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.
Here I’ve paired two recent British novels inspired by real-life disasters affecting entire communities: the first being the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; the second a plane crashing into a tower block in 1996 Amsterdam. I didn’t find either easy to get into, but both rewarded patient reading. See what you think!
Sometimes, the covers of books I’ve paired for review are so well matched, despite differences in genre, it appears I’ve put them together for aesthetic reasons. But, while I like to dress my blog attractively, it’s the content that counts. These two translated novels fictionalise real-life historical figures who were meticulous observers of the world around them. The first is still celebrated 500 years later; the second has been forgotten in the half-century since her death.
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 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.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
While separated by style – the first literary lyrical, the second more off-the-peg – and setting – the first wilderness, the second three cityscapes – these two novels are united by more than a character named Tomas. The main characters of both stories are preoccupied with meticulous observation of the environment: for animal research in Tiger whereas in The Museum of Broken Promises, surveillance might be a more appropriate word. And while the latter is about conserving objects and memories, nature conservation is one of the themes of the first.
So often our actions, or inactions, have dramatic consequences, impossible to foresee. In very different ways, these two novels address this issue, the first in relation to carelessness, the second in life-transforming chance events. Each also explores the non-linearity of time. In addition, while the first includes a translator as character, the second is a translation itself – from the Finnish, my fourth for Women in Translation month.
Too many clergymen, in my experience, set themselves above the hoi polloi, considering themselves above criticism due to their “direct line” to God. I certainly found that in the Catholic response to John Boyne’s novel on sexual abuse in the church. The Reverend Pearson, in The Wind That Lays Waste, set in rural Argentina in the recent past, is guilty of not much more than arrogance, while the Priest in Beastings, set in Cumbria in more God-fearing times, is plain evil. Both men are on a geographical and psychological mission: Pearson’s itinerant evangelism interrupted when his car breaks down, while the Priest leaves his cosy cottage for the Lake District fells on the trail of a runaway girl who knows too many of his secrets.
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 historical novels about the fight for political reform, in which a peaceful gathering of protesters is savagely put down. The first is about the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence in the years between the two world wars. The second is set in Britain a century earlier and focuses on the working-class battle for basic human rights. Of course, both are packed with interesting characters too!
Kicking off Women in Translation Month with 8 recommendations from previous years and a new review: The Faculty of Dreams
As my next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, has three point-of-view characters, I’m always curious to see how others handle three-handers. But that’s not the main reason I chose to read these two novels. Both are set against the backdrop of the tangled web of history tying the Indian subcontinent with Britain. The first links the dying days of the Raj to a British-born woman of Bengali heritage settled in Wales. The second brings characters from Karachi, London and Portsmouth to the deserts of war-torn Iraq.
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, set primarily in the continent of Africa, in which women are separated from a child and must resort to looking on from a distance. In the first, set in Egypt, Bodour can’t admit that a famous singer is her illegitimate child. But at least they’re in the same city. And both alive. Which is not the case in the second novel, set in Jamaica, the USA and Liberia, where the deceased mother’s voice is carried on the wind. So she does get to guide her son and his two companions, all of whom have supernatural gifts. Intrigued? Read on!
I have no hesitation in recommending both of these literary novels, intriguing stories set against the rise of fascism leading up to the Second World War. The first is a coming-of-age story set in Italy and Libya; the second about vested interests in the art world set in Berlin.
Two novels in which a third adult joins the household of a married couple and forms a strong relationship with one or both partners. Both are set in English villages, but map very different terrain. In the first, a wife befriends a young student, but the relationship turns out not to be as innocent as it first appears. In the second, set between the two world wars, a live-in maid skilfully manages to negotiate between an artist couple’s bickering, but she can’t stop the breakup of the marriage when the husband laps up another woman’s flattery.
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.
Three short reviews of quirky novels published in the UK this month that have taken me around the world without having to leave my armchair. The first, set in Australia, marries historical fact with a lonely alien visitor. The second, set in South Africa, posits an alternative near future where the sick are quarantined. The third, a German translation set in Japan, pairs a suicidal student with an expert on beards for a journey in the footsteps of a revered haiku poet.
finding truth through fiction
events coming soon:
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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