I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
Although these two novels couldn’t be more different in tone – the first a literary exploration of a young mother’s development; the second tricksy thriller – I can’t resist pairing them for the other factors they have in common. Both feature thoughtful, philosophising, unnamed narrators; both take as their subject matter how we explore the inside and outside of other people, and ourselves. Both are ambitious and unusual in their approach; both are the author’s second book and a cracking read.
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.
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.
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
I recently featured four novels depicting the impact on children of a father’s absence. These two debut novels present the other side of the story: the terrible harm that a father’s presence can do. In both, the fathers control their children’s minds and bodies through violence and a perverted kind of love. Although fiction, each reflects the darker side of society today.
My real-world promotion of World Toilet Day yesterday was somewhat eclipsed by a surprise conversation about #MeToo. Surprise because, having personally experienced only “mild” forms of unwanted sexual attention, I hadn’t jumped on this particular bandwagon, the conversation left me feeling I should have. After all, one doesn’t have to have experienced direct gender discrimination to be a feminist. One shouldn’t have to have experienced the trauma of rape to oppose the culture of misogyny that so often enables it.
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.
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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