Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
While separated by style – the first literary lyrical, the second more off-the-peg – and setting – the first wilderness, the second three cityscapes – these two novels are united by more than a character named Tomas. The main characters of both stories are preoccupied with meticulous observation of the environment: for animal research in Tiger whereas in The Museum of Broken Promises, surveillance might be a more appropriate word. And while the latter is about conserving objects and memories, nature conservation is one of the themes of the first.
Two short novels about vulnerable young women who are psychologically and physically trapped: the first by the locked door to her bedroom; the second by the psychiatric care system. Both women have unusually close bonds with their mothers, potentially cause and consequence of their struggles to relate to their peers. Both encounter difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, feel estranged at parties and find life getting both better and worse when they fall for young men. With unreliable narrators, whether they break free of their fetters is left to the reader to decide.
Two novels in which a marriage of a twenty-something man and woman from superficially similar backgrounds shows early signs of strain. In the first, between Muslims in contemporary London, the politics of religion are problematic right from the start; in the second, life gets tough when a new mother follows her journalist husband to a posting in newly-independent Ukraine. All harbour secrets, communication suffers and trust is hard to find. But, with youth on their side, they’ll take something from the experience, whether or not the marriages survive.
I have no hesitation in recommending both of these literary novels, intriguing stories set against the rise of fascism leading up to the Second World War. The first is a coming-of-age story set in Italy and Libya; the second about vested interests in the art world set in Berlin.
Two short novels about doctoring, by authors with direct experience of the profession. The first, set in Egypt, is a semiautobiographical novel first published over half a century ago by one of the world’s most eminent feminists; the second, set in India, is a magic-realism story by a male author (but we won’t hold that against him). By sheer coincidence, neither of these authors names their characters, instead referring to them by role. (At least they don’t distinguish them by diagnoses!)
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.
Two novels about eighteen-year-old women who abandon the advantages of their previous identities to make common cause with oppressed peoples, at great risk to themselves. In the first, set in 2000, Aden travels from a secular society in California to study Islam, and to join the jihad. In the second, set in 1944, Luce leaves her bourgeois family in Italy to experience first-hand the Nazi labour camps. Are these rebellious adolescents idealists or deluded, or a little of both?
Two books about teenage girls forced from their homes in what initially appear to be very different circumstances. In the first, a fourteen-year-old Lithuanian is transported to the Siberian tundra in 1940; in the second, a nineteen-year-old is compulsorily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in mid-1950s England. The first memoir, the second fiction, both books are about the struggle to survive in alien environments.
I’m rounding off my reading year with reviews of American novels about women in their mid-20s who are estranged from everything, even themselves. While the first owns two properties and the second cleans other people’s houses for a living, they are equally desperately homeless inside. While the first namedrops designer labels, and the second cleaning products, both bring a light touch to the tragedy of feeling invisible and being insecurely attached.
Amid my musings on identity, I’m fascinated by how religion shapes the someone we might become. Part of the legacy of a Catholic childhood is, for me, a curiosity about the social systems of irrationality, indoctrination and segregation, especially in their extreme forms. What attracts people to such institutions and how do they withdraw? Women Talking addresses the latter question; The Incendiaries the first.
Fictional writers can be tricky on the page; sometimes I suspect a character’s assigned the job because the author’s unfamiliar with more run-of-the-mill kinds of work. But, like anything else that’s slightly iffy, if you’re going to go for it, it’s best to go for it big time. That’s what Irish writer John Boyne does with his larger-than-life antihero Maurice Swift and American Andrew Sean Greer with “failed novelist” Arthur Less, both simultaneously managing to address the wider issues of human vanity and what constitutes a well-lived life.
These two novels translated from Italian couldn’t be more different: a pastoral coming-of-age story in the Italian Alps follows a twisty-turny political thriller in modern-day Rome. Yet together they build a picture of contemporary Italy amid the ruins of the past.
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.
Having decided to pair these novels on the basis of the unlikely friendships I’d gleaned from the blurbs, I was pleased to discover other commonalities that caught my attention more. Both authors bring a female perspective to life on an East Anglian farm, albeit almost a century apart. While Tina Hopgood is in her 60s and Edith Mather only fourteen, both narrators are lonely, despite having family around them, and unsure about their right to choose their own future.
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.
Late-adolescent identity in London and Dublin: The Tyranny of Lost Things & Conversations with Friends
If adolescence was the invention of the baby boomers, it’s the millennials who’ve shown – along with recent(ish) research into the developing brain – that this interlude between childhood and adulthood lingers well into one’s twenties. At this stage of our lives, many of us are still experimenting with who and how to be, as these two debut novels illustrate in thoughtful and entertaining ways. The young female narrators juggle the legacy of patchy parenting; love triangles; envy and class privilege; and platonic and sexual relationships at the boundary between intimacy and privacy – and city living, one in London and the other in Dublin. Read on!
finding truth through fiction
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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