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.
The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.
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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.
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.
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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.
I’ve just devoured a superb non-fiction book in the you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up category. The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.