As if my head weren’t buzzing enough with the enigma of identity, I’ve recently read two translated novels exploring the gap between where the characters come from and where they ended up. In the first, a forty-something German man has given little thought to his origins across the border; in the second, two women, juggle loneliness and language difficulties as they gradually acclimatise to new lives in Australia, far from home.
I sometimes wonder if the link between books is too tenuous to pair the reviews; less often, I worry they might be too alike. These two new novels about curmudgeonly widowers reluctantly rubbing shoulders with other retirees in what feels to them like death’s waiting room seemed to belong to the latter category: second novels about men at odds with their grown-up daughters finding a kind of redemption when an unlikely friend intrudes upon their private space. Both have hints of humour and a quietly political backdrop of past injustice but, despite the surface similarities, once I was lost in the pages I realised that no two novels are ever the same.
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.
Meet Abdallah, an Omani businessman who grew up without a mother, and Michael, a convenience-store worker in Toronto of Trinidadian heritage, who grew up without a dad. Each is somehow too sensitive for the community that contains them, with confusing expectations of masculinity they don’t easily meet. While Abdallah is rich in money and relatives, and Michael, alone with his mother, can hardly make ends meet, both are the products of rapidly changing cultures, both have seen violence and both have reason for regret.
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’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
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.
Annecdotal is marking refugee week with two new translations: a novella and novel by authors with direct experience of being a refugee. The first is an innovative collaboration between current residents of the Palestinian camp in Shatila and a London-based publisher; the second is by and about a Bosnian Muslim exiled to Croatia who later arrived in Scandinavia as a refugee.
When the press release described Speak No Evil as “a novel about the power of words”, I thought it would fit nicely with Missing, about a translator who has personal reasons for using precise verbalisations. But, although I could see what the publishers were getting at, it didn’t chime strongly with my reading experience. Nevertheless, these short novels – the first from the UK, the second from the US and Nigeria – have something in common: the grief and guilt that has diverted a woman’s life after a tragic misunderstanding at the age of eighteen. But, given that exactly how that happened is part of the mystery, you won’t find much about that in my reviews. Don’t let that stop you reading on, as both these novels are well worth your time.
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.
Our species has enslaved our fellow human beings for millennia, an abomination that continues to this day. While literature quite rightly reminds us of the industrial-scale trade in people between Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean, some historical human rights abuses are less well known. So, painful as the subject matter might be, I was pleased to widen my knowledge through these two novels: the first focusing on African slavery of other Africans in 19th-century Ghana; the second about people forcibly transported from 17th-century Iceland to Algeria. Both feature strong women from a period when female voices were often silenced and consider the psychological and political complexities beyond the polarised roles of victim and villain.
When we find ourselves unmoored, we might be extra motivated to seek to consolidate our roots. That’s the slim connection between these two novels in which a woman confronting terrible loss decides to research her family tree. Both involve a story of migration: Jane Ashland’s ancestors moved from Norway to the USA; Neha’s in The One Who Wrote Destiny came from Kenya (and before that India) to the UK. For another novel about tracing the members of an extended family, see Kintu.
Given the chance, wouldn’t you live in a comfortable right-on community where none of your neighbours voted for Brexit or Trump? Where people read books, and supported libraries, and no-one hung plastic bags of dog poo from the trees? But you know what would happen if you packed up and moved there? You’d have the neighbours on your back for putting out the bins too early, or letting your dandelions run to seed. Because it’s in the nature of utopian societies to have a downside, often manifest in a denial of our baser human instincts and/or excessive control. It makes great fodder for fiction, however, as I hope to show in my review of Celeste Ng’s latest novel set in 1990s suburban America. Alongside that, I’ve gone back to basics with my first-time read of the original Utopia, published 500 years ago.
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.
When I’m not sure what to make of a recent read, it sometimes helps if I couple it with something equally enigmatic. A common thread, even if it’s not the theme the author intended, affords me at least the illusion of understanding. So following White Tears, in which a young white man in contemporary America experiences the terror of a black man in the 1920s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, with My Falling Down House, in which a former Tokyo “salaryman” experiences homelessness, helped me gain my bearings on both.
With my own short story collection scheduled for November next year, I thought I should give more blog space to the short story. But although I managed to pick the winner of the BBC short story award, the first two of these collections knocked my confidence in my ability to review the short form. Listed in the order I read them, the third has me fizzing with excitement about what the short story can achieve. See what you think!
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
Apologies for the less-than-inspiring title – and anyway, aren’t all novels about how lives intersect? – but I’m pulling this post together in a bit of a rush to move a backlog of reviews before the end of the year. Each of these novels is by an established writer who isn’t dependent on my short-out whose previous novel I reviewed very positively here, both Laird Hunt’s and Maggie O’Farrell’s eliciting instructions-for-a-novel posts. Their new novels are listed in ascending order of number of point of view characters. (Of course!)
After reading The Things We Thought We Knew shortly before its publication back in June, I decided to hang back for another novel on psychosomatic illness or acquired disability with which to pair my review. But picking up The Burning Girl more recently, I was struck by the commonalities between these two novels, not only in the obvious sense of a girl in her late teens looking back on an intense friendship, but in the depth of disturbance resulting from its loss. As happened when I coupled two novels on male infidelity, discovering the similarities enhanced my appreciation of both. While neither pairing uncovered themes of particular personal relevance for me (which can enhance my enjoyment), the fact that they matter sufficiently for more than one author persuades me that other readers might find more to savour. Do let me know if that applies to you!
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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