The story of a childhood summer home in the verdant Somerset countryside from one of England’s foremost contemporary novelists, The Past by Tessa Hadley is a breathtaking exploration of human interiority and interconnectedness. It is the account of four adult siblings, some with spouses and children and some notably without, and their last summer in the cottage as they decide whether or not to sell it.
It’s the season for literary prizes and hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize for Literature comes this year’s Booker Prize. Unusually, and in breach of their own rules, the committee decided to split the prize between Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those discussions.
I’m an ardent admirer of Atwood (see reviews of Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale) but I’m not convinced The Testaments is amongst her best books. Sure, it’s a timely novel touching upon momentous issues such as totalitarianism, religious extremism and feminism, but the literary aspects of this book are by no means perfect. Atwood has won before, 19 years ago, for the The Blind Assassin.
Bernadine Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker (high time!) for Girl, Woman, Other, 12 intertwining stories about black women’s lives. It sounds like an energetic, different book and we’re reading it as I write. Watch this space!
You’d think that the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature would play it safe this time around after having been suspended last year due to a sexual misconduct scandal, but no. The 2019 prize has been awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian playwright, author and translator with a long track record of winning literary prizes. Unfortunately, Handke has also been an outspoken supporter of Serbian nationalism and, amongst other things, spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević. In this day and age, the timing of awarding the prize to Handke seems particularly misjudged. No matter his skills as an author. Why they didn’t chose someone else amongst the numerous talented living authors is mind-boggling.
Poor Olga Tokarczuk, whose win for the 2018 prize (awarded this year because of said scandal) risks being drowned in the controversy around Handke’s prize, is the one we should focus on perhaps. Her novel Flights, which won the International Man Booker Prize last year, seems like a good place to start.
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published a few weeks ago. The dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was a game-changer when it came out in 1985, painting a terrifying picture of a totalitarian society in which women had been reduced to birthing machines. The arrival of Trump and religious extremism propelled the book back on the best-seller lists and inspired Atwood to write a sequel. Any follow-up to a brilliantly conceived, ground-breaking creation is a tall order and as much as I found this book an interesting, page-turner (always the case with Atwood, in my opinion), it also feels like a slightly paler version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Few things could hold me off from starting Margaret Atwood’s latest book, but The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig actually has. Zweig, an Austrian Jew whose wonderful novellas (The Royal Game, Amok, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman) many of you will know, was the world’s most popular author in the 1920s and 30s, until Hitler banned his books. The World of Yesterday is his autobiography, finished two days before his and his second wife’s joint suicide. It’s a lament for a lost world, a love letter to creativity and artists and an eloquent analysis of events that led up to both the first and the second world wars. The parallels with aspects of our own turbulent times are hard to ignore. Highly recommended.
None other than Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s greatest literary export since Ibsen, has provided the endorsement quote on the reissued English edition of The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, stating that it is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever.’ Vesaas (1897-1970) is still considered one of the country’s most important writers, and is now deservedly being published in English as part of Penguin Modern Classics. (PS never mind the hipster on the cover. I’m certain this is not how Vesaas envisioned Mattis). Read full Review
Out today, the 2019 Booker Prize short-list. A mix of well-known and not so well-known authors of different nationalities; British, American, Nigerian, British/Turkish, British/Indian and Canadian. Two literary superstars: Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Some names we have seen before: Elif Shafak and Chigozie Obioma. And two names that were new to us: Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evaristo.
Tequila Leila, a Turkish prostitute in her 40s, lies murdered in a rubbish bin. Her brain, for the first ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds after her death is still working – remembering, sensing, calling up memories and sensations from her life. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak tells not just the story of one woman’s life through these disjointed recollections but conjures a beautiful but unsettling portrait of Istanbul and its shifting population.
Then, reading Client Earth by James Thornton and Martin Goodman might bring back a spring in your step. ClientEarth is a charitable law firm representing the interest of Earth and is made up by a group of clever lawyers who find creative ways of using the law to force governments and companies to abide by environmental legislation. Legislation is one thing, ClientEarth’s founder James Thornton reminds us, enforcement something else entirely. And you thought you didn’t like lawyers? Think again.