In a recent review post, I described a novel as an undemanding read, and when, I did so a second time, I was challenged to define what I meant. Pondering this on a morning walk, it struck me that it’s easier to identify what such a book isn’t than what it is, which feels rather negative or damning with faint praise. Which wasn’t my intention, at least consciously. But don’t you also find that some books – and particularly novels – are just okay, without there being anything special about them? And is that in itself okay?
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.
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.
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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