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.
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.
As Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and the Gothic, so today’s the day to share a couple of my recent reads to have you scared to go to bed.
What’s left of the Christmas narrative once you’ve given up on Santa and the divinity of the Baby Jesus, when you don’t eat turkey and there’s no magic left in buying gifts for friends and family already drowning in possessions? Well, quite a lot as it happens because, stripped of the tackiness and tinsel, Christmas is a celebration of our interdependence and connectedness. So (especially after the previous post about the need for writers to shrug off our parents) I couldn’t let the occasion go by without posting my virtual Christmas card and thanking readers old and new for your support of the blog over its fledging year.
Of course, relationships are at the heart of fiction – at least the kind I like – all year round. Having spent the last few days arranging my published short stories into themed categories (obviously avoiding more pressing tasks), I’m struck by how many are about family, parent-child and couple relationships. And many of those I didn’t list under those headings still touch on how we rub along together, for better or worse.
My favourite Christmas stories have a hint of the supernatural, although their morality is firmly grounded in the harsh realities of the societies we humans have created for ourselves. The movie (originally a short story), It’s a Wonderful Life, where a guardian angel convinces a suicidal James Stewart his life has been a force for good, still brings a tear to my eye. It’s a kind of reverse A Christmas Carol, where it’s the visions of his coldness, greed and loneliness that persuade Scrooge that human relationships are worth more to him than his mountains of money.
If the Christmas narrative oozes redemption and inherent goodness, where do the cynics get their seasonal kicks? Who writes for those who don’t believe in happy endings, whose families are dysfunctional beyond repair? My favourite anti-Christmas story is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the antidote to the schmaltzy home-for-Christmas movie. Determined to gather her adult children around her for ‘one last Christmas’, Enid is unaware how distant her version of the cosy family is from theirs.
Christmas hasn’t served as much of an inspiration for my own writing, although I do have a holiday-hideaway scene in my work-in-progress novel Underneath, and I’ve found it useful in longer works as a marker of the passage of time. I’m also quite chuffed, in a business-as-usual way, that one of my short stories, The Seven Dudley Sibs, is actually published on Christmas day. Of the two seasonal stories I have published, I’ve got one for those who go for feel-good and one for the bah-humbugs: in The Front Legs of the Pantomime Horse, Jo finds the local pantomime a lot more rewarding than she expected; in The Wilsons Go Shopping, an ordinary supermarket shop reminds the family how much they’ve lost.
How does Christmas impact on your own writing? Which type of Christmas narrative do you prefer? And, whatever your take on Christmas, hope yours is everything you'd like it to be.
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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