When Janice, one of the viewpoint characters in my current WIP, and hopefully my third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, had a friend to entertain on a wet weekend in the Lake District, I sent them to the pencil museum in Keswick. Although I’d known of it since childhood, I’d never visited until, on a wet Wednesday at the end of my research trip to Cumbria, I had the chance to put that right. Entering into a single room through a rather kitsch mock-up of a graphite mine, I thought I’d be in and out in five minutes. Not so! I’m sure that anyone who writes or draws would find the museum fascinating.
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.
Scouring my shelves for a book to accompany The Athenian Women, I thought I was “making do” when I picked up Such Small Hands: two translated and disturbing reads. So it was a bonus that the latter included a strand narrated in the first person plural (very like a Greek chorus as Edmund White points out in an Afterword), while the latter, set in Athens 411 BC, takes its characters to the theatre where a genuine Greek chorus stands on stage. Add in the similarities of the authors’ names (I’m assuming Italian and Spanish versions of Barber) and I couldn’t have linked them better if it was planned.
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.
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.
Apologies for the less-than-inspiring title – and anyway, aren’t all novels about how lives intersect? – but I’m pulling this post together in a bit of a rush to move a backlog of reviews before the end of the year. Each of these novels is by an established writer who isn’t dependent on my short-out whose previous novel I reviewed very positively here, both Laird Hunt’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s eliciting instructions-for-a-novel posts. Their new novels are listed in ascending order of number of point of view characters. (Of course!)
The Greek myths bubble with revenge and betrayal, while the bloodthirsty tyrants of history are themselves made into to myths. Let me present two novels which reinterpret these legendary stories for the modern era, emphasising the human motivations behind the murder and mayhem. Both novels focus on famous families: in the first, the violence turns inwards in an orgy of self-destruction; in the second, the family will do almost anything to ensure their own survival. In both, the gods of the time are co-opted to sanction sacrifice and murder, while the women use their limited power as best they can.
Allow me to introduce you to two translated novels with a supernatural element, albeit less central to the story in the second. Both also give a nod to mental health issues linked to criminality: via one of the off-stage characters in Norma; a neurological disorder thought to be Korsakoff syndrome for the unfortunate narrator of Black Moses. Plus a return to Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. For another novel with a supernatural element, see my review of A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars.
As far as I’m concerned, the welfare of babies and young children is a collective responsibility, so I offer no apologies for linking these three books. The first is a historical novel that begins with a fascinating account of the experience of a wet nurse in nineteenth century Spain, before moving on to the adult lives of the princess who had first turn at the breast and her milk brother, the woman’s own baby. The second is a contemporary novel set a century later, about a young American woman working as a nanny to a Japanese toddler. Both novels show the strength of attachment we can have to other people’s offspring. The third book is an uncompromising and moving memoir about a young Englishwoman who becomes pregnant as a student and decides to keep the child. Finally, because a baby is a kind of harvest of the womb, we finish with this week’s flash.
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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