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.
Amanda and Clay – a successful, liberal New York couple – are staying in a smart rental summer house in the Hamptons with their kids. When the phone and internet connections go down and a black couple, claiming to be the owners of the house, knock on the door asking for shelter, Amanda and Clay’s proclaimed tolerance is put to the test. Who is this couple? Can they be trusted? And why doesn’t the communications network function? Cyberattack? Terrorism? War? Nuclear accident? Catastrophe looms in Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, the most unsettling and frighteningly believable novel I’ve read in a long time.
In a row of cabins along a Scottish loch, families are trying to enjoy their summer holiday. It’s been bucketing down for several days and claustrophobia is setting in. Siblings are bickering, parents’ tempers flare. (Been there?) Bored, they observe each other through the ‘French doors’ of their cheaply built wooden cabins. Some venture out and some are sent out, mostly to relive the tension building inside. Summerwater by Sarah Moss, is a quietly unsettling little book that deals with family life, secrets and conflict, set in an ominous world, which I consumed in one sitting.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is a near impossible sell. With its dreadful cover (really??) and odd sounding storyline (twins who catch fire when they get agitated) my go-to-bookseller struggled to convince me. Luckily, I succumbed because this is an utterly surprising, funny and moving novel. It’s the story of the Lillian, an aimless loner, who’s hired by her glamorous friend Madison as nanny for her twin stepchildren. There’s a catch: the twins combust when they’re upset. If you find this plot implausible, you won’t be alone, but somehow Wilson succeeds in making it credible and what seems like a shallow novel turns into something much weightier.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week 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.
As 2020 heads into autumn with no sign whatsoever of Covid relaxing its destructive grip on all that we know, this little-known novel provided me with a welcome distraction from the bombardment of grim headlines about Corona and Brexit. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was first published in 1931. Sherriff was the author of Journey’s End; a First World War play that is often hailed as one of the greatest of its time. The Fortnight in September is vastly different in subject matter but shares its emphasis on real people living real lives. It charmed and delighted me with its simple yet moving narrative.
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.
More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran comes nine years after her bestselling How to Be a Woman which I, and many of you, absolutely loved. Can she pull it off a second time? Yes, I think so! More Than a Woman is a slightly more serious book and has fewer scream-out-loud-laughing moments (or perhaps it’s me) than its predecessor but is still very funny. Life for Moran, as for most of us, has got a bit more serious with age. She too has got wiser with time and has some very worthwhile reflections around womanhood, parenting, feminism and marriage that are not only entertaining but ring true. Perfect comfort reading.
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.