Can you rewrite your own history and get away with it? That’s what Joseph Silk and Mary Holmes, lead characters in these two new novels, seem to have done. Both have been motivated to avoid traumatic memories – but there are consequences. In Joseph’s case, it’s been the impact on his family; in Mary’s, it’s a lifetime of guilt. Both novels feature a bond between young and old. Both address aspects of the Second World War: Joseph takes his suffering under Nazi-inspired racism in Hungary to his grave; far away in relatively safe Dorset, the backdrop of war pushes Mary to confess. Read my reviews and see whether you sympathise with the decisions they took.
If you’re going on holiday this summer, you might be tempted to take one of these novels with you. The first focuses on the people who entertain and assist the visitors to a Victorian pier at an English seaside resort across a period of over a century; the second on a family taking a long holiday together on the coast of Finland. But, of course, while it might be all smiles and bonhomie on the surface, there are disconcerting undercurrents to keep you turning the page. Let me know which takes your fancy.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
Hot on the heels of two novels about the messy aftermath Zimbabwean independence, come a couple more set in erstwhile outposts of the British Empire as the colonisers depart. Both focus on the experience of minorities favoured by the British who find themselves relegated in the new regimes: Indians in Kenya in Dance of the Jakaranda; the Karen in Burma in Miss Burma. Along with the politics, both explore the impact on identity of religion and race.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
These two novels reimagine well-known stories from the perspective of women who find themselves banished in disgrace from their parents’ homes. The first is about a witch who features in Homer’s Odyssey; the second about a nun who proves to be a keen observer of Tudor politics. In carving out her own place in the world, each woman discovers there’s not much to envy in the upper echelons of society.
Our species has enslaved our fellow human beings for millennia, an abomination that continues to this day. While literature quite rightly reminds us of the industrial-scale trade in people between Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean, some historical human rights abuses are less well known. So, painful as the subject matter might be, I was pleased to widen my knowledge through these two novels: the first focusing on African slavery of other Africans in 19th-century Ghana; the second about people forcibly transported from 17th-century Iceland to Algeria. Both feature strong women from a period when female voices were often silenced and consider the psychological and political complexities beyond the polarised roles of victim and villain.
Two debut novels by women about women reviewing their (successful and stable) marriages in the context of an important relationship for one partner that’s not shared with the other. In the first, the wife’s passion for God and poetry leads her into the mind, arms and eventual bed of a man who isn’t her husband; in the second, the wife, emerging from her grief at her husband’s sudden death, becomes suspicious about the nature of his secret friendship with a woman he’s met on business trips abroad. Both authors employ non-linear structure to good effect.
I’m not always drawn to sequels, but Dr Jekyll and Miss Blaine both caught my eye because they promised to be fun. The first needs no introduction; the second is a time travelling crime novel about a woman who loathes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for giving her alma mater, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a bad name. Both feature mysterious deaths and, as an added bonus, the second namechecks Mr Hyde.
I’ve recently read two novels in which a widower has an uncanny encounter with someone from the fringes which, for them at least, feels replete with meaning. Jim Crace’s widower is also mourning the end of his musical career; whereas, twenty years younger, Rebecca F John’s widower is offered a fresh start in caring for his newborn baby daughter.
Two historical novels addressing Spain’s internal conflicts: the first, set in Granada, takes us back 500 years to the last Muslim Court; the second, set mostly in London, begins eighty years ago with the International Brigades and resistance to Franco. Both weave a thread of hope for humanity with a romantic storyline – or two.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
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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