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.
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.