Life’s a game of snakes and ladders; we all have our ups and downs. But some people’s snakes are much longer than some other people’s ladders, and some so unlucky on the roll of the dice it’s like they’ve landed in a slithery nest of snakes. If fear or despair hasn’t shut down their emotions, these people are angry, understandably so. And that’s my tenuous link between these novels: the first about a young woman’s sudden blindness and the second about the victims of paedophile priests.
Okay, perhaps not the most elegant title to sum up the common thread between these three debut novels from small and innovative independent publishers. But they’re all, in very different ways, about life with a brain or mind that functions a little differently from average. In the first, we meet an elderly voice hearer on a mission to bring hope to his granddaughter. In the second, a retired teacher with dementia is convinced a former pupil can save him from the persecutory antics of his deceased father. The third takes the reader even further into the realms of fantasy as a teenager with unexplained blackouts is drawn into a world she thought existed only in her dreams.
The digital revolution has massively changed the way we listen to music, yet vinyl has been revitalised in some quarters in recent years. Perhaps it’s no surprise that contemporary novelists should review their record collections in search of new ways of exploring the human condition. But two published within three months of each other? That’s quite a coincidence. Read on to see how these established British authors have addressed the topic in very different ways.
Let’s take a look at a couple of debut novels with some fine evocations of the natural world and a strong sense of place published by small independent presses based in Scotland.
I’ve enjoyed these two novels about how we manage the end of life, the first through old age and the second through assisted dying. Mortality gets us all sooner or later; what better way to face it than with a novelist holding our hands?
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
For my third post in this series, I’m delighted to welcome Barbara Speake to Annecdotal. After an accomplished career as a research and clinical psychologist, Barbara is well on the way to publishing her fifth novel. Here’s Barbara in her own words:
How did you come to writing fiction?
I came to fiction writing through the discipline of writing non-fiction. I was very fortunate to have had two major psychology careers spanning nearly four decades, firstly as a research psychologist and then, after further training, as a clinical psychologist and NHS manager. During my academic career, I authored or co-authored numerous journal articles, book chapters, government reports, a PhD thesis and two books for parents and staff, both published by Souvenir Press. When I later qualified as a clinical psychologist, my writing was mainly of a clinical nature, service reports, and court reports, firstly in primary care, then in learning disability services, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and forensic services.
Of course, like many authors, who have written non-fiction, I always wondered if I had a fiction book in me.
When his parents die in a house fire, Jonathan Maguire decides to give up his studies at Newcastle University and move back to London to live with his brother. Six years older but with the mind of an eight-year-old, Roger has little understanding of the workings of the social world, but is an expert on the community of insects he breeds in glass-fronted cages in a garden shed. Despite their age difference, the boys were extremely close as children and Jonathan is determined to do the right thing by his brother, but his loyalty comes at a cost. Not only does he give up his degree, but it means separation from his girlfriend, Harriet, a talented flautist much admired by young men. Their marriage, just before Harriet returns to university after the summer break, does little to assuage Jonathan’s suspiciousness and jealousy, especially when she is the only woman in a classical quartet that includes his nemesis, Brendan Harcourt, who has never attempted to hide his attraction to Harriet. With Harriet’s support, and the occasional fiery confrontation, Jonathan seems to be learning to manage his emotions, when Roger reveals witnessing an illicit kiss after a performance by the quartet.
My Dear Readers,
I know that a novel written in the form of letters is known as an epistolary novel, but is there a word for a novel that starts with an intriguing letter and then goes on to portray the lives of the letter writer and its intended recipient? I’m asking because two novels I read recently followed that format and I’d like to tell you a little about them.
I’d love to hear your views and, if you do wish to reply, you can do so in the comments box below.
With all best wishes,
Surely this is every book lover’s dream? Roberta works in one of those idyllic old-fashioned bookshops owned, not by some faceless conglomerate, but by a true aficionado of the printed word, the laid-back Philip Old. She rearranges the shelves, serves the occasional customer, dust books, and collects the letters, postcards and till receipts she finds between the pages. These serve as epigraphs for the chapters comprising the contemporary strand of the novel.
The first is a letter from Jan Pietrykowski, written in 1941, ending his relationship with Dorothea because he disapproves of something she’s done. Roberta has found this letter in an old suitcase belonging to her hundred-and-ten-year-old grandmother, Dorothea, now residing in a nursing home. She’s never heard of Mrs D Sinclair, whose name is inscribed in the suitcase, but Jan Pietrykowski is her paternal grandfather, dead before Roberta’s father was born. Otherwise the letter makes little sense to the reader, or to Roberta, especially as it contradicts what she’s been told about the family narrative. It takes the rest of the novel for her to come anywhere near to approaching the truth.
Coming of age in a concentration camp: The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull and The Undesirables by Dave Boling
In reviewing Peter Matthiessen’s novel In Paradise, I referred to our collective responsibility to bear witness to the Nazi death camps. Yet in focusing on the Second World War, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the first concentration camps weren’t the brainchild of Hitler, but constructed by the British in South Africa during the second Boer War. When British troops destroyed the farms of the Dutch settlers, ostensibly because they were providing supplies to the command of fighters – much as the Nazis did to the Russian peasants as illustrated in Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking – women and children were forced into refugee camps where rations were meagre and infectious diseases rife. This shameful episode of British history is explored in two novels published earlier this year.
The Visitors is a coming-of-age story that begins on a hop farm in late Victorian England. Liza, deaf-blind from the age of two, is like a wild animal until Lottie, through laborious hand signing, gives her the gift of language. Travelling to the oyster farms of the Kent coast as a child, and to South Africa as a young woman, Liza learns about first love and the limits and compensations of her disability. Since infancy, she has communicated with ghosts in her head; through them she finds a way of saving those who have saved her.
While I enjoyed this novel, I had a sense that it was trying to cover too much, and I found Liza’s character most interesting when she was locked into her own world, raising questions about what it means to be without language, what makes us human. But it was heartening – in contrast to those novels depicting duplicitous female friendship – to spend time in the company of strong female characters who were prepared to travel great distances to support each other and those they loved. In both style and its attention to historical detail in the lives of ordinary people, Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel was reminiscent of the work of Tracy Chevalier, making her a writer to watch for the future.
I do enjoy exploring unexpected links between the novels I’ve been reading. A gritty story of the real-life dangers faced by illegal immigrants on the streets of contemporary Cape Town seems a world away from the remote homestead in 1920s Alaska in which Eowyn Ivey’s modern fairytale is set. Yet, apart from being debut novels and the happenstance of my reading them in sequence, both are stories of survival with an unusually pale-skinned girl at their hearts. In addition, The Snow Child also gives me an opportunity to acknowledge the writing of a couple of other bloggers whose support I cherish, while Zebra Crossing has served as the inspiration for my response to Charli Mills’s latest flash fiction challenge.
It’s some years now since I had any interest in holidaying abroad – or venturing on holiday at all, if I’m entirely honest – and my last trip outside Europe could well be part of the reason. This was a fascinating botanical tour of Madagascar but, because we were focused on the flora, our interactions with the local people were somewhat limited and often unsettling to my woolly-liberal constitution. I wrote about this in my post On Memory and Imagination on the publication of my short story, Silver Bangles, a fictionalised account of an incident on that trip that brought the disparities in wealth between the locals and the tourists into sharp relief. A similar encounter provided the material (if that doesn’t sound too disrespectful) for my water-themed flash. But a third uncomfortable event from that holiday – in which I dithered about donating my sunscreen lotion to a family with albinism seen from the comfort of our bus in a remote village – hasn’t yet made it into my fiction.
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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