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.
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.
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.
In the week which saw the publication of the results into the inquiry into the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, I read two novels with a Russian connection. Both are about living under the shadow of terror, both penned by lauded English novelists and published in the UK tomorrow. Nevertheless, these are two very different novels; read my reflections to see which you prefer.
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
“Sometimes I have trouble finding the edges,” says the narrator, Sean, on page 9 of this unusual and deeply moving debut novel. So far, all I know about him is that he returned from hospital to his parents’ home with painful skin grafts and that, as a young child, obsessed with comic books, he’d imagined himself a throne in his grandparents’ garden, declaring himself King Conan. You’re not the only one, I might have replied. Sharing none of his tastes in TV, music and games, I didn’t hold up much hope of venturing beyond the edges of a novel that spirals round and round its subject but, when I did, I was deeply impressed. While preferring to eschew spoilers, despite the evidence that they are more likely to enhance the reading pleasure than destroy it, I can’t convey my enthusiasm for the novel without wheeling towards its centre, so read on at your own risk.
The war is barely a year old when James is shot down on his first bombing mission. Incarcerated in a POW camp, he vows to use his time productively. Instead of digging escape tunnels from which he’d inevitably be recaptured, James dedicates himself to a detailed study of a pair of redstarts nesting beyond the barbed wire. He records his observations in a notebook and in letters home to his wife. Yet the only person who really seems to understand his passion is the camp commandant.
Only six months married before James was summoned to fight for his country, Rose is bored by her husband’s letters, barely able to bring herself to open them, let alone reply. Alone in a tiny cottage on the tip of the Ashdown Forest not far from where she grew up, she spends her time roaming with her dog and patrolling as an ARP warden to safeguard the blackout. She’s wondered about her loneliness for some time: at first she thought it was missing James but now it seems an existential condition. And she’s found a way to soothe it in her secret meetings with Toby, on sick leave from the war.
Then James’s elder sister, Enid, is bombed out of her London flat and, with nowhere else to go, she foists herself upon Rose. With her own guilty secret, Enid isn’t the best of houseguests, while Rose is far from the perfect host. The women have more in common than they think, but their different loyalties to James prevents them becoming friends.
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you came for and had to retrace your steps until you know? Have you ever forgotten something you were sure you’d remember and ended up repeating the self-same mistake you’d made the last time? Do you bring back souvenirs from holidays; do you treasure pictures, ornaments and other miscellany, not for their monetary value, but for the memory of how they came your way?
Have you ever been touched by music in a place where words hardly signify? Have you ever been affected by a sound so loud you hear it, not just in your ears, but in your entire being? If your answer to any of these questions is yes – and I’d be surprised if it isn’t – you’ll connect with the themes in Anna Smaill’s exceptional debut novel, but you might need to hold onto these ideas to see you through the disorientating opening chapters.
The plot is a classic quest: two young men gradually uncover the tangle of lies perpetrated by the elite of their country and set off to infiltrate the seat of power and destroy the source of their destitution, risking their lives in the liberation struggle. It’s a straightforward plot, but deployed with sophistication; there’s no simple demarcation between good and bad. Reaching the hallowed halls, Simon, the narrator wonders (p273):
But what did we have to offer her in return, next to this beauty? the voice in my head says. No answers, no order. Nothing but mess, questions, fear.
The daughter of a German concert pianist and her (one-time stand-in page-turner) younger husband, Peggy Hillcoat is eight in the hot summer of 1976 when her father tells her to pack her rucksack and come with him on a journey. As they travel across Europe by car, train and, latterly, on foot, Peggy is less and less confident that this is a holiday. But the stories her father has told her about the secret cabin in the forest spurs her on, and even when she loses her shoe on a perilous river crossing she doesn’t completely give up hope. Yet when they finally reach the cabin, even her father is disappointed at its dilapidated state. Peggy is ready to return home until her father tells her that, not only is her mother dead, but the rest of the world beyond the river is no more.
Nine years later, Peggy is back with her mother in London, struggling to adapt to a world of overwhelming luxury and choice (p41):
Young Russian immigrant Slava Gelman’s writerly ambitions stretch far beyond his post among the pondlife at a New York magazine. Following the death of his beloved grandmother, his grandfather commissions him to build upon their sketchy knowledge of her escape from the Minsk ghetto to submit false claims for reparations from the German government on behalf of various inhabitants of “Soviet Brooklyn” who don’t quite fit the strict criteria of experience of ghettos, forced labour and concentration camps. Initially reluctant, Slava discovers in these accounts, not only way to reconnect with his own cultural history, but also the perfect outlet for his literary skills.
I was looking forward to reading this novel both for yet another oblique perspective on the second world war and its aftermath and for the sheer audacity of the premise, reminiscent of Shalom Auslander’s fictionalisation of an elderly Anne Frank in Hope: a Tragedy. Unfortunately for me, the novel failed to deliver the promised humour; nor, given that Slava was required to invent the survivor narrative, his grandmother having shared little of her trauma with her family, did I learn as much as I’d hoped. I also found the flashy prose slowed the pace, especially in the first two-thirds of the novel. However, I became more engaged towards the end with the appearance of Otto, German civil servant and amateur sleuth, raising moral questions about whether, and if so under what circumstances, it’s ethical to lie.
