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.
When the press release described Speak No Evil as “a novel about the power of words”, I thought it would fit nicely with Missing, about a translator who has personal reasons for using precise verbalisations. But, although I could see what the publishers were getting at, it didn’t chime strongly with my reading experience. Nevertheless, these short novels – the first from the UK, the second from the US and Nigeria – have something in common: the grief and guilt that has diverted a woman’s life after a tragic misunderstanding at the age of eighteen. But, given that exactly how that happened is part of the mystery, you won’t find much about that in my reviews. Don’t let that stop you reading on, as both these novels are well worth your time.
I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe a couple of times during the first decade of independence, when investment in healthcare and education engendered an atmosphere of optimism and renewal after the bitterness of the liberation wars. But, apart from the few densely printed paperbacks from Zimbabwe Publishing House I brought back with me, I’ve read very little fiction from or about the country until these two came my way, courtesy of Legend Press and Atlantic Books. The novels complement each other perfectly: the first set around a farm in the north of the country explores the contrasts and commonalities of land seizures in the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the second is set mostly in the main city in the south leading up to, and soon after, independence in 1980.
Our species has enslaved our fellow human beings for millennia, an abomination that continues to this day. While literature quite rightly reminds us of the industrial-scale trade in people between Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean, some historical human rights abuses are less well known. So, painful as the subject matter might be, I was pleased to widen my knowledge through these two novels: the first focusing on African slavery of other Africans in 19th-century Ghana; the second about people forcibly transported from 17th-century Iceland to Algeria. Both feature strong women from a period when female voices were often silenced and consider the psychological and political complexities beyond the polarised roles of victim and villain.
Although these two novels couldn’t be more different in tone – the first a literary exploration of a young mother’s development; the second tricksy thriller – I can’t resist pairing them for the other factors they have in common. Both feature thoughtful, philosophising, unnamed narrators; both take as their subject matter how we explore the inside and outside of other people, and ourselves. Both are ambitious and unusual in their approach; both are the author’s second book and a cracking read.
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 two novels.
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