Although these two novels couldn’t be more different in tone – the first a literary exploration of a young mother’s development; the second tricksy thriller – I can’t resist pairing them for the other factors they have in common. Both feature thoughtful, philosophising, unnamed narrators; both take as their subject matter how we explore the inside and outside of other people, and ourselves. Both are ambitious and unusual in their approach; both are the author’s second book and a cracking read.
For Valentine’s Day, I’m reviving a post that appeared in October 2015 on the Reading Writers website, which is now defunct.
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.
Following on from my review of The Fortunes, which fictionalises the lives of ought-to-be-more-famous Chinese Americans, I’m reviewing two novels featuring well-known European intellectuals at either side (in the temporal rather than allegiance sense of the word) of the Second World War.
Psychotherapists face a dilemma when it comes to sharing the fruits of their discoveries with a wider public. The technical language, especially regarding psychoanalytic psychotherapy, which practitioners use to communicate between themselves, can be cumbersome, offputting and open to misinterpretation by the uninitiated. Case studies, such as those assembled by Steven Grosz, can be both extremely readable and illuminating, but they do present a problem of confidentiality: even when clients give their consent, some would question whether, within the power dynamics of the relationship, this can ever be freely given yet, the more the details are anonymised, the greater the potential distortion. Susie Orbach is a British psychotherapist, activist and writer who has done much to demystify psychoanalytic thinking (e.g. with several comment pieces in the Guardian, including this recent one on Brexit trauma). Her latest project, on which this short book is based, is a radio series mimicking the experience of the consulting room.
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.
Since childhood, Thelonius Liddell has striven for excellence in an attempt to forget the trauma of seeing his father murder his mother. At a university careers day, he’s recruited into the US intelligence agency by Becky Firestone, the somewhat disturbed daughter of the director whom Thelonius eventually marries. When we first meet Liddell he’s already a dead man, writing his memoir in the ten metre square cell in the clandestine containment unit he calls The Beige Motel. Now preferring the name Ali, he was converted to Islam by his wizened cellmate in a squalid (presumably Iraqi) prison, where he is accused of the murder of a man and his young daughter and of desecrating the Koran. His conversion was part of a deal brokered by a young woman, Fatima, but, like almost everything else in this multi-layered thriller about the war on terror, we have to keep on turning the pages to uncover the truth. While I’m inclined to agree that, as Fatima says, Stupidity has taken over the process of government in both countries, there’s nothing stupid in this complex tale of compromised morality and the fragility of the human mind.
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.
Over half a century ago, the social scientist and psychoanalyst, Isabel Menzies Lyth was commissioned to carry out an investigation into why so many promising nursing students were dropping out of training. What she discovered makes edifying reading for anyone using, or employed within, the human services or, indeed, any organisation at all. Despite the best intentions of all the staff, the social systems that had evolved within the hospital were like a spanner in the works, functioning against the primary task of healing the sick. Many highly motivated students, despairing at the impossibility of delivering compassionate care, simply left. Yet this human wastage was built into a system that relied on a high volume of low-paid students to deliver patient care, without having sufficient posts for them to move on to on qualification. Although the work is radically different, I’ve wondered for some time whether there’s a similar redundancy built into the creative writing industry, encouraging the dreams of far more budding writers than there are slots in the publishers’ lists.
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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