Pity the poor governess: an educated woman obliged to earn her living finding few other options in nineteenth century Britain. But this lesser known of the Brontës’ novels led me to pity her charges too. The three governesses in the second novel are worlds away from Agnes Grey, not only because they’re in France. Although employed by the couple who own the sprawling estate, they’ve brought their charges with them, so aren’t subjected to the condescension of the mini monarchs of the house.
Two novels about girls in the painful process of growing up. For Australian Justine, in the first novel, adolescence merely exacerbates a lifetime of neglect; for Irish Lani, in the second, it’s the begins of psychological separation from her family as she falls for a local boy.
Enid is a Scottish aristocrat who has married ‘down’; Adèle a working-class Parisian who married into the bourgeoisie. Enid considers sex a painful duty; Adèle is sex obsessed. For Enid, work is for men and servants; Adèle has a job. Born almost a century apart, the ‘heroines’ of these debuts nevertheless have similar motivations: both have been emotionally neglected by their own mothers and feel shackled by marriage and motherhood.
War orphans, bickering spouses, loneliness and our struggles to connect: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Two very different novels about women’s lives under and after the Soviet system: the first about a young mother from a Tatar village who finds a certain kind of freedom when she’s transported to the Soviet Gulag; the second about girls growing up in Prague in the dying days of communism.
Two British novels about the legacy of paternal violence for adult children, although the father’s tyranny in the first isn’t apparent until later on.
Two novels with a fantasy element: the first set in the near future; the second a century in the past. Both feature humans with transmuted bodies: the first through an accelerated process of devolution; the second as a congenital condition, although the explorers who come upon them believe they represent an intermediate stage in human evolution.
My first reviews of books published in the UK in 2019 are another two translations: the first from French and the second from Dutch. Both feature young people getting dangerously out of their depth, although, at 12 ¾, the boys in the first are probably around half the age of the young women in the second. See if either takes your fancy.
When I shared my favourite books of 2018, I was disappointed not to be able to identify a single unifying thread. Except, perhaps, that each of my selected nineteen turned out to be so much better than I expected. Which got me thinking – and this isn’t particularly profound – how difficult it is to tell how much I’m going to like a book from the publisher’s advance information and blurb. That thought was at the forefront of my mind when I considered pairing my first two reads of 2019: both translations from the French set elsewhere, and featuring characters traumatised by war, but very different books. If you’re a regular visitor to annethology, I wonder if you can guess which of the two I was least looking forward to reading, but could well be one of this year’s favourite reads.
Reading these books consecutively, I doubted I could legitimately pair their reviews. The first focuses on the tensions in an Anglo-French family Christmas, the second an Icelandic fishing village anticipating a celebratory concert in mid-summer. But both are about the pain beneath a deceptively tranquil surface, and the psychological distance between people living in close proximity.
There seems to be a chain of connections between my reviews so far this month; either of these novels, but especially the first, could have been paired At Dusk. Although the school friends in Ponti aren’t reunited until late in the novel while, in Falling Leaves it’s towards the beginning and after a gap of only seven years, the resonance is perhaps equally strong. And, no, they didn’t make contact through a now-defunct social media site, nor at a school reunion, but you’ll have to read on to find out how.
Earlier this year, I attended a school reunion. While it was fun to reconnect with friends I’d met up with ten years ago, plus others I last saw in school uniform, there were disappointments. Some of friends were noticeable by their absence and others, as an introvert overwhelmed by the profusion of people, I couldn’t begin to be curious about until the following day.
I thought about this when I came to review these two novels, both about reconnecting with people from our pasts. In the first, a man has largely forgotten his childhood sweetheart, as well as the slum in which they both grew up. In the second, a woman feels a surprisingly strong connection with an older woman she visited for only an hour as a child.
Earlier this year, I reviewed two novels in which disgraced daughters were banished from home. Although not cut off from family, the daughters in these two new novels have an even harder time in their enforced separation from wider society, with a violent father – or his proxy – governing their every move. While in Ghost Wall, Silvie’s participation in the Iron Age re-enactment is temporary, the three sisters in The Water Cure, are persuaded that without their seclusion they would die.
Women in Translation month was barely over when I picked up these two novels that should help me beat the last twelve months’ total of seven in the coming year. The first French, the second Polish, both focus on women living their lives somewhat apart from their peers. Diana because, growing up without maternal affection, she fills her emptiness with work. Olga, on the other hand, is more outwardly eccentric, and her beef is not with a mother, but with men.
Too few novels recreate the reality of the working environment, so hurrah for another two about women at work. From a contemporary Japanese supermarket to a library in a late 50s English country town, these depict women who take their work identity very seriously indeed. But the arrival of a man, alongside their own passion for the work, brings complications. Can Keiko and Sylvia hold onto their jobs?
Meet Abdallah, an Omani businessman who grew up without a mother, and Michael, a convenience-store worker in Toronto of Trinidadian heritage, who grew up without a dad. Each is somehow too sensitive for the community that contains them, with confusing expectations of masculinity they don’t easily meet. While Abdallah is rich in money and relatives, and Michael, alone with his mother, can hardly make ends meet, both are the products of rapidly changing cultures, both have seen violence and both have reason for regret.
I’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
When teenagers flee the family home to fend for themselves, they swap one kind of brutality for another. And while their troubled lives will have forced them to develop survival skills in some areas, they are often more vulnerable than their peers in others, such as emotional literacy. But real-life tragedy can make engrossing fiction as you’ll find if you let the young narrators of these two novels lead you into the wilderness: Jaxie in Western Australia and Sal and her younger sister in Scotland. For real-life youth homelessness, mostly in urban areas, Centrepoint (in the UK) is worth supporting.
When the press release described Speak No Evil as “a novel about the power of words”, I thought it would fit nicely with Missing, about a translator who has personal reasons for using precise verbalisations. But, although I could see what the publishers were getting at, it didn’t chime strongly with my reading experience. Nevertheless, these short novels – the first from the UK, the second from the US and Nigeria – have something in common: the grief and guilt that has diverted a woman’s life after a tragic misunderstanding at the age of eighteen. But, given that exactly how that happened is part of the mystery, you won’t find much about that in my reviews. Don’t let that stop you reading on, as both these novels are well worth your time.
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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