Two debut novels by women about women reviewing their (successful and stable) marriages in the context of an important relationship for one partner that’s not shared with the other. In the first, the wife’s passion for God and poetry leads her into the mind, arms and eventual bed of a man who isn’t her husband; in the second, the wife, emerging from her grief at her husband’s sudden death, becomes suspicious about the nature of his secret friendship with a woman he’s met on business trips abroad. Both authors employ non-linear structure to good effect.
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.
I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
A historical novel about Arctic exploration or a novel set in a near-future South Africa? A romance or an account of a relationship falling apart? A motherless girl or a fatherless boy? Wild animals or ice? Both of these novels explore the conflict and compassion that connects us to the natural world, but it was a bonus for me to read that the protagonist of Green Lion told his friend that his father was killed in a hunting accident in the Arctic, the setting of Under a Pole Star. Read on to see if I was right to pair these reviews.
Okay, perhaps not the most elegant title to sum up the common thread between these three debut novels from small and innovative independent publishers. But they’re all, in very different ways, about life with a brain or mind that functions a little differently from average. In the first, we meet an elderly voice hearer on a mission to bring hope to his granddaughter. In the second, a retired teacher with dementia is convinced a former pupil can save him from the persecutory antics of his deceased father. The third takes the reader even further into the realms of fantasy as a teenager with unexplained blackouts is drawn into a world she thought existed only in her dreams.
In literature, as in life, revolution often entails blood loss and drama. In these reviews we eavesdrop first on an assassination plot at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, while the second features an unexplained domestic death against the backdrop of the French Revolution.
I decided to pair these novels after reading blurbs suggesting both were about young women adapting to significant losses: the mother’s disappearance in Swimming Lessons and a close friend’s suicide in Our Magic Hour. But, on reading the latter, I felt the main character’s issues predated that particular tragedy, originating with a highly ambivalent mother in a difficult marriage. Unfortunately for the character, but very accommodating for my reading and blogging schedule, the same applies to the first novel. I hope one or both of these will appeal but, if not, you’ll find several other posts and reviews on the theme of family dynamics if you follow the link.
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.
Not really, of course! But I thought it would be fun to combine my reviews of two novels with “Everything” in the title, especially when both explore the nature of memory and require the reader to work a little harder to figure out who is speaking sometimes. Oh, and they both have blue covers!
Locked in a dark room somewhere in Mogadishu, Peter Maguire has ample time to consider the legacy of his three decades on this earth. A journalist with a CV full of danger zones, he has a girlfriend in Paris who enjoys weekends in the Loire Valley and a five-year-old son in Monrovia she doesn’t know about and he’s never seen. He’s been estranged from his mother, also formerly a journalist in West Africa, since she told him his biological father is not the gentle Irishman he’s called Dad all his life, but an American photographer with whom she had an affair in Liberia. If life weren’t complicated enough, his friend and local driver was shot dead when Peter was kidnapped, and he’s about to be sold on to the brutal Al-Shabaab. He finds a glimmer of hope and humanity in the Somali teenager who brings his food, but can Abdi really rescue him from captivity?
It’s August 1985, and Ananda, a student of English at the University of Central London with aspirations to be a poet, has a whole day to fill. We follow him reluctantly get out of bed, fret about the neighbours’ noise, miss his mother who has recently returned to Bombay, attend a meeting with his tutor, and hang out with his equally eccentric uncle, Rangamama, as they separately reminisce and bicker about their lives. Their territory is Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a world of disappointing Indian restaurants, public transport, and potentially racist drunks. Inveterate outsiders, not just in London but in Asia, too: their Sylheti Hindu heritage having been twice rebranded (first with Partition, then with Bangladeshi independence) and leaving a legacy of “Indian” restaurants and the revered poet, Tagore. Desperately unhappy, the two men cling to each other despite their differences, Ananda possibly seeing his empty future in his uncle.
It’s hard to know what to make of a novel comprised of all the minute quotidian detail that most novels would cut out. There are touches of humour, and I especially enjoyed this exposition on the lack of reference to lavatorial necessities in Western film and literature (p128-9):
Francine is grappling bulimia and the menopause along with wondering whether she’ll survive the coming cuts in Quality Assurance. Robin genuinely cares about his students as he philosophises over film and the dread of having a baby with the wrong woman. Olivia wants to put the world to rights but isn’t sure if her law degree will let her, or whether she should start with her own dysfunctional family and the father who’s been hidden from her since she was four. Ed soothes his own loneliness by ensuring the unloved and unwanted still get a good sendoff. Katrin navigates the gulf between London and her native Gdansk in the cafe where she works and with the gentle Englishman who seems to like.
Each of these five point of view characters are vividly and sympathetically realised on the page. Each of them follows an interesting narrative arc, complete with back story and associated minor characters, I could have followed for an entire novel. But just as the characters seem to question whether there’s anything more cohesive than the fragments of their world (p151, 267):
Pilgrim Jones has done something shameful: crashed her car into a bus stop and killed three young children, although she has no memory of doing so. Did she swerve to avoid the dog and lose control of the vehicle or, consumed by anger and self-pity after being dumped by her human-rights lawyer husband, was she reckless? Certainly her neighbours in the small Swiss town of Arnau consider her a child murderer and, despite the sympathy of the police, she realises she has to get away. With no particular plan, she flies to Tanzania and, dropping out of a safari, pitches up in Magulu, a shabby village on the road to nowhere, with one bus out a week. Here she finds herself a world away from her former travels with her ex-husband, from her role as a diplomatic wife. Here, where the doctor has no medicine, the policeman no power to uphold the law, violence or the threat of it is ever presence at the periphery of her vision (p82/83):
“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.
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Version One Laura Barnett is obsessed by the image of a woman on a bicycle swerving to avoid hitting a dog, watched over by a young man casually walking down a lane. Eva and Jim are nineteen, students at Cambridge in 1958, she studying English and he law. Laura has some idea about their backgrounds – Eva the daughter of Jewish musicians who fled Austria in 1938; Jim the son of a now-deceased famous painter and an unstable mother – but she can’t make up her mind where to take them next. So she writes three different versions of their story, falling in love with each such that she can’t bear to discard any one of them. So she puts all three in the same novel.
Version Two Laura Barnett likes romance, but she’s a bit suspicious of the happy-ever-after premise. Although still young herself, she doesn’t agree that later-life get-togethers are somehow inferior to younger couplings. She sets herself the task of writing a novel that will follow the same two characters across their entire adult lives through three different versions of their story: one in which they marry young and two in which they don’t, Eva instead marrying her original boyfriend, the narcissistic actor, David. In these latter two, Eva and Jim’s paths cross intermittently, in one version resulting in an extramarital affair, another in which they recognise their mutual attraction but, either through circumstances or restraint, they remain loyal to their other partners.
Jay Mize thought he’d be at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture, when he moved with his wife, Sandy, and six-year-old son, Jacob, to a stretch of river-bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills. But a summer of drought followed by incessant rain has ruined him. After his father’s suicide, Jay becomes obsessed with doomsday scenarios. In order to protect their son from his increasing negativity, Sandy moves out (p168):
I cannot believe that I’m arguing with you about the end of the world. I cannot live this way, thinking like this. Every day that you harp on this gloom and doom is another day you miss the blessed life you have here, right now, this instant.
When Jay discovers a corpse on his flooded fields, his sanity gradually leaches away. Watched by a vengeful woodsman and the playboy deputy sheriff, Danny Shoals, Jay is heading towards an apocalypse partly of his own making.
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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