Mankind … was only a half-designed product that had taken shape by accident rather than through conscious choices. In many ways we were not so different from the millions who seek self-improvement today … hopeful that with self-awareness human beings are capable of living together in harmony.
In May 1914, “much against the advice of my parents” twenty-something Gerty Freely leaves her home in Cornwall to take up a post as governess to the younger children of Kobelev family in Moscow. She’s quickly beguiled by the lively, liberal and chaotic household comprising the family, their servants and former employees, and various hangers on, including fledging quantum physicist, Nikita Slavkin. When war breaks out in Europe, Gerty is happy to remain with her friends rather than return home.
In between celebrating my book’s first birthday – and finding the clichéd book-as-baby metaphor more apt than ever – I’ve had the pleasure of reading three novels about the begetting of real human babies: a debut scientific thriller from England; a second gritty comedy from Scotland; a third novel in the literary genre from the USA. As if the authors have responded to a writing prompt to bring a novel angle to “having” a baby, there should be something for everyone in this selection. If you’d like to recommend any others, you can do so via the comments.
What does the working-class child aspire to? In my case, I couldn’t dream of joining a middle-class profession I’d never heard of. Nor, even though I was addicted to writing from the start, did I believe that someone like me could become an author. Books never seemed to be based in the places with which I was familiar: they were set in boarding schools rather than comprehensives; in country houses rather than a small semi-detached; in cities rather than small industrial towns. So how could I resist a novel set in my birthplace, the small northern town from which my odd accent derives? As if that weren’t enough, I’m offered a novel set where my parents grew up, a similar down-at-heel out-of-the-way place where I had my first restaurant meal. Sixty miles separates these two towns, as well as some breath-taking countryside, as depicted in The Wolf Border, one of my favourite reads from last year. But Workington and Barrow don’t have the beauty of the Lake District. Thanks to Vintage Books and Legend Press, I had the chance to discover whether they could nevertheless shine on the page. I’d be interested in your thoughts on using real places as fictional settings.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
I’m delighted to introduce you to two quirky short novels about finding and creating a place of one’s own, the first from Sweden and second South Africa. Both novels have pared down characters and plot and are nevertheless highly compelling in their eccentricity.
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
Many of us are fascinated by where we came from: the parents and places that made us who we are. While it seems we need to leave home, either physically or geographically, to become ourselves, at some point we’re drawn back to reconcile ourselves to the gap between the reality of our personal origins and the myths we’ve been sold or created. Ambivalence about home is such a core feature of my own reading and writing, it’s a struggle to condense it into the ninety-nine words Charli Mills has requested this week on the theme of returning to a place of origin. Join me on a tour of my literary bookshelves while I contemplate my own take on the prompt.
In the late 1970s, when teenage Jess’s schoolmates would be going to Benidorm for their summer holidays, she accompanies her mother to a summer course for English teachers in East Germany. They spend the other eleven months of the year attempting to interest their fellow residents of a small West Midlands town in the Morning Star, working through their TODO lists and holding branch meetings with just the two of them, cheered on by occasional news from their friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain, widower, Peter, and his daughter, Martina. With Jess’s father dead before she was even born, mother and daughter think and act as one, and Jess has no need for friends at the stuffy grammar-school where she’s marked out as an oddball. With her high ideals and youthful optimism, Jess is content to play her part in the fight against capitalism. Yet the time will come when Jess will question, not only the decisions of her own mother, but the values of the Motherland she’s dreamt of making her home.
Lulu Davenport is the proprietor of Los Rocques, a clifftop hotel on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, frequented by a certain type wealthy Brit who holds themselves aloof from the package-tour hordes. It’s also a popular hangout for the teenagers who spend their summers on the island, roaming freely after months of more orderly education abroad. For almost sixty years, Gerald Rutledge has lived in a small house just a kilometre away from The Rocks (as everyone calls it), but he’s rarely set foot on the premises. It’s not just because, having married a local woman and made his living from the land, he’s more assimilated into the Spanish community, but also because he’s persona non grata to Lulu following their brief and calamitous marriage only a few years after the end of the Second World War.
It’s 2008, and the financial crisis signals the death throes of New Labour; what’s the millionaire head of a publishing dynasty to do, but throw a party? Sherard Howe’s proclivity to entertain enables author Tim Glencross to assemble a wide cast of characters under one roof whose love and work trajectories the reader follows over the ensuing three years. While Philip Devereux, partner at a prestigious law firm that “advised the banks while they were getting into a mess, and now … [advises] them on how to finish themselves off” (p143), commissions his former fag (a word whose meaning I did know, but wish I didn’t), Sherard to curate a modern art exhibition on the theme of the crisis, fittingly entitled Turmoil, and the minister, Alec Merton, escapes a tedious family Christmas to defend the government to the news media, Sherard’s wife, the feminist philosopher Daphne Depree, is having second thoughts about the pending publication of her book, The Prodigal Sister, a “virtuosic deconstruction of third-way politics” (p121).
