I recently read two novels set in England almost a century apart about young women returning to their parents after their marriages break down. Unfortunately for both of them, their childhood homes are stepping stones to something more terrifying than the confidence lost from relationship failures: in the first, Grace spends months on the streets; in the second, Clara is confined to a dismal mental institution.
The young protagonists of these two novels are worlds apart in time, geography and social class and expectations. The first is a Hungarian translation about a girl sent to an elite boarding school during the Second World War; the second is a fantasy about a street kid trying to rise above his physical and social disadvantages. Both feature endearing teenagers grappling courageously with injustice and, in the process, learning about themselves.
Where once it was religion that kept the poor downtrodden, now it’s capitalism as expressed in the Great American Dream, that we can all be winners if we set our minds to it. Both these novels transport the modern mind to a time and place where characters are conscious that not everything that happens is under their control. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to appease the superpowers or exercise free will. In the first, we meet a group of thirteenth century pilgrims sacrificing earthly pleasures for an easier eternity; in the second, a young woman in modern secular India grapples with the ancient Hindu concept of fate.
I’ve recently read two alternative histories about what we do with the darker or unwanted parts of ourselves: how we reveal them to, or hide them from, ourselves and others; how societies develop rituals to manage the exposure and cleansing; how power effects what’s allowed. If that sounds overly intellectual, don’t worry; both of these have story at the heart.
My two most recent reads are of novels that map cultural changes within two very different communities. The first is set in rural Ireland during the BSE crisis at the end of the twenty-first century, as more and more people turn their backs on a traditional form of butchering. The second starts and finishes in the two decades before the first begins, in the community of recent migrants to the UK from Bangladesh. While both include scenes of violence, the second is overall a cosy story of adaptation and resilience, while the first is a literary novel of linguistic and psychological depth.
Allow me to introduce you to a pair of novels about literally and metaphorically staying afloat in choppy waters. The first is a cli-fi translated novel about abandoned children; the second a historical debut about a woman at sea in a man’s world. Both are page-turners, so read on!
These two novels feature the displacement of people and the unique cultures and environments they left behind. The first introduces us to the remote Scottish island of St Kilda whose depleted population was evacuated to the mainland in 1930. The second links Venice with the Sunderbans in the Bay of Bengal via folklore and cli-fi. Despite their complementary covers, they’re very different books.
That’s right, both novels are about daughters: the first a debut about the claustrophobic bond between mothers and daughters exacerbated by the claustrophobic island setting; the second a translation from Hebrew set in late 19th-century Russia about the consequences of a father teaching his younger daughter his unusual trade. Of course there might be other connections but, as you’ll see if you read to the end, right now, I’ve got fictional daughters on the brain.
In what circumstances is it acceptable for women to abandon their traditional roles? What are the consequences if they should do so ill-advisedly? Although these two novels are set in different times and cultures to my own, they raised questions for me as to how far we can safely step out of line. The first novel pays homage to the forgotten women of Ethiopia who took up arms when the country was invaded by Mussolini’s troops. In the second, set in seventeenth century north Norway, the women have no choice but to do the jobs previously carried out by their menfolk when a storm at sea wipes out most of the male population, only for some to find themselves accused of witchcraft a few years later.
In these two novels, a teenage girl needs a safe place to retreat from the world, but the sanctuary she’s chosen won’t easily let her go. In the first, a convent provides shelter to a girl fearful of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy; in the second, a psychiatric hospital offers a welcome respite from the strain of appearing sane. It’s pure coincidence that the main characters’ names – Dolores and Deborah – begin with the same letter and that both remind me of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
What happens when childlessness develops from being a personal matter to a problem for society as a whole? In Margaret Atwood’s imagined Gilead an alarming drop in the live birth rate calls for Draconian measures, building a society where a woman’s mind and body are subservient to her reproductive potential. In Perumal Murugan’s rural South India, childlessness is a threat to the established order, with friends and neighbours pitching in with advice and criticism, indifferent to the infertile couple’s private grief.
Two novels, based on real events, about the impact on ordinary people of terrorising revolutions within two African countries. The first, a historical novel set in Ethiopia, is the author’s debut; the second, a fictionalised account of the schoolgirls abducted in northern Nigeria only a few years ago, comes from a writer with a career spanning almost six decades. Both are harrowing, empathetic and meticulously researched.
Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Too many clergymen, in my experience, set themselves above the hoi polloi, considering themselves above criticism due to their “direct line” to God. I certainly found that in the Catholic response to John Boyne’s novel on sexual abuse in the church. The Reverend Pearson, in The Wind That Lays Waste, set in rural Argentina in the recent past, is guilty of not much more than arrogance, while the Priest in Beastings, set in Cumbria in more God-fearing times, is plain evil. Both men are on a geographical and psychological mission: Pearson’s itinerant evangelism interrupted when his car breaks down, while the Priest leaves his cosy cottage for the Lake District fells on the trail of a runaway girl who knows too many of his secrets.
Have you ever wondered what draws people into a cult, or what keeps them there? Do cults always start with good intentions and end in tears? Although neither of these novels can give us all the answers, they do provide interesting insights into what it’s like to outsource your autonomy to a community with a megalomaniac at the helm. Both are informed by real cases: the first in contemporary Britain, the second in 1970s USA.
Two novels in which a marriage of a twenty-something man and woman from superficially similar backgrounds shows early signs of strain. In the first, between Muslims in contemporary London, the politics of religion are problematic right from the start; in the second, life gets tough when a new mother follows her journalist husband to a posting in newly-independent Ukraine. All harbour secrets, communication suffers and trust is hard to find. But, with youth on their side, they’ll take something from the experience, whether or not the marriages survive.
Novelistic explorations of identity through road trips with magic realism: Lost Property & Bird Summons
While very different in style and focus, both these recently-published novels send women on road trips to learn about their individual identities within the context of contemporary Britain. In the first, three Scottish Muslim women with origins in the Arab world leave the city for a lochside holiday where they meet a talking hoopoe. In the second, a Londoner travels with her partner across Europe in a campervan encountering figures from the political and artistic past.
Two novels in which kings have their way: in the first, the Hebrew King David and English King Henry appear as characters; in the second, we see the impact of the illiterate despot who rules the unnamed Arab country in the miserable lives of the women.
Hot on the heels of The Old Drift, I found myself reading another two debuts about hair. In the first, although I don’t mention it in my review, you can see from the cover image that Queenie has great hair; in the second, the title’s a giveaway. Both novels also address discrimination (albeit not deeply enough for my liking): in the first as experienced by a young black woman in London; in the second it’s the trials of a lower caste woman in rural India condemned to shift shit with her bare hands and a Canadian lawyer hitting a professional brick wall when she gets sick.
Two short novels about doctoring, by authors with direct experience of the profession. The first, set in Egypt, is a semiautobiographical novel first published over half a century ago by one of the world’s most eminent feminists; the second, set in India, is a magic-realism story by a male author (but we won’t hold that against him). By sheer coincidence, neither of these authors names their characters, instead referring to them by role. (At least they don’t distinguish them by diagnoses!)
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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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 My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
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