Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.
Argentinian author and stay-at-home dad Lucas Pereyra has found a clever way to import, tax-free, the advance for his next book. Both Lucas’ flat and his marriage have seen better days and smuggling in the advance from Uruguay will leave him with some sorely needed cash and, hopefully, some forgiveness from his hard-working wife. There’s also an ulterior motive for going. Lucas has long fantasised about hooking up with the 28-year-old, beautiful woman he flirted with at a literary festival last time he visited. The Woman From Uruguay by Pedro Mairal is an intense and often comical account of what happens when hormones and the desire to escape from it all take over.
Set in wintry wartime England, A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin is a reflective tale of lost innocence and disappointment. The titular girl is twenty-something librarian, Katherine Lind, a refugee living in an unnamed provincial town, where the harsh winter is threatening to become a state of mind. Memories of her first visit to England, a girlhood interlude with her penpal, Robin Fennel, contrast bitterly with her current lonely situation, but when fate causes Robin to resurface, memory and expectation play their usual sly tricks.
There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book which has just come out as a film on Netflix.
Capturing the blend of magic and melancholy curiously specific to English seaside towns, Little Boxes by Cecilia Knapp takes us to a Brighton the local tourist board never reveals. During the course of a stifling and turbulent summer, we follow four twenty-something friends as their lives buckle after the death of an elderly man, beloved to them all. An evocation of council estate life in all its colours and ‘ordinary’ young people on the cusp of great change, this debut novel of secrets and survival is an engrossing read.
Pottering about in her nicely linoleumed kitchen one day, Dorothy Caliban is startled to be confronted by a green sea-monster named Larry. Half-man, half-frog, he is an escapee from a nearby research institute, on the run and wanted for murder. He is also curiously attractive, and a welcome diversion for the sad and fragile housewife. Billed as an amphibious cult classic, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is a clever and captivating read. Seemingly the decidedly uncommon tale of an inter-species love affair, but actually a delicious skewering of the American patriarchy.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, which has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. The author Tahar Ben Jelloun traces the experiences of political prisoner Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan ll of Morocco. With sixty others, at the whim of the king, Salim was incarcerated in a secret prison complex deep in the Moroccan desert. He was to remain in this hellhole, known as Tazmamart, for nearly twenty years.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
Revisiting novels can be a tortuous affair, sometimes bringing the painful realisation that we’ve outgrown favourite books and writers. Happily for me, The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell has provoked the opposite response. Maxwell’s nuanced and tender tale of male friendship remains a quiet triumph. Set in 1920’s Illinois, it charts the adolescence of pals Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, whose alliance hinges on Spud providing protection and social acceptance in exchange for Lymie’s devotion. In an era before male platonic love was considered questionable, their intense bond is fatally tested instead by misunderstandings, boyhood trauma, and the scarring silence of things left unsaid.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you a taste of loneliness, but as The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (written long before the Coronavirus) shows us, incredible art can come out of a solitary existence. Laing takes us on an absorbing journey of New York City through the eyes of artists who lived lonely lives – sometimes by choice, most often not. She investigates the lives of artists like Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz even Andy Warhol, whose art ‘is surprisingly eloquent on isolation’ despite his famously social lifestyle. Highly recommended.