It’s too early to say whether lockdown will permanently change the boundaries between work and home. For all the benefits of curtailing commuting, many have missed the water-cooler conversations and the nine-to-five routine. Zoom fatigue is common, although online meetings have provided some amusing stories: the judge who spoke from behind a cat filter; the executive who unwittingly invited his colleagues to watch him take a shower. We’ve yet to see how those stories will translate into novels; in the meantime, let’s consider a few set in the workplace in pre-pandemic times. As usual with my lockdown literature posts, clicking on the title will take you to the review on my blog.
Behind the glamour
Ever fantasised about being an astronaut? Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is a lovely novel that almost defies description. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Spaceman of Bohemiamanages to be much bigger than the sum of its many parts: sci-fi adventure; love story; sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and homage to Prague; psychodrama of how the actions of one generation shape the next; a meditation on identity, adaption to loss, and what makes us human.
Although we’re generally aware of the murk behind the make-up of show business, we’re still drawn to the glitter. In her beautifully accomplished debut about Hollywood history, Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe presents the personalities behind the performance, entwined with the politics of prejudice and the murky world beneath the sparkle of cinema.
With a more contemporary setting, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, is a playful novel, set out like a screenplay, raising serious issues about identity, stereotypes and cinema, and the invisibility of people of Asian origin in the narrative of the American dream.
Doing the dirty work
Some jobs are unusual and glamorous. Others are just unusual.
The men in The Butchers, by Ruth Gilligan, are a world away from your high-street butcher, although their job involves killing cows. This is a beautifully written and compassionate story of four characters adapting to major change in their personal lives while their native Ireland catapults into the twenty-first century, wrapped up in a mystery involving a disturbing photograph.
Also about butchering, Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, is a refreshingly light, but not lightweight, dystopian novel about cannibalism, with themes of animal welfare, our collective disregard for humans deemed different to us, alongside the dehumanising culture of some types of work.
I could recommend a fair few novels about warfare, but I’ve selected one with a focus on the backroom boys of the battlefield. Louisa Hall’s Trinity, is a beautifully written meditation on bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.
Work that’s inherently tedious can, in the right hands, be fascinating on the page. From the title, I’d never have imagined that Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata would be so entertaining. It’s a novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
A central character with no history or context beyond his working life. A focus on office life that fails to clarify the purpose of the work undertaken. An enigma that is never completely resolved. A plain understated style. For a glimpse of the absurdity of work, I recommend Jonas Karlsson’s novella The Room: a marvellous Kafkaesque fable about office politics, diversity and differing versions of reality.
I also enjoyed Tom Fletcher’s novel about a milkman: Witch Bottle is a literary horror novel set in rural Cumbria about a man whose childhood trauma has left him in terror of his repressed potential for violence.
If I’d ever fancied being a delivery person, Daniel’s milk round would have shown me the error of my ways. But after months in lockdown, many yearn to spend more time outdoors. Why brave the elements, when we can read about it in a book?
Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love both herself and her sons.
Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Borderis a gorgeous novel, about sex, class and old-fashioned sexism; the impact of a chaotic childhood; the prospect of Scottish independence; and the harsh realities of land management that the townies, with their idealised notions of the countryside, don’t understand. It’s about the compromise between freedom and comfort, the border between civilisation and the wild.
A career cut short
The performing arts have perhaps suffered most during the pandemic, but this novel is a reminder that other illnesses can prematurely curtailed careers. Every Note Playedis the story of a concert pianist suffering from motor neurone disease. I loved this for the author’s compassion for her flawed characters, and the emotional range and depth. Although often wary of a redemption-through-catastrophe-or-suffering narrative, I really appreciated eavesdropping on this family’s bumpy journey to some kind of resolution.
Novels about novelists
I tend to avoid tales of fictional writers, but A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is so outrageously entertaining, I couldn’t resist. It’s an engrossing study of envy, narcissism and naked ambition in and outside the literary world. I’m sure no-one reading this bears any resemblance to the main character.
Would you set a novel in your own workplace?
One reason I’m not keen on writers as characters, is it can feel as if the author has taken the easy way out. Instead of researching a more interesting occupation, they’ve reproduced their own.
On the other hand, a writer’s day job – or in my case, former career – can provide a deep well of inspiration, while captivating readers to whom it’s unfamiliar. At least I hope so, as I’m about to publish a novel set in a fictionalised version of the long-stay psychiatric hospital where I worked for over a decade from the mid-1980s. I’m entertaining my newsletter subscribers with some of the back story to Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Why not join us and get a free e-book of prize-winning short stories: bit.ly/daughtershorts.
In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.
As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.
Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.
A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.