The 2020 Dublin Literary Award would have announced its shortlist on 2 April, but has since been postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Among the many big names on the extensive long-list was Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen, which caused a stir in Norway upon publication in 2015. Many viewed it as the latest example of so-called virkelighetslitteratur – reality literature – a strand of life writing that seemed to expose the private lives of real people under the guise of fiction.
Can’t think of a better escape right now than the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a glorious cocktail of jealousy, obsession, opulence and mystery. Our modest, unglamorous heroine works as a companion to a well-healed woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. There she meets the wealthy, dashing widower Max de Winter and an unlikely relationship begins. They marry and return to Manderley, de Winter’s palatial estate in England, where the ghost of de Winter’s dead wife Rebecca and the ghoulish housekeeper Mrs Danvers rule. An extraordinary psychological thriller.
Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo shook South-Korea to the core when it was published there a few years ago, unleashing a fierce #MeToo debate. It chronicles the life of Kim Jiyoung from birth to motherhood to mental breakdown and is written in the form of a psychiatrist report. The cold clinical way her case is described is, of course, a reflection of the way she, as a girl and a woman, is treated. That South Korea lags behind in women’s lib possibly doesn’t come as news but this little book still had the power to surprise and move.
Edmund de Waal’s moving exhibition The Library of Exile at the British Museum has reminded me of his magnificent book The Hare With the Amber Eyes which has stayed with me ever since I read it in 2011. If you haven’t read it yet, now would be a perfect time. It’s a memoir of de Waal’s family, the Ephrussis, Jewish bankers, grain traders and intellectuals. Pillars of early 20th century Viennese society and possessors of unimaginable wealth; grand palaces in Vienna, pink chateaus on the Cote d’Azure and priceless art collections. Then came Hitler. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is an absorbing book, not only in learning about the tragic destiny of the Ephrussis but also to understand central Europe in the run up to the Second World War. An absolute must-read.
Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading. Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.
Librarian Lizzie Benson lives a pretty ordinary life in New York City with her husband Ben and son Eli. What’s happening around her, however, is anything but. Climate change, Trump, threats to democracy, artificial intelligence, drug addiction – there’s plenty to worry about. How to absorb it all while going on living is the question. Weather by Jenny Offill puts words to what it’s like to live right now and thanks to her playful, fragmented writing style, this book is not nearly as depressing as it sounds.
Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?
Adelmo Farandola lives by himself as far up a rocky Alpine valley as possible. He hasn’t showered or changed clothes for as long as he can remember and he’ll do anything to avoid people. When a stray dog starts following him, Adelmo reluctantly takes it in and a strange relationship develops as they struggle to survive the brutal winter. Anyone with a soft spot for books set in wild mountains will love Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. A bestseller in Italy, this quirky, darkly comic book about a grumpy loner losing his mind is a surreal little gem.
The Five – The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold won the Baille-Gifford prize for non-fiction in November. And what an incredible book this is, despite its miserable subject matter. Thankfully, there’s no revelling in the gruesome murders at all, in fact, this book is all about humanising the victims who’ve been so despicably treated by history. I was glued to the page from the start, impressed by the incredible research Rubenhold has undertaken and moved by the terrible plight of poor women in Victorian times. Highly recommended.
Here’s one to set off a fiery debate around the dinner table. Now that the first storm around #MeToo has settled, This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill takes a step back and looks at the fallout. Quin, a successful, charming publisher, has been a huge flirt his entire adult life. While never explicitly abusing his power, Quin has always operated at the very edge of acceptable behaviour (sometimes overstepping it). It has now come back to haunt him. Many of us have had a Quin in our lives. What do we think of this one?