I recently read two novels set in England almost a century apart about young women returning to their parents after their marriages break down. Unfortunately for both of them, their childhood homes are stepping stones to something more terrifying than the confidence lost from relationship failures: in the first, Grace spends months on the streets; in the second, Clara is confined to a dismal mental institution.
The young protagonists of these two novels are worlds apart in time, geography and social class and expectations. The first is a Hungarian translation about a girl sent to an elite boarding school during the Second World War; the second is a fantasy about a street kid trying to rise above his physical and social disadvantages. Both feature endearing teenagers grappling courageously with injustice and, in the process, learning about themselves.
I’ve recently read two alternative histories about what we do with the darker or unwanted parts of ourselves: how we reveal them to, or hide them from, ourselves and others; how societies develop rituals to manage the exposure and cleansing; how power effects what’s allowed. If that sounds overly intellectual, don’t worry; both of these have story at the heart.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mother in fear of penury will sacrifice a daughter in marriage to a man she does not love. Jane Austen famously satirised such mothers two centuries ago; Janice Hadlow’s debut novel gives Mrs Bennet’s unloved middle daughter Mary a makeover in similar style. Angie Cruz, while perhaps not intentionally channelling Pride and Prejudice, draws on the painful mother-daughter dynamic in her Women’s Prize longlisted novel about 1960s migration to New York from the Dominican Republic.
My two most recent reads are of novels that map cultural changes within two very different communities. The first is set in rural Ireland during the BSE crisis at the end of the twenty-first century, as more and more people turn their backs on a traditional form of butchering. The second starts and finishes in the two decades before the first begins, in the community of recent migrants to the UK from Bangladesh. While both include scenes of violence, the second is overall a cosy story of adaptation and resilience, while the first is a literary novel of linguistic and psychological depth.
How do boys become men and what happens to those whose journeys go wrong? The first of these novels, set in Scotland, looks at what boys learn from their fathers when the son of a bully goes on to murder his family, apart from his younger son. The second is about a traditional coming-of-age ceremony in South Africa and the physical, psychological and social consequences of a botched circumcision.
Miguel seems to have won life’s lottery, a beauty from birth. Christina was born into deprivation, but winning the lotto can’t put that right. An Italian translation set in Mexico and coming-of-age story on the Californian coast, these two recent reads explore the ups and downs of being blessed with something many people crave.
Both of these novels defy easy classification, but I’ve chosen to pair them for their themes of the legacy of slavery, or the way in which owning another person demeans us all. In the first, we follow a young man, marked by his unusual appearance, from babyhood in Jamaica shortly before independence to England and back. The second is a translated Argentinian dystopian novel about cannibalism. In both novels, a character, or characters, withhold or are denied their voice.
In what circumstances is it acceptable for women to abandon their traditional roles? What are the consequences if they should do so ill-advisedly? Although these two novels are set in different times and cultures to my own, they raised questions for me as to how far we can safely step out of line. The first novel pays homage to the forgotten women of Ethiopia who took up arms when the country was invaded by Mussolini’s troops. In the second, set in seventeenth century north Norway, the women have no choice but to do the jobs previously carried out by their menfolk when a storm at sea wipes out most of the male population, only for some to find themselves accused of witchcraft a few years later.
In these two novels, a teenage girl needs a safe place to retreat from the world, but the sanctuary she’s chosen won’t easily let her go. In the first, a convent provides shelter to a girl fearful of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy; in the second, a psychiatric hospital offers a welcome respite from the strain of appearing sane. It’s pure coincidence that the main characters’ names – Dolores and Deborah – begin with the same letter and that both remind me of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
Amid the painful aftermath of the UK ‘people’ voting in our pig in a poke, I had reason to remind myself of the literature on the cognitive advantages biculturalism. While I doubt our new PM possesses the skills or intellect to unite an increasingly polarised country – or even the desire, whatever might spout from his mouth – it’s essential if we’re to avoid civil war as we helter-skelter into economic and climactic ruin. So, although neither of these very disparate novels is primarily about straddling two cultures, I make no apologies for linking them via this theme.
Only in court are we required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. In our ordinary lives, we stretch, bend and turn it inside out. Not always intentionally, or even consciously, but simply to smooth human interactions and present the best version of ourselves. In the first of these two novels, a Wild-West outlaw needs to create an alter ego to survive, while a frontiers woman needs to revise the details of a family tragedy in order to live with herself. In the second, a lie gives a teenage girl a reprieve from loneliness, and an elderly woman a chance to be heard.
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.
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 three fiction books.
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Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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Read My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
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