Two historical novels about the fight for political reform, in which a peaceful gathering of protesters is savagely put down. The first is about the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence in the years between the two world wars. The second is set in Britain a century earlier and focuses on the working-class battle for basic human rights. Of course, both are packed with interesting characters too!
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 gripping novels that begin with an unexpected death in the family: in the first, set in Scotland, it’s the main character’s niece; in the second, set in Australia, it’s the protagonist’s brother. In both cases, the evidence points to suicide, until the deceased’s relatives start poking around. Both protagonists discover more than they bargained for but nevertheless benefit from confronting the truth. Both novels are also about male violence and sibling rivalry.
Two novels about eighteen-year-old women who abandon the advantages of their previous identities to make common cause with oppressed peoples, at great risk to themselves. In the first, set in 2000, Aden travels from a secular society in California to study Islam, and to join the jihad. In the second, set in 1944, Luce leaves her bourgeois family in Italy to experience first-hand the Nazi labour camps. Are these rebellious adolescents idealists or deluded, or a little of both?
Two novels which feature murders, and the police called in to investigate, but with much more about them than that. The first is a German satire on the European Union; the second a love story set in Belize.
Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif and American Louisa Hall both published their third novels last autumn, both approaching the theme of war and weaponry from an oblique angle. Both employ multiple narrators of stories originating in America, but with different settings and tone. The first is a contemporary satire of the American military misadventures in Islamic lands; the second a philosophical exploration of bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.
I’ve recently been reading two satirical novels about nationalism and social media, the first set in India, the second in the UK.
Reading these books consecutively, I doubted I could legitimately pair their reviews. The first focuses on the tensions in an Anglo-French family Christmas, the second an Icelandic fishing village anticipating a celebratory concert in mid-summer. But both are about the pain beneath a deceptively tranquil surface, and the psychological distance between people living in close proximity.
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.
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.
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.
Two novels about young Asians migrating to the USA: in the first, an Indian man receives a cultural, sexual and political education in New York; in the second, a woman has been stripped of wealth, lover and purpose when she leaves her native Philippines to shack up with relatives in a poor part of California.
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.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
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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