When I selected my reading for Black History Month, I didn’t realise that three of the four books had a connection to Jamaica. Nor did I realise that one would obscure black history as much as it illuminates. While three books are around ninety-seven short of composing a timeline, they’re listed here in chronological order of the events they portray. Scroll down for links to my reviews of other books (mostly fiction) I’ve read in recent years.
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.
Towards the collapse of the Berlin Wall: The Standardisation of Demoralisation Procedures & The Mussel Feast
These two recent reads evoke the cultural climate immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first is a zany novel about the political demise of a former Stasi agent. The second is a translation from German set around a family dinner table in dread of the tyrannical father’s return.
Humour is a tricky business, especially around serious subjects. Get it right, and you can entertain while inciting rage at injustice. Get it wrong, and you risk becoming the target of rage. So what did I make of these two comic novels? The first set in Blitz-blasted London, the second in contemporary Atlanta, which draws you most and are you able to guess which I’d prefer?
When I studied the psychodynamics of organisations, I was encouraged to pay particular attention to how the system responds to a new arrival. Likewise in fiction, the introduction of an outsider is a useful strategy for delving under the skin of a community, especially one in crisis. In both these recent reads, the outsider is a teenage girl, bereft of family, who is smoothly absorbed into the existing structures and, to a small degree, starts to change them. In the first, a translated novella, set in Austria at the end of the Second World War, she is the main point-of-view character. In the second, a debut novel with a contemporary South African setting, she is one of several somewhat shadowy characters. But both books are more about historical and geographical place than person. See what you think.
Mmm, seems I’ve chosen books with long titles for this threesome! But the reason I couldn’t bear to choose a couple and leave the other on the sidelines awaiting a partner is that they are all about characters connecting in unconventional ways. Firstly, I review a novella in translation about a writer meeting a man who seems to be a younger version of himself. In a second translated novella, a woman ensures that more than her memory lives on after her death. In the third, a literary novel, two women are linked via an invention that a third character plays an active part in developing.
The young protagonists of these two novels are worlds apart in time, geography and social class and expectations. The first is a Hungarian translation about a girl sent to an elite boarding school during the Second World War; the second is a fantasy about a street kid trying to rise above his physical and social disadvantages. Both feature endearing teenagers grappling courageously with injustice and, in the process, learning about themselves.
Where once it was religion that kept the poor downtrodden, now it’s capitalism as expressed in the Great American Dream, that we can all be winners if we set our minds to it. Both these novels transport the modern mind to a time and place where characters are conscious that not everything that happens is under their control. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to appease the superpowers or exercise free will. In the first, we meet a group of thirteenth century pilgrims sacrificing earthly pleasures for an easier eternity; in the second, a young woman in modern secular India grapples with the ancient Hindu concept of fate.
Realising I needed a stronger reason for pairing these recent reads than the alliterative letter L, I nevertheless feel shabby to have linked them through the childminder role. Okay, the nanny is the protagonist of the first, although she remains a shadowy figure, but only one of many characters in the second where it’s as a mother, rather than as a parent substitute, that she advances the story. But, as was noted at the Zoom meeting of my book group discussion of Lullaby, nannies are as invisible in literature as they are in life. Rather belatedly, I also see that they’re both about fault-lines: the first metaphorically, the second geologically.
Strange bedfellows these two translations: the first an historical novel from France; the second a contemporary slipstream novel from South Korea. My excuse for linking them is an issue that was on my mind the day I finished the first and started the second, thanks to a non-fiction book I had ordered. Although women being blamed for sexual abuse and harassment is only a minor issue in these novels, it’s so important I make no apology for ushering it into the limelight.
I’ve recently read two historical novels about morality with surprising echoes of our current pandemic. The first is a fun story set in 17th-century London about a young woman concerned about losing the respect of her relatives when she turns to prostitution after becoming homeless during the Great Plague. The second is set in a copper mining community in 1850s South Africa, where lives are lost because the owners put profit before people.
A perfectly cathartic political satire: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony (#review and #giveaway)
If you’re reading through the lockdown, or listening to more music, you might be interested in these two books featuring dual narratives connected via an “instrument” of the arts. The second is a translated novella set in and around a real-life bookshop and publishing house; the first is about heartbreak compounded by the fear of letting go from a publisher who mostly does translations.
I’ve recently read two alternative histories about what we do with the darker or unwanted parts of ourselves: how we reveal them to, or hide them from, ourselves and others; how societies develop rituals to manage the exposure and cleansing; how power effects what’s allowed. If that sounds overly intellectual, don’t worry; both of these have story at the heart.
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.
I’ve read a lot of excellent historical novels by female authors, but they don’t always (and this isn’t necessarily a criticism) forefront the female experience. For Women’s History Month I’ve plucked from my shelves, real and virtual, a few that particularly highlight the lives of women in days gone by. Firstly, I’m recommending 8 novels fictionalising famous and relatively unknown women; secondly I’ve selected 8 (from potentially hundreds) exploring historical happenings through a female perspective. All are from female authors who might yet become historical figures themselves!
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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