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?
As the world goes crazy, I crave, in my reading, not escapism, but a reflection of the flawed complexity of human beings and the things we do to make life that bit harder. But I need to be in safe hands to do so. So thanks to Louise Doughty and Jane Rogers – both established British authors unafraid to tackle difficult subjects – for providing that in their latest novels. Although quite different in their focus, both involve the characters reviewing painful pasts and their own culpability in order that their next mistakes might be that bit smaller.
In contrast to the three women who shape her through childhood to early middle age, the female narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel is so insipid, she doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. Her mother, a beautiful Jamaican-born feminist, autodidact and activist who resembles Nefertiti, delegates parenting to her less ambitious husband while she plots her escape from the confines of gender, race and class. She barely tolerates our narrator’s intense friendship with Tracey, the only other brown-skinned girl at their North London dancing class. With her doting, but foul-mouthed white English mother and absent African Caribbean father (whom the little girl claims is on tour with Michael Jackson, when he’s actually in prison), Tracey’s allotment of advantage and disadvantage mirrors hers. Their relationship pirouettes around a shared passion and a suppressed mutual envy: while Tracey has the skill and talent to make it to the stage, the narrator’s relative stability with a loving father provide some compensation for her flat feet.
These two novels explore the impact of two of America’s controversial wars (Vietnam and Iraq) on combatants, observers and their nearest and dearest.
Sometimes fiction furnishes a necessary escape from harsh reality. Sometimes it helps us interpret a confusing world. At other times it provides a safe space to explore disturbing issues we’d rather turn away from. These two books from small independent presses fall into the latter category: important stories, but I wouldn’t be supporting them if they weren’t also a good read. Personally, I’d rather dark truth than artificial light, but mostly, as these are, I want my stories well told.
Two short reviews about two short European novels in translation, both shining a light on human disturbance, both of which I can recommend as a good read.
Among Saturday’s headlines, we learn that a middle-aged man is involved in a loving relationship. That’s news? Sadly, it is, when the man is a middle manager (a.k.a. a bishop) in the Church of England and the object of his affection is another man. It’s already feeling too much information when I’m told he’s unmarried and celibate. Oh, so he’s invisibly gay? Cue big sigh of relief?
As I’m not a member of the church, and have no desire to become one – although I’ve never been known to forgo the opportunity to sing praises to the guy-in-the-sky in one of their magnificent buildings – perhaps it’s not my business. Except that this hypocritical organisation has a stake, through seats in the House of Lords, in governing my country. Wouldn’t it be nice, until such time as they are abolished, if they adhered to the laws of the land and basic human rights that permit same-sex marriage (an institution the church tends to be particularly fond of) and physical expression of love? But it seems they’d rather avoid a split from their branches overseas (including those countries in which homophobia is sanctioned by the state) than take the moral stance they’d like to claim is theirs.
Following the revelation that only about a quarter of literature translated into English is written by women, the book world has decreed August Women in Translation Month. (I seem to have done only slightly better with over a third of the novels on my Goodreads translated fiction shelf being by women.) This post contains reviews of the two translated novels by women I’ve read this month, one from Israel, the other from Spain, and reminders of my two favourites from the five qualifying novels I’ve reviewed earlier this year.
In between celebrating my book’s first birthday – and finding the clichéd book-as-baby metaphor more apt than ever – I’ve had the pleasure of reading three novels about the begetting of real human babies: a debut scientific thriller from England; a second gritty comedy from Scotland; a third novel in the literary genre from the USA. As if the authors have responded to a writing prompt to bring a novel angle to “having” a baby, there should be something for everyone in this selection. If you’d like to recommend any others, you can do so via the comments.
Fourteen-year-old Lucia Stanton lives with her elderly aunt in a converted garage in the grounds of a large house. With her deceased father’s zippo lighter in her pocket, she rides the bus to visit the mother who doesn’t recognise her in a psychiatric hospital, after which she goes to a bar to get drunk. Intelligent and nonconformist, Lucia adheres to a strict moral code; unfortunately it differs widely from the one followed by teachers and the cool kids at school. She hasn’t considered setting fires until, in detention one evening, she hears some students refer to a secret Arson Club.
What does the working-class child aspire to? In my case, I couldn’t dream of joining a middle-class profession I’d never heard of. Nor, even though I was addicted to writing from the start, did I believe that someone like me could become an author. Books never seemed to be based in the places with which I was familiar: they were set in boarding schools rather than comprehensives; in country houses rather than a small semi-detached; in cities rather than small industrial towns. So how could I resist a novel set in my birthplace, the small northern town from which my odd accent derives? As if that weren’t enough, I’m offered a novel set where my parents grew up, a similar down-at-heel out-of-the-way place where I had my first restaurant meal. Sixty miles separates these two towns, as well as some breath-taking countryside, as depicted in The Wolf Border, one of my favourite reads from last year. But Workington and Barrow don’t have the beauty of the Lake District. Thanks to Vintage Books and Legend Press, I had the chance to discover whether they could nevertheless shine on the page. I’d be interested in your thoughts on using real places as fictional settings.
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):
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
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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