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.
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.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
Scouring my shelves for a book to accompany The Athenian Women, I thought I was “making do” when I picked up Such Small Hands: two translated and disturbing reads. So it was a bonus that the latter included a strand narrated in the first person plural (very like a Greek chorus as Edmund White points out in an Afterword), while the latter, set in Athens 411 BC, takes its characters to the theatre where a genuine Greek chorus stands on stage. Add in the similarities of the authors’ names (I’m assuming Italian and Spanish versions of Barber) and I couldn’t have linked them better if it was planned.
As 2018 started a few hours earlier in Australia than in the UK, it’s fitting that I should begin my reading year there. Or it could be the coincidence of kindly publicists sending me advance copies of two Australian novels published in the UK this month. The first namechecks various Sydney suburbs, while the second begins near Melbourne before circumnavigating the country. The first contemporary, the second set in the 1950s, they explore the socio-politics of Australian identities and their links to migration and colonialism.
Some moral questions to end the year and see us into the next! Is it okay for some to go hungry while others feast? Is it okay that the accident of where we are born, and to whom, determines our life chances? Does it matter that, with modernity and the march of capitalism, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening? Neither this tragicomedy set in Edinburgh nor this scattershot novel set in India have the answers, but they can entertain us while making us reflect on the issues.
My real-world promotion of World Toilet Day yesterday was somewhat eclipsed by a surprise conversation about #MeToo. Surprise because, having personally experienced only “mild” forms of unwanted sexual attention, I hadn’t jumped on this particular bandwagon, the conversation left me feeling I should have. After all, one doesn’t have to have experienced direct gender discrimination to be a feminist. One shouldn’t have to have experienced the trauma of rape to oppose the culture of misogyny that so often enables it.
The Greek myths bubble with revenge and betrayal, while the bloodthirsty tyrants of history are themselves made into to myths. Let me present two novels which reinterpret these legendary stories for the modern era, emphasising the human motivations behind the murder and mayhem. Both novels focus on famous families: in the first, the violence turns inwards in an orgy of self-destruction; in the second, the family will do almost anything to ensure their own survival. In both, the gods of the time are co-opted to sanction sacrifice and murder, while the women use their limited power as best they can.
These two novels are worlds apart in terms of style and genre, but both involve mysterious deaths set against real-life moments of rampage and riot in England during recent hot summers. In the first, a lone gunman on the rampage in 2010 Cumbria is integral to the story. In the second, the 2011 London riots provide the perfect backdrop for a domestic noir thriller.
Allow me to introduce you to two translated novels with a supernatural element, albeit less central to the story in the second. Both also give a nod to mental health issues linked to criminality: via one of the off-stage characters in Norma; a neurological disorder thought to be Korsakoff syndrome for the unfortunate narrator of Black Moses. Plus a return to Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. For another novel with a supernatural element, see my review of A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars.
Although I’ve never been sure about novels about writers, I was keen to read these two: the first about an unpublished novelist ghostwriting a memoir and the second about a poet anticipating a different kind of creativity with her first child. Both these fictional writers are brought into close contact with an unexpected other – for the first, the character whose memoir he is writing; the second, another poet who used to live in the town to which she’s recently moved – with life-changing consequences. Both novels explore the nature of the self and the permeability of the boundary with the other (and, incidentally, feature graphic scenes of childbirth). For another novel about a writer, see my review of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Has my country always been this conflicted, or is the second decade of the twenty-first century a particularly sour time for England? Can fiction help us understand our current disaffected state? If so, these two very different novels – the first a gentle exploration of fear of difference among the largely white population; the second addressing the attractions of Islamic State to young people of South Asian descent, and its more violent repercussions – might help.
If it’s irritating for novelists to be told by friends and acquaintances that they too could write a novel if they weren’t so busy doing more important things, then think how it must be for poets. Anyone with even a passing interest in words, or emotions, is likely to have composed a poem at some point, whether inspired by a sense of occasion or adolescent angst. You don’t even need a pen or a keyboard when you can juggle those lines in your head.
With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
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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