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.
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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.
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.
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.
Professor Q is a somewhat dull academic, apathetically teaching literature at a middling university and uninterested in his wife, Maria. She, in turn, is just grateful that Q appears to have lost any carnal urges. Supposing that the andropause has come for him, Maria is unaware that her hitherto predictable husband is in love with a mechanical music-box ballerina. Her name is Aliss and he is willing her to life. Both a political allegory and a deep dive into the recesses of the human psyche, Owlish by Dorothy Tse is a subversive and exhilarating affair.
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.
An oblique novel of sacrifice and survival, Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein tells the story of a young woman who uproots her life and moves to a remote part of Northern Europe, in order to become her brother’s housekeeper and companion. Her martyrish aims to be good, quiet, and to serve others, are taking a toll on her embattled ego, and there’s something else. Something uncanny about her which invites suspicion and hostility from the local residents. Our unnamed protagonist fears that there is something in her blood that makes people recoil, a frisson of foreboding setting the scene for a disturbing tale.
Updating one of Charles Dickens’ iconic novels is a brave thing to do. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver we get squalor, poverty and destitution worthy of the master himself, set in modern day America during the opioid crisis. Damon Field aka Demon Copperhead’s story is one of resilience in a society where everything is stacked against someone like him; his mixed race, poverty, his mother’s addiction, the education system, the list goes on. The shocking realisation is how little things have changed since 1850, which is precisely Kingsolver’s point.
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is a wonderfully enigmatic and mesmerising read, by an author whose presence sings from the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2023 list. An acknowledged purveyor of disquieting fiction, here Mackintosh introduces us to Elodie, a frustrated baker’s wife in post-war provincial France. Spending her days mired in gossip and domesticity, the bored young woman is ripe for seduction. It comes in the form of a dashing young ambassador and his wife, the beautiful and damaged Violet, their arrival heralding a sultry, sexy summer, and a rash of darkly peculiar goings on.