I’m pleased to recommend two California-set novels published this week about the fragility of masculinity, sibling loyalty and the impact on families of the Vietnam war, the first for the generation directly affected and the second for the children of men who served.
I’ve partnered these three debut novels because they’re all about preteen girls (although, in the third, Under the Udala Trees, our heroine does grow up to become a mother herself). Set in Britain, China and Nigeria they feature loneliness, religion and burgeoning sexuality with the latter two against the backdrop of war.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my identity as a novelist: how, on the one hand, it’s a simple statement of fact while, on the other, it represents an existential anxiety about what I’d be if I couldn’t describe myself in terms of something that sounds like a job. So these two novels exploring identity and make-believe, albeit with reference to film rather than fiction, have come along at exactly the right time.
In the week which saw the publication of the results into the inquiry into the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, I read two novels with a Russian connection. Both are about living under the shadow of terror, both penned by lauded English novelists and published in the UK tomorrow. Nevertheless, these are two very different novels; read my reflections to see which you prefer.
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
In my years of blogging by the calendar, I’ve been particularly faithful to World Toilet Day on 19 November with its emphasis on the importance of clean and safe sanitation for global health, equality and well-being. My interest in this topic came from travelling in countries where toilet facilities can’t be taken for granted, and discovered that a blog post on the subject could play a small part in raising awareness of the issue. But for this year, I’d already decided to shift my focus away from toilets, or their lack of, in the Global South onto a toiletry provision nearer home, when I discovered that this would enable me to mark another international commemorative day dear to my heart on the following day.
In Gangtok in the remote state of Sikkim, Chitralekha, Nepali-speaking Indian clothing factory owner with the ear of the local politicians, awaits her eighty-fourth birthday. Reluctantly, her thirty-something grandchildren travel from across the world to join her: Agastaya from New York; Manasa from London; and Bhagwati from Boulder, Colorado. Each arrives without their significant other: Agastaya because he can’t tell his family he’s gay; Manasa – married by arrangement into a high-caste Nepali family whose Oxford degree is useless now she stays at home nursing her father-in-law – because she is grateful for a break; Bhagwati because her low-caste Bhutanese husband and two Americanised sons would be unwelcome in the family home. So far, so clichéd, but a dysfunctional family, especially one in an exotic culture, can be entertaining in its way, even if, like in a stale sitcom, the characters are obliged to continually repeat their defining grievances, just in case the audience hasn’t got it.
If I was breathless last Monday, announcing Week 1 of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I must be on the verge of a swoon this week as I begin another round of visits. The first week has gone brilliantly (you can catch up with those first five posts via the links on my blog tour page), so how could I not be excited about the second? I start today under Julie Stock’s Author Spotlight, with a piece about setting part of my novel in Cairo. As a writer of contemporary romance from around the world, Julie has a particular interest in the challenges of setting fiction in real places, the subject of her own post on Susanna Bavin’s blog this week. Tomorrow, Helena Fairfax is interviewing me about where my own life is set, among other things. Helen lives in an interesting place herself, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and former mill town, Saltaire, which you can discover more about in her fascinating post. Then I’m off to chat with my namesake, Shaz Goodwin on Jera’s Jamboree. With her day job as a school Inclusion Lead, I was interested in her interest in novels that tackle a social barrier, as Sugar and Snails most definitely does. On Thursday, I’m on Our Book Reviews discussing the various transformations of my novel from its initial inception as a story of masculinity across three generations. This post arose out of a Twitter conversation after Mary, one half of Our Book Reviews, read and reviewed an advance copy. Obviously, I was delighted to be invited back. Finally, Friday sees me in Australia, quite fittingly discussing the theme of friendship in the novel and in its realisation (extending the theme of my previous post on gratitude) with one of my dearest blogging friends, Norah Colvin. As Norah has already hosted me once before, I know the tour bus will be safe to leave there over the weekend until I get behind the wheel again on Monday.
