I’m sharing my reflections on two novels, published a few years ago about retired schoolteachers who are forced to reappraise aspects of their pasts. Julia Garnet, a former history teacher in South London, has her epiphany in Venice; former maths teacher, Olive Kitteridge, stays in her home town in Maine. Both women have hidden their vulnerabilities beneath a steely shell. Both demonstrate it’s never too late to learn.
Two novels that have sat on my bookshelves for a while, the first waiting to be read, and the second loved and waiting to be re-read. Written by acclaimed female novelists – the first British and the second, Canadian, now deceased – read on to see what this unacclaimed female novelist, also the author of a fictional biography, thought.
Large gatherings at country houses are common enough in fiction, but these two recent reads, both involving family secrets, couldn’t be more different. It’s not so much that the first is set in England and the second in Japan, but one’s crime and the other literary translation. But even within those genres, they’re oddballs. In a good way? Read on for my thoughts!
Only one of these three recent reads is classed as a horror novel and, although not my usual genre, it turned out to be my favourite of the three. But we don’t need to evoke the supernatural to scare ourselves: there are real-life horrors in each of these stories. In the first, a translation, war has killed many and put the survivors’ lives on hold. In the second, set in rural Cumbria, the spooky happenings are extra disturbing for a man with unprocessed memories of violence from childhood, as well as his helplessness in the face of his wife’s agonising three-day labour. The third is a 1960s classic set in a horrific – but typical of its time – psychiatric hospital where the regime seems designed to make a bad situation worse.
Two recent reads set in medieval Europe, where reluctant heroines must confront obstacles both spiritual and tangible to take a chance on happiness with the man they love. The first is set in Britain and the second, two centuries later, in France. Both include St Margaret as a minor character, but I was rooting for the maids on a mission, hoping they’d save their loved ones, and themselves.
Adoption aftermaths: Helen and the Grandbees, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? & Red Dust Road
I suspect I’m drawn to adoption narratives because of the way they can make concrete a vague sense of loss and yearning some of us feel as a result of early maternal neglect. It’s one of the themes of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, and its follow-up, 100 Candles, my current WIP. In fact, I read/reread the two memoirs reviewed in this post as research for the latter. The other book is a debut novel offered to me by the publisher.
These two recent reads are about marriages under severe strain. In the first, set in the southern USA, a woman turns to a mutual friend when her husband is sentenced to twelve years’ in prison for the crime of being black in the vicinity of a sexual assault. In the second, set in the UK, a family is in crisis as a result of the husband and father’s combat PTSD.
These two recent reads – the first non-fiction rooted in the UK, the second a novel visiting Australia, the USA and Iraq – involving characters and authors delving into recent and historical government injustice against its colonised peoples. Read, and use your vote accordingly – but of course you already do!
These two recent reads are narrated by girls whose young lives are blighted by parental conflicts, secrets and lies. We follow them over a period of years: Tatty, the middle child of a largish Dublin family, from around three to twelve, which is the age that Giovanna, an only child, begins to learn to navigate her home city of Naples.
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.
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.
I recently read very different two novels with a supernatural element and a forest setting where nature cannot be ignored. The first is a meditation on our collective fragility involving a fantastic – in the literal sense – bird. The second is a psychological suspense story about a family and community haunted by a young mother’s disappearance a decade before.
I recently read two novels set in England almost a century apart about young women returning to their parents after their marriages break down. Unfortunately for both of them, their childhood homes are stepping stones to something more terrifying than the confidence lost from relationship failures: in the first, Grace spends months on the streets; in the second, Clara is confined to a dismal mental institution.
muddled pathways so that he’s imposed a strategy for achieving his next unlikely ambition – if a man of his talents can “lead” first a capital city, then a country, why not go for the Booker Prize? – upon the one of which he’s tired?
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.
Is there discrimination against women writers? (Is there even more discrimination against older women writers?) Probably but, there being even worse things to get hung up about right now, I’ll gloss over the fact that these two novels about under-appreciated female writers – one in 1960s Iceland, the other in 21st-century New York – come from fairly successful female authors. With a couple of caveats, either or both would make great lockdown reads.
A perfectly cathartic political satire: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony (#review and #giveaway)
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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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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