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.
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.
The titles themselves are reason enough to pair these recently published American novels. What I didn’t expect when I picked them from my TBR shelf is that they’d both feature the painful shock, especially among women, of Donald Trump’s election to president. The first zooms in on alienation, perceived inadequacy and a painful discovery of one’s own propensity to violence. The second forefronts the anxiety engendered by the climate crisis and rampant capitalism. I wonder if either of these authors is considering a sequel about their characters’ relationships with the coronavirus pandemic!
I’ve recently read two novels in translation featuring a homecoming to troubled parts of the world. The first is about the son of a Colombian drug baron; the second about three friends in a divided Korea. Both are firmly grounded in those countries’ painful histories; the violence and anxious atmosphere makes me grateful I’ve only the coronavirus pandemic to worry about.
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.
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.
Two novels, written and published almost a century apart, about adolescent boys moonstruck by a slightly older teenager. You don’t have to share the narrators’ fascination to enjoy the novels, although it would probably help! The happenstance of coordinating covers suggests to me the novels are thematically well matched.
Novelistic explorations of identity through road trips with magic realism: Lost Property & Bird Summons
While very different in style and focus, both these recently-published novels send women on road trips to learn about their individual identities within the context of contemporary Britain. In the first, three Scottish Muslim women with origins in the Arab world leave the city for a lochside holiday where they meet a talking hoopoe. In the second, a Londoner travels with her partner across Europe in a campervan encountering figures from the political and artistic past.
I’m here to introduce two novels about girls who become fixated on another girl in childhood and pick up the relationship again as young adults. In the first, set in Vietnam and the USA, the main focus is on the friendship in childhood; in the second, set in New York, the adult obsession is in the foreground. In both books, the main character has a problematic relationship with her mother: in the first, the mother is painfully distant; in the second, mother and daughter are initially enmeshed.
I can recommend both of these novels about women whose lives are entangled with that of one man. In the first, three Australian friends are stalked by an unpleasant character when they embark on a long-distance walk. In the second, three Nigerian women have managed their common husband successfully, until he introduces a fourth wife into their home.
There seems to be a chain of connections between my reviews so far this month; either of these novels, but especially the first, could have been paired At Dusk. Although the school friends in Ponti aren’t reunited until late in the novel while, in Falling Leaves it’s towards the beginning and after a gap of only seven years, the resonance is perhaps equally strong. And, no, they didn’t make contact through a now-defunct social media site, nor at a school reunion, but you’ll have to read on to find out how.
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.
I sometimes wonder if the link between books is too tenuous to pair the reviews; less often, I worry they might be too alike. These two new novels about curmudgeonly widowers reluctantly rubbing shoulders with other retirees in what feels to them like death’s waiting room seemed to belong to the latter category: second novels about men at odds with their grown-up daughters finding a kind of redemption when an unlikely friend intrudes upon their private space. Both have hints of humour and a quietly political backdrop of past injustice but, despite the surface similarities, once I was lost in the pages I realised that no two novels are ever the same.
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.
I’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
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!
No prizes for guessing why I’ve connected these two novels; I don’t think I’ve ever read another book with gravity in the title – although The Weightless World is about a antigravity machine – and then I find two published in the same month. But rest assured, they’re very different reads: in the first, Lotte feels a stronger pull towards the stars in the sky than her earthly attachments; in the second, love is a force that can furnish reconnections across continents and years.
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
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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 Shall I show you what it’s like out there? my latest short story hot off the press.
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