As I speed walk along the path, the low sun flickers on and off through the trees. Dark light, dark light, it dizzies my brain as if I’m in a zoetrope, making me pause and clasp a column of rough bark for balance. Usually, I welcome the winter sun on my face, but now I turn from the light that mocks me. Usually, I’m good at seeing in the dark but, even after Brexit, I did not foresee the triumph of Trump and I’m distraught.
Let me introduce you to two novels by established female authors about young people struck down by serious illness, set in the social context of the British National Health Service, the first in its contemporary incarnation and the second at its inception.
Since childhood, Thelonius Liddell has striven for excellence in an attempt to forget the trauma of seeing his father murder his mother. At a university careers day, he’s recruited into the US intelligence agency by Becky Firestone, the somewhat disturbed daughter of the director whom Thelonius eventually marries. When we first meet Liddell he’s already a dead man, writing his memoir in the ten metre square cell in the clandestine containment unit he calls The Beige Motel. Now preferring the name Ali, he was converted to Islam by his wizened cellmate in a squalid (presumably Iraqi) prison, where he is accused of the murder of a man and his young daughter and of desecrating the Koran. His conversion was part of a deal brokered by a young woman, Fatima, but, like almost everything else in this multi-layered thriller about the war on terror, we have to keep on turning the pages to uncover the truth. While I’m inclined to agree that, as Fatima says, Stupidity has taken over the process of government in both countries, there’s nothing stupid in this complex tale of compromised morality and the fragility of the human mind.
I hadn’t been reviewing for very long, when I was invited to contribute to the book recommendation site, Shiny New Books. Honoured as I was, I didn’t feel ready back then, but kept it in mind. After Victoria posted a lovely early review of Sugar and Snails on the site and hosted my guest post on writing about secrets, I resolved to keep an eye out for suitable books to review. I’m pleased to announce that my reviews of The Social Brain and Playthings were accepted for the latest edition so if you’re satisfied with the easy answer to my question you can go straight to the reviews by clicking on the images. But if you’d like to discover another connection, then read on.
Over half a century ago, the social scientist and psychoanalyst, Isabel Menzies Lyth was commissioned to carry out an investigation into why so many promising nursing students were dropping out of training. What she discovered makes edifying reading for anyone using, or employed within, the human services or, indeed, any organisation at all. Despite the best intentions of all the staff, the social systems that had evolved within the hospital were like a spanner in the works, functioning against the primary task of healing the sick. Many highly motivated students, despairing at the impossibility of delivering compassionate care, simply left. Yet this human wastage was built into a system that relied on a high volume of low-paid students to deliver patient care, without having sufficient posts for them to move on to on qualification. Although the work is radically different, I’ve wondered for some time whether there’s a similar redundancy built into the creative writing industry, encouraging the dreams of far more budding writers than there are slots in the publishers’ lists.
As Christmas Eve is the traditional time for ghost stories and the Gothic, so today’s the day to share a couple of my recent reads to have you scared to go to bed.
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
With three high-profile husbands and two serious relationships with female colleagues, the life of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, seems to have been as original as her research endeavours. While criticised as both a woman in a man’s world and a populariser of social science, as well as her findings on the sexual freedoms of Samoan society being subject to challenge, she remains – according to my totally unscientific survey of one – the best-known anthropologist of all time. In Euphoria, Lily King brings her vividly to life in this fictionalised account of a woman with a very similar history to Mead’s during a period of fieldwork along New Guinea’s Sepik river in 1933.
Nell and her husband Fen – malarial, injured and dejected after five months with the dreadful Mumbanyo tribe, she in particular despairing at their neglect and mistreatment of babies – are about to return to Australia when Bankson, another anthropologist based on Mead’s third husband, Gregory Bateson, familiar to me through the double-blind theory, persuades them to reconsider.
High-powered advertising executive, James Marlowe, is delighted when he wins the brief to create a new campaign for an international bank. But his involvement in the corporate world comes at a heavy cost, as he becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol in a vain attempt to keep the unethical nature of this endeavour out of mind. This distances him from his beloved wife and son and, eventually, from himself, as a psychotic breakdown lands him in a psychiatric hospital, terrified by a collection of plastic and metal animals and figurines which he calls The Zoo. It’s there that the reader first meets him, and there that we sit alongside him as he gradually pieces together the sequence of events that have brought him to the lowest point of his life.
The perspective on corruption is chilling, to quote one of the minor characters, Lou, the moral voice of the novel (p234-5):
Three days after her sixteenth birthday, Lydia Lee is dead. As with the Mormon family in A Song for Issy Bradley, the different ways in which her parents and siblings, older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah, react to the loss brings further hurt to them all. The favourite child of both parents, it seems that Lydia has held them together; her absence reveals and widens the cracks in the family system.
The parents met at Harvard: James a postgraduate student delivering his first ever lecture on that great American archetype, the cowboy; Marilyn an undergraduate determined to make it in the male-dominated world of medicine. Pregnancy and marriage puts paid to her ambitions as they move to small-town Ohio where James has been offered a teaching post. Chillingly, their marriage would be illegal in some States: James is the only son of Chinese immigrants and, in 1958, interracial relationships are taboo.
Alice’s parents divorced when she was two, her photographer father moving out and leaving her in the dubious care of her mother, a narcissistic former model. Shunned by her elder siblings, and friendless at school, Alice takes refuge in her imaginary friend. Sam is always available when she needs him but, of course, she eventually grows out of her childish attachment, finding a real friend in her mid teens in Rory and his glamorous older brother, Jonathan. Ten years on, Alice is driving Rory and his partner, Daniel, back from her father’s wedding, when a lorry crashes into them and kills her friend. She wakes up from a three-week coma to find Sam at her bedside, her imaginary friend grown-up. As she tries to regain a normal life, Sam proves to be both a comfort and an embarrassment: no-one else can see or hear him and friends and family are bemused when she talks to him in public. Of course they’re concerned for her sanity but, as Sam develops his own identity, that could be the least of her problems. Sam becomes as dependent upon her as she is on him and, regardless of her own desires, he wants her for himself. Sam’s possessiveness and presumption of Alice’s indebtedness for his earlier generosity is chillingly reminiscent of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.
The delivery room is the moniker Mira Braverman‘s husband, Peter, ascribes to the office in their North London flat from which she operates her psychotherapy practice. Over a period of just over a year, the reader bears vicarious witness to the trials and tribulations of her patients while Mira struggles to prevent her own pain intruding upon the therapeutic hour.
This is a beautiful novel about what it is to be human: about birth and death; grief and yearning; and the boundaries between public and private. It’s about conflict, from minor misunderstandings to the fragmentation of nations and all-out war. It’s about national identity, about insiders and outsiders and the risks entailed in genuinely getting to know another human being. Like therapy itself, it’s a gentle novel woven with textured detail, absorbing and gripping while proceeding patiently, eschewing formulaic tropes and attention-grabbing gimmicks, towards some deeper truth.
The narrative progresses from multiple points of view. Although, at least initially, I balked at the head hopping, it’s successful in both adding layers of nuance to the story and in highlighting one of the most interesting aspects of the therapeutic relationship. Each of Mira’s patients meets a plump woman in late middle age with an Eastern European accent, but what they make of this varies with their own personalities and needs. One perceives her as maternal; another sees a Russian or Czech intellectual; the one who comes closest to seeing her as she really is snipes at her for being a Serbian at the time of the Balkan conflict. Yet there’s a touch of humour in their different assumptions about the abstract painting hanging on her wall.
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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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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Read Shall I show you what it’s like out there? my latest short story hot off the press.
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