When I shared my favourite books of 2018, I was disappointed not to be able to identify a single unifying thread. Except, perhaps, that each of my selected nineteen turned out to be so much better than I expected. Which got me thinking – and this isn’t particularly profound – how difficult it is to tell how much I’m going to like a book from the publisher’s advance information and blurb. That thought was at the forefront of my mind when I considered pairing my first two reads of 2019: both translations from the French set elsewhere, and featuring characters traumatised by war, but very different books. If you’re a regular visitor to annethology, I wonder if you can guess which of the two I was least looking forward to reading, but could well be one of this year’s favourite reads.
Although not enamoured of Christmas, there’s one tradition that’s right up my street (or undefined path across the moors), and that’s the seasonal popularity of Handel’s Messiah. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to sing most of the choruses at a concert earlier this month, despite the fact that the story itself does little for me. Meanwhile, my reading has taken me to myths and legends from even further back in history in the case of the first review here, and a few centuries after in the case of the second.
Earlier this year, I attended a school reunion. While it was fun to reconnect with friends I’d met up with ten years ago, plus others I last saw in school uniform, there were disappointments. Some of friends were noticeable by their absence and others, as an introvert overwhelmed by the profusion of people, I couldn’t begin to be curious about until the following day.
I thought about this when I came to review these two novels, both about reconnecting with people from our pasts. In the first, a man has largely forgotten his childhood sweetheart, as well as the slum in which they both grew up. In the second, a woman feels a surprisingly strong connection with an older woman she visited for only an hour as a child.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
I’ve recently relished two novels focusing on under-acknowledged women at points of political and ideological change. In the first, Mary Treat, a real-life scientist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, is seen through the eyes of Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional schoolmaster blocked from exposing his Christian pupils to evolutionary ideas. Unsheltered also includes a contemporary strand which all-too-recognisably depicts the casualties of a culture consuming its way to its own destruction. Old Baggage is set in a period between the two, when, ten years after (some) British women had won the vote, the heroism of those who fought for the franchise is largely forgotten in a battle between socialism and fascism for the minds of the youth.
Two translated historical novels set at the beginning of the twentieth century about empires in decline. Through them, I’ve slightly narrowed the gap in my ignorance of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and whetted my appetite to learn more. Although it’s refreshing to take the focus away from the British Empire in fiction, I’d prefer to take a female perspective next time or, failing that, to zoom in on a key character right from the start. See what you think!
Two novels based on real-life deaths in the same decade of the mid-nineteenth century, deaths that were never completely explained. The first of a young woman in southern England, the second of dozens of pioneers heading for the American Wild West. The books’ female authors have perhaps taken different approaches to their source material. See what you think.
Two tales of boy slaves in the nineteenth century, both of whom gain their freedom and travel overseas. Born into slavery, Washington Black’s story begins on the familiar territory of a Caribbean sugar plantation, but his adventures take him right around the world. Tsito’s enslavement in his native Madagascar is one many English readers will be unaware of; although beginning less brutally, he’s witness to a terrifying purging of Christians and suspected traitors by a vengeful queen. (Follow this link for reviews of two other less well-known slavery stories.)
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.
Two novels about young Asians migrating to the USA: in the first, an Indian man receives a cultural, sexual and political education in New York; in the second, a woman has been stripped of wealth, lover and purpose when she leaves her native Philippines to shack up with relatives in a poor part of California.
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 recently read a translated novella set in 1920s Sicily followed by a novel set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Both evoke the difficulty of leading a moral life in a society in which power has been wrested from the official representatives of law and order into a highly organised but politically unaccountable alternative body, and the stresses on ordinary people of such a regime. In the first, it’s the Mafia that controls the populace; in the second, the paramilitaries, including the IRA.
Can you rewrite your own history and get away with it? That’s what Joseph Silk and Mary Holmes, lead characters in these two new novels, seem to have done. Both have been motivated to avoid traumatic memories – but there are consequences. In Joseph’s case, it’s been the impact on his family; in Mary’s, it’s a lifetime of guilt. Both novels feature a bond between young and old. Both address aspects of the Second World War: Joseph takes his suffering under Nazi-inspired racism in Hungary to his grave; far away in relatively safe Dorset, the backdrop of war pushes Mary to confess. Read my reviews and see whether you sympathise with the decisions they took.
If you’re going on holiday this summer, you might be tempted to take one of these novels with you. The first focuses on the people who entertain and assist the visitors to a Victorian pier at an English seaside resort across a period of over a century; the second on a family taking a long holiday together on the coast of Finland. But, of course, while it might be all smiles and bonhomie on the surface, there are disconcerting undercurrents to keep you turning the page. Let me know which takes your fancy.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
Hot on the heels of two novels about the messy aftermath Zimbabwean independence, come a couple more set in erstwhile outposts of the British Empire as the colonisers depart. Both focus on the experience of minorities favoured by the British who find themselves relegated in the new regimes: Indians in Kenya in Dance of the Jakaranda; the Karen in Burma in Miss Burma. Along with the politics, both explore the impact on identity of religion and race.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
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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