These two recent reads explore physical and psychological survival, or otherwise, in extreme weather conditions. The first is a historical novel about the devastating human, climactic and economic consequences of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. The second is a translated novella about vulnerable hermit overwintering in the Italian Alps. If you choose to read either of these, you won’t be disappointed.
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.
That’s right, both novels are about daughters: the first a debut about the claustrophobic bond between mothers and daughters exacerbated by the claustrophobic island setting; the second a translation from Hebrew set in late 19th-century Russia about the consequences of a father teaching his younger daughter his unusual trade. Of course there might be other connections but, as you’ll see if you read to the end, right now, I’ve got fictional daughters on the brain.
In what circumstances is it acceptable for women to abandon their traditional roles? What are the consequences if they should do so ill-advisedly? Although these two novels are set in different times and cultures to my own, they raised questions for me as to how far we can safely step out of line. The first novel pays homage to the forgotten women of Ethiopia who took up arms when the country was invaded by Mussolini’s troops. In the second, set in seventeenth century north Norway, the women have no choice but to do the jobs previously carried out by their menfolk when a storm at sea wipes out most of the male population, only for some to find themselves accused of witchcraft a few years later.
What could these two novels possibly have in common other than the similar colours on the covers, and that I read them consecutively in the week they were published in the UK? The first is a family saga spanning six decades from the Spanish Civil War to the defeat of Pinochet in 1990s Chile from a doyenne of Latin American literature. The second is a debut about madness and motherhood. Both are concerned with exile, to and from Europe and the Americas; the latter also addressing psychological exile from the self.
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.
Having begun the year’s reviews with a Kindle catch-up, including a couple of single-author collections, my attention was drawn to another couple of multi-author short-story anthologies waiting on my physical shelf. I don’t know why I’d neglected them. Perhaps because anthologies are harder than novels to review? Whatever reason, I’ve finally read them. Enjoyed them. And now I’m here to tell you why.
Both these novels feature characters who are challenged and/or challenge others with their different-from-average minds. In the first, it’s a young man with Down’s syndrome, viewed from the perspective of his loving father. In the second, it’s a young woman, latterly diagnosed with schizophrenia, who inadvertently time travels to Elizabethan England. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of book, do give me the chance to persuade you otherwise!
In these two novels, a teenage girl needs a safe place to retreat from the world, but the sanctuary she’s chosen won’t easily let her go. In the first, a convent provides shelter to a girl fearful of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy; in the second, a psychiatric hospital offers a welcome respite from the strain of appearing sane. It’s pure coincidence that the main characters’ names – Dolores and Deborah – begin with the same letter and that both remind me of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home.
Amid the painful aftermath of the UK ‘people’ voting in our pig in a poke, I had reason to remind myself of the literature on the cognitive advantages biculturalism. While I doubt our new PM possesses the skills or intellect to unite an increasingly polarised country – or even the desire, whatever might spout from his mouth – it’s essential if we’re to avoid civil war as we helter-skelter into economic and climactic ruin. So, although neither of these very disparate novels is primarily about straddling two cultures, I make no apologies for linking them via this theme.
What happens when childlessness develops from being a personal matter to a problem for society as a whole? In Margaret Atwood’s imagined Gilead an alarming drop in the live birth rate calls for Draconian measures, building a society where a woman’s mind and body are subservient to her reproductive potential. In Perumal Murugan’s rural South India, childlessness is a threat to the established order, with friends and neighbours pitching in with advice and criticism, indifferent to the infertile couple’s private grief.
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.
How far should we go to maintain order? Are the winners responsible for the wellbeing of those who’ve drawn the short straw? I’ve recently read two quirky novels in which character is secondary to situation, exploring dystopian societies with elements uncomfortably mirroring our own. The first focuses on tech infiltration of the political and personal; the second on the violence inherent in safeguarding resources for ourselves.
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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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
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GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
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Read My Mother Sent Me a Parcel
my latest short story hot off the press.
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