Reading these books consecutively, I doubted I could legitimately pair their reviews. The first focuses on the tensions in an Anglo-French family Christmas, the second an Icelandic fishing village anticipating a celebratory concert in mid-summer. But both are about the pain beneath a deceptively tranquil surface, and the psychological distance between people living in close proximity.
Earlier this year, I attended a school reunion. While it was fun to reconnect with friends I’d met up with ten years ago, plus others I last saw in school uniform, there were disappointments. Some of friends were noticeable by their absence and others, as an introvert overwhelmed by the profusion of people, I couldn’t begin to be curious about until the following day.
I thought about this when I came to review these two novels, both about reconnecting with people from our pasts. In the first, a man has largely forgotten his childhood sweetheart, as well as the slum in which they both grew up. In the second, a woman feels a surprisingly strong connection with an older woman she visited for only an hour as a child.
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.
As if my head weren’t buzzing enough with the enigma of identity, I’ve recently read two translated novels exploring the gap between where the characters come from and where they ended up. In the first, a forty-something German man has given little thought to his origins across the border; in the second, two women, juggle loneliness and language difficulties as they gradually acclimatise to new lives in Australia, far from home.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
October’s final novel pairing involves migration, mothers and sons, and a couple of anthropoid cats. In the first, reckless spending pushes a mother and her co-dependent son to leave Manhattan for Paris along with the family cat; in the second, a woman is forced to flee Kosovo for Finland, where her son grows up distant from family and roots until he begins an affair with a talking cat.
Two translated historical novels set at the beginning of the twentieth century about empires in decline. Through them, I’ve slightly narrowed the gap in my ignorance of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and whetted my appetite to learn more. Although it’s refreshing to take the focus away from the British Empire in fiction, I’d prefer to take a female perspective next time or, failing that, to zoom in on a key character right from the start. See what you think!
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.)
These two novels translated from Italian couldn’t be more different: a pastoral coming-of-age story in the Italian Alps follows a twisty-turny political thriller in modern-day Rome. Yet together they build a picture of contemporary Italy amid the ruins of the past.
Women in Translation month was barely over when I picked up these two novels that should help me beat the last twelve months’ total of seven in the coming year. The first French, the second Polish, both focus on women living their lives somewhat apart from their peers. Diana because, growing up without maternal affection, she fills her emptiness with work. Olga, on the other hand, is more outwardly eccentric, and her beef is not with a mother, but with men.
Two novels about same-sex love and sex in communities which frown upon such couplings: the first between women in 1930s Syria and the second between men in 1950s England. Both novels feature dreams, or dreamlike occurrences: in the first, a bureaucrat stumbles upon an isolated house on a rainy night where he’s mesmerised by an old man’s story; in the second, a scientist undergoing “chemical castration” has some vivid dreams.
I failed last month to meet my modest target of at least 50% of my reviews being of books by women. Speculating on the possible reasons, I noticed a preponderance of male authors among the novels in translation coming my way. If I were better orientated to time, you’d be forgiven for suspecting my lousy support of female authors was no accident, providing the perfect teaser for today’s post for women in translation month, revisiting the qualifying novels I’ve reviewed since August last year.
Too few novels recreate the reality of the working environment, so hurrah for another two about women at work. From a contemporary Japanese supermarket to a library in a late 50s English country town, these depict women who take their work identity very seriously indeed. But the arrival of a man, alongside their own passion for the work, brings complications. Can Keiko and Sylvia hold onto their jobs?
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.
I’m linking these novels less for the arboreal coincidence of the titles but because each is about the impact of another culture’s approach to death and/or ageing on a Westerner’s life. For the first, six months as a young man deep in the forest of a remote Micronesian island determine the course of his professional and domestic life; for the second, a glimpse of the culture of the Toraja people in Indonesia in middle age helps him mourn the loss of a close friend.
I recently read a translated novella set in 1920s Sicily followed by a novel set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Both evoke the difficulty of leading a moral life in a society in which power has been wrested from the official representatives of law and order into a highly organised but politically unaccountable alternative body, and the stresses on ordinary people of such a regime. In the first, it’s the Mafia that controls the populace; in the second, the paramilitaries, including the IRA.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
Annecdotal is marking refugee week with two new translations: a novella and novel by authors with direct experience of being a refugee. The first is an innovative collaboration between current residents of the Palestinian camp in Shatila and a London-based publisher; the second is by and about a Bosnian Muslim exiled to Croatia who later arrived in Scandinavia as a refugee.
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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