Although these two historical novels are very different, both sparked some deep reflection about the workings of the human mind, and especially how our reasoning and problem-solving is influenced by beliefs and assumptions which, in turn, are shaped by the times and cultures in which we live. Both are set primarily in mainland Europe – the first in the seventeenth century and the second towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – and feature – predominantly in the first and latterly in the second – countries ravaged by war.
In both these novels, the first set in contemporary New York and Nice and the second in a hypothetical future Tokyo, an older man is looking after a young relative in less than ideal circumstances. In different ways, they illustrate generational interdependence and how the past actions, or inactions, of the older generation have brought about some of the difficulties experienced by the young.
Here are two novels inspired by classic tales: the first, a feminist retelling of Beowulf; the second, a homage to Ulysses and James Joyce. No need to have read the source material to appreciate them – I haven’t – although the first probably works better as a stand-alone than the second.
If I’ve reviewed any other novels set during the Black Death that swept across Europe in 1348, I’ve forgotten them. These two, published in the UK this summer, are likely to stay in my mind for some time. The first set in Ireland, the second in southern England, they’re very different, although both original in their language and style. And disturbingly topical as we’re catapulted towards an apocalypse – both politically and climatically – of our own.
Here we have two recently published novels about women caught on camera, or doing the catching, casting a wide-angle lens on the turbulent politics of the first half of the twentieth century, with Fascism on the rise. The first zooms in on movie stars and/or makers: Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl, and Marlene Dietrich. The second on Gerda Taro, a lesser-known (at least to me) feminist photojournalist, who died documenting the Spanish Civil War.
Two novels, based on real events, about the impact on ordinary people of terrorising revolutions within two African countries. The first, a historical novel set in Ethiopia, is the author’s debut; the second, a fictionalised account of the schoolgirls abducted in northern Nigeria only a few years ago, comes from a writer with a career spanning almost six decades. Both are harrowing, empathetic and meticulously researched.
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.
Kicking off Women in Translation Month with 8 recommendations from previous years and a new review: The Faculty of Dreams
Two novels – the first set in Australia, the second in Syria – in which a family marks a milestone. While in the first it’s to celebrate a birthday in a city troubled by nothing more than a refuse workers strike and in the second it’s a burial in a war zone, I found both to be honest and unflinching portrayals of today’s world, and how we got here.
As my next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, has three point-of-view characters, I’m always curious to see how others handle three-handers. But that’s not the main reason I chose to read these two novels. Both are set against the backdrop of the tangled web of history tying the Indian subcontinent with Britain. The first links the dying days of the Raj to a British-born woman of Bengali heritage settled in Wales. The second brings characters from Karachi, London and Portsmouth to the deserts of war-torn Iraq.
Novelistic explorations of identity through road trips with magic realism: Lost Property & Bird Summons
While very different in style and focus, both these recently-published novels send women on road trips to learn about their individual identities within the context of contemporary Britain. In the first, three Scottish Muslim women with origins in the Arab world leave the city for a lochside holiday where they meet a talking hoopoe. In the second, a Londoner travels with her partner across Europe in a campervan encountering figures from the political and artistic past.
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.
Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif and American Louisa Hall both published their third novels last autumn, both approaching the theme of war and weaponry from an oblique angle. Both employ multiple narrators of stories originating in America, but with different settings and tone. The first is a contemporary satire of the American military misadventures in Islamic lands; the second a philosophical exploration of bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.
Two books about teenage girls forced from their homes in what initially appear to be very different circumstances. In the first, a fourteen-year-old Lithuanian is transported to the Siberian tundra in 1940; in the second, a nineteen-year-old is compulsorily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in mid-1950s England. The first memoir, the second fiction, both books are about the struggle to survive in alien environments.
Published this month are the debut novels of two promising Irish writers, both looking back to that country’s history, through the changes wrought by time on a family home. In the first it’s a humble farmhouse and overnight refuge for freedom fighters in the War of Independence, barely inhabitable when an exile considers buying it a hundred years later. In the second it’s the grand house of the local gentry when the narrator first crosses the threshold as a ten-year-old servant, and latterly the hotel where he reviews the eighty-plus decades of his life. And if you’re wondering about the coincidence of the blue covers, why not look back on this post?
When I shared my favourite books of 2018, I was disappointed not to be able to identify a single unifying thread. Except, perhaps, that each of my selected nineteen turned out to be so much better than I expected. Which got me thinking – and this isn’t particularly profound – how difficult it is to tell how much I’m going to like a book from the publisher’s advance information and blurb. That thought was at the forefront of my mind when I considered pairing my first two reads of 2019: both translations from the French set elsewhere, and featuring characters traumatised by war, but very different books. If you’re a regular visitor to annethology, I wonder if you can guess which of the two I was least looking forward to reading, but could well be one of this year’s favourite reads.
Although not enamoured of Christmas, there’s one tradition that’s right up my street (or undefined path across the moors), and that’s the seasonal popularity of Handel’s Messiah. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to sing most of the choruses at a concert earlier this month, despite the fact that the story itself does little for me. Meanwhile, my reading has taken me to myths and legends from even further back in history in the case of the first review here, and a few centuries after in the case of the second.
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!
finding truth through fiction
events coming soon:
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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