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.
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.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
I’m pleased to recommend two California-set novels published this week about the fragility of masculinity, sibling loyalty and the impact on families of the Vietnam war, the first for the generation directly affected and the second for the children of men who served.
Two Novels about Bullying and a Craze from Times Past: Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay & Hush by Sara Marshall-Ball
Humans are social creatures, and the social systems we create can serve as both help and hindrance. Bullying is one of the more disturbing things that can happen when we gather together, but the dark side of human nature can catalyse engaging fiction. In Bone by Bone, childhood bullying is at the core of the novel, while in Hush it’s a consequence of a family trauma, but both make for gripping reads. On a lighter note, I’ve followed these too short reviews with a memory of a more positive aspect of human association, the childhood crazes from which no-one is excluded.
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.
A severe cold has meant very little writing in the last few days, but a copious amount of reading (completing my reading “challenge” of 100 books in the year), albeit with not a great amount of depth. These three short reviews of novels about three very different women’s quests for a life, and a mind, of their own is part of the result.
Nancy and Bernadette have spent every summer at the remote farm where their mother grew up. Despite the sullen nature of their uncle, Donn, and the religiosity of their aunt, Agatha, who returned from training to be a nun to keep house for him, it’s an idyllic place to a ten and twelve-year-old from London. But the bond between the sisters is weakening, as Nancy, now at the comprehensive school, wants to play at being a grown-up. And there are far darker forces at work than sibling rivalries. For in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the English are unwelcome in certain parts and a lonely farm has every chance of being co-opted into the undercover war.
Thirty years later, having barely spoken to each other since childhood, the sisters return to the farm with their families on the pretext of seeing the place for one last time before it’s sold. It starts badly: Nancy’s American husband is both overly chatty and bored; Bernie is critical of her sister’s hypervigilance around Nancy’s fourteen-year-old son, who appears to have some kind of attention-deficit disorder (p79):
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.
When invited to lead a controversial project reintroducing the grey wolf as a natural predator into the English countryside, Rachel Caine initially declines. She is happy keeping her native Cumbria at a distance, happy heading up the team monitoring wolves in the true wilderness of Nez Perce, Idaho. But, when her mother dies and a drunken night with one of her colleagues takes the relationship too far, she decides to accept the Earl of Annerdale’s offer. The new job, while geographically on a smaller scale, heralds new challenges for Rachel as she grapples with the manners and politics of the country set while confronting the memories of a difficult mother-daughter relationship evoked by the landscape that formed her. The Wolf Border explores the territory bounded by country-house fiction, the natural world, capitalist politics and impending motherhood with some of the finest writing on human and elemental wilderness, for example in an Idaho winter (p68):
When his parents die in a house fire, Jonathan Maguire decides to give up his studies at Newcastle University and move back to London to live with his brother. Six years older but with the mind of an eight-year-old, Roger has little understanding of the workings of the social world, but is an expert on the community of insects he breeds in glass-fronted cages in a garden shed. Despite their age difference, the boys were extremely close as children and Jonathan is determined to do the right thing by his brother, but his loyalty comes at a cost. Not only does he give up his degree, but it means separation from his girlfriend, Harriet, a talented flautist much admired by young men. Their marriage, just before Harriet returns to university after the summer break, does little to assuage Jonathan’s suspiciousness and jealousy, especially when she is the only woman in a classical quartet that includes his nemesis, Brendan Harcourt, who has never attempted to hide his attraction to Harriet. With Harriet’s support, and the occasional fiery confrontation, Jonathan seems to be learning to manage his emotions, when Roger reveals witnessing an illicit kiss after a performance by the quartet.
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.
At college in 1996 California, Rosemary has grown accustomed to other people finding her a little odd. But she reckons they’d find her even odder if they knew about the unusual circumstances of her childhood. So, despite having been a chatterer since she knew how to speak, she tends to keep quiet. There’s also much that goes unspoken in her family home back in Bloomington, Indiana, especially regarding the whereabouts of her sister, Fern, who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old, and of her older brother, Lowell, who left suddenly ten years ago. It’s only when she is arrested after a fellow student runs amok in the university canteen that twenty-two-year-old Rosemary dares to look back at her past, beginning with when she was sent to stay with her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
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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