History can’t have got the memo. The virus destined to put the world on pause has had us glued to the news: first with the exposure of right-wing government incompetence, then with the spotlight on racism we can no longer ignore. Whether this depresses or delights us, it’s hard to keep up. What’s the role of the writer – particularly writers like me with a tiny readership – in historic times? Should novelists switch to facts from fiction? Should we try to shape historic discourse or step back and observe?
If you’re reading through the lockdown, or listening to more music, you might be interested in these two books featuring dual narratives connected via an “instrument” of the arts. The second is a translated novella set in and around a real-life bookshop and publishing house; the first is about heartbreak compounded by the fear of letting go from a publisher who mostly does translations.
Sometimes, the covers of books I’ve paired for review are so well matched, despite differences in genre, it appears I’ve put them together for aesthetic reasons. But, while I like to dress my blog attractively, it’s the content that counts. These two translated novels fictionalise real-life historical figures who were meticulous observers of the world around them. The first is still celebrated 500 years later; the second has been forgotten in the half-century since her death.
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.
I’ve recently read two novels in which a widower has an uncanny encounter with someone from the fringes which, for them at least, feels replete with meaning. Jim Crace’s widower is also mourning the end of his musical career; whereas, twenty years younger, Rebecca F John’s widower is offered a fresh start in caring for his newborn baby daughter.
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.
I didn’t expect to pair these two novels. I’d already begun reading another Second World War novel to accompany The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, and The Angel in The Stone was going to wait for another novel on mental health. But the latter seemed a good fit for the latest flash fiction challenge and, as I’ve mentioned recently, it’s fun to find unexpected links. Both these novels feature families across three generations; address conflict between brothers; are wholly or partly set in Scotland; and showcase the characters’ musical tastes. Both fictional families have hidden some of their history from the younger generation in a manner that makes life just that little bit harder. Read on, and see what you think.
I do like it when your comments challenge my thinking about the novels I’ve reviewed. Norah Colvin is very good in this, and she recently got me wondering, in response to my post Married or single, something’s missing: First Love & All Grown Up, if the connections I see between novels might differ from what others would find. Although I sometimes stress (in an extremely laid-back manner) about my inability to find a partner for a novel overdue its review, I think finding unexpected commonalities is part of the fun. While the link is obvious in Two novels about a passion for vinyl, what could possibly unite a historical novel about a real murder case and a translated novel about a contemporary musician? For me both Lea and See What I Have Done are stories of a young woman’s breakdown in the context of enmeshed family relationships. Now see what you think!
The digital revolution has massively changed the way we listen to music, yet vinyl has been revitalised in some quarters in recent years. Perhaps it’s no surprise that contemporary novelists should review their record collections in search of new ways of exploring the human condition. But two published within three months of each other? That’s quite a coincidence. Read on to see how these established British authors have addressed the topic in very different ways.
Each of these novels provides a behind-the-scenes perspective on tourism, the first raging at the inequalities, the second poking gentle humour at those who mediate between traveller and native. Having anticipated some of the themes in a recent 99-word story composed before I read either, both, while very different from each other, are definitely my kind of book.
In contrast to the three women who shape her through childhood to early middle age, the female narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel is so insipid, she doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. Her mother, a beautiful Jamaican-born feminist, autodidact and activist who resembles Nefertiti, delegates parenting to her less ambitious husband while she plots her escape from the confines of gender, race and class. She barely tolerates our narrator’s intense friendship with Tracey, the only other brown-skinned girl at their North London dancing class. With her doting, but foul-mouthed white English mother and absent African Caribbean father (whom the little girl claims is on tour with Michael Jackson, when he’s actually in prison), Tracey’s allotment of advantage and disadvantage mirrors hers. Their relationship pirouettes around a shared passion and a suppressed mutual envy: while Tracey has the skill and talent to make it to the stage, the narrator’s relative stability with a loving father provide some compensation for her flat feet.
These three novels featuring three fictional celebrities take us from the leader of an anti-establishment artists’ movement in 1930s Australia, to an Arab-Berber boxer in colonial Algeria and to a Nigerian musician and political activist in late 20th-century Kenya. Each illustrates the intertwining of social and psychological issues, and the costs and compromises of fame.
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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Read Shall I show you what it’s like out there? my latest short story hot off the press.
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