What does August signify for you? Sandy beaches, barbecues in the garden, an easy-read book? For me, it’s a singing summer school (and, despite large gatherings still being prohibited, I have two virtual ones this year) and a chance to celebrate female novelists writing in languages other than English. I’m no linguist – although I’ve studied French and Spanish and have enjoyed picking up a smattering of the lingua franca on my travels – so I’m grateful to translators, who are far too often unacknowledged. As physical international travel is still problematic, it’s a great way of virtually visiting other countries.
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.
I’ve read a lot of excellent historical novels by female authors, but they don’t always (and this isn’t necessarily a criticism) forefront the female experience. For Women’s History Month I’ve plucked from my shelves, real and virtual, a few that particularly highlight the lives of women in days gone by. Firstly, I’m recommending 8 novels fictionalising famous and relatively unknown women; secondly I’ve selected 8 (from potentially hundreds) exploring historical happenings through a female perspective. All are from female authors who might yet become historical figures themselves!
Allow me to introduce you to a pair of novels about literally and metaphorically staying afloat in choppy waters. The first is a cli-fi translated novel about abandoned children; the second a historical debut about a woman at sea in a man’s world. Both are page-turners, so read on!
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.
As these might be the only non-fiction books I read this year, I was keen to link them. So following on from two novels about dislocation, I’m delighted to share reviews about the opposite. Unfortunately I got myself lost in the first, aimed at readers with a more solid grounding in Greek and Roman antiquities, but managed to navigate better through the second, which is about literally and metaphorically finding and losing our way.
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.
Both of these novels defy easy classification, but I’ve chosen to pair them for their themes of the legacy of slavery, or the way in which owning another person demeans us all. In the first, we follow a young man, marked by his unusual appearance, from babyhood in Jamaica shortly before independence to England and back. The second is a translated Argentinian dystopian novel about cannibalism. In both novels, a character, or characters, withhold or are denied their voice.
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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