Layers of history: The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson and Truths by Rebecca S Buck … and a Zodiac flash
It was my wedding anniversary last week and, despite shying away from romantic fiction, I thought I ought to read a novel with a heart at its centre. Thus Jill Dawson’s novel made its way to the top of my TBR pile and, because of its thematic parallels, Rebecca Buck’s novel followed on.
Patrick Robson, a history professor with thirty-odd years of over-straining both his literal and metaphorical heart, wakes up in hospital following major surgery with his ex-wife at his bedside. Two hundred years apart, two teenage boys experience their sexual awakening under the wide skies of the Fenlands, and discover how the odds are stacked against those not born into wealth in cash or land. What connects the three main characters is that Drew Beamish was carrying a donor card when he was killed in a motorcycling accident, and Patrick has received his heart, while Willie Beamiss, only just escaping hanging or deportation for rioting, is one of Drew’s ancestors, and commemorated in the local museum.
Today I’m reviewing two novels about interpersonal connections that had me struggling to connect with the essence of the story. I’m hoping you can help me untangle why.
The opening of Lucky Us seemed promising:
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. “It’s like this,” she said. “Father loves us more, but he’s got another family, a wife, and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face.”
Oh, how that mother had me hooked! She seemed much more resourceful in accommodating to the duplicate family than the poor woman I’d left contemplating the cracks in the ceiling in a recent flash. Would the narrator follow her lead? I wondered. Or would she struggle to adapt, like Mary, in Geoff LePard’s novel-in-a-flash? What I didn’t anticipate was that she would abandon both her daughter and the novel only four pages on. Reader, I was bereft. Rudderless, despite, I now discover, having been warned this would happen by the blurb. (But we don’t pay much attention to blurbs, do we?)
Eva is twelve when she meets Iris, her father’s other daughter. Over the next decade, we follow their fortunes as Iris seeks stardom in the movies in 1940s America and Eva follows in her slipstream. Through the sisters and their various friends, lovers and hangers on, the novel shows us Hollywood hypocrisy, new-money airs and graces, post-war plastic surgery and the internment camps and repatriation of supposed “enemy aliens”. There are even a few scenes on tarot that had me wondering about extending the criteria for my series on fictional therapists. All very interesting and entertaining, related with that touch of humour evident in the section I’ve quoted above, but I felt rootless, longing, despite my general refusal to bow to the law of motivation, for the narrator to have a little more agency, to come out and tell us what she wants. As Charli Mills says, motivation is movement but movement without motivation is passivity. With the lack of a clear narrative arc, Lucky Us resembled memoir or a truth-based story and, in my mind, that’s not necessarily a compliment.
After my recent posts about obedience to a malign authority and the ensuing atrocities, it’s refreshing to be able to bring you a novel in which people refuse to submit. Even better, in contrast to the stories of women’s subjugation within marriage – wonderful reads as they were – I Can’t Begin to Tell You is a celebration of women’s resistance, courage and determination.
Like Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky which I read last year, this is a gripping story about the agents and code-breakers of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. At its centre is Kay Eberstern, British-born wife of a Danish landowner. Like John Campbell in Johanna Lane’s debut novel, Black Lake, Bror’s attachment to his ancestral lands has led him to go against his wife’s wishes, in this case by signing a declaration of goodwill towards the occupying Nazis. This crack in the marriage widens when Kay is persuaded to provide a refuge for an SOE agent, drawing her into a world of secrets and subterfuge which endangers not only her relationship with Bror, but the entire family.
Meanwhile, over in England, Ruby Ingram channels her fury over the fact that, as a woman, she couldn’t be awarded the degree she had earned from Cambridge University, into her efforts to improve the safety of agents in the field.
I’m ambivalent about school. On a personal level, I achieved good outcomes from my long ago schooldays, but this was more by dint of my capacity for obedience than any genuine nurturing of my intellect and creativity. (I’m always pleasantly surprised when children these days claim to enjoy school.) On a political level, the view that mass education can be used to weaken working-class culture sits alongside the genuine enthusiasm for learning I’ve witnessed in places where a school place can’t be taken for granted.
How does this translate into my reading and writing? As a child, I lapped up Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, although the settings were worlds away from my own experience. The junior equivalent of the country-house genre, St Clare’s, Malory Towers and the like served merely as the backdrop for schoolgirl adventures. And that’s the thing with school stories, the experience is so near universal, it’s difficult to untangle the school aspect from the fact of being a child. When I wrote my bite-size memoir, School at Seven, it was more about friendship betrayed than education. Of my short fiction, school provides the setting for the hormone-heavy story of adolescence, Kinky Norm, and frames the parent-child conflict in both Jessica’s Navel and Elementary Mechanics. The epistolary Bathroom Suite is more about inequality than school refusal.
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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