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.
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.
Oh dear! As a Ranger in the Peak District, albeit only as a volunteer on alternate Sundays, I carry a sense of responsibility for the safety of visitors to the National Park. So it’s rather disconcerting to read about two teenage girls, on holiday from London, going missing there in a matter of weeks. Fortunately, both were characters in novels, and both providing the foundation for an engrossing story about the repercussions: the first for the residents of a fictional Derbyshire village; the second for the family of the girl who is found after four agonising days.
I’ve recently been reading two second novels in which a woman sets out to uncover a family’s tragic secret lodged within a large historic house, aided and abetted by a presence that might or might not be a ghost. In the first, the woman and her husband buy a crumbling manor house as a weekend retreat from London; in the second, the woman is employed in the London mansion as carer for a man who can’t throw anything away. Both have strong voices and characterisation, with beautiful descriptions, but differ sufficiently that you could happily read both. For other novels about mysterious houses see Fell by Jenn Ashworth and post What’s haunting these houses?
Given the chance, wouldn’t you live in a comfortable right-on community where none of your neighbours voted for Brexit or Trump? Where people read books, and supported libraries, and no-one hung plastic bags of dog poo from the trees? But you know what would happen if you packed up and moved there? You’d have the neighbours on your back for putting out the bins too early, or letting your dandelions run to seed. Because it’s in the nature of utopian societies to have a downside, often manifest in a denial of our baser human instincts and/or excessive control. It makes great fodder for fiction, however, as I hope to show in my review of Celeste Ng’s latest novel set in 1990s suburban America. Alongside that, I’ve gone back to basics with my first-time read of the original Utopia, published 500 years ago.
Some moral questions to end the year and see us into the next! Is it okay for some to go hungry while others feast? Is it okay that the accident of where we are born, and to whom, determines our life chances? Does it matter that, with modernity and the march of capitalism, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening? Neither this tragicomedy set in Edinburgh nor this scattershot novel set in India have the answers, but they can entertain us while making us reflect on the issues.
From a day in the life of a city in mourning to a week in a busy hospital, in both these novels a large cast of characters tell not only their individual stories, but the story of the settings that shape their interlinked lives.
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!
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.
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.
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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