When the cattle car stops at Auschwitz, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski’s mother realises their best chance of survival is in Josef Mengele’s Zoo. As the other kids point out, to the twins shivering on their bunk that night alongside a girl on the brink of death, they get more food there (although “it’s not kosher and it eats your insides”) and keep their hair “until the lice come” and their clothes. Submitting their bodies to the doctor’s measurements and experiments, they hope the bond between them will save their humanity. But when, not long before the camp is liberated, Pearl disappears, Stasha embarks on a perilous journey through Poland’s devastation in search, not only of her sister, but of the man who has done them both such harm.
Let me introduce you to two novels by established female authors about young people struck down by serious illness, set in the social context of the British National Health Service, the first in its contemporary incarnation and the second at its inception.
Fourteen-year-old Lucia Stanton lives with her elderly aunt in a converted garage in the grounds of a large house. With her deceased father’s zippo lighter in her pocket, she rides the bus to visit the mother who doesn’t recognise her in a psychiatric hospital, after which she goes to a bar to get drunk. Intelligent and nonconformist, Lucia adheres to a strict moral code; unfortunately it differs widely from the one followed by teachers and the cool kids at school. She hasn’t considered setting fires until, in detention one evening, she hears some students refer to a secret Arson Club.
If there’s a genre for translated novels featuring dentistry, early April must be the prime publication slot. While there’s little else to connect these two novels, they got me wondering about teeth in fiction and I couldn’t resist pairing them here. Fever at Dawn is published this week in hardback, while The Story of My Teeth first appeared in English in 2015 and comes out in paperback this week.
I’m delighted to showcase two second novels published this week (although Song of the Sea Maid has been out for a while in hardback) featuring feisty female characters. Both take a sideways look at history, with a focus on scientific thought either side of Darwin, and celebrate love against the odds. Both stories begin in an asylum (the first a psychiatric hospital, the second an orphanage) and take the reader on an engaging journey beyond its walls.
I hadn’t been reviewing for very long, when I was invited to contribute to the book recommendation site, Shiny New Books. Honoured as I was, I didn’t feel ready back then, but kept it in mind. After Victoria posted a lovely early review of Sugar and Snails on the site and hosted my guest post on writing about secrets, I resolved to keep an eye out for suitable books to review. I’m pleased to announce that my reviews of The Social Brain and Playthings were accepted for the latest edition so if you’re satisfied with the easy answer to my question you can go straight to the reviews by clicking on the images. But if you’d like to discover another connection, then read on.
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
High-powered advertising executive, James Marlowe, is delighted when he wins the brief to create a new campaign for an international bank. But his involvement in the corporate world comes at a heavy cost, as he becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol in a vain attempt to keep the unethical nature of this endeavour out of mind. This distances him from his beloved wife and son and, eventually, from himself, as a psychotic breakdown lands him in a psychiatric hospital, terrified by a collection of plastic and metal animals and figurines which he calls The Zoo. It’s there that the reader first meets him, and there that we sit alongside him as he gradually pieces together the sequence of events that have brought him to the lowest point of his life.
The perspective on corruption is chilling, to quote one of the minor characters, Lou, the moral voice of the novel (p234-5):
She knows it’s futile to try to explain what’s going on inside her – she can’t even explain it to herself – so she makes no more reference to it, focusing instead on giving the best impression of herself she can.
One of the most painful aspects of mental distress and disorder can be the inability of other people to acknowledge the lived experience, the need to cover up for their sake an additional strain on an already fragile psyche. So no wonder Grace is relieved when her husband, Gordon, leaves her alone on their narrow-boat home to go on a fishing trip with a friend. A couple of days earlier Grace saw what she took to be the ghost of her deceased first husband, Pete, her deepest and most disturbing love. Gordon, fearing a repeat of the breakdown that had her hospitalised following the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah, wants her to go to the doctor. Grace herself just wants time to revisit the memories of the handsome man who used to beat her, and the daughter who withdrew into the solace of illegal highs.
Marie Gillies has always feared – and hated and loved – her father and has lived a limited life according to his rules. But now he’s dead she wants to take her mother, Flavia, on holiday to her native Italy, and that requires a meeting with the solicitor who manages the trust fund from her father’s estate. Arthur Gillies, coming home from London only at weekends, had been in business; neither Marie nor her mother had needed to concern themselves with what type. But it turns out he’s had a portfolio of expensive properties in the capital, and Marie decides she’d like to get her hands on some of his dosh.
Rita is an ageing sex-worker tottering out, despite being prone to falls, in high heels to find a new man to pay the bills. Now with her own small flat, she makes daily visits to the dilapidated house in Primrose Hill where she used to work, to check up on its remaining occupants: Joseph, the son of Sal, the brothel’s deceased madam, who spends his days riding the buses, and Annetta, a former colleague, prone to fugue states since childhood and now suffering from dementia, who regularly escapes from her locked bedroom to shed her clothes in the park.
Patrick Gale’s wonderful sixteenth novel opens with a disturbing bathroom scene. Incarcerated in a mental asylum, Harry is manhandled by a couple of attendants into a hot bath where he’ll be held immobile for hours, ostensibly to calm him; whether it could, when I was having palpitations merely reading about it, seemed unlikely. A relief then, to move with Harry a few pages later to a more benign institution, a therapeutic community by the river. Yet he remains haunted by a previous trauma:
These memories lay in rooms he couldn’t enter. In the quiet moments of lucidity between baths, he had approached them close enough to sense they were wrapped in a grief so powerful that even to put his hand on the doorknobs would fry his skin. (p11)
Moving back and forth in place and time, between his convalescence in the community and a life that has taken him from upper-middle-class England to the newly colonised Canadian prairies in the early years of the twentieth century, the doors to those troubling memories are gradually opened to us.
A bunch of teenagers lounge about in a country house on a remote island. They form gangs, their leaders battling for supremacy, though, with nurses and teachers standing on the sidelines, it’s not quite Lord of the Flies. Drugs also help to maintain order, in the form of the nightly “vitamins” that the narrator, Toby, secretes in his bedpost, leaving him free to wander through the house while the others sleep. Although, when he witnesses one of the boys being taken at night to the top-floor sanatorium, he almost wishes he’d stayed in bed. Everyone knows why they’ve been wrenched from their families to live in the Death House yet, through a mixture of boredom, bravado and emotional distancing, they try to defend themselves against the truth. Blood tests have shown that their defective genes have been activated; the adults are merely keeping watch for the signs of their sickness to show.
America at the end of the twenty-first century: a world of droughts; advanced technology; and boys identified with the gene for criminality compulsorily enrolled in corrective institutions from the age of three. James is one such child: a Level 1 student with the prospect of a decent life on graduation in under a year’s time. That’s if he can abide by the school’s strict regulations to avoid accumulating any “demerits” and prevent the memories of a vicious arson attack on his previous school from disturbing his calm. Yet, brutal as the school may be, James is anxious about venturing into the civilian world with its confusing freedoms and potential encounters with the hostile Zeros, religious fundamentalists intent on purifying the world by fire. When, on his first Community Day outing, he steals a girl’s barrette hair slide, a set of progressively harsher punishments is set in train which sees James, not only losing his relatively protected status, but uncovering a network of corruption within the school far deadlier than he could have imagined.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional with mutterings about reading and writing seasoned with psychology.
Annecdotist is the persona through whom I navigate that in-between space. When not roaming the blogosphere, I'm reading or writing, tramping the moors, battling the slugs in my vegetable plot or struggling to sing.
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Sugar and Snails on 2016 shortlist
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