I’ve been interested in fictional Korea since coming across Adam Johnson's chilling novel about the cruelly crazy North Korean regime, The Orphan Master's Son. Later, I learnt that all is not rosy in South Korea either via The Defections by Hannah Michell, and about the brutal response to a rebellion in that country through the translated novel, Human Acts by Han Kang. Courtesy of Picador and Faber and Faber, I’m pleased for the opportunity to read two more novels, both debuts, providing insights into Korean politics, people and culture. Shelter is about a family of Korean immigrants to North America. How I Became a North Korean tells of the fortunes and misfortunes of North Korean defectors crossing the border to China.
Sometimes fiction furnishes a necessary escape from harsh reality. Sometimes it helps us interpret a confusing world. At other times it provides a safe space to explore disturbing issues we’d rather turn away from. These two books from small independent presses fall into the latter category: important stories, but I wouldn’t be supporting them if they weren’t also a good read. Personally, I’d rather dark truth than artificial light, but mostly, as these are, I want my stories well told.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Among Saturday’s headlines, we learn that a middle-aged man is involved in a loving relationship. That’s news? Sadly, it is, when the man is a middle manager (a.k.a. a bishop) in the Church of England and the object of his affection is another man. It’s already feeling too much information when I’m told he’s unmarried and celibate. Oh, so he’s invisibly gay? Cue big sigh of relief?
As I’m not a member of the church, and have no desire to become one – although I’ve never been known to forgo the opportunity to sing praises to the guy-in-the-sky in one of their magnificent buildings – perhaps it’s not my business. Except that this hypocritical organisation has a stake, through seats in the House of Lords, in governing my country. Wouldn’t it be nice, until such time as they are abolished, if they adhered to the laws of the land and basic human rights that permit same-sex marriage (an institution the church tends to be particularly fond of) and physical expression of love? But it seems they’d rather avoid a split from their branches overseas (including those countries in which homophobia is sanctioned by the state) than take the moral stance they’d like to claim is theirs.
It’s almost a year until my second novel, Underneath, is published. As it starts with looking around a house, I had it in mind when I posted my guest prompt over at the Carrot Ranch recently. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this would herald a theme cutting across much of my reading and reviews, from Nolan’s work on a building site in Journeyman, to an updated Wildfell in The Woman Who Ran, to the isolated manor house in The Sacred Combe, a large house in Nigeria in This House is not For Sale, a farmhouse in upstate New York which has been bought on the cheap in All Things Cease to Appear and an entire street in Prosperity Drive. Now I’m adding to that list with a novel about a former show house on an unfinished Irish housing estate from which, one by one, all four members of a family disappear and another about the strange children who come to live in an isolated mansion.
Less than a week after I published my post on how we relate to fictional characters as if they were real, I was chatting to a farmer out on the moors. He was on his quad bike looking for some motorbikers who’d trespassed on the land that feeds his sheep and cows; I was patrolling on foot enjoying the sunshine and wildlife and hoping the next people I asked to put their dog on a lead would comply. We spoke about the impact of the human footprint (and tyre) on the changing landscape, and he referred to other farmers he knew in tourist hotspots who have to contend with far more visitors. Ever conscious of my limited countryside knowledge, I wanted to tell him that I knew a farmer too. But I didn’t, because the farmer I had in mind lives in a book. So I’m telling you instead. As Norah commented on my cognitive poetics post, finding a suitable channel to sound off about our reading is part of the motivation for writing blogs.
It’s not unusual for a novel to tell a story from different viewpoints, or from the same point-of-view character at different points and/or places of their lives. Some writers take this a stage further, structuring their novels as a series of related but stand-alone short stories, gradually building up to a whole. Examples among my reviews are This Beautiful, The Green Road, Sophie Stark, Prosperity Drive and Vertigo. Now I’ve found a couple more, in which the disparate narratives combine to create a sense of place.
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’ve partnered these three debut novels because they’re all about preteen girls (although, in the third, Under the Udala Trees, our heroine does grow up to become a mother herself). Set in Britain, China and Nigeria they feature loneliness, religion and burgeoning sexuality with the latter two against the backdrop of war.
I was a little surprised to find that Marvellous Ways is a character, rather than a method, in Sarah Winman’s second novel but, as she reviews her long life in the company of a bereft young soldier, it turns out that a life lived according to her own ways is rather marvellous after all. Aged eighty-nine when we first meet her in 1947, her years have passed mostly alone in a remote Cornish creek. Her mother, she’s been told, was a mermaid and her father found a place “between God and medicine” in administering to the dying in their final hours, perhaps a precursor to the hospice movement featured in a couple of other novels. Marvellous finds a role for herself at the other end of life, as a very different kind of midwife to Gugu in Mo Yan’s Frog.
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.
The violence behind the beauty: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James & Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Emma and her friend Teddy are Americans visiting a forest reserve in southern India, to make a wildlife documentary about an innovative method of reuniting lost or injured baby elephants with their mothers. Manu, the younger son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting following the death of his cousin by a rogue elephant. After being orphaned by poachers and kept in captivity and worked as a temple elephant, the Gravedigger has escaped his chains and is causing havoc in the villages on the edge of the forest. Through these three strands, Tania James tells an engaging and moving story of the conflicting interests in nature conservation. It’s testament to her talent as a writer that it is possible to feel sympathy for each of the flawed characters in this novel, even when none of them come out particularly well – except maybe the elephant who is, after all, just being an elephant.
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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