In the late 1960s and early 70s, American psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues subjected dogs to inescapable electric shocks. Later, when the same animals were placed in a situation where the shocks were avoidable, they didn’t attempt to get away. If you can stomach the cruelty, the concept of learned helplessness derived from this research is a useful way of thinking about depression and – although I don’t recall ever seeing it referenced this way – the experience of a baby left to cry. Right now, British politics makes me feel like a dog given uncontrollable electric shocks and I can’t help thinking it’s a fascist plot to demoralise the Left.
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.
Two novels in which a marriage of a twenty-something man and woman from superficially similar backgrounds shows early signs of strain. In the first, between Muslims in contemporary London, the politics of religion are problematic right from the start; in the second, life gets tough when a new mother follows her journalist husband to a posting in newly-independent Ukraine. All harbour secrets, communication suffers and trust is hard to find. But, with youth on their side, they’ll take something from the experience, whether or not the marriages survive.
Two novels from continental America inspired – if that’s not too optimistic a term for the subject matter – by the authors’ own challenging childhoods with parents who weren’t up to the job. Both girls had a brother, a partially-absent father, a determined mother and grandmother with whom she didn’t see eye to eye. Both learnt early about gender discrimination; both lived in relatively comfortable households on the fringes of marginalised communities (with Native Americans as neighbours in the first novel, set in Dakota, and refugees from repressive South American regimes in the second, set in Mexico). Some say a difficult childhood is the ideal apprenticeship for a writer. Read on, and see what you think!
Two short novels about doctoring, by authors with direct experience of the profession. The first, set in Egypt, is a semiautobiographical novel first published over half a century ago by one of the world’s most eminent feminists; the second, set in India, is a magic-realism story by a male author (but we won’t hold that against him). By sheer coincidence, neither of these authors names their characters, instead referring to them by role. (At least they don’t distinguish them by diagnoses!)
Like many words, the meaning of epic has evolved and seems to be applied to various incarnations of big. Both of these novels have been described by others (in the endorsements) as epic: the first, I think for its geographical scope (and, combined with its big brother, can be considered so in length); the second for its length and sweep of history and character.
While the title declares the first of these novels, set in Lagos, to be about siblings and killings, it’s not immediately obvious how it applies to the second, set in Perak, Malaysia. A boy who feels guided by his dead twin, a young woman strongly attached to her stepbrother, and mysterious deaths that might be the work of a tiger: does that nail it? Read on!
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.
Two books about teenage girls forced from their homes in what initially appear to be very different circumstances. In the first, a fourteen-year-old Lithuanian is transported to the Siberian tundra in 1940; in the second, a nineteen-year-old is compulsorily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in mid-1950s England. The first memoir, the second fiction, both books are about the struggle to survive in alien environments.
Published this month are the debut novels of two promising Irish writers, both looking back to that country’s history, through the changes wrought by time on a family home. In the first it’s a humble farmhouse and overnight refuge for freedom fighters in the War of Independence, barely inhabitable when an exile considers buying it a hundred years later. In the second it’s the grand house of the local gentry when the narrator first crosses the threshold as a ten-year-old servant, and latterly the hotel where he reviews the eighty-plus decades of his life. And if you’re wondering about the coincidence of the blue covers, why not look back on this post?
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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