Okay, so moaning about frenzied shopping and family fallouts is as integral to Christmas as turkey and tinsel and, for some, that’s part of the fun. But if the pain of Christmas surpasses your pleasure, I’ll let you into a secret: unless you have young children, or frail parents to whom you haven’t yet paid your dues – in which case, bookmark this post for when you’re free to prioritise yourself – you’re not obliged to join in. Okay, it can be tough to go against expectations, and it might require some negotiation with your nearest and dearest, but isn’t life too short to stick to the familiar, if the familiar isn’t what you want?
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.
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.
When teenagers flee the family home to fend for themselves, they swap one kind of brutality for another. And while their troubled lives will have forced them to develop survival skills in some areas, they are often more vulnerable than their peers in others, such as emotional literacy. But real-life tragedy can make engrossing fiction as you’ll find if you let the young narrators of these two novels lead you into the wilderness: Jaxie in Western Australia and Sal and her younger sister in Scotland. For real-life youth homelessness, mostly in urban areas, Centrepoint (in the UK) is worth supporting.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
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.
Hot on the heels of two novels about the messy aftermath Zimbabwean independence, come a couple more set in erstwhile outposts of the British Empire as the colonisers depart. Both focus on the experience of minorities favoured by the British who find themselves relegated in the new regimes: Indians in Kenya in Dance of the Jakaranda; the Karen in Burma in Miss Burma. Along with the politics, both explore the impact on identity of religion and race.
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.
These two novels reimagine well-known stories from the perspective of women who find themselves banished in disgrace from their parents’ homes. The first is about a witch who features in Homer’s Odyssey; the second about a nun who proves to be a keen observer of Tudor politics. In carving out her own place in the world, each woman discovers there’s not much to envy in the upper echelons of society.
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.
Two debut novels by women about women reviewing their (successful and stable) marriages in the context of an important relationship for one partner that’s not shared with the other. In the first, the wife’s passion for God and poetry leads her into the mind, arms and eventual bed of a man who isn’t her husband; in the second, the wife, emerging from her grief at her husband’s sudden death, becomes suspicious about the nature of his secret friendship with a woman he’s met on business trips abroad. Both authors employ non-linear structure to good effect.
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.
An epic story of cultural change in Uganda and a novella set in an idyllic English community, these debuts have little in common apart from the strange affliction and that I’m happy to recommend them both. In the first, multiple branches of an extended family at the beginning of the twenty-first century are affected by a curse on their ancestor 250 years before. In the second, James probably feels cursed when he wakes up one morning to find he can’t move half his face.
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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