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.
A couple of weeks ago, challenged to compose a 99-word story combining mashed potatoes with a superpower, I chose love. Because, as these two novels testify, along with a third I reviewed at the end of last month, love is rarely straightforward, and for some an impossible dream. In Land of the Living, Georgina Harding shows how a husband’s wartime trauma, in conjunction with his wife’s inexperience, acts as a barrier to intimacy. In the City of Love’s Sleep also focuses on romance, in this case the approach-avoidance dance of a man and woman still legally or psychologically bound to another, while Nothing but Dust is a startlingly honest account of the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
I’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
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!
No prizes for guessing why I’ve connected these two novels; I don’t think I’ve ever read another book with gravity in the title – although The Weightless World is about a antigravity machine – and then I find two published in the same month. But rest assured, they’re very different reads: in the first, Lotte feels a stronger pull towards the stars in the sky than her earthly attachments; in the second, love is a force that can furnish reconnections across continents and years.
Two debut novels by women about women reviewing their (successful and stable) marriages in the context of an important relationship for one partner that’s not shared with the other. In the first, the wife’s passion for God and poetry leads her into the mind, arms and eventual bed of a man who isn’t her husband; in the second, the wife, emerging from her grief at her husband’s sudden death, becomes suspicious about the nature of his secret friendship with a woman he’s met on business trips abroad. Both authors employ non-linear structure to good effect.
Would you rather lose the use of your body or lose your mind? Both so dreadful to contemplate; perhaps it’s just as well we don’t get to choose. And neither need we choose in fiction: both these novels about brain degeneration are worth your time. In the first, a concert pianist’s encroaching paralysis due to motor neurone disease is mirrored by the psychological immobility of his ex-wife. In the second, the reader can gradually make sense of the obsessions of a woman with senile dementia through the memories of her family and carers. Painful topics but, for those who need it, these novels provide a note of lightness too.
I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
Although these two novels couldn’t be more different in tone – the first a literary exploration of a young mother’s development; the second tricksy thriller – I can’t resist pairing them for the other factors they have in common. Both feature thoughtful, philosophising, unnamed narrators; both take as their subject matter how we explore the inside and outside of other people, and ourselves. Both are ambitious and unusual in their approach; both are the author’s second book and a cracking read.
An epic story of cultural change in Uganda and a novella set in an idyllic English community, these debuts have little in common apart from the strange affliction and that I’m happy to recommend them both. In the first, multiple branches of an extended family at the beginning of the twenty-first century are affected by a curse on their ancestor 250 years before. In the second, James probably feels cursed when he wakes up one morning to find he can’t move half his face.
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
Life’s a game of snakes and ladders; we all have our ups and downs. But some people’s snakes are much longer than some other people’s ladders, and some so unlucky on the roll of the dice it’s like they’ve landed in a slithery nest of snakes. If fear or despair hasn’t shut down their emotions, these people are angry, understandably so. And that’s my tenuous link between these novels: the first about a young woman’s sudden blindness and the second about the victims of paedophile priests.
After reading The Things We Thought We Knew shortly before its publication back in June, I decided to hang back for another novel on psychosomatic illness or acquired disability with which to pair my review. But picking up The Burning Girl more recently, I was struck by the commonalities between these two novels, not only in the obvious sense of a girl in her late teens looking back on an intense friendship, but in the depth of disturbance resulting from its loss. As happened when I coupled two novels on male infidelity, discovering the similarities enhanced my appreciation of both. While neither pairing uncovered themes of particular personal relevance for me (which can enhance my enjoyment), the fact that they matter sufficiently for more than one author persuades me that other readers might find more to savour. Do let me know if that applies to you!
Okay, perhaps not the most elegant title to sum up the common thread between these three debut novels from small and innovative independent publishers. But they’re all, in very different ways, about life with a brain or mind that functions a little differently from average. In the first, we meet an elderly voice hearer on a mission to bring hope to his granddaughter. In the second, a retired teacher with dementia is convinced a former pupil can save him from the persecutory antics of his deceased father. The third takes the reader even further into the realms of fantasy as a teenager with unexplained blackouts is drawn into a world she thought existed only in her dreams.
Allow me to introduce you to two novels looking back on Ireland’s recent history through the eyes of a man whose life has been limited by secrets, subterfuge and hypocrisy.
Let’s take a look at a couple of debut novels with some fine evocations of the natural world and a strong sense of place published by small independent presses based in Scotland.
I’ve enjoyed these two novels about how we manage the end of life, the first through old age and the second through assisted dying. Mortality gets us all sooner or later; what better way to face it than with a novelist holding our hands?
Is satire redundant when the World’s Most Powerful Narcissist tweets his outrage at the slightest scratch on his orange-tinged carapace, while She Who Should Be Humbled files for divorce from Europe in the full knowledge that this will leave her dependants economically and morally depleted, and literally humbles the Bejewelled Great-Grandmother by committing her to take her New Suitor for a spin in her horse-drawn carriage? Publication proceeding at a slower pace than populist politics, these two novels – the first set in a dystopian near-future and the second in 2013 – were conceived prior to the dystopia that was 2016 but can still evoke a shudder in these early days of 2017.
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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