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.
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.
Not really, of course! But I thought it would be fun to combine my reviews of two novels with “Everything” in the title, especially when both explore the nature of memory and require the reader to work a little harder to figure out who is speaking sometimes. Oh, and they both have blue covers!
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.
Country (dis)connections: The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop & His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
For my first post of meteorological autumn, I bring you two novels with a strong sense of season and climate. But what particularly connects them is their explorations of how conflicting attachments to place risks fragmenting family life. The first takes us from England to Australia, with a brief visit to India, and the second back and forth between Canada and the USA, so between them these novels cover a large proportion of the English-speaking world.
As someone who’s drawn to subtle stories with complex characters and hates being bludgeoned with being told what to think and feel, I shouldn’t be surprised that there are times when my expectations aren’t met by the book in my hands and I’m tempted to give up. Usually I try to unravel why it didn’t work for me, with the aim of both getting a stronger sense of what I like and don’t like, and what I can learn from this for my own writing. But sometimes I feel quite disorientated by my bafflement, by my lack of connection with the author’s words. If I’ve been unlucky – or chosen unwisely – and experienced a string of disconnections, I can feel quite low. The activity that has always been my refuge becomes a claustrum. It’s like being internally homeless or losing a good friend. (Or finding your compatriots have voted overwhelmingly for xenophobia, which still has me reeling almost a week on.)
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.
I’m discussing two novels in translation about philosophy-obsessed / philosopher-obsessed men who travel from Europe to New York in pursuit of their interests. Yet, as is often the case when I partner one novel with another, they are very different books. Because of the mental-health slant, I also could have paired either with A Cure for Suicide, or, because of the identity issues, with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and/or The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.
In her declining years, as her memory for the past overtakes her connection to the present, Meggie Tulloch sets out to write her life story. Addressed (in the mid-1970s) to her hippyish granddaughter, and kept secret from her daughter, Kathryn, the girl’s mother (although, as time goes on, Meggie increasingly confuses the two), it’s a story of migration from north-east Scotland and the Shetlands to Fremantle, Australia, a journey through the elements of water, air and earth, and finally (in a contemporary strand picked up by the daughter herself) fire.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my identity as a novelist: how, on the one hand, it’s a simple statement of fact while, on the other, it represents an existential anxiety about what I’d be if I couldn’t describe myself in terms of something that sounds like a job. So these two novels exploring identity and make-believe, albeit with reference to film rather than fiction, have come along at exactly the right time.
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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