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.
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.
There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else. My favourite Ferrante book remains The Days of Abandonment, but die-hard Ferrante fans will still want to read this book.
‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist has been in my to-be-read pile for quite a while (perhaps explained by its depressing title). Those who’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might recognise the title as the last sentence of that book and this is Lindqvist’s starting point. This history-cum-travel book investigates the dark history of European colonialism and brutal extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s a distressing but highly recommended read and one which explains some of the systemic racism which still haunts the Western world.
The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar is a heart-breaking story narrated by Momo, a ten year-old Arab immigrant to France. Momo, who lives in an orphanage run by ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, has seen things no ten-year old should see and is far too advanced for his age. Darkly comical and wonderfully poignant The Life Before Us deserves to join the ranks of rediscovered classics. Why no UK publisher has given its cover a face-lift and republished this wonderful novel is a mystery to me. Read full Review
Wow…is all I can say about The Notebook by Agota Kristof. This is one of the more disquieting books I’ve read but it’s also impossible to put down. It’s the notebook of two nameless young twin brothers somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime at the end of the Second World War. Calmly and unsentimentally, the boys tell us what war does to people. It’s not a pretty story but it leaves an indelible impression.
There’s something special about novels based on real events, particularly when the story is crazy as that of the The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. It’s the late 1700s and the time of absolute rulers. In Denmark, a German doctor is hired to take care of the 16-year-old mentally disturbed King Christian VII. Within months, Struensee becomes the Queen’s lover and de-facto sovereign while living alongside King Christian. How was this possible? And was this Struensee’s intention all along? A wild journey into the madness of 18th century court life, revolutionary ideas and an absolute treat of a novel. Read full Review
Norway’s capital is perhaps not the most spectacular city in Europe, but it has seldom been more charming than in Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen, the first instalment in an ambitious trilogy tracing the lives of ordinary people in post-war Oslo. One of Norway’s most respected novelists, Saabye Christensen has managed the feat of attaining both critical acclaim and high sales.
I am writing the review of This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun eight weeks into the extraordinary lockdown we find ourselves stuck in. This remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. Strangely, although a harrowing and at times uncomfortable read, it has proved to be a perfect book for now. I hope you will feel the same.
The 2020 Dublin Literary Award would have announced its shortlist on 2 April, but has since been postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Among the many big names on the extensive long-list was Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen, which caused a stir in Norway upon publication in 2015. Many viewed it as the latest example of so-called virkelighetslitteratur – reality literature – a strand of life writing that seemed to expose the private lives of real people under the guise of fiction.