We’re in France at the brink of the revolution. A sinister, Hannibal-Lecter-like character rumoured to be devouring everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, including forks, rats and babies, is imprisoned in a monastery. Sister Perpetue has the unenviable task of guarding him. But who is this mysterious Tarare and what is his story? The Glutton by A.K. Blakemore is one the better books I’ve read this year. A brutal story of poverty, survival and class, set against the backdrop of revolutionary France and written by a hugely talented young author. Go get it.
A bildungsroman unlike any other, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq takes us to the Canadian Arctic and a landscape of boundless terrain and immense skies. It’s the 1970’s and a young Inuk girl tells of her childhood in this extraordinary environment, where deprivation and discrimination sit uneasily beside a magical northern world of nature and mythology. When puberty arrives, it will bestow a shamanic gift upon the girl and prompt her, incredibly, to seek communion with the Northern Lights.
Early on in Enter the Water by Jack Wiltshire, we’re casually told that there’s no hero story to be found here, but by the end of this exhilarating verse novel, you may well disagree. It tells the story of a vulnerable Cambridge student, evicted from his flat and sleeping on a park bench. Setting out on an odyssey to the coast, accompanied by pigeons, a blackbird and the forces of Nature itself, his story is a clarion call for appreciating the natural world and cultivating stoicism in our infinitely troubled times.
The first time Yoella lays eyes on her young granddaughters, it is through the window panes of their Groningen home. Having travelled thousands of miles to see them, she is hiding in the gathering dusk of their front garden, concealed and mesmerised. In the prize-winning How to Love Your Daughter by Hila Blum, Yoella retraces the painful path that has led to estrangement between herself and her only child, Leah. Setting the reader the compelling task of unpicking her account and assessing the silences, Yoella’s story is one of intense introspection and all-consuming love.
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, Ruth and G.H., 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.
One chilly January morning in 1957, a man discovers two dead bodies on a Japanese beach. A young woman in an immaculate kimono and a gentleman with polished shoes. Curiously, both corpses are rosy cheeked, an anomaly explained away by the police doctor as a sign of cyanide poisoning. It’s almost certainly a classic love suicide pact, but in Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, we’re reminded to challenge even the most elementary assumptions, particularly when one of the deceased is a government official implicated in a bribery scandal. A meticulously (some might say obsessively) plotted 1958 Japanese crime classic, it’s a deliciously knotty read.
Brynhild is seventeen and in love. She’s been told many times that she needs to know her place, and she does. By day, her place is in the kitchen as a housemaid, but by night it’s in the feverish embrace of the master’s eldest son. Quiet and pious, she is awaiting God’s blessing of their love. God, of course, has other plans, and in My Men by Victoria Kielland, we watch as Brynhild morphs into Belle Gunness, the murderous owner of a dark ‘carnivorous heart’. Based on the true story of America’s first known female serial killer, it’s an intense and mesmerising affair.
Penance by Eliza Clark is not a read for the faint-hearted. It tells the story of Joan Wilson, a teenager tortured and burnt to death by three other schoolgirls on the night of the Brexit vote. Joan Wilson is, mercifully, not a real person. Clark has produced what one reviewer describes as an untrue – that is to say, made-up – true crime story. The character Clark invents to tell this tale is Alec Z. Carelli, a disgraced journalist on the hunt for a scandal sensational enough to fill a whole book and to help him rebuild his career in the true crime universe.
If this summer hasn’t made you realise the urgency of the climate crisis, I’d recommend reading The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley-Robinson. A sci-fi eco-thriller which made it onto President Obama’s list of favourite reads, The Ministry for the Future is both a terrifying prediction of what the future will look like and hopeful tale of how we can avoid total extinction. I can empathise with the urge to look away but do read this book, your future depends on it.
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.