I’ve soldiered through Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro waiting to be gripped by a revelation of the kind that Ishiguro’s excellent Never Let Me Go offered. There is a revelation, sort of, but it comes late and there’s too much treading water before you get there to sustain interest. Strangely, I felt very similar to what I did while reading Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, a sense of boredom combined with a sense of obligation to keep reading this Nobel Prize winning author whose earlier books Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, I loved.
Set in a Midwestern town, Booker Prize short-listed Real Life by Brandon Taylor follows Wallace, a black biochemistry postgraduate student. Wallace is struggling; his father has just passed away, his experiment has been destroyed by contamination and the relationship with his friends is crumbling. Seeking a source of temporary relief, Wallace decides to ‘meet his friends at the pier after all’. Yet, as the summer draws to close, it isn’t just the season longing for change in this evocative and provocative novel.
Another long forgotten but fabulous novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner from 1987. We meet two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, life-long loyal friends, soul mates, occasional competitors and mutual supporters. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative, tightly and exquisitely written novel, reach for Crossing to Safety.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann is a book unlike any I’ve read before; part fiction, part non-fiction. Facts and myths, history and politics, memories, even photos, are woven together to create a rich tapestry. At its heart lies the true story of two men, at either side of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, whose young daughters are killed. After being hit by the same devastating loss, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan become friends and decide to take their message of reconciliation and forgiveness out to the world. An original, clever and deeply moving read.
Although a short read, Indelicacy by Amina Cain is a delightful, thought provoking novella about socioeconomic amelioration, the complexities of marriage, and female agency. Following main character Vitória who, longing for the economic and temporal freedom to write, climbs (and falls down) the hierarchical ladder from gallery cleaner to kept wife to independent singleton. Indelicacy celebrates the arts and female friendship above the apparent ‘need’ for a woman to produce, commit to and maintain a marriage.
It’s London 1944 and a German bomb is about to hit a Woolworths shop where five young children are shopping with their mums. The first chapter of Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford describes, in harrowing detail, the moment of impact. What would have happened to those five kids if they hadn’t turned to ‘dust’? This is what Spufford want us to imagine in Light Perpetual, a gripping tribute to lives not lived.
I first noticed The Offing by Benjamin Myers while on a day trip to Bath. It was eight days later when a copy fell through the letterbox of my north London flat; only, I hadn’t ordered it. It took a little investigation to identify the sender as my companion to the heritage city. Books have meaning beyond their contents; stories remind us of times in our lives and the people who have enlivened them. Myers’ The Offing tells the heart-warming story of sixteen-year- old Robert Appleyard and his unlikely friendship with a mysterious elderly lady. In this sense, it is a tale of companionship; and for me, the wonderful serendipity of correlation between the novel’s sentiment and the means by which it arrived on my shelf.
Some Caribbean sun, a few daiquiris, a bit of spying and some good laughs make Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the perfect Covid-January read. With a far-fetched plot – British Havana based vacuum clean salesman, Jim Wormold, is recruited as a spy for MI6 – it delivers some much-needed distraction. Wormold has been brutally dumped by his Cuban wife and is left to raise their 16-year-old daughter Milly by himself. Keeping glamorous Milly content is expensive and when Mr Hawthorne from the Foreign Office arrives from England, he makes Wormold an offer he can’t afford to refuse.
2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is the most empathic and convincing portrayal of an alcoholic I’ve read. It’s the 1980s and Agnes Bain and her three children live in utter misery in the most deprived area of Glasgow. Shug, Agnes philandering husband, has moved on. Soon the older children start looking for the exit too until it’s only Shuggie and Agnes left. It’s the indestructible love between the two of them that carries this touching novel. This year’s first must read.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a powerful tour of the emotional realities of late-20th century Czech history. Centered on the story of the young couple Tereza and Tomas, the novel explores the themes of infidelity and meaning-making against the backdrop of the Prague Spring period of 1968. Although intellectual in tone, the novel is entirely readable, thought-provoking, and remains a vibrant lens on history as well.