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!
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 about young Asians migrating to the USA: in the first, an Indian man receives a cultural, sexual and political education in New York; in the second, a woman has been stripped of wealth, lover and purpose when she leaves her native Philippines to shack up with relatives in a poor part of California.
I recently read a translated novella set in 1920s Sicily followed by a novel set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Both evoke the difficulty of leading a moral life in a society in which power has been wrested from the official representatives of law and order into a highly organised but politically unaccountable alternative body, and the stresses on ordinary people of such a regime. In the first, it’s the Mafia that controls the populace; in the second, the paramilitaries, including the IRA.
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.
Three translations came my way recently, each of which considers crime in a moral context. The two novellas are the work of now deceased European authors while the short novel comes from a contemporary writer. While one is a comedy and the others deadly (pun intended) serious, they collectively address the causes and consequences of the ultimate crime. In one, it begins as an accident and becomes an addiction; in another, it’s endemic in the destructive forces released through war; in the third, it’s the end result in a chain of selfish actions. While one ends in pessimism and another brings hope and redemption, in a third, the narrator gets what he wants in an unexpected way. I’m not saying which is which, but listing my reviews in the order I read them. I wonder which you would prefer.
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.
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.
Two historical novels addressing Spain’s internal conflicts: the first, set in Granada, takes us back 500 years to the last Muslim Court; the second, set mostly in London, begins eighty years ago with the International Brigades and resistance to Franco. Both weave a thread of hope for humanity with a romantic storyline – or two.
The Greek myths bubble with revenge and betrayal, while the bloodthirsty tyrants of history are themselves made into to myths. Let me present two novels which reinterpret these legendary stories for the modern era, emphasising the human motivations behind the murder and mayhem. Both novels focus on famous families: in the first, the violence turns inwards in an orgy of self-destruction; in the second, the family will do almost anything to ensure their own survival. In both, the gods of the time are co-opted to sanction sacrifice and murder, while the women use their limited power as best they can.
If we leave home at eighteen, it’s often to a particular kind of institution. For me, as for Selin in The Idiot, that means university; for Billy Lynn, as for many young working-class adults who are less academically inclined, it’s the military. While, as Selin discovers, universities encourage questioning, not all questions are received with equal relish. On the other hand, as Billy learns, the army might discourage independent thought, it can’t prevent his wondering. Will these young people find the answers they’re looking for? Read on!
Much as we like to think we’d be willing to risk our own safety to come to the aid of a fellow human being, history shows that many of us aren’t brave enough to go against the grain. But even if we do find the courage to stand apart and make a difference, is the act that feels right necessarily the right thing to do? The conundrum of humanitarian responses to wartime atrocities seems to be the central question of these two historical novels, both set in a European winter, the first during the Second World War and the second in Bosnia, this latter by one of the founders of the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
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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