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.
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.
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.
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
My historical education – or should that be education about history? – continues courtesy of a couple of powerful novels about the Second World War and its aftermath along the eastern front.
I’ve partnered these three debut novels because they’re all about preteen girls (although, in the third, Under the Udala Trees, our heroine does grow up to become a mother herself). Set in Britain, China and Nigeria they feature loneliness, religion and burgeoning sexuality with the latter two against the backdrop of war.
I was a little surprised to find that Marvellous Ways is a character, rather than a method, in Sarah Winman’s second novel but, as she reviews her long life in the company of a bereft young soldier, it turns out that a life lived according to her own ways is rather marvellous after all. Aged eighty-nine when we first meet her in 1947, her years have passed mostly alone in a remote Cornish creek. Her mother, she’s been told, was a mermaid and her father found a place “between God and medicine” in administering to the dying in their final hours, perhaps a precursor to the hospice movement featured in a couple of other novels. Marvellous finds a role for herself at the other end of life, as a very different kind of midwife to Gugu in Mo Yan’s Frog.
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
There’s no denying that, with my preoccupation with launching a certain novel, I’ve been neglecting my reading of others’ words of late. But I have been doing some reading over the past month, but writing posts for my epic blog tour has taken precedence over writing my reviews. Much as I might berate myself for not paying it forward and matching the eloquence and depth of so many of the reviews of Sugar and Snails, I’ve decided that mini reviews of these three debut novels will have to suffice. They’re summarised here, not in order of preference, but in the order I read them.
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.
It’s 1925 and one can’t help wondering (worrying) how such a sweet ten-year-old as Teddy, entranced more by nature than the prospect of wielding a catapult, will cope with boarding school, let alone the war that neither he, nor the adults around him, could possibly foresee. Yet I didn’t feel totally engaged with him and his family until introduced to his dreadful daughter, Viola, with her half-baked hippy ideals (that are as much an opportunity to spout one of the longest words in the English language – anti-establishmentarianism – as to challenge her father). But since this is a novel in which time is not linear, but moves back and forth across the years, I didn’t have too long to wait.
Delightful as Viola’s character is, her shallow idealism is hardly original (see my review of Love and Fallout for another young woman who embraces a cause as a means of forging her own identity), but Kate Atkinson is too proficient a writer to leave it at that. Viola has much more in common with the pre-war version of her father than she realises (when he roamed through Europe working on the land), and a stronger rationale for her angry sense of victimhood than the reader appreciates, until approaching the end.
A strange young man emerges from the ocean in 1980s South Africa. Neither black nor white but a bit of both, with the blue tinge of the coelacanth thrown in, Jimfish is a problem for a country in which people are “coralled in a separate ethnic enclosures, colour-coded for ease of identification and tightly controlled” (p1). Nevertheless, he finds employment as a gardener under the tutelage of Soviet Malala until he’s caught “as tightly tangled as the tendrils of the strangler fig” (p7) with the police sergeant’s daughter, Lunamiel, and has to flee the country. His attempts to stay on “the right side of history” take him on an epic journey through Africa into Eastern Europe and back again. Everywhere he goes he encounters carnage and confusion (p123):
The more he saw of the world, the less he understood. Worse still, what he did understand was so crazy, so cruel, that none of the lessons of his old teacher Soviet Malala seemed to apply; not rage nor the many sides of history, neither the lumpenproletariat, nor the settler entity.
A bunch of teenagers lounge about in a country house on a remote island. They form gangs, their leaders battling for supremacy, though, with nurses and teachers standing on the sidelines, it’s not quite Lord of the Flies. Drugs also help to maintain order, in the form of the nightly “vitamins” that the narrator, Toby, secretes in his bedpost, leaving him free to wander through the house while the others sleep. Although, when he witnesses one of the boys being taken at night to the top-floor sanatorium, he almost wishes he’d stayed in bed. Everyone knows why they’ve been wrenched from their families to live in the Death House yet, through a mixture of boredom, bravado and emotional distancing, they try to defend themselves against the truth. Blood tests have shown that their defective genes have been activated; the adults are merely keeping watch for the signs of their sickness to show.
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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