I’m generally not in favour of “update” posts, but I can’t ignore the perspective shift since I posted five days ago. As of last Thursday, I’m a published novelist, and enjoying it immensely. With each review (six to my knowledge so far), with each supportive tweet at #SugarandSnails, I’m claiming more of my authorial authority. I’m even infiltrating the more traditional media, with a feature on Sugar and Snails in the Lincolnshire Echo and a nerve-wracking but not too dreadful outing on BBC Radio Nottingham (my bit is at about 2.15 p.m. and the link expires in about three weeks). The highlight of the last few days was, of course, my Nottingham launch party, which I’ll be sharing more about in due course. But in the meantime, there’s this lovely and unexpected post on the event from The Mole, the other half of Our Book Reviews.
I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.
In 1980, in County Clare, ten-year-old Hanna is feeling the tension between her parents’ different backgrounds as her elder brother, Dan, announces he wants to be a priest. Eleven years later, Dan is most definitely not a priest, living with his girlfriend on the fringes of the New York art and gay scenes. Six years after that, in County Limerick, the eldest of the Madigan children, Constance, is a plump stay-at-home mother of three. Then it’s 2002 and we get to occupy the head of Emmet, an aid worker in Mali, learning (like Mrs Engels) the complexity of running a house with “staff” (p109):
You could be saving lives all day and be undone at the end of it by a plate of beans and bad lard. Literally saving lives. Because wars you can do, and famines you can do and floods are relatively easy, but no one survives when the cook scratches his arse and then decides not to bother washing his hands.
She knows it’s futile to try to explain what’s going on inside her – she can’t even explain it to herself – so she makes no more reference to it, focusing instead on giving the best impression of herself she can.
One of the most painful aspects of mental distress and disorder can be the inability of other people to acknowledge the lived experience, the need to cover up for their sake an additional strain on an already fragile psyche. So no wonder Grace is relieved when her husband, Gordon, leaves her alone on their narrow-boat home to go on a fishing trip with a friend. A couple of days earlier Grace saw what she took to be the ghost of her deceased first husband, Pete, her deepest and most disturbing love. Gordon, fearing a repeat of the breakdown that had her hospitalised following the death of her teenage daughter, Hannah, wants her to go to the doctor. Grace herself just wants time to revisit the memories of the handsome man who used to beat her, and the daughter who withdrew into the solace of illegal highs.
Dr Mary Charlton is “a fully qualified Jungian therapist, with a doctorate in neuropsychology and over twenty-five years’ experience in the NHS and private practice” (p39) who also claims to have worked as a clinical psychologist (p246), an unlikely combination to my mind but, knowing little about either Jung or neuropsychology, I’d better leave her to it. But she does highlight two areas not much addressed in this series on fictional therapists that merit a closer look.
While previous fictional therapists, such as Gabrielle Fox, Max Fisher and Tom Seymour, have worked with children, Mary Charlton is the first I’ve encountered doing so outside a team setting. Twelve-year-old Ben Dixon finds his way to her on the recommendation of a friend, who is also a former client (I know, boundary violation alert). Although Mary knows that she can’t work with Ben without parental consent, her willingness to take him into her office and let him talk about his difficulties before this is forthcoming and, later, to spend time with him outside her consulting room when the boy’s father has expressly forbidden it puts her on ethical dodgy ground.
Patrick Gale’s wonderful sixteenth novel opens with a disturbing bathroom scene. Incarcerated in a mental asylum, Harry is manhandled by a couple of attendants into a hot bath where he’ll be held immobile for hours, ostensibly to calm him; whether it could, when I was having palpitations merely reading about it, seemed unlikely. A relief then, to move with Harry a few pages later to a more benign institution, a therapeutic community by the river. Yet he remains haunted by a previous trauma:
These memories lay in rooms he couldn’t enter. In the quiet moments of lucidity between baths, he had approached them close enough to sense they were wrapped in a grief so powerful that even to put his hand on the doorknobs would fry his skin. (p11)
Moving back and forth in place and time, between his convalescence in the community and a life that has taken him from upper-middle-class England to the newly colonised Canadian prairies in the early years of the twentieth century, the doors to those troubling memories are gradually opened to us.
