Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading. Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.
... something funny
Adelmo Farandola lives by himself as far up a rocky Alpine valley as possible. He hasn’t showered or changed clothes for as long as he can remember and he’ll do anything to avoid people. When a stray dog starts following him, Adelmo reluctantly takes it in and a strange relationship develops as they struggle to survive the brutal winter. Anyone with a soft spot for books set in wild mountains will love Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. A bestseller in Italy, this quirky, darkly comic book about a grumpy loner losing his mind is a surreal little gem.
Toby Fleishman is divorcing. He’s had enough of his absent, high-flying talent agent wife, Rachel, who never seems to be satisfied with his job as a doctor, their flat in Manhattan or indeed have time for their two kids. He’s fed up. In his new-found freedom he’s going through a sort of sexual renaissance. New York, it appears, is full of middle-aged horny women who will do anything to get laid by someone like Toby, or, actually, just anyone. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner has descriptions of the befuddling world of online dating that had me, literally, screaming with laughter. But there’s more to this book than clever comedy and the turn to a more serious tone is both its strength and weakness.
Laughter is the best medicine and for those of you who can’t stand Boris Johnson or Brexit, The Cockroach by Ian McEwan should make you feel a tiny bit better, at least for a fleeting moment. The rest of you might as well stop reading now. The premise is genius: a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in reverse. A cockroach wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and fellow cabinet members, many of whom also used to live under the floorboards of the Houses of Parliament, are seeking to get an absurd economic plan called reversalism, a reversal of all money flows, through the House of Commons. It won’t change your life – or political point of view – McEwan’s political satire, but it will make you snigger. Predictably, The Guardian loved this novella, The Telegraph didn’t. I found it quite funny.
Disaffected teenager Charlie Lewis is finessed into joining a summer holiday drama camp by a girl he meets by chance. She is beautiful, clever and well-read; he can’t act, has zero ambition and is only there because he fancies her. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is a pitch-perfect, delicately choreographed love story that will make you laugh and cry and wish you were young again – and then be glad you’re not.
Ben Lerner’s pot smoking, pill popping protagonist Adam is an endearing, hilarious and vulnerable anti-hero whom I immediately warmed to. On a poetry fellowship to Spain from Kansas, Adam comes weighed down with self-doubt. His knowledge of Spanish is negligible, his skills as a poet questionable. Adam self-medicates to the point that much of his life has become an out-of-body experience. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner had me in stiches, but just like Adam’s experience of life, this book has layers and layers of meaning, some hilarious, some profound, many of them both.
In a faraway country torn apart by civil war, two men are paving a new road that will reunite the north and south. The job is dangerous, employees of large international companies are attractive targets for kidnappers, so the men are known by their code names Four and Nine. They are polar opposites as far as personality goes. Four is a risk-averse pedant, Nine a careless hedonist. The stage is set for chaos. I’ve always enjoyed the way Eggers throws characters into unchartered territories, a fertile ground for comedy, and here he does it again. The Parade by Dave Eggers is not his best book, but as a light, funny read it’s very enjoyable nonetheless. (The Parade will be published in the UK on 21st March.)
Milkman by Anna Burns is a book that has everything. Humour, seriousness, depth, originality, nuanced characters, well-crafted prose and, most crucially, something important to say. You have an absolute treat in store if you haven’t yet read this story of an 18-year girl living through ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Miserable as it might sound, this book is a firework of a novel.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a rare book. Imminently readable, absurd, laugh-out-loud funny, yet profound. And it’s the winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award. As a child Keiko, our heroine, is different. Unnervingly so. Particularly in a society where conformity is the ideal. ‘Normal’ is what everyone is striving for and when Keiko starts to work in a convenience store, ‘normal’ seems within reach. But being ‘normal’ eventually involves marrying and having children, which she’s not even remotely interested in. As pressure mounts, Keiko needs to find a solution.
Ester Nilsson, respected poet and writer, has spent too much time being an intellectual and too little being a human. Everything changes when she falls head-over-heals in love with successful artist Hugo Rask. But how will Ester reconcile her critical/analytical brain with her biological urges? And what are Hugo’s intentions? Is he looking for love or just someone to stroke his ego? I was engrossed by Andersson’s intelligent and wickedly funny portrayal of the nature of relationships. A book for anyone who has loved without being loved back.