A couple of weeks ago, challenged to compose a 99-word story combining mashed potatoes with a superpower, I chose love. Because, as these two novels testify, along with a third I reviewed at the end of last month, love is rarely straightforward, and for some an impossible dream. In Land of the Living, Georgina Harding shows how a husband’s wartime trauma, in conjunction with his wife’s inexperience, acts as a barrier to intimacy. In the City of Love’s Sleep also focuses on romance, in this case the approach-avoidance dance of a man and woman still legally or psychologically bound to another, while Nothing but Dust is a startlingly honest account of the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
When teenagers flee the family home to fend for themselves, they swap one kind of brutality for another. And while their troubled lives will have forced them to develop survival skills in some areas, they are often more vulnerable than their peers in others, such as emotional literacy. But real-life tragedy can make engrossing fiction as you’ll find if you let the young narrators of these two novels lead you into the wilderness: Jaxie in Western Australia and Sal and her younger sister in Scotland. For real-life youth homelessness, mostly in urban areas, Centrepoint (in the UK) is worth supporting.
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?
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!
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Like Workington and Barrow, Morecambe is a small, slightly rundown, coastal town in north-west England to which I have personal connections: my parents lived there for many years and, coincidentally, one of my good friends, whom I met in Cairo, has a house overlooking the bay which, for a short while, she ran as a guesthouse. Although I don’t refer to it by name, it’s also one of the settings, along with Nottingham, for my forthcoming novel, Underneath. So when I discovered Owl Song at Dawn was set in Morecambe, I was keen to read it. I was even happier to be offered a slot on the blog tour when the author agreed to write a post on the setting. I hope you enjoy Emma Claire Sweeney’s piece as much as I did. My mini review follows at the end.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
I’m pleased to recommend two California-set novels published this week about the fragility of masculinity, sibling loyalty and the impact on families of the Vietnam war, the first for the generation directly affected and the second for the children of men who served.
Two Novels about Bullying and a Craze from Times Past: Bone by Bone by Sanjida Kay & Hush by Sara Marshall-Ball
Humans are social creatures, and the social systems we create can serve as both help and hindrance. Bullying is one of the more disturbing things that can happen when we gather together, but the dark side of human nature can catalyse engaging fiction. In Bone by Bone, childhood bullying is at the core of the novel, while in Hush it’s a consequence of a family trauma, but both make for gripping reads. On a lighter note, I’ve followed these too short reviews with a memory of a more positive aspect of human association, the childhood crazes from which no-one is excluded.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating my identity as a novelist: how, on the one hand, it’s a simple statement of fact while, on the other, it represents an existential anxiety about what I’d be if I couldn’t describe myself in terms of something that sounds like a job. So these two novels exploring identity and make-believe, albeit with reference to film rather than fiction, have come along at exactly the right time.
A severe cold has meant very little writing in the last few days, but a copious amount of reading (completing my reading “challenge” of 100 books in the year), albeit with not a great amount of depth. These three short reviews of novels about three very different women’s quests for a life, and a mind, of their own is part of the result.
Nancy and Bernadette have spent every summer at the remote farm where their mother grew up. Despite the sullen nature of their uncle, Donn, and the religiosity of their aunt, Agatha, who returned from training to be a nun to keep house for him, it’s an idyllic place to a ten and twelve-year-old from London. But the bond between the sisters is weakening, as Nancy, now at the comprehensive school, wants to play at being a grown-up. And there are far darker forces at work than sibling rivalries. For in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the English are unwelcome in certain parts and a lonely farm has every chance of being co-opted into the undercover war.
Thirty years later, having barely spoken to each other since childhood, the sisters return to the farm with their families on the pretext of seeing the place for one last time before it’s sold. It starts badly: Nancy’s American husband is both overly chatty and bored; Bernie is critical of her sister’s hypervigilance around Nancy’s fourteen-year-old son, who appears to have some kind of attention-deficit disorder (p79):
The war is barely a year old when James is shot down on his first bombing mission. Incarcerated in a POW camp, he vows to use his time productively. Instead of digging escape tunnels from which he’d inevitably be recaptured, James dedicates himself to a detailed study of a pair of redstarts nesting beyond the barbed wire. He records his observations in a notebook and in letters home to his wife. Yet the only person who really seems to understand his passion is the camp commandant.
Only six months married before James was summoned to fight for his country, Rose is bored by her husband’s letters, barely able to bring herself to open them, let alone reply. Alone in a tiny cottage on the tip of the Ashdown Forest not far from where she grew up, she spends her time roaming with her dog and patrolling as an ARP warden to safeguard the blackout. She’s wondered about her loneliness for some time: at first she thought it was missing James but now it seems an existential condition. And she’s found a way to soothe it in her secret meetings with Toby, on sick leave from the war.
Then James’s elder sister, Enid, is bombed out of her London flat and, with nowhere else to go, she foists herself upon Rose. With her own guilty secret, Enid isn’t the best of houseguests, while Rose is far from the perfect host. The women have more in common than they think, but their different loyalties to James prevents them becoming friends.
When invited to lead a controversial project reintroducing the grey wolf as a natural predator into the English countryside, Rachel Caine initially declines. She is happy keeping her native Cumbria at a distance, happy heading up the team monitoring wolves in the true wilderness of Nez Perce, Idaho. But, when her mother dies and a drunken night with one of her colleagues takes the relationship too far, she decides to accept the Earl of Annerdale’s offer. The new job, while geographically on a smaller scale, heralds new challenges for Rachel as she grapples with the manners and politics of the country set while confronting the memories of a difficult mother-daughter relationship evoked by the landscape that formed her. The Wolf Border explores the territory bounded by country-house fiction, the natural world, capitalist politics and impending motherhood with some of the finest writing on human and elemental wilderness, for example in an Idaho winter (p68):
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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