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.
Forgive the tenuous connection between these recent reads, the first featuring harem women in Egypt at the beginning of the twentieth century and the second a contemporary Italian girl who grows into a woman while imprisoned in a container. While you might shudder at the latter, I urge you to give it a chance, as it’s one of my favourite reads of 2021.
Well, what do you know? I can’t recall when I last read a novel featuring a kidnapping, and then two come along at once, both published (in the UK at least) on the same day (May 6). It’s worth noting, however, that I wouldn’t have flagged them as kidnap stories if I were posting these reviews individually. But it does distinguish them from the many other novels I might read about friendship and women’s lives from childhood to middle age. The first is set in the USA and the second in Nigeria and, if either sounds like your kind of story, don’t hesitate to get yourself a copy.
I’m sharing my reflections on these recent reads about the aftermath of a family tragedy, the first set in 1970s rural England and the second in contemporary Alabama. Both are by women writers whose previous novels I’ve loved and I’m delighted to say they didn’t disappoint.
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.
These two recent reads are about marriages under severe strain. In the first, set in the southern USA, a woman turns to a mutual friend when her husband is sentenced to twelve years’ in prison for the crime of being black in the vicinity of a sexual assault. In the second, set in the UK, a family is in crisis as a result of the husband and father’s combat PTSD.
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.
Here I’ve paired two recent British novels inspired by real-life disasters affecting entire communities: the first being the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; the second a plane crashing into a tower block in 1996 Amsterdam. I didn’t find either easy to get into, but both rewarded patient reading. See what you think!
My first post of the month features a couple of debut novels in which young women seek to reconnect with a man who had a major influence on their childhood. Both men are – intentionally or accidentally – involved in local politics, but the personal is equally vital to the women. In the first, set in India, it’s a friendship forged by her mother in defiance of class and convention; in the second, set in Nigeria, it’s the courage and compassion to advocate for the underdog. The orange hue on the covers is pure coincidence; likewise that both authors’ surnames begin with V!
Two historical novels in which young people are subject to brutal institutional regimes: in the first as comfort women in Singapore under the Japanese invasion; in the second as supposed offenders in Jim-Crow-era Florida. Both novels contrast the main character’s aspirations prior to captivity with their struggle to survive unspeakable cruelties with their sanity intact, and the scars they carry for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, for the reader who can vicariously accompany them, there’s some hope of redemption by the end. Read on, or jump to the end of the post for this week’s 99-word story.
Three short reviews of quirky novels published in the UK this month that have taken me around the world without having to leave my armchair. The first, set in Australia, marries historical fact with a lonely alien visitor. The second, set in South Africa, posits an alternative near future where the sick are quarantined. The third, a German translation set in Japan, pairs a suicidal student with an expert on beards for a journey in the footsteps of a revered haiku poet.
Two recent debuts about women on an unplanned journey of self discovery: the first by finding a place of healing after years of trauma; the second by uncovering the truth about her parentage. Both women must travel to another part of the British Isles to find redemption; both must overcome obstacles to their understanding, to loving and being loved.
Novel perspectives on psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy: The Saturday Morning Murder & A Good Enough Mother
If you’ve read my previous reviews of fictional therapists, you’ll be aware that I’m often disappointed in authors who seem to have neglected their background research. Not so with these two novels: the first, set in Jerusalem in the late 1980s, providing an excellent insight into the closed and potentially claustrophobic culture of psychoanalysis; the second, set in contemporary London, clarifying the key principles of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Both are flagged as crime: the first a police procedural; the second more psychological suspense.
Two novels about the antecedents and consequences within the family when one of their female members is severely injured, both drawing on multiple perspectives to tell the story. In the first, set in Canada, the women rally around when a teenage girl is assaulted; in the second, set in southern Italy, and focusing primarily on the viewpoints of the men, the violent death of a daughter/sister/wife threatens to lift the lid on a web of corruption.
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.
I’ve recently read two semi-autobiographical debuts about highly intelligent young women battling initially protective and subsequently persecutory alter egos to assert their real selves. The first set in Nigeria and the USA, the second in the UK, they provide fresh perspectives on the experience of mental disturbance from the inside.
Two novels about British women working in a war zone: Kay as a journalist in Africa; Emma processing asylum applications in Iraq. Despite the dangers and deprivations, both felt invigorated by their work; something’s lost in marriage (plus children for Kay) and a move to the USA (temporarily for Kay with a summer rental; supposedly permanently for Emma and her soldier husband). Both novels capture the lure of extreme situations which, once savoured, set the women apart.
Two novels based on real-life deaths in the same decade of the mid-nineteenth century, deaths that were never completely explained. The first of a young woman in southern England, the second of dozens of pioneers heading for the American Wild West. The books’ female authors have perhaps taken different approaches to their source material. See what you think.
Can you rewrite your own history and get away with it? That’s what Joseph Silk and Mary Holmes, lead characters in these two new novels, seem to have done. Both have been motivated to avoid traumatic memories – but there are consequences. In Joseph’s case, it’s been the impact on his family; in Mary’s, it’s a lifetime of guilt. Both novels feature a bond between young and old. Both address aspects of the Second World War: Joseph takes his suffering under Nazi-inspired racism in Hungary to his grave; far away in relatively safe Dorset, the backdrop of war pushes Mary to confess. Read my reviews and see whether you sympathise with the decisions they took.
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.
Late-adolescent identity in London and Dublin: The Tyranny of Lost Things & Conversations with Friends
If adolescence was the invention of the baby boomers, it’s the millennials who’ve shown – along with recent(ish) research into the developing brain – that this interlude between childhood and adulthood lingers well into one’s twenties. At this stage of our lives, many of us are still experimenting with who and how to be, as these two debut novels illustrate in thoughtful and entertaining ways. The young female narrators juggle the legacy of patchy parenting; love triangles; envy and class privilege; and platonic and sexual relationships at the boundary between intimacy and privacy – and city living, one in London and the other in Dublin. Read on!
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.
The central characters of these novels face a trial with the odds stacked against them in the early pages: the first about a twenty-something American woman and the second of a fifty-something Bulgarian man. For Romy, it’s the beginning of a lengthy prison sentence; for Alexander, it might be the end of the road. Both have survived oppressive systems before arriving at this point: Romy grappling the restricted opportunities on the margins of a complacent America; Alexander seemingly finding a place on the winning side of the Stalinist regime. Yet, as The Unbeliever illustrates, winners can be quickly transformed into losers under communism, while the depiction of a women’s prison in The Mars Room suggests there can be no winners there.
3. Yet, much as I’m drawn to the dark side, I don’t want my reading to be totally bleak. There are ways of writing about trauma that allow for a sliver of light.
While these two points still hold for me as a reader, I’m not sure I can identify exactly where the balance lies for me between dark and light, either in relation to what I want from a novel or in how to find it.
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),
some linked to a weekly flash fiction, plus posts on my WIPs and published books.
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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)