When I selected my reading for Black History Month, I didn’t realise that three of the four books had a connection to Jamaica. Nor did I realise that one would obscure black history as much as it illuminates. While three books are around ninety-seven short of composing a timeline, they’re listed here in chronological order of the events they portray. Scroll down for links to my reviews of other books (mostly fiction) I’ve read in recent years.
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.
Where once it was religion that kept the poor downtrodden, now it’s capitalism as expressed in the Great American Dream, that we can all be winners if we set our minds to it. Both these novels transport the modern mind to a time and place where characters are conscious that not everything that happens is under their control. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to appease the superpowers or exercise free will. In the first, we meet a group of thirteenth century pilgrims sacrificing earthly pleasures for an easier eternity; in the second, a young woman in modern secular India grapples with the ancient Hindu concept of fate.
Realising I needed a stronger reason for pairing these recent reads than the alliterative letter L, I nevertheless feel shabby to have linked them through the childminder role. Okay, the nanny is the protagonist of the first, although she remains a shadowy figure, but only one of many characters in the second where it’s as a mother, rather than as a parent substitute, that she advances the story. But, as was noted at the Zoom meeting of my book group discussion of Lullaby, nannies are as invisible in literature as they are in life. Rather belatedly, I also see that they’re both about fault-lines: the first metaphorically, the second geologically.
Strange bedfellows these two translations: the first an historical novel from France; the second a contemporary slipstream novel from South Korea. My excuse for linking them is an issue that was on my mind the day I finished the first and started the second, thanks to a non-fiction book I had ordered. Although women being blamed for sexual abuse and harassment is only a minor issue in these novels, it’s so important I make no apology for ushering it into the limelight.
I’ve recently read two historical novels about morality with surprising echoes of our current pandemic. The first is a fun story set in 17th-century London about a young woman concerned about losing the respect of her relatives when she turns to prostitution after becoming homeless during the Great Plague. The second is set in a copper mining community in 1850s South Africa, where lives are lost because the owners put profit before people.
If you’re reading through the lockdown, or listening to more music, you might be interested in these two books featuring dual narratives connected via an “instrument” of the arts. The second is a translated novella set in and around a real-life bookshop and publishing house; the first is about heartbreak compounded by the fear of letting go from a publisher who mostly does translations.
I felt grief when schools and pubs and restaurants were closed, despite not having much use for any of them; and guilt when a minor health issue kept me from my usual outdoor volunteering, with staffing already low as the over 70s were advised to stay at home. I welcomed the lockdown in bringing some order to an atmosphere of chaos and confusion, despite being appalled when I saw it happening to my publisher in Spain. I found a host of silver linings and even admired the most egotistical prime minister and the most extreme right wing government’s management of the crisis. And then the doctors and nurses began to die.
I’ve recently read two alternative histories about what we do with the darker or unwanted parts of ourselves: how we reveal them to, or hide them from, ourselves and others; how societies develop rituals to manage the exposure and cleansing; how power effects what’s allowed. If that sounds overly intellectual, don’t worry; both of these have story at the heart.
Both of these novels defy easy classification, but I’ve chosen to pair them for their themes of the legacy of slavery, or the way in which owning another person demeans us all. In the first, we follow a young man, marked by his unusual appearance, from babyhood in Jamaica shortly before independence to England and back. The second is a translated Argentinian dystopian novel about cannibalism. In both novels, a character, or characters, withhold or are denied their voice.
Only in court are we required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. In our ordinary lives, we stretch, bend and turn it inside out. Not always intentionally, or even consciously, but simply to smooth human interactions and present the best version of ourselves. In the first of these two novels, a Wild-West outlaw needs to create an alter ego to survive, while a frontiers woman needs to revise the details of a family tragedy in order to live with herself. In the second, a lie gives a teenage girl a reprieve from loneliness, and an elderly woman a chance to be heard.
Sometimes, the covers of books I’ve paired for review are so well matched, despite differences in genre, it appears I’ve put them together for aesthetic reasons. But, while I like to dress my blog attractively, it’s the content that counts. These two translated novels fictionalise real-life historical figures who were meticulous observers of the world around them. The first is still celebrated 500 years later; the second has been forgotten in the half-century since her death.
Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
While separated by style – the first literary lyrical, the second more off-the-peg – and setting – the first wilderness, the second three cityscapes – these two novels are united by more than a character named Tomas. The main characters of both stories are preoccupied with meticulous observation of the environment: for animal research in Tiger whereas in The Museum of Broken Promises, surveillance might be a more appropriate word. And while the latter is about conserving objects and memories, nature conservation is one of the themes of the first.
Too many clergymen, in my experience, set themselves above the hoi polloi, considering themselves above criticism due to their “direct line” to God. I certainly found that in the Catholic response to John Boyne’s novel on sexual abuse in the church. The Reverend Pearson, in The Wind That Lays Waste, set in rural Argentina in the recent past, is guilty of not much more than arrogance, while the Priest in Beastings, set in Cumbria in more God-fearing times, is plain evil. Both men are on a geographical and psychological mission: Pearson’s itinerant evangelism interrupted when his car breaks down, while the Priest leaves his cosy cottage for the Lake District fells on the trail of a runaway girl who knows too many of his secrets.
Two historical novels about the fight for political reform, in which a peaceful gathering of protesters is savagely put down. The first is about the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence in the years between the two world wars. The second is set in Britain a century earlier and focuses on the working-class battle for basic human rights. Of course, both are packed with interesting characters too!
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.
Two gripping novels that begin with an unexpected death in the family: in the first, set in Scotland, it’s the main character’s niece; in the second, set in Australia, it’s the protagonist’s brother. In both cases, the evidence points to suicide, until the deceased’s relatives start poking around. Both protagonists discover more than they bargained for but nevertheless benefit from confronting the truth. Both novels are also about male violence and sibling rivalry.
Two novels set in Britain that feature climbing. In the first, it’s the hobby verging on obsession of three of the four main characters, in a homage to Sheffield and the nearby Peak District National Park; in the second, a cli-fi thriller, surmounting the wall is what the narrator and his peers are conscripted to prevent. Thanks to publishers Chatto and Windus and to Faber for my review copies.
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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