Reading these books consecutively, I doubted I could legitimately pair their reviews. The first focuses on the tensions in an Anglo-French family Christmas, the second an Icelandic fishing village anticipating a celebratory concert in mid-summer. But both are about the pain beneath a deceptively tranquil surface, and the psychological distance between people living in close proximity.
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.
Fictional writers can be tricky on the page; sometimes I suspect a character’s assigned the job because the author’s unfamiliar with more run-of-the-mill kinds of work. But, like anything else that’s slightly iffy, if you’re going to go for it, it’s best to go for it big time. That’s what Irish writer John Boyne does with his larger-than-life antihero Maurice Swift and American Andrew Sean Greer with “failed novelist” Arthur Less, both simultaneously managing to address the wider issues of human vanity and what constitutes a well-lived life.
Two novels about British women working in a war zone: Kay as a journalist in Africa; Emma processing asylum applications in Iraq. Despite the dangers and deprivations, both felt invigorated by their work; something’s lost in marriage (plus children for Kay) and a move to the USA (temporarily for Kay with a summer rental; supposedly permanently for Emma and her soldier husband). Both novels capture the lure of extreme situations which, once savoured, set the women apart.
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.
Two novels about same-sex love and sex in communities which frown upon such couplings: the first between women in 1930s Syria and the second between men in 1950s England. Both novels feature dreams, or dreamlike occurrences: in the first, a bureaucrat stumbles upon an isolated house on a rainy night where he’s mesmerised by an old man’s story; in the second, a scientist undergoing “chemical castration” has some vivid dreams.
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.
No prizes for guessing why I’ve connected these two novels; I don’t think I’ve ever read another book with gravity in the title – although The Weightless World is about a antigravity machine – and then I find two published in the same month. But rest assured, they’re very different reads: in the first, Lotte feels a stronger pull towards the stars in the sky than her earthly attachments; in the second, love is a force that can furnish reconnections across continents and years.
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.
Would you rather lose the use of your body or lose your mind? Both so dreadful to contemplate; perhaps it’s just as well we don’t get to choose. And neither need we choose in fiction: both these novels about brain degeneration are worth your time. In the first, a concert pianist’s encroaching paralysis due to motor neurone disease is mirrored by the psychological immobility of his ex-wife. In the second, the reader can gradually make sense of the obsessions of a woman with senile dementia through the memories of her family and carers. Painful topics but, for those who need it, these novels provide a note of lightness too.
Setting a novel in the near future requires two extra decisions. To what extent will this imagined world differ from what’s familiar today? What defines that difference? Although the social, environmental and technological developments or regressions in this fictional landscape are inevitably interlinked, one factor tends to dominate (and perhaps determines the readership to which it most appeals). At least that’s what I’ve been thinking since reading The Unit and Anna back-to-back (as well as recent dabbling in one of the subgenres myself). In the first, a democratic society has agreed (over time) that the lives of economically and socially unproductive citizens can be sacrificed for the common good. In the second, feral children roam a post-apocalyptic world in which adults have been wiped out by a virus and most of the infrastructure by a fire. Tempted? Read on!
I couldn’t resist pairing these recently published, unconventionally structured, debut novels about relationships: their intriguing one-word titles are almost interchangeable, with Alice in Asymmetry magnetically drawn to (and later repulsed by) her much older lover and the mother-daughter relationship explored in Magnetism inherently asymmetrical. My reading experience of both was mixed, strongly engaging with the second halves significantly more than the first. See what you think.
Two novels featuring women, scarred by life, who have kept themselves slightly aloof. Of the two, Eleanor Oliphant is the most damaged, but small acts of kindness, along with a crush on a self-centred musician, might bring her out of her shell. Upstate is perhaps more realistic in confronting the difficulty of change, even though, when we first meet Vanessa Querry she’s no longer lonely as she’s fallen in love. Eleanor gets the better therapist; but is either of these women completely fine?
Two historical novels addressing Spain’s internal conflicts: the first, set in Granada, takes us back 500 years to the last Muslim Court; the second, set mostly in London, begins eighty years ago with the International Brigades and resistance to Franco. Both weave a thread of hope for humanity with a romantic storyline – or two.
1989 brought a transition from communism to democracy across Eastern Europe, with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a 600 kilometre joining of hands across Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. These two novels feature a part of that story, one ending, and the other beginning, in 1989 and both, as a bonus, featuring narrators brought up by grandparents partly as a result of political events. Set in Latvia before regime change, Soviet Milk is about the difficulty of living a moral life under totalitarianism. Set in the Czech Republic in the very near future, Spaceman of Bohemia is about how a father’s collaboration impacts on the career and choices of his son.
I’m sharing my reflections on two novels in which sensitive men share their reflections on life and love. Both begin with the narrators at a loose end during the university summer vacation, the first in Barcelona, the second in London. Wabi-Sabi is the lighter of the two, in which a university lecturer travels to Japan where he is beguiled by a young woman. In The Only Story, a man’s entire life is shaped by a ten-year relationship with a vulnerable older woman he began as a nineteen-year-old student.
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!)
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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