My first two reads of 2017 are linked by one of last year’s favourites: like The Underground Railroad, The Golden Legend is about outsiders on the run, while Homegoing explores the before, after and meanwhile of the slave trade between Africa and America. Both novels also reference the role of literature in challenging partial accounts of the lives of the powerless.
This post, my last before Christmas, features two novels about men with marginalised identities. Read on and see if either takes your fancy for your holiday reading.
As the first African-American president approaches the end of his two terms of office, the politics of the creature waiting to replace him send shivers down many a spine. So timely to remind ourselves how western wealth was built on the trade in human beings with two novels about the slave trade between Africa and America and its aftermath. It’s not an easy subject to write – or read – about and, although I’ve read a couple of good ones (Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo and Property by Valerie Martin come to mind, but there may be others), I believe these are the first I’ve reviewed.
Following on from my review of The Fortunes, which fictionalises the lives of ought-to-be-more-famous Chinese Americans, I’m reviewing two novels featuring well-known European intellectuals at either side (in the temporal rather than allegiance sense of the word) of the Second World War.
I’ve enjoyed these two novels from established female British writers exploring a possible future. The first speculates on the consequences of climate change and a low birthrate, whereas the second subverts gender politics imagining a world in which women have no reason to be afraid of men.
Read on, and see which takes your fancy!
As the world goes crazy, I crave, in my reading, not escapism, but a reflection of the flawed complexity of human beings and the things we do to make life that bit harder. But I need to be in safe hands to do so. So thanks to Louise Doughty and Jane Rogers – both established British authors unafraid to tackle difficult subjects – for providing that in their latest novels. Although quite different in their focus, both involve the characters reviewing painful pasts and their own culpability in order that their next mistakes might be that bit smaller.
These two novels explore the impact of two of America’s controversial wars (Vietnam and Iraq) on combatants, observers and their nearest and dearest.
Let me introduce you to two novels by established female authors about young people struck down by serious illness, set in the social context of the British National Health Service, the first in its contemporary incarnation and the second at its inception.
These two novels by established British authors, and published today by two independent presses, both feature an English woman in Africa trying to connect with family, against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and political unrest. Read on to discover the different ways these authors have explored these issues. Thanks to Salt and Legend Press for my review copies.
Paul and Veblen are engaged to be married. They’re clearly in love and clearly, with their mismatched attitudes to the world beyond themselves, unsuited for the decades of companionship we hope will follow a wedding. It is obvious from the moment Paul gives her a ring, with a diamond so large it interferes with her obsessional typing.
Unlike Veblen, who espouses the anti-capitalist values of her namesake, the economist Thorstein Veblen, Paul is ambitious. A research neurologist, when the pharmaceutical empire Hutmacher offers him the opportunity to begin clinical trials on the device he’s developed to minimise battlefield brain damage, he dismisses his ethical reservations with the word Seropurulent “an ironic superlative they used in med school for terrible things that had to be overlooked” (p62). Raised by hippies, the trappings of the consumerist world spell safety for Paul (p66):
I’m pleased to recommend two California-set novels published this week about the fragility of masculinity, sibling loyalty and the impact on families of the Vietnam war, the first for the generation directly affected and the second for the children of men who served.
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
My historical education – or should that be education about history? – continues courtesy of a couple of powerful novels about the Second World War and its aftermath along the eastern front.
I’ve partnered these three debut novels because they’re all about preteen girls (although, in the third, Under the Udala Trees, our heroine does grow up to become a mother herself). Set in Britain, China and Nigeria they feature loneliness, religion and burgeoning sexuality with the latter two against the backdrop of war.
I was a little surprised to find that Marvellous Ways is a character, rather than a method, in Sarah Winman’s second novel but, as she reviews her long life in the company of a bereft young soldier, it turns out that a life lived according to her own ways is rather marvellous after all. Aged eighty-nine when we first meet her in 1947, her years have passed mostly alone in a remote Cornish creek. Her mother, she’s been told, was a mermaid and her father found a place “between God and medicine” in administering to the dying in their final hours, perhaps a precursor to the hospice movement featured in a couple of other novels. Marvellous finds a role for herself at the other end of life, as a very different kind of midwife to Gugu in Mo Yan’s Frog.
While I’d recommend this novel to readers, I want to focus, as I did some time ago with Instructions for a Heatwave, on what we can learn from Laird Hunt’s sixth novel (although the first to be published in the UK) as writers, whether we are looking to write historical fiction or not.
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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