In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
Told with compassion and humour, Anne Goodwin’s third novel is a poignant, compelling and brilliantly authentic portrayal of asylum life, with a quirky protagonist you won’t easily forget.
Allow me to introduce two recent reads featuring a teenage girl’s sexual awakening with a physically attractive but morally suspect young man, arousing the envy of her less confident suitor. Both novels also emphasise her passion for the place in which she lives: in the first, a derelict asylum in southern England; in the second, the family farm in rural France.
Let’s consider two novels published this month which direct the reader’s gaze towards the characters’ inner lives, mentally and physically. The first, set in Australia during the recent rampaging bushfires, focuses on the characters’ wandering minds as they watch a play. The second, set in the Americas, looks in on the body and outwards to the stars.
Salina roams aimlessly through the desert, sequentially accompanied by each of her three sons. Harold is physically and mentally unprepared for his epic journey, although he does have a specific destination in sight. Salina’s story unfolds in a newly-published novella, translated from the French; Harold’s in a deceptively light bestseller, published in 2012.
I’ve been reading about fictional male vulnerability in this contemporary translation and this classic from seven decades ago. In the latter, a man has lost his infant son in Nazi-occupied France. Although he’s had an easier war in England, he’s almost as lost as the child. In the other, a family flees poverty in Russia, ostensibly in the hope of better health care for an orphaned boy. But perhaps it’s not him, but his grandparents, who need help most.
Large gatherings at country houses are common enough in fiction, but these two recent reads, both involving family secrets, couldn’t be more different. It’s not so much that the first is set in England and the second in Japan, but one’s crime and the other literary translation. But even within those genres, they’re oddballs. In a good way? Read on for my thoughts!
A novel and a novella featuring twins pulled apart when one is targeted to be a pawn in a war they don’t fully understand: in the first, nineteen-year-old Londoners; in the second, boys in an unnamed Arab country brainwashed into self-sacrifice at only nine.
Only one of these three recent reads is classed as a horror novel and, although not my usual genre, it turned out to be my favourite of the three. But we don’t need to evoke the supernatural to scare ourselves: there are real-life horrors in each of these stories. In the first, a translation, war has killed many and put the survivors’ lives on hold. In the second, set in rural Cumbria, the spooky happenings are extra disturbing for a man with unprocessed memories of violence from childhood, as well as his helplessness in the face of his wife’s agonising three-day labour. The third is a 1960s classic set in a horrific – but typical of its time – psychiatric hospital where the regime seems designed to make a bad situation worse.
I’m sharing my thoughts about three recent reads set in communities slightly apart from the mainstream: the first two in contemporary residential care settings and the third in a dystopian future world. In genre they’re also slightly apart from my usual fare: the first mass-market commercial fiction; the second, a translation (and therefore closest to my usual); the third, cyberpunk. Each offered something to intrigue and enjoy.
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.
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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I don't post to a schedule, but average around ten reviews a month (see here for an alphabetical list),
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)