With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
When I plucked A Separation from my TBR shelf shortly after reading The Squeeze, I wasn’t sure I’d get away with pairing these two novels. After featuring fictional female infidelity a few months ago, introducing you to Mats and Christopher is a way of redressing the gender balance, but neither of these novels is really about the act of sex outside marriage. It wasn’t until I read the much more philosophising A Separation, that it struck me that the more plot-driven The Squeeze is also about the impact on the meaning and relationship status the women (one wife, the other a sex worker) carry in their minds, irrespective of the bonds of legality.
Much as we like to think we’d be willing to risk our own safety to come to the aid of a fellow human being, history shows that many of us aren’t brave enough to go against the grain. But even if we do find the courage to stand apart and make a difference, is the act that feels right necessarily the right thing to do? The conundrum of humanitarian responses to wartime atrocities seems to be the central question of these two historical novels, both set in a European winter, the first during the Second World War and the second in Bosnia, this latter by one of the founders of the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
When recent politics in both the US and UK have gone beyond satire, how else can fiction help us reflect on the systems in which we live? In the first of these two novels reviewed below, Jean Hanff Korelitz explores the politics of an elite university in which, intentionally or otherwise, there are parallels with a liberal America almost too pleased with itself. In the second, Anthony Cartwright more directly examines relationships in divided Britain, in a novel commissioned in response to the Brexit vote.
Two authors with their own lived experience of the challenges of working in South African health care. Two fictional healthcare professionals forced to confront their own privilege within the system and the limitations of what they can achieve. One black, one white; one psychologist, one medical doctor; one in contemporary post-apartheid, one in an imagined dystopia in which it never ends. Two political novels; two engaging reads. Let me know which of them takes your fancy.
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.
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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