I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
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.
When we find ourselves unmoored, we might be extra motivated to seek to consolidate our roots. That’s the slim connection between these two novels in which a woman confronting terrible loss decides to research her family tree. Both involve a story of migration: Jane Ashland’s ancestors moved from Norway to the USA; Neha’s in The One Who Wrote Destiny came from Kenya (and before that India) to the UK. For another novel about tracing the members of an extended family, see Kintu.
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.
As 2018 started a few hours earlier in Australia than in the UK, it’s fitting that I should begin my reading year there. Or it could be the coincidence of kindly publicists sending me advance copies of two Australian novels published in the UK this month. The first namechecks various Sydney suburbs, while the second begins near Melbourne before circumnavigating the country. The first contemporary, the second set in the 1950s, they explore the socio-politics of Australian identities and their links to migration and colonialism.
Some moral questions to end the year and see us into the next! Is it okay for some to go hungry while others feast? Is it okay that the accident of where we are born, and to whom, determines our life chances? Does it matter that, with modernity and the march of capitalism, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening? Neither this tragicomedy set in Edinburgh nor this scattershot novel set in India have the answers, but they can entertain us while making us reflect on the issues.
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.
With my own short story collection scheduled for November next year, I thought I should give more blog space to the short story. But although I managed to pick the winner of the BBC short story award, the first two of these collections knocked my confidence in my ability to review the short form. Listed in the order I read them, the third has me fizzing with excitement about what the short story can achieve. See what you think!
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!)
After reading The Things We Thought We Knew shortly before its publication back in June, I decided to hang back for another novel on psychosomatic illness or acquired disability with which to pair my review. But picking up The Burning Girl more recently, I was struck by the commonalities between these two novels, not only in the obvious sense of a girl in her late teens looking back on an intense friendship, but in the depth of disturbance resulting from its loss. As happened when I coupled two novels on male infidelity, discovering the similarities enhanced my appreciation of both. While neither pairing uncovered themes of particular personal relevance for me (which can enhance my enjoyment), the fact that they matter sufficiently for more than one author persuades me that other readers might find more to savour. Do let me know if that applies to you!
With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
Two authors with their own lived experience of the challenges of working in South African health care. Two fictional healthcare professionals forced to confront their own privilege within the system and the limitations of what they can achieve. One black, one white; one psychologist, one medical doctor; one in contemporary post-apartheid, one in an imagined dystopia in which it never ends. Two political novels; two engaging reads. Let me know which of them takes your fancy.
What does the cultural climate of 1960s Britain have in common with 17th-century Sicily? In both cases, as with the political landscape of the Western world right now, politicians could choose to use their positions to further their own personal interests or for the common good. They could fight prejudice and discrimination against women and outsiders, or they could fan the flames of fear in the service of their own ambition. From that perspective, one of these novels is about a hero(ine), the other about one whose pride precedes a fall. Each is a deftly plotted and engaging read.
Today’s two novels focus on characters whose lives have been blighted by past betrayal. Although their inability to forgive others or themselves results in episodes of apathy, their plights keep us turning the pages to the end. While we’re on the subject, here’s a link to my creepy flash fiction piece, “Betrayed”.
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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