I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
Our species has enslaved our fellow human beings for millennia, an abomination that continues to this day. While literature quite rightly reminds us of the industrial-scale trade in people between Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean, some historical human rights abuses are less well known. So, painful as the subject matter might be, I was pleased to widen my knowledge through these two novels: the first focusing on African slavery of other Africans in 19th-century Ghana; the second about people forcibly transported from 17th-century Iceland to Algeria. Both feature strong women from a period when female voices were often silenced and consider the psychological and political complexities beyond the polarised roles of victim and villain.
Two debut novels by women about women reviewing their (successful and stable) marriages in the context of an important relationship for one partner that’s not shared with the other. In the first, the wife’s passion for God and poetry leads her into the mind, arms and eventual bed of a man who isn’t her husband; in the second, the wife, emerging from her grief at her husband’s sudden death, becomes suspicious about the nature of his secret friendship with a woman he’s met on business trips abroad. Both authors employ non-linear structure to good effect.
Setting a novel in the near future requires two extra decisions. To what extent will this imagined world differ from what’s familiar today? What defines that difference? Although the social, environmental and technological developments or regressions in this fictional landscape are inevitably interlinked, one factor tends to dominate (and perhaps determines the readership to which it most appeals). At least that’s what I’ve been thinking since reading The Unit and Anna back-to-back (as well as recent dabbling in one of the subgenres myself). In the first, a democratic society has agreed (over time) that the lives of economically and socially unproductive citizens can be sacrificed for the common good. In the second, feral children roam a post-apocalyptic world in which adults have been wiped out by a virus and most of the infrastructure by a fire. Tempted? Read on!
I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
I’m not always drawn to sequels, but Dr Jekyll and Miss Blaine both caught my eye because they promised to be fun. The first needs no introduction; the second is a time travelling crime novel about a woman who loathes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for giving her alma mater, the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a bad name. Both feature mysterious deaths and, as an added bonus, the second namechecks Mr Hyde.
Two novels featuring women, scarred by life, who have kept themselves slightly aloof. Of the two, Eleanor Oliphant is the most damaged, but small acts of kindness, along with a crush on a self-centred musician, might bring her out of her shell. Upstate is perhaps more realistic in confronting the difficulty of change, even though, when we first meet Vanessa Querry she’s no longer lonely as she’s fallen in love. Eleanor gets the better therapist; but is either of these women completely fine?
I’ve recently read two novels in which a widower has an uncanny encounter with someone from the fringes which, for them at least, feels replete with meaning. Jim Crace’s widower is also mourning the end of his musical career; whereas, twenty years younger, Rebecca F John’s widower is offered a fresh start in caring for his newborn baby daughter.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
An epic story of cultural change in Uganda and a novella set in an idyllic English community, these debuts have little in common apart from the strange affliction and that I’m happy to recommend them both. In the first, multiple branches of an extended family at the beginning of the twenty-first century are affected by a curse on their ancestor 250 years before. In the second, James probably feels cursed when he wakes up one morning to find he can’t move half his face.
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
I recently featured four novels depicting the impact on children of a father’s absence. These two debut novels present the other side of the story: the terrible harm that a father’s presence can do. In both, the fathers control their children’s minds and bodies through violence and a perverted kind of love. Although fiction, each reflects the darker side of society today.
The common theme in these two recently published novels is a woman experiencing an existential crisis, taking stock of where she’s got to in life by ordering the elements that make up her external world. Sonja, the older of the two, does this through taking driving lessons, and it’s no coincidence that she struggles to take control. Miriam, past adolescence although not yet fully fledged adult, tries to achieve something similar by jettisoning her surplus possessions, and through those of a compulsive hoarder she’s employed to help. Needless to say, neither woman’s path to a more comfortable accommodation with herself is straightforward. Curious? Read on!
Although I’ve never been sure about novels about writers, I was keen to read these two: the first about an unpublished novelist ghostwriting a memoir and the second about a poet anticipating a different kind of creativity with her first child. Both these fictional writers are brought into close contact with an unexpected other – for the first, the character whose memoir he is writing; the second, another poet who used to live in the town to which she’s recently moved – with life-changing consequences. Both novels explore the nature of the self and the permeability of the boundary with the other (and, incidentally, feature graphic scenes of childbirth). For another novel about a writer, see my review of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
If we leave home at eighteen, it’s often to a particular kind of institution. For me, as for Selin in The Idiot, that means university; for Billy Lynn, as for many young working-class adults who are less academically inclined, it’s the military. While, as Selin discovers, universities encourage questioning, not all questions are received with equal relish. On the other hand, as Billy learns, the army might discourage independent thought, it can’t prevent his wondering. Will these young people find the answers they’re looking for? Read on!
Apart from featuring supernatural rescues, these two novels have very little in common. But since I rarely read anything that takes me away from the rational, that’s enough to pair them in a post. While in A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars the spirits of the drowned migrants – plus a magic flute and a clutch of snakes – are firmly on the side of the good guys, the miracle cure in Fever Dream has a be-careful-what-you-wish-for flavour. Intrigued? Read on!
After reading The Things We Thought We Knew shortly before its publication back in June, I decided to hang back for another novel on psychosomatic illness or acquired disability with which to pair my review. But picking up The Burning Girl more recently, I was struck by the commonalities between these two novels, not only in the obvious sense of a girl in her late teens looking back on an intense friendship, but in the depth of disturbance resulting from its loss. As happened when I coupled two novels on male infidelity, discovering the similarities enhanced my appreciation of both. While neither pairing uncovered themes of particular personal relevance for me (which can enhance my enjoyment), the fact that they matter sufficiently for more than one author persuades me that other readers might find more to savour. Do let me know if that applies to you!
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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