There seems to be a chain of connections between my reviews so far this month; either of these novels, but especially the first, could have been paired At Dusk. Although the school friends in Ponti aren’t reunited until late in the novel while, in Falling Leaves it’s towards the beginning and after a gap of only seven years, the resonance is perhaps equally strong. And, no, they didn’t make contact through a now-defunct social media site, nor at a school reunion, but you’ll have to read on to find out how.
Earlier this year, I attended a school reunion. While it was fun to reconnect with friends I’d met up with ten years ago, plus others I last saw in school uniform, there were disappointments. Some of friends were noticeable by their absence and others, as an introvert overwhelmed by the profusion of people, I couldn’t begin to be curious about until the following day.
I thought about this when I came to review these two novels, both about reconnecting with people from our pasts. In the first, a man has largely forgotten his childhood sweetheart, as well as the slum in which they both grew up. In the second, a woman feels a surprisingly strong connection with an older woman she visited for only an hour as a child.
A couple of weeks ago, challenged to compose a 99-word story combining mashed potatoes with a superpower, I chose love. Because, as these two novels testify, along with a third I reviewed at the end of last month, love is rarely straightforward, and for some an impossible dream. In Land of the Living, Georgina Harding shows how a husband’s wartime trauma, in conjunction with his wife’s inexperience, acts as a barrier to intimacy. In the City of Love’s Sleep also focuses on romance, in this case the approach-avoidance dance of a man and woman still legally or psychologically bound to another, while Nothing but Dust is a startlingly honest account of the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
Amid my musings on identity, I’m fascinated by how religion shapes the someone we might become. Part of the legacy of a Catholic childhood is, for me, a curiosity about the social systems of irrationality, indoctrination and segregation, especially in their extreme forms. What attracts people to such institutions and how do they withdraw? Women Talking addresses the latter question; The Incendiaries the first.
I’ve recently relished two novels focusing on under-acknowledged women at points of political and ideological change. In the first, Mary Treat, a real-life scientist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, is seen through the eyes of Thatcher Greenwood, a fictional schoolmaster blocked from exposing his Christian pupils to evolutionary ideas. Unsheltered also includes a contemporary strand which all-too-recognisably depicts the casualties of a culture consuming its way to its own destruction. Old Baggage is set in a period between the two, when, ten years after (some) British women had won the vote, the heroism of those who fought for the franchise is largely forgotten in a battle between socialism and fascism for the minds of the youth.
Fictional writers can be tricky on the page; sometimes I suspect a character’s assigned the job because the author’s unfamiliar with more run-of-the-mill kinds of work. But, like anything else that’s slightly iffy, if you’re going to go for it, it’s best to go for it big time. That’s what Irish writer John Boyne does with his larger-than-life antihero Maurice Swift and American Andrew Sean Greer with “failed novelist” Arthur Less, both simultaneously managing to address the wider issues of human vanity and what constitutes a well-lived life.
Two novels about British women working in a war zone: Kay as a journalist in Africa; Emma processing asylum applications in Iraq. Despite the dangers and deprivations, both felt invigorated by their work; something’s lost in marriage (plus children for Kay) and a move to the USA (temporarily for Kay with a summer rental; supposedly permanently for Emma and her soldier husband). Both novels capture the lure of extreme situations which, once savoured, set the women apart.
Two novels based on real-life deaths in the same decade of the mid-nineteenth century, deaths that were never completely explained. The first of a young woman in southern England, the second of dozens of pioneers heading for the American Wild West. The books’ female authors have perhaps taken different approaches to their source material. See what you think.
These two novels translated from Italian couldn’t be more different: a pastoral coming-of-age story in the Italian Alps follows a twisty-turny political thriller in modern-day Rome. Yet together they build a picture of contemporary Italy amid the ruins of the past.
Earlier this year, I reviewed two novels in which disgraced daughters were banished from home. Although not cut off from family, the daughters in these two new novels have an even harder time in their enforced separation from wider society, with a violent father – or his proxy – governing their every move. While in Ghost Wall, Silvie’s participation in the Iron Age re-enactment is temporary, the three sisters in The Water Cure, are persuaded that without their seclusion they would die.
Two novels about same-sex love and sex in communities which frown upon such couplings: the first between women in 1930s Syria and the second between men in 1950s England. Both novels feature dreams, or dreamlike occurrences: in the first, a bureaucrat stumbles upon an isolated house on a rainy night where he’s mesmerised by an old man’s story; in the second, a scientist undergoing “chemical castration” has some vivid dreams.
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.
I recently read a translated novella set in 1920s Sicily followed by a novel set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Both evoke the difficulty of leading a moral life in a society in which power has been wrested from the official representatives of law and order into a highly organised but politically unaccountable alternative body, and the stresses on ordinary people of such a regime. In the first, it’s the Mafia that controls the populace; in the second, the paramilitaries, including the IRA.
Can you rewrite your own history and get away with it? That’s what Joseph Silk and Mary Holmes, lead characters in these two new novels, seem to have done. Both have been motivated to avoid traumatic memories – but there are consequences. In Joseph’s case, it’s been the impact on his family; in Mary’s, it’s a lifetime of guilt. Both novels feature a bond between young and old. Both address aspects of the Second World War: Joseph takes his suffering under Nazi-inspired racism in Hungary to his grave; far away in relatively safe Dorset, the backdrop of war pushes Mary to confess. Read my reviews and see whether you sympathise with the decisions they took.
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.
I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
These two novels reimagine well-known stories from the perspective of women who find themselves banished in disgrace from their parents’ homes. The first is about a witch who features in Homer’s Odyssey; the second about a nun who proves to be a keen observer of Tudor politics. In carving out her own place in the world, each woman discovers there’s not much to envy in the upper echelons of society.
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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