Marie Gillies has always feared – and hated and loved – her father and has lived a limited life according to his rules. But now he’s dead she wants to take her mother, Flavia, on holiday to her native Italy, and that requires a meeting with the solicitor who manages the trust fund from her father’s estate. Arthur Gillies, coming home from London only at weekends, had been in business; neither Marie nor her mother had needed to concern themselves with what type. But it turns out he’s had a portfolio of expensive properties in the capital, and Marie decides she’d like to get her hands on some of his dosh.
Rita is an ageing sex-worker tottering out, despite being prone to falls, in high heels to find a new man to pay the bills. Now with her own small flat, she makes daily visits to the dilapidated house in Primrose Hill where she used to work, to check up on its remaining occupants: Joseph, the son of Sal, the brothel’s deceased madam, who spends his days riding the buses, and Annetta, a former colleague, prone to fugue states since childhood and now suffering from dementia, who regularly escapes from her locked bedroom to shed her clothes in the park.
Jay Mize thought he’d be at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture, when he moved with his wife, Sandy, and six-year-old son, Jacob, to a stretch of river-bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills. But a summer of drought followed by incessant rain has ruined him. After his father’s suicide, Jay becomes obsessed with doomsday scenarios. In order to protect their son from his increasing negativity, Sandy moves out (p168):
I cannot believe that I’m arguing with you about the end of the world. I cannot live this way, thinking like this. Every day that you harp on this gloom and doom is another day you miss the blessed life you have here, right now, this instant.
When Jay discovers a corpse on his flooded fields, his sanity gradually leaches away. Watched by a vengeful woodsman and the playboy deputy sheriff, Danny Shoals, Jay is heading towards an apocalypse partly of his own making.
When I began this series of fictional therapists, I never imagined I’d encounter one who served, three days a year, as receptionist for a “chromotherapist” in the same office. When I wrote the guidelines for creating a credible fictional therapist, it didn’t occur to me to caution against installing a therapist in a building with such inadequate toilet facilities that clients, if caught short, would be obliged to relieve themselves into a used takeaway carton in a screened-off area of the office. But, despite her degrees in clinical psychology and, surprisingly, social work, I doubt that anyone would look to Miranda July’s creation for an insight into the machinations of psychotherapy and, while I found Ruth-Anne mildly amusing, she wasn’t as funny as the Lacanian analyst in The House of Sleep, so let’s dispense with her and move on to the more interesting aspects of this quirky debut novel.
Cheryl Glickman is a single woman in her early 40s, stuck in a rut as peculiar as you’re ever likely to find, yet one that resonates with more conventional lives. Living alone, she’s devised an ingenious, if obsessional, system for minimising housework and the despair that can ensue when the mess gets out of hand (p21):
Today’s post features two unusual debut novels, both by young men borrowing the voices of other young men struggling to make their way in the modern world. Although these novels are very different, I’ve coupled them because they’re both slightly offbeat first-person accounts of young men trying to do good, with a touch of humour, and, like with The Winter War, the characters are fully rounded through being depicted, not just at play but also, at work.
Matt is a young schoolteacher from Birmingham (UK), sometime boyfriend of Annabel and Franz von Papen (the German chancellor who survived the Night of the Long Knives) obsessive. Although his subject is history, he seems detached from his own background, seemingly having no significant relationships other than those forged within the novel or immediately prior to its opening. Enthusiastic about his topic, there is nevertheless a wide gap between his own concept of his merits as a teacher and that of his employers; some dubious professional choices lead to him eventually being grateful to procure a job defumigating shoes in a bowling alley.
Seven-year-old Millie has been studying Dead Things since the death of her dog, Rambo. Number twenty-eight on her list takes up two pages of her exercise book: MY DAD. Still, at least she’s got her mum, until even she leaves her to wait beside the Ginormous Women’s Underwear stand at the department store and doesn’t come back. Eighty-seven-year-old Karl, who once typed love letters with his fingers on his deceased wife’s skin, has fled the old people’s home to fulfil their shared dream of camping out in the department store overnight. Eighty-two-year-old Agatha has not left her house since the death of her husband seven years before, her days following a strict timetable which includes analysing her aged body and writing angry letters of complaint. When the three meet up, they embark on a road and rail trip across Australia in search of Millie’s mum.
I’m delighted to bring you reviews of two novels published in the UK today which feature couple and family relationships within a wider sociopolitical context.
The Winter War* follows a liberal, middle-class professional Scandinavian couple and their two adult daughters over the course of one winter. While this is a period of change for the family, the pleasure of this novel is less in its plot than in its beautifully drawn characters* and searing sardonic wit*.
Max Paul is a Finland-Swede*, a sociologist approaching sixty, living off his reputation as a public intellectual, given an ego-boost when a former student turned journalist requests an interview:
One important criteria for all research was that it had to be possible to explain the basic ideas in a simple manner. A good doctoral dissertation could be comprehensively summarised over lunch. Taking this to extremes: a good researcher should, in principle, be able to speak with such enthusiasm that his words could function as a series of pick-up lines. (p74)
His wife feels ground down by his emotional neglect and burnt out at work in the human resources department of the Helsinki health service:
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 two novels.
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