-war German resistance, and we’re set for powerful drama on both a human and global scale.
Alice’s husband is becoming increasingly critical and his excuses for his absences from the home more and more lame; is she right to suspect he’s having an affair? Vic, managing the hotel in Madeira previously owned by her parents, is delighted when her old friend Michael returns to work on the island; should she share her doubts about the honesty of his new girlfriend, Estella? Kaya dreams of studying philosophy at university but for now, having fled her feckless mother and her mother’s druggie boyfriend, she’s capitalising on her good looks as a stripper; can she leave this life behind? Three women at different stages of the lifespan, seemingly unconnected at the beginning of the novel, find their fates disturbingly intertwined.
This is the last of the four novels published on 6th November (although the hardback of Strange Girls has been out since July) I’m reviewing this month. I was eager to read it after coming across a couple of reviews by bloggers who found this novel much more engaging than they’d expected. Having nothing original to say about the plot without stumbling into spoilers, I’d love to refer you to those reviews but I have to confess I’ve forgotten where I found them, so if you’ve come across anything about this novel that might be of interest to other readers, do please paste the link in the comments section below.
Through most of the 1980s and 1990s a women’s peace camp was held outside the RAF base at Greenham Common to protest against the siting of nuclear missiles there. Thousands of women joined the camp for anything between a single day and several years, making it an important part of recent British sociopolitical history yet, apart from one as-yet-unpublished novel on the theme, Kathryn Simmonds’ debut is the first fictional account of the movement I’ve come across.
Tessa is nineteen and fleeing a dead-end job and the humiliation of being dumped by her boyfriend when she packs her rucksack and sets off for Berkshire. Idealistic and naive, only her friendship with the aristocratic beauty, Rori, sustains her through those first few weeks of mud and cold and songs around the campfire, eventually culminating in a spell in prison. Fast forward thirty years and Tessa is the manager of a struggling charity, at loggerheads with her teenage daughter and, along with husband Pete, going through the motions of marital therapy when a friend, Maggie, nominates her to take part in a TV makeover programme. Initially reluctant, she agrees to the filming as publicity for one of her “causes”, but when the producer wants to focus on the “Greenham angle”, the memories from that late adolescent rite of passage come flooding back.
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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