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.
What happens when childlessness develops from being a personal matter to a problem for society as a whole? In Margaret Atwood’s imagined Gilead an alarming drop in the live birth rate calls for Draconian measures, building a society where a woman’s mind and body are subservient to her reproductive potential. In Perumal Murugan’s rural South India, childlessness is a threat to the established order, with friends and neighbours pitching in with advice and criticism, indifferent to the infertile couple’s private grief.
Here are two novels inspired by classic tales: the first, a feminist retelling of Beowulf; the second, a homage to Ulysses and James Joyce. No need to have read the source material to appreciate them – I haven’t – although the first probably works better as a stand-alone than the second.
If I’ve reviewed any other novels set during the Black Death that swept across Europe in 1348, I’ve forgotten them. These two, published in the UK this summer, are likely to stay in my mind for some time. The first set in Ireland, the second in southern England, they’re very different, although both original in their language and style. And disturbingly topical as we’re catapulted towards an apocalypse – both politically and climatically – of our own.
Here we have two recently published novels about women caught on camera, or doing the catching, casting a wide-angle lens on the turbulent politics of the first half of the twentieth century, with Fascism on the rise. The first zooms in on movie stars and/or makers: Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl, and Marlene Dietrich. The second on Gerda Taro, a lesser-known (at least to me) feminist photojournalist, who died documenting the Spanish Civil War.
Two novels, based on real events, about the impact on ordinary people of terrorising revolutions within two African countries. The first, a historical novel set in Ethiopia, is the author’s debut; the second, a fictionalised account of the schoolgirls abducted in northern Nigeria only a few years ago, comes from a writer with a career spanning almost six decades. Both are harrowing, empathetic and meticulously researched.
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.
Two historical novels in which young people are subject to brutal institutional regimes: in the first as comfort women in Singapore under the Japanese invasion; in the second as supposed offenders in Jim-Crow-era Florida. Both novels contrast the main character’s aspirations prior to captivity with their struggle to survive unspeakable cruelties with their sanity intact, and the scars they carry for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, for the reader who can vicariously accompany them, there’s some hope of redemption by the end. Read on, or jump to the end of the post for this week’s 99-word story.
Two novels featuring mothers who leave a child/children when they’re still quite young, following the implications over several years. In the first, the narrator doesn’t know why his mother has disappeared, or even whether she’s still alive, and claims not to miss her as his older sister fills the gap where the mother belongs. The second is a dual narrative from the perspective of both mother and daughter as each suffers, in different ways, from the mother’s decision to leave Jamaica for New York. The theme gives me an excuse to sound off about attachment and share some of my own fiction, including a new 99-word story.
Two debut novels from female British writers featuring dodgy scientific experiments on nonconsenting participants within very dark periods of history: the holocaust in the first and the transatlantic slave trade in the second. Yet, despite both also featuring women disempowered by their husbands, and voluntary and involuntary drug abuse, each contains a thread of hope in a love story.
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.
Kicking off Women in Translation Month with 8 recommendations from previous years and a new review: The Faculty of Dreams
It’s a touchy subject, understandably, but I think there are ‘good’ psychological reasons by some women kill their babies. But the mothers in these two novels would very much have liked to have kept theirs had circumstances allowed. In the first, set in a bruised post-war Japan, Naoko is sent to an extremely dodgy maternity home when she becomes pregnant by an American sailor. In the second, set between 1860 and 1910, the women on a Maryland plantation will do anything to avoid their children growing up as slaves.
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.
Two novels from continental America inspired – if that’s not too optimistic a term for the subject matter – by the authors’ own challenging childhoods with parents who weren’t up to the job. Both girls had a brother, a partially-absent father, a determined mother and grandmother with whom she didn’t see eye to eye. Both learnt early about gender discrimination; both lived in relatively comfortable households on the fringes of marginalised communities (with Native Americans as neighbours in the first novel, set in Dakota, and refugees from repressive South American regimes in the second, set in Mexico). Some say a difficult childhood is the ideal apprenticeship for a writer. Read on, and see what you think!
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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