It had been a great night at the Polari salon in Nottingham, and the audience was waiting for the final performer to take the stage, when a woman bounded from the back of the room. Scowl framed by the hood of her black anorak, and ignoring the compere’s insistence that she wasn’t on the programme, Barbara Brownskirt barked out a series of poems from her numerous unpublished collections about, among other things, her unrequited love for Judi Dench. She was scary. She was hilarious. She was – and still is – the unsuccessful lesbian Poet-in-Residence at the 197 bus stop, Penge, and the brilliant creation of writer and performer Karen McLeod.
Blogger and memoirist, Irene Waters, has been collecting memories of ordinary activities across the generations and across the world. Last October’s theme, collections, sparked some interesting reminiscences about stamps, birds’ eggs and the dysfunctional parts of ballpoint pens, to name but a few. The latter came to mind when I was reading about Cathy, the protagonist of the second novel reviewed in this post, and I’ve linked her with Julia, whose unusual life, and posthumous career, is the subject of Orphans of the Carnival, who was less a collector than an object of curiosity herself. I hope you’ll be curious enough to read on.
My first two reads of 2017 are linked by one of last year’s favourites: like The Underground Railroad, The Golden Legend is about outsiders on the run, while Homegoing explores the before, after and meanwhile of the slave trade between Africa and America. Both novels also reference the role of literature in challenging partial accounts of the lives of the powerless.
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
This post, my last before Christmas, features two novels about men with marginalised identities. Read on and see if either takes your fancy for your holiday reading.
When I was growing up, it was said that every fourth child was Chinese. As the fourth child of a white working-class Catholic family, I saw no contradiction in applying that logic to myself. I don’t remember how and when I was disabused of this notion, but I imagine being disappointed. Although probably too young to have a concept of Chinese identity (I think it was prior to my family frequenting Chinese restaurants), the idea of being different made perfect sense. Perhaps that’s what attracts me to reading and writing about diversity, but the Chinese are still relatively unrepresented in my fictional world (Everything I Never Told You an exceptional exception). So, having enjoyed his debut, The Welsh Girl, I looked forward to having my horizons widened by Peter Ho Davies’ new novel about Chinese-American identity, courtesy of Sceptre Books.
These three novels featuring three fictional celebrities take us from the leader of an anti-establishment artists’ movement in 1930s Australia, to an Arab-Berber boxer in colonial Algeria and to a Nigerian musician and political activist in late 20th-century Kenya. Each illustrates the intertwining of social and psychological issues, and the costs and compromises of fame.
Today’s focus is on plot, with reviews of a psychological thriller about identity and a sophisticated crime novel against a backdrop of African-American politics.
Stand by for two haunting short books published in the UK today about different facets of the lives of women.
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.
Let me share with you my reflections on two highly original novels about dissemblance and truth in the process of becoming a person. Although the publishers don’t do so, I’m classing both as slipstream fiction, a place between fantasy, sci-fi and literary fiction I’ve also explored in my own short stories. Read on, and let me know what you think.
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.
As Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and the Gothic, so today’s the day to share a couple of my recent reads to have you scared to go to bed.
It’s August 1985, and Ananda, a student of English at the University of Central London with aspirations to be a poet, has a whole day to fill. We follow him reluctantly get out of bed, fret about the neighbours’ noise, miss his mother who has recently returned to Bombay, attend a meeting with his tutor, and hang out with his equally eccentric uncle, Rangamama, as they separately reminisce and bicker about their lives. Their territory is Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a world of disappointing Indian restaurants, public transport, and potentially racist drunks. Inveterate outsiders, not just in London but in Asia, too: their Sylheti Hindu heritage having been twice rebranded (first with Partition, then with Bangladeshi independence) and leaving a legacy of “Indian” restaurants and the revered poet, Tagore. Desperately unhappy, the two men cling to each other despite their differences, Ananda possibly seeing his empty future in his uncle.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel comprised of all the minute quotidian detail that most novels would cut out. There are touches of humour, and I especially enjoyed this exposition on the lack of reference to lavatorial necessities in Western film and literature (p128-9):
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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