I’ve recently read two novels about women whose damaging childhoods lead to adult relationships where they can’t manage to separate psychologically from someone who fails to meet their needs. In the first, a French translation, the enmeshed relationship is with a man who is less than a partner but more than a friend. The second, set in India, centres on a toxic mother-daughter relationship, a common theme in my reading and writing, which has sparked this week’s 99-word story.
These two novels defy easy categorisation, but I’ve paired them for the combination of depth and humour, innovative structure and switching points of view. Both feature the dynamics of family and coupledom, and a holiday – the first in Scotland, the second in Italy – with destructive consequences.
These two recent reads are narrated by girls whose young lives are blighted by parental conflicts, secrets and lies. We follow them over a period of years: Tatty, the middle child of a largish Dublin family, from around three to twelve, which is the age that Giovanna, an only child, begins to learn to navigate her home city of Naples.
Just as colours look different to the eye depending on the hues surrounding them, stories read differently according to the arrangement on our mental shelves. When I read it almost two months ago, I didn’t tag the first under the theme of conformity to community mores; when I drafted my review of the second, narrated in a collective voice, the story flipped in my head into one of the conflict between the drive to belong and the fear of being engulfed. Admittedly, this pairing stems also from a niggling guilt at the widening gap between receiving my copy and posting my review. Read on, and let me know whether or not you think they fit.
Towards the collapse of the Berlin Wall: The Standardisation of Demoralisation Procedures & The Mussel Feast
These two recent reads evoke the cultural climate immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The first is a zany novel about the political demise of a former Stasi agent. The second is a translation from German set around a family dinner table in dread of the tyrannical father’s return.
When I studied the psychodynamics of organisations, I was encouraged to pay particular attention to how the system responds to a new arrival. Likewise in fiction, the introduction of an outsider is a useful strategy for delving under the skin of a community, especially one in crisis. In both these recent reads, the outsider is a teenage girl, bereft of family, who is smoothly absorbed into the existing structures and, to a small degree, starts to change them. In the first, a translated novella, set in Austria at the end of the Second World War, she is the main point-of-view character. In the second, a debut novel with a contemporary South African setting, she is one of several somewhat shadowy characters. But both books are more about historical and geographical place than person. See what you think.
Mmm, seems I’ve chosen books with long titles for this threesome! But the reason I couldn’t bear to choose a couple and leave the other on the sidelines awaiting a partner is that they are all about characters connecting in unconventional ways. Firstly, I review a novella in translation about a writer meeting a man who seems to be a younger version of himself. In a second translated novella, a woman ensures that more than her memory lives on after her death. In the third, a literary novel, two women are linked via an invention that a third character plays an active part in developing.
The young protagonists of these two novels are worlds apart in time, geography and social class and expectations. The first is a Hungarian translation about a girl sent to an elite boarding school during the Second World War; the second is a fantasy about a street kid trying to rise above his physical and social disadvantages. Both feature endearing teenagers grappling courageously with injustice and, in the process, learning about themselves.
These two novels about female friends from two different cultures and at different stages of their lives expose the power imbalance between even privileged and highly educated women and the men in their lives. The first is a thoughtful novel about middle-aged women in London; the second a lighter story about young adults in Saudi Arabia.
muddled pathways so that he’s imposed a strategy for achieving his next unlikely ambition – if a man of his talents can “lead” first a capital city, then a country, why not go for the Booker Prize? – upon the one of which he’s tired?
Where once it was religion that kept the poor downtrodden, now it’s capitalism as expressed in the Great American Dream, that we can all be winners if we set our minds to it. Both these novels transport the modern mind to a time and place where characters are conscious that not everything that happens is under their control. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to appease the superpowers or exercise free will. In the first, we meet a group of thirteenth century pilgrims sacrificing earthly pleasures for an easier eternity; in the second, a young woman in modern secular India grapples with the ancient Hindu concept of fate.
Realising I needed a stronger reason for pairing these recent reads than the alliterative letter L, I nevertheless feel shabby to have linked them through the childminder role. Okay, the nanny is the protagonist of the first, although she remains a shadowy figure, but only one of many characters in the second where it’s as a mother, rather than as a parent substitute, that she advances the story. But, as was noted at the Zoom meeting of my book group discussion of Lullaby, nannies are as invisible in literature as they are in life. Rather belatedly, I also see that they’re both about fault-lines: the first metaphorically, the second geologically.
Strange bedfellows these two translations: the first an historical novel from France; the second a contemporary slipstream novel from South Korea. My excuse for linking them is an issue that was on my mind the day I finished the first and started the second, thanks to a non-fiction book I had ordered. Although women being blamed for sexual abuse and harassment is only a minor issue in these novels, it’s so important I make no apology for ushering it into the limelight.
Is there discrimination against women writers? (Is there even more discrimination against older women writers?) Probably but, there being even worse things to get hung up about right now, I’ll gloss over the fact that these two novels about under-appreciated female writers – one in 1960s Iceland, the other in 21st-century New York – come from fairly successful female authors. With a couple of caveats, either or both would make great lockdown reads.
If you’re reading through the lockdown, or listening to more music, you might be interested in these two books featuring dual narratives connected via an “instrument” of the arts. The second is a translated novella set in and around a real-life bookshop and publishing house; the first is about heartbreak compounded by the fear of letting go from a publisher who mostly does translations.
I’ve recently read two novels in translation featuring a homecoming to troubled parts of the world. The first is about the son of a Colombian drug baron; the second about three friends in a divided Korea. Both are firmly grounded in those countries’ painful histories; the violence and anxious atmosphere makes me grateful I’ve only the coronavirus pandemic to worry about.
Miguel seems to have won life’s lottery, a beauty from birth. Christina was born into deprivation, but winning the lotto can’t put that right. An Italian translation set in Mexico and coming-of-age story on the Californian coast, these two recent reads explore the ups and downs of being blessed with something many people crave.
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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