Classics

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

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Out Stealing Horses

Beautiful Norwegian novel of memory and acceptance

Approaching his twilight years, Trond Sander has fulfilled a lifelong yearning for rural solitude; a small house in the farthest reaches of eastern Norway, with a dog and the radio for companionship. The 21st century is hovering into view but Trond has no plans for Millennium celebration, instead anticipating a mellow, boozy evening in front of the fire. His new resolve to inhabit only the present moment is upended by the shocking appearance of a character from Trond’s past. In Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, a reckoning is long overdue with the psychic wounds and repercussions of childhood tragedy and loss.

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The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan

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The Long-Winded Lady

A captivating and stylish peek at bygone New York

An unearthed gem for lovers of the Big Apple, The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan is a gloriously evocative collection of vignettes of New York life between 1954 and 1981. Originally written for The New Yorker as a series of observational pieces, Brennan captures the city in a state of  flux, reporting from street scenes, hotel lobbies, and more often than not, the window table of an elegant bar. From here, as a wry and solitary observer and unashamed eavesdropper, Brennan gives us the lowdown on a city where it’s never too early to order a martini.

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O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

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O Caledonia

Gloriously dark outsider tale

In surely one of the most captivating opening scenes in British literature, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, takes us to the vaulted hall of a remote Scottish castle. Here, in a crumpled heap on the flagstones, beneath a tall stained-glass window, lies sixteen-year-old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, and covered in blood. Unloved and misunderstood in life, she has met a ‘murderous death.’ Moonlight filtering through the stained-glass picks out the legend Moriens sed Invictus; dying but unconquered. In Barker’s glorious and darkly funny portrayal of an outsider heroine’s short and intense life, the truth of this proves undeniable.

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Berg by Ann Quin

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Berg

Darkly funny Oedipal tale

The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.

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The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

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The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Blistering Ghanaian novel of post-colonial disillusionment

Steel yourself for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, one of the bleakest novels I’ve read in a long time, but also one of the most memorable. First published in 1968, this African modern classic explores the rise of  disillusionment and corruption in post-independence Ghana, through the weary eyes of an anonymous railway clerk. His noble refusal to become a sell-out invites dismay and derision from his materialistic nearest and dearest, in this acerbic tale of ennui and moral decay.

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A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman

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A Moth to a Flame

Classic Swedish novel of grief and disorientation

A gem from the excellent Penguin European Writers series, A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is a magnificently moody read. Set in 1940’s Stockholm, it tells the tale of Bengt, a young man broken by the premature death of his mother. Discovering that his father had a secret lover throughout, the devastated Bengt plots vengeance, and in Dagerman’s astute portrayal of Bengt’s slide into existential crisis, we watch as he becomes embroiled in a demented affair with that very same mistress. Laced with sly humour, this novel of grief, loss and love is a provocative treat.

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell

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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane

Revisiting a fabulous cult classic

A treat for those with a penchant for camp gothic drama, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell is the cult classic that spawned the legendary 1962 film. It chronicles the descent into madness of faded childhood vaudeville star, Baby Jane Hudson. Holed up in a crumbling mansion with her infinitely more famous actress sister, Blanche, the dysfunctional siblings’ tale is one of envy, unaddressed daddy issues, and monstrous villainy. Cinephiles will love how Farrell conjures the scenes that inspired the movie, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford inevitably become the sisters in the reader’s mind’s eye.

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A Way Of Life Like Any Other Darcy O'Brien

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A Way of Life Like Any Other

Hilarity with a dash of vinegar

The New York Review of Books Classics series is a marvellous creation, an eclectic mix of fabulously-jacketed titles, invariably accompanied by compelling intros. A recent serendipitous dip into the collection blessed us with A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien, the story of a young boy in 1950’s Hollywood, his movie star parents and their sordid and absurd descent into has-been territory. Irresistibly described as ‘completely bananas’, we find out what happens after the glitter fades, in a bizarre coming-of-age novel that combines hilarity with a dash of vinegar.

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Silence by Shusaku Endo

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Silence

Stunning Japanese classic

Reading Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of those magical experiences in which you find yourself transported to a completely different time and place. In this case, to a 17th century Japan in the midst of its battle to eradicate Christianity. We follow two young, committed Jesuit priests on their clandestine journey from Portugal to an island off the coast of Japan. Their mission: to keep the Catholic faith alive and to find out what happened to a predecessor who is rumoured to have apostatised. Justly considered a Japanese classic, Silence raises questions around religious colonialism, clash of cultures, freedom of religion and the very core of faith itself while being an absolutely gripping read.

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A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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A Single Man

Re-engaging with life

Film fans will remember fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut from a few years ago based on A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. As aesthetically pleasing that film was, nothing compares to the real thing: the book itself. The story of recently bereaved George, a 58-year-old Santa Monica based Englishman, struggling to fill the gaping hole left by the sudden death of his gay partner Jim, is absolutely exquisite. Written in 1964 and hailed as the first truly gay novel, this beautifully written, tightly conceived novel about re-discovering happiness is a joy to read.

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