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!)
The common theme in these two recently published novels is a woman experiencing an existential crisis, taking stock of where she’s got to in life by ordering the elements that make up her external world. Sonja, the older of the two, does this through taking driving lessons, and it’s no coincidence that she struggles to take control. Miriam, past adolescence although not yet fully fledged adult, tries to achieve something similar by jettisoning her surplus possessions, and through those of a compulsive hoarder she’s employed to help. Needless to say, neither woman’s path to a more comfortable accommodation with herself is straightforward. Curious? Read on!
These two novels are worlds apart in terms of style and genre, but both involve mysterious deaths set against real-life moments of rampage and riot in England during recent hot summers. In the first, a lone gunman on the rampage in 2010 Cumbria is integral to the story. In the second, the 2011 London riots provide the perfect backdrop for a domestic noir thriller.
Although I’ve never been sure about novels about writers, I was keen to read these two: the first about an unpublished novelist ghostwriting a memoir and the second about a poet anticipating a different kind of creativity with her first child. Both these fictional writers are brought into close contact with an unexpected other – for the first, the character whose memoir he is writing; the second, another poet who used to live in the town to which she’s recently moved – with life-changing consequences. Both novels explore the nature of the self and the permeability of the boundary with the other (and, incidentally, feature graphic scenes of childbirth). For another novel about a writer, see my review of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
If we leave home at eighteen, it’s often to a particular kind of institution. For me, as for Selin in The Idiot, that means university; for Billy Lynn, as for many young working-class adults who are less academically inclined, it’s the military. While, as Selin discovers, universities encourage questioning, not all questions are received with equal relish. On the other hand, as Billy learns, the army might discourage independent thought, it can’t prevent his wondering. Will these young people find the answers they’re looking for? Read on!
With my shameful disregard for non-fiction, I glean many of my facts from fiction. So I was delighted to receive advance copies of two debut novels published this month that I hoped would extend my knowledge of shameful periods of Australian and Scottish history that still resonate to this day. Lucy Treloar and Mhairead McLeod have woven engaging stories around historical facts of land appropriation in the 19th century. Although my reviews focus more on the psychological aspects, these novels clearly articulate the socio-political context of the European colonisation of Australia in Salt Creek and the Highland Clearances in The False Men.
When I plucked A Separation from my TBR shelf shortly after reading The Squeeze, I wasn’t sure I’d get away with pairing these two novels. After featuring fictional female infidelity a few months ago, introducing you to Mats and Christopher is a way of redressing the gender balance, but neither of these novels is really about the act of sex outside marriage. It wasn’t until I read the much more philosophising A Separation, that it struck me that the more plot-driven The Squeeze is also about the impact on the meaning and relationship status the women (one wife, the other a sex worker) carry in their minds, irrespective of the bonds of legality.
Much as we like to think we’d be willing to risk our own safety to come to the aid of a fellow human being, history shows that many of us aren’t brave enough to go against the grain. But even if we do find the courage to stand apart and make a difference, is the act that feels right necessarily the right thing to do? The conundrum of humanitarian responses to wartime atrocities seems to be the central question of these two historical novels, both set in a European winter, the first during the Second World War and the second in Bosnia, this latter by one of the founders of the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
A historical novel about Arctic exploration or a novel set in a near-future South Africa? A romance or an account of a relationship falling apart? A motherless girl or a fatherless boy? Wild animals or ice? Both of these novels explore the conflict and compassion that connects us to the natural world, but it was a bonus for me to read that the protagonist of Green Lion told his friend that his father was killed in a hunting accident in the Arctic, the setting of Under a Pole Star. Read on to see if I was right to pair these reviews.
Londoner Neve is married, New Yorker Andrea is single, but they’re both struggling with similar attachment issues. Both have tried and abandoned therapy, and not only because of complex relationships with their mothers. They’re both creative types, although Andrea has given up on her art. Two women in their thirties, I’d like to put them in a room together to see if that would emphasise their individual difficulties or they’d help each other out. Failing that, I’m relying on you to judge what they can tell us, either separately or together, about contemporary women’s lives.
Should mistakes made in adolescence be allowed to blight a life? Both having spent over two decades safeguarding their own secrets, the protagonists of these two novels would hope not. While both Mark and Sheen’s mistakes have had serious consequences, they’d argue they were seduced into situations they were too young or too blinkered to understand. But now their pasts are catching up with them: Mark’s because his former lover has confessed to murder; Sheen’s because the man who stole her future refuses to face the truth. Can they confront their own responsibility without losing everything they’ve gained? And how did these students get embroiled in such a mess?
What’s special about the fox? What do we project into these beautiful, furtive and sometimes highly disruptive creatures? Two impressive debut novels depicting an individual in crisis locking eyes with a fox might go some way towards answering these questions – and other enigmas of the human condition. The first, in which the fox takes centre stage, takes place in an urban setting; the second, where the fox is only one of several animals encountered, is in a rural context. Although I have less to say about the second, I can heartily recommend both.
If you’ve ever held back from having an affair for fear of the hurt it might cause other people, let me offer you a risk-free alternative. These two novels about women with roots in America who stray from marriages to European men can furnish the excitement and eroticism without the guilt or fear of discovery. If you like to read on-screen, no-one need even know you’re having a fictional affair.
Let’s take a look at a couple of debut novels with some fine evocations of the natural world and a strong sense of place published by small independent presses based in Scotland.
Both these novels are about Nigerian women and their relationships with their culture, politics, their children and their men.
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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