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):
One of the joys of fiction is its capacity to let us sample alternative lives. But even in fiction, a character can follow only one path. Or can they? Some writers have played with our human desire to know what would have happened had we chosen that route rather than this by following both. In The Post-Birthday World (described in a mini review here from Safia Moore) Lionel Shriver shows us the consequences of the main character Irina’s decision to both give into and resist the temptation to have an extramarital affair. My Real Children follows a similar structure, with alternate chapters focusing on the Tricia who marries Mark and the Pat who doesn’t.
The novel begins with Patricia reviewing her life. Nearing ninety and resident in a care home, she is often described by the staff as “very confused”. But her confusion has an extra layer to the usual fictional dementia: she has vivid memories of two separate selves with two distinct sets of children.
Both threads begin with a little girl called Patsy, playing on the beach with her father and brother. They also include Patty evacuated with her school at the outbreak of the Second World War which kills both her father and brother. Patty makes it to Oxford University where she almost crosses paths with Wittgenstein and Alan Turing and, only a few days before graduation, falls for the somewhat intense Mark. After a two-year separation and countless passionate letters, Mark phones her to ask her, somewhat hopelessly, to marry him.
I was a latecomer to Nick Hornby’s writing. He was well into bestsellerdom when I condescended to pluck About a Boy from the library shelves, not expecting to find much connection with a writer whose first book was a memoir about his dedication to Arsenal football team. How wrong I was! Although I still haven’t read his memoir, I’ve discovered in his fiction sophisticated characterisation and psychological depth beneath deceptively simple prose. Nick Hornby excels at portraying the obsessions and eccentricities of ordinary people, and their psychological and social implications, with great humour and warmth. His last novel, Juliet, Naked, concerning the triangular relationship between a reclusive rock star, Tucker Crowe, Duncan, his most dedicated fan and Annie, Duncan’s long-suffering partner, was a beautiful study of creativity, intimacy and their absence.
A mismatched couple is at the centre of his latest novel: set in mid-1960s London, Barbara is a buxom blonde from Blackpool with conservative sentiments; Jim a left-leaning Home Counties fellow with a job (under the then Labour government) at Number Ten. But as Barbara and Jim are the central characters of a highly successful TV sitcom, the reader gets to know them at one step removed: via the actors, Sophie (previously Barbara, the five-minute Miss Blackpool and the eponymous funny girl) and Clive (licking his narcissistic wounds at being relegated to the supporting role); writers, Tony and Bill, who meet in a police holding cell during their national service, kindred spirits who gradually drift apart; and the Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, constantly challenged to defend his devotion to comedy within the still somewhat snobbish BBC.
Layers of history: The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson and Truths by Rebecca S Buck … and a Zodiac flash
It was my wedding anniversary last week and, despite shying away from romantic fiction, I thought I ought to read a novel with a heart at its centre. Thus Jill Dawson’s novel made its way to the top of my TBR pile and, because of its thematic parallels, Rebecca Buck’s novel followed on.
Patrick Robson, a history professor with thirty-odd years of over-straining both his literal and metaphorical heart, wakes up in hospital following major surgery with his ex-wife at his bedside. Two hundred years apart, two teenage boys experience their sexual awakening under the wide skies of the Fenlands, and discover how the odds are stacked against those not born into wealth in cash or land. What connects the three main characters is that Drew Beamish was carrying a donor card when he was killed in a motorcycling accident, and Patrick has received his heart, while Willie Beamiss, only just escaping hanging or deportation for rioting, is one of Drew’s ancestors, and commemorated in the local museum.
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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