What does it mean to be a woman in contemporary Britain? What does it mean to be female, black and queer? Having published a collection of short stories on the theme of identity and already being a fan of the author’s writing, and even having attended one of her workshops, I knew I was going to like this, but it’s hellish tricky to review.
Have you ever wondered what draws people into a cult, or what keeps them there? Do cults always start with good intentions and end in tears? Although neither of these novels can give us all the answers, they do provide interesting insights into what it’s like to outsource your autonomy to a community with a megalomaniac at the helm. Both are informed by real cases: the first in contemporary Britain, the second in 1970s USA.
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.
I’m here to introduce two novels about girls who become fixated on another girl in childhood and pick up the relationship again as young adults. In the first, set in Vietnam and the USA, the main focus is on the friendship in childhood; in the second, set in New York, the adult obsession is in the foreground. In both books, the main character has a problematic relationship with her mother: in the first, the mother is painfully distant; in the second, mother and daughter are initially enmeshed.
Two novels about eighteen-year-old women who abandon the advantages of their previous identities to make common cause with oppressed peoples, at great risk to themselves. In the first, set in 2000, Aden travels from a secular society in California to study Islam, and to join the jihad. In the second, set in 1944, Luce leaves her bourgeois family in Italy to experience first-hand the Nazi labour camps. Are these rebellious adolescents idealists or deluded, or a little of both?
I wondered, initially, whether the fact that these two short novels include images would be sufficient reason to pair them in a post. But, while different in style, they’re both about identity (among other matters). In the first, a young man uses photographs he has inherited to try to understand the woman who kept them, as his own identity seems to merge with hers. In the second, an older man finds his identity as an illustrator losing out to his role as grandfather.
As if my head weren’t buzzing enough with the enigma of identity, I’ve recently read two translated novels exploring the gap between where the characters come from and where they ended up. In the first, a forty-something German man has given little thought to his origins across the border; in the second, two women, juggle loneliness and language difficulties as they gradually acclimatise to new lives in Australia, far from home.
Too few novels recreate the reality of the working environment, so hurrah for another two about women at work. From a contemporary Japanese supermarket to a library in a late 50s English country town, these depict women who take their work identity very seriously indeed. But the arrival of a man, alongside their own passion for the work, brings complications. Can Keiko and Sylvia hold onto their jobs?
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.
Late-adolescent identity in London and Dublin: The Tyranny of Lost Things & Conversations with Friends
If adolescence was the invention of the baby boomers, it’s the millennials who’ve shown – along with recent(ish) research into the developing brain – that this interlude between childhood and adulthood lingers well into one’s twenties. At this stage of our lives, many of us are still experimenting with who and how to be, as these two debut novels illustrate in thoughtful and entertaining ways. The young female narrators juggle the legacy of patchy parenting; love triangles; envy and class privilege; and platonic and sexual relationships at the boundary between intimacy and privacy – and city living, one in London and the other in Dublin. Read on!
As 2018 started a few hours earlier in Australia than in the UK, it’s fitting that I should begin my reading year there. Or it could be the coincidence of kindly publicists sending me advance copies of two Australian novels published in the UK this month. The first namechecks various Sydney suburbs, while the second begins near Melbourne before circumnavigating the country. The first contemporary, the second set in the 1950s, they explore the socio-politics of Australian identities and their links to migration and colonialism.
When I’m not sure what to make of a recent read, it sometimes helps if I couple it with something equally enigmatic. A common thread, even if it’s not the theme the author intended, affords me at least the illusion of understanding. So following White Tears, in which a young white man in contemporary America experiences the terror of a black man in the 1920s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, with My Falling Down House, in which a former Tokyo “salaryman” experiences homelessness, helped me gain my bearings on both.
These two novels are worlds apart in terms of style and genre, but both involve mysterious deaths set against real-life moments of rampage and riot in England during recent hot summers. In the first, a lone gunman on the rampage in 2010 Cumbria is integral to the story. In the second, the 2011 London riots provide the perfect backdrop for a domestic noir thriller.
Although I’ve never been sure about novels about writers, I was keen to read these two: the first about an unpublished novelist ghostwriting a memoir and the second about a poet anticipating a different kind of creativity with her first child. Both these fictional writers are brought into close contact with an unexpected other – for the first, the character whose memoir he is writing; the second, another poet who used to live in the town to which she’s recently moved – with life-changing consequences. Both novels explore the nature of the self and the permeability of the boundary with the other (and, incidentally, feature graphic scenes of childbirth). For another novel about a writer, see my review of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
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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