History with meddlesome jinns and fairies: The Ninth Child & The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
My two final reviews for February are of historical novels with touches of culturally-appropriate magic realism. They also feature the losses and gains of relocating from a major city to a rural area in a period of rapid social change. The first is about public health and engineering in nineteenth century Scotland; the second is set between the late twentieth century and the present in post-revolutionary Iran.
These two recent reads explore physical and psychological survival, or otherwise, in extreme weather conditions. The first is a historical novel about the devastating human, climactic and economic consequences of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. The second is a translated novella about vulnerable hermit overwintering in the Italian Alps. If you choose to read either of these, you won’t be disappointed.
In what circumstances is it acceptable for women to abandon their traditional roles? What are the consequences if they should do so ill-advisedly? Although these two novels are set in different times and cultures to my own, they raised questions for me as to how far we can safely step out of line. The first novel pays homage to the forgotten women of Ethiopia who took up arms when the country was invaded by Mussolini’s troops. In the second, set in seventeenth century north Norway, the women have no choice but to do the jobs previously carried out by their menfolk when a storm at sea wipes out most of the male population, only for some to find themselves accused of witchcraft a few years later.
Here are two novels inspired by classic tales: the first, a feminist retelling of Beowulf; the second, a homage to Ulysses and James Joyce. No need to have read the source material to appreciate them – I haven’t – although the first probably works better as a stand-alone than the second.
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.
Two novels featuring mothers who leave a child/children when they’re still quite young, following the implications over several years. In the first, the narrator doesn’t know why his mother has disappeared, or even whether she’s still alive, and claims not to miss her as his older sister fills the gap where the mother belongs. The second is a dual narrative from the perspective of both mother and daughter as each suffers, in different ways, from the mother’s decision to leave Jamaica for New York. The theme gives me an excuse to sound off about attachment and share some of my own fiction, including a new 99-word story.
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.
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!
I can recommend both of these novels about women whose lives are entangled with that of one man. In the first, three Australian friends are stalked by an unpleasant character when they embark on a long-distance walk. In the second, three Nigerian women have managed their common husband successfully, until he introduces a fourth wife into their home.
I’ve recently been reading two satirical novels about nationalism and social media, the first set in India, the second in the UK.
I’m rounding off my reading year with reviews of American novels about women in their mid-20s who are estranged from everything, even themselves. While the first owns two properties and the second cleans other people’s houses for a living, they are equally desperately homeless inside. While the first namedrops designer labels, and the second cleaning products, both bring a light touch to the tragedy of feeling invisible and being insecurely attached.
Two tales of boy slaves in the nineteenth century, both of whom gain their freedom and travel overseas. Born into slavery, Washington Black’s story begins on the familiar territory of a Caribbean sugar plantation, but his adventures take him right around the world. Tsito’s enslavement in his native Madagascar is one many English readers will be unaware of; although beginning less brutally, he’s witness to a terrifying purging of Christians and suspected traitors by a vengeful queen. (Follow this link for reviews of two other less well-known slavery stories.)
I sometimes wonder if the link between books is too tenuous to pair the reviews; less often, I worry they might be too alike. These two new novels about curmudgeonly widowers reluctantly rubbing shoulders with other retirees in what feels to them like death’s waiting room seemed to belong to the latter category: second novels about men at odds with their grown-up daughters finding a kind of redemption when an unlikely friend intrudes upon their private space. Both have hints of humour and a quietly political backdrop of past injustice but, despite the surface similarities, once I was lost in the pages I realised that no two novels are ever the same.
Meet Abdallah, an Omani businessman who grew up without a mother, and Michael, a convenience-store worker in Toronto of Trinidadian heritage, who grew up without a dad. Each is somehow too sensitive for the community that contains them, with confusing expectations of masculinity they don’t easily meet. While Abdallah is rich in money and relatives, and Michael, alone with his mother, can hardly make ends meet, both are the products of rapidly changing cultures, both have seen violence and both have reason for regret.
Kimiâ and Zebra are women in their early 20s with roots in the Mazandaran region of Iran. Both have been shaped by their fathers’ intellectual and political allegiances that forced them into exile as young girls. Both have grown into young adults slightly distant from their own emotions but, while Kimiâ, now living in Paris, has forged an identity that separates her from her family of origin, Zebra, now an orphan travelling from New York to Barcelona, is disturbed and disturbingly loyal to her heritage.
Follow this link for other accounts of the refugee experience.
If you’re going on holiday this summer, you might be tempted to take one of these novels with you. The first focuses on the people who entertain and assist the visitors to a Victorian pier at an English seaside resort across a period of over a century; the second on a family taking a long holiday together on the coast of Finland. But, of course, while it might be all smiles and bonhomie on the surface, there are disconcerting undercurrents to keep you turning the page. Let me know which takes your fancy.
Do houses harbour the shadows of those who lived in them before?
A few months ago, I reviewed two novels about houses with secrets. Here are two more on a similar theme, with a younger couple taking over the home an older woman’s been forced to leave. In the first it’s because she’s dead, but her spectre lingers on; in the second she’s had to move into a retirement home. In both, the young wives become almost obsessed with the previous owner, while their experiences on Valentine’s Day prove a barometer for the state of their marriages.
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.
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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Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
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The Best of Fiction on the Web
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Read My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
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