In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
Told with compassion and humour, Anne Goodwin’s third novel is a poignant, compelling and brilliantly authentic portrayal of asylum life, with a quirky protagonist you won’t easily forget.
Well, what do you know? I can’t recall when I last read a novel featuring a kidnapping, and then two come along at once, both published (in the UK at least) on the same day (May 6). It’s worth noting, however, that I wouldn’t have flagged them as kidnap stories if I were posting these reviews individually. But it does distinguish them from the many other novels I might read about friendship and women’s lives from childhood to middle age. The first is set in the USA and the second in Nigeria and, if either sounds like your kind of story, don’t hesitate to get yourself a copy.
These two novels are about women over forty for whom life has lost its sparkle, partly due to marital infidelity and an empty nest. The first is a nuanced portrayal of contemporary middle age, set in Paris; the second is a shallow glimpse at widowhood and fear of ageing, set in the 1980s on England’s south coast.
Salina roams aimlessly through the desert, sequentially accompanied by each of her three sons. Harold is physically and mentally unprepared for his epic journey, although he does have a specific destination in sight. Salina’s story unfolds in a newly-published novella, translated from the French; Harold’s in a deceptively light bestseller, published in 2012.
Here we have two highly successful mid-twentieth century novels with hospital settings. The first is a comedy of manners only partly set on a medical ward for older women in a London hospital; the second is an exuberant but ultimately devastating portrayal of an Oregon State medical hospital. What’s it like to read/reread them during pandemic six decades after they first hit the shelves?
It was good to read these two American novels about Black gay men, especially during LGBT history month: the second set in 19th-century Mississippi and an unnamed part of Africa; the first set in contemporary Texas and Japan.
Both these recent reads have complex family dynamics at the centre, while addressing wider political issues in very different ways. In the first, we follow a middle-class Asian family forced to migrate from Uganda to Britain on the whim of a tin-pot dictator; in the second, three siblings re-enact their childhood rivalries around their mother’s deathbed as bushfires envelop their country and the world colludes in its own extinction.
What’s the impact of inequality and injustice on friendship? These two London-set novels might go some way to helping us understand. In the first, two women unite to claim a degree of personhood and agency within the culture of misogyny in the court of James I; in the second, a young Black man struggles to maintain a loving relationship within a contemporary climate of institutional racism.
Large gatherings at country houses are common enough in fiction, but these two recent reads, both involving family secrets, couldn’t be more different. It’s not so much that the first is set in England and the second in Japan, but one’s crime and the other literary translation. But even within those genres, they’re oddballs. In a good way? Read on for my thoughts!
These two novels deal with the aftermath of situations that had caught (fictional) media attention told from the point of view of a woman who tried to do her best. In the first, a political scandal has led to the titular Chief Executive’s early retirement; in the second, an abducted girl is returned to her mother. Of course, the aftermath isn’t quite as the protagonists expect.
Two recent reads set in medieval Europe, where reluctant heroines must confront obstacles both spiritual and tangible to take a chance on happiness with the man they love. The first is set in Britain and the second, two centuries later, in France. Both include St Margaret as a minor character, but I was rooting for the maids on a mission, hoping they’d save their loved ones, and themselves.
Adoption aftermaths: Helen and the Grandbees, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? & Red Dust Road
I suspect I’m drawn to adoption narratives because of the way they can make concrete a vague sense of loss and yearning some of us feel as a result of early maternal neglect. It’s one of the themes of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, and its follow-up, 100 Candles, my current WIP. In fact, I read/reread the two memoirs reviewed in this post as research for the latter. The other book is a debut novel offered to me by the publisher.
These two recent reads – the first non-fiction rooted in the UK, the second a novel visiting Australia, the USA and Iraq – involving characters and authors delving into recent and historical government injustice against its colonised peoples. Read, and use your vote accordingly – but of course you already do!
These two recent reads bring touches of humour to the serious extraordinariness of ordinary cohabiting relationships, and the impact on the couple of friendships and obsessions outside the partnership. The first features a thirty-something lesbian twosome in London (with one of the partners making frequent visits to Paris). The second focuses on a heterosexual marriage of some duration, the couple having moved to Bath on retirement.
Just as colours look different to the eye depending on the hues surrounding them, stories read differently according to the arrangement on our mental shelves. When I read it almost two months ago, I didn’t tag the first under the theme of conformity to community mores; when I drafted my review of the second, narrated in a collective voice, the story flipped in my head into one of the conflict between the drive to belong and the fear of being engulfed. Admittedly, this pairing stems also from a niggling guilt at the widening gap between receiving my copy and posting my review. Read on, and let me know whether or not you think they fit.
Towards the collapse of the Berlin Wall: The Standardisation of Demoralisation Procedures & The Mussel Feast
These two recent reads evoke the cultural climate immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first is a zany novel about the political demise of a former Stasi agent. The second is a translation from German set around a family dinner table in dread of the tyrannical father’s return.
When I studied the psychodynamics of organisations, I was encouraged to pay particular attention to how the system responds to a new arrival. Likewise in fiction, the introduction of an outsider is a useful strategy for delving under the skin of a community, especially one in crisis. In both these recent reads, the outsider is a teenage girl, bereft of family, who is smoothly absorbed into the existing structures and, to a small degree, starts to change them. In the first, a translated novella, set in Austria at the end of the Second World War, she is the main point-of-view character. In the second, a debut novel with a contemporary South African setting, she is one of several somewhat shadowy characters. But both books are more about historical and geographical place than person. See what you think.
I recently read very different two novels with a supernatural element and a forest setting where nature cannot be ignored. The first is a meditation on our collective fragility involving a fantastic – in the literal sense – bird. The second is a psychological suspense story about a family and community haunted by a young mother’s disappearance a decade before.
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.
These two novels about female friends from two different cultures and at different stages of their lives expose the power imbalance between even privileged and highly educated women and the men in their lives. The first is a thoughtful novel about middle-aged women in London; the second a lighter story about young adults in Saudi Arabia.
Realising I needed a stronger reason for pairing these recent reads than the alliterative letter L, I nevertheless feel shabby to have linked them through the childminder role. Okay, the nanny is the protagonist of the first, although she remains a shadowy figure, but only one of many characters in the second where it’s as a mother, rather than as a parent substitute, that she advances the story. But, as was noted at the Zoom meeting of my book group discussion of Lullaby, nannies are as invisible in literature as they are in life. Rather belatedly, I also see that they’re both about fault-lines: the first metaphorically, the second geologically.
I’ve recently read two historical novels about morality with surprising echoes of our current pandemic. The first is a fun story set in 17th-century London about a young woman concerned about losing the respect of her relatives when she turns to prostitution after becoming homeless during the Great Plague. The second is set in a copper mining community in 1850s South Africa, where lives are lost because the owners put profit before people.
If you’re reading through the lockdown, or listening to more music, you might be interested in these two books featuring dual narratives connected via an “instrument” of the arts. The second is a translated novella set in and around a real-life bookshop and publishing house; the first is about heartbreak compounded by the fear of letting go from a publisher who mostly does translations.
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.
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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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)