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!)
Two novels about girls in the painful process of growing up. For Australian Justine, in the first novel, adolescence merely exacerbates a lifetime of neglect; for Irish Lani, in the second, it’s the begins of psychological separation from her family as she falls for a local boy.
Enid is a Scottish aristocrat who has married ‘down’; Adèle a working-class Parisian who married into the bourgeoisie. Enid considers sex a painful duty; Adèle is sex obsessed. For Enid, work is for men and servants; Adèle has a job. Born almost a century apart, the ‘heroines’ of these debuts nevertheless have similar motivations: both have been emotionally neglected by their own mothers and feel shackled by marriage and motherhood.
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?
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.
Amid my musings on identity, I’m fascinated by how religion shapes the someone we might become. Part of the legacy of a Catholic childhood is, for me, a curiosity about the social systems of irrationality, indoctrination and segregation, especially in their extreme forms. What attracts people to such institutions and how do they withdraw? Women Talking addresses the latter question; The Incendiaries the first.
I’ve recently read two semi-autobiographical debuts about highly intelligent young women battling initially protective and subsequently persecutory alter egos to assert their real selves. The first set in Nigeria and the USA, the second in the UK, they provide fresh perspectives on the experience of mental disturbance from the inside.
Two novels with an unusual perspectives on mothers and mothering: the first an Indian dystopian novel about a woman’s rapid descent down the social scale after her husband and three-year-old daughter are taken from her; the second an English psychological thriller about a woman who never had, nor wanted, children who receives a Mother’s Day card in the post.
Two novels based on real-life deaths in the same decade of the mid-nineteenth century, deaths that were never completely explained. The first of a young woman in southern England, the second of dozens of pioneers heading for the American Wild West. The books’ female authors have perhaps taken different approaches to their source material. See what you think.
finding truth through fiction
events coming soon:
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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