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.
Here I’ve paired two recent British novels inspired by real-life disasters affecting entire communities: the first being the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; the second a plane crashing into a tower block in 1996 Amsterdam. I didn’t find either easy to get into, but both rewarded patient reading. See what you think!
Only in court are we required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. In our ordinary lives, we stretch, bend and turn it inside out. Not always intentionally, or even consciously, but simply to smooth human interactions and present the best version of ourselves. In the first of these two novels, a Wild-West outlaw needs to create an alter ego to survive, while a frontiers woman needs to revise the details of a family tragedy in order to live with herself. In the second, a lie gives a teenage girl a reprieve from loneliness, and an elderly woman a chance to be heard.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
While separated by style – the first literary lyrical, the second more off-the-peg – and setting – the first wilderness, the second three cityscapes – these two novels are united by more than a character named Tomas. The main characters of both stories are preoccupied with meticulous observation of the environment: for animal research in Tiger whereas in The Museum of Broken Promises, surveillance might be a more appropriate word. And while the latter is about conserving objects and memories, nature conservation is one of the themes of the first.
Two debut novels from female British writers featuring dodgy scientific experiments on nonconsenting participants within very dark periods of history: the holocaust in the first and the transatlantic slave trade in the second. Yet, despite both also featuring women disempowered by their husbands, and voluntary and involuntary drug abuse, each contains a thread of hope in a love story.
It’s a touchy subject, understandably, but I think there are ‘good’ psychological reasons by some women kill their babies. But the mothers in these two novels would very much have liked to have kept theirs had circumstances allowed. In the first, set in a bruised post-war Japan, Naoko is sent to an extremely dodgy maternity home when she becomes pregnant by an American sailor. In the second, set between 1860 and 1910, the women on a Maryland plantation will do anything to avoid their children growing up as slaves.
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.
Two recent debuts about women on an unplanned journey of self discovery: the first by finding a place of healing after years of trauma; the second by uncovering the truth about her parentage. Both women must travel to another part of the British Isles to find redemption; both must overcome obstacles to their understanding, to loving and being loved.
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.
While the title declares the first of these novels, set in Lagos, to be about siblings and killings, it’s not immediately obvious how it applies to the second, set in Perak, Malaysia. A boy who feels guided by his dead twin, a young woman strongly attached to her stepbrother, and mysterious deaths that might be the work of a tiger: does that nail it? Read on!
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.
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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