For those fearing lockdown more than government mismanagement of the pandemic, July 4th is England’s Independence Day. (Apart from Leicester, where restrictions have been tightened due to a sudden surge in coronavirus cases.) If the response to the reopening of inessential shops is anything to go by, a mass of masked and unmasked people will flock to pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, but I won’t be among them. The former would never have been a priority, but I’ve hesitated over the third: I’m fond of my hairdresser, I’ve missed her through three missed appointments, but I’ve grown surprisingly attached to my lockdown hair.
As these might be the only non-fiction books I read this year, I was keen to link them. So following on from two novels about dislocation, I’m delighted to share reviews about the opposite. Unfortunately I got myself lost in the first, aimed at readers with a more solid grounding in Greek and Roman antiquities, but managed to navigate better through the second, which is about literally and metaphorically finding and losing our way.
While separated by style – the first literary lyrical, the second more off-the-peg – and setting – the first wilderness, the second three cityscapes – these two novels are united by more than a character named Tomas. The main characters of both stories are preoccupied with meticulous observation of the environment: for animal research in Tiger whereas in The Museum of Broken Promises, surveillance might be a more appropriate word. And while the latter is about conserving objects and memories, nature conservation is one of the themes of the first.
Too many clergymen, in my experience, set themselves above the hoi polloi, considering themselves above criticism due to their “direct line” to God. I certainly found that in the Catholic response to John Boyne’s novel on sexual abuse in the church. The Reverend Pearson, in The Wind That Lays Waste, set in rural Argentina in the recent past, is guilty of not much more than arrogance, while the Priest in Beastings, set in Cumbria in more God-fearing times, is plain evil. Both men are on a geographical and psychological mission: Pearson’s itinerant evangelism interrupted when his car breaks down, while the Priest leaves his cosy cottage for the Lake District fells on the trail of a runaway girl who knows too many of his secrets.
As my next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, has three point-of-view characters, I’m always curious to see how others handle three-handers. But that’s not the main reason I chose to read these two novels. Both are set against the backdrop of the tangled web of history tying the Indian subcontinent with Britain. The first links the dying days of the Raj to a British-born woman of Bengali heritage settled in Wales. The second brings characters from Karachi, London and Portsmouth to the deserts of war-torn Iraq.
Two novels set in Britain that feature climbing. In the first, it’s the hobby verging on obsession of three of the four main characters, in a homage to Sheffield and the nearby Peak District National Park; in the second, a cli-fi thriller, surmounting the wall is what the narrator and his peers are conscripted to prevent. Thanks to publishers Chatto and Windus and to Faber for my review copies.
Two recent debuts about women on an unplanned journey of self discovery: the first by finding a place of healing after years of trauma; the second by uncovering the truth about her parentage. Both women must travel to another part of the British Isles to find redemption; both must overcome obstacles to their understanding, to loving and being loved.
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.
I can recommend both of these novels about women whose lives are entangled with that of one man. In the first, three Australian friends are stalked by an unpleasant character when they embark on a long-distance walk. In the second, three Nigerian women have managed their common husband successfully, until he introduces a fourth wife into their home.
Having decided to pair these novels on the basis of the unlikely friendships I’d gleaned from the blurbs, I was pleased to discover other commonalities that caught my attention more. Both authors bring a female perspective to life on an East Anglian farm, albeit almost a century apart. While Tina Hopgood is in her 60s and Edith Mather only fourteen, both narrators are lonely, despite having family around them, and unsure about their right to choose their own future.
When teenagers flee the family home to fend for themselves, they swap one kind of brutality for another. And while their troubled lives will have forced them to develop survival skills in some areas, they are often more vulnerable than their peers in others, such as emotional literacy. But real-life tragedy can make engrossing fiction as you’ll find if you let the young narrators of these two novels lead you into the wilderness: Jaxie in Western Australia and Sal and her younger sister in Scotland. For real-life youth homelessness, mostly in urban areas, Centrepoint (in the UK) is worth supporting.
Do houses harbour the shadows of those who lived in them before?
A few months ago, I reviewed two novels about houses with secrets. Here are two more on a similar theme, with a younger couple taking over the home an older woman’s been forced to leave. In the first it’s because she’s dead, but her spectre lingers on; in the second she’s had to move into a retirement home. In both, the young wives become almost obsessed with the previous owner, while their experiences on Valentine’s Day prove a barometer for the state of their marriages.
Martha might be twice the age of Ia in All Rivers Run Free, and could well have more than twice her education and wealth, but she shares her grief at lost loved-ones, and expectations, in a simple dwelling where the land meets the sea. Both are in parts of the British Isles that have suffered financial and cultural erosion as a result of English domination, although the Ireland where Martha’s deceased husband had a cottage is experiencing an economic revival, while Ia’s Cornwall is even more desolate for the rural poor than it is today. The authors of both these novels are female poets; read on to see whether either takes your fancy.
As far as I’m concerned, the welfare of babies and young children is a collective responsibility, so I offer no apologies for linking these three books. The first is a historical novel that begins with a fascinating account of the experience of a wet nurse in nineteenth century Spain, before moving on to the adult lives of the princess who had first turn at the breast and her milk brother, the woman’s own baby. The second is a contemporary novel set a century later, about a young American woman working as a nanny to a Japanese toddler. Both novels show the strength of attachment we can have to other people’s offspring. The third book is an uncompromising and moving memoir about a young Englishwoman who becomes pregnant as a student and decides to keep the child. Finally, because a baby is a kind of harvest of the womb, we finish with this week’s flash.
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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