This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

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This Blinding Absence of Light

A remarkable, deeply unsettling novel

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, which has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. The author Tahar Ben Jelloun traces the experiences of political prisoner Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan ll of Morocco. With sixty others, at the whim of the king, Salim was incarcerated in a secret prison complex deep in the Moroccan desert. He was to remain in this hellhole, known as Tazmamart, for nearly twenty years.

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Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima

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Life for Sale

Darkly comic Japanese noir

The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima 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.

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The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

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The Folded Leaf

A unique evocation of young male friendship

Revisiting novels can be a tortuous affair, sometimes bringing the painful realisation that we’ve outgrown favourite books and writers. Happily for me, The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell has provoked the opposite response. Maxwell’s nuanced and tender tale of male friendship remains a quiet triumph. Set in 1920’s Illinois, it charts the adolescence of pals Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, whose alliance hinges on Spud providing protection and social acceptance in exchange for Lymie’s devotion. In an era before male platonic love was considered questionable, their intense bond is fatally tested instead by misunderstandings, boyhood trauma, and the scarring silence of things left unsaid.

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The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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The Lonely City

When loneliness turns into art

There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you a taste of loneliness, but as The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (written long before the Coronavirus) shows us, incredible art can come out of a solitary existence. Laing takes us on an absorbing journey of New York City through the eyes of artists who lived lonely lives – sometimes by choice, most often not. She investigates the lives of artists like Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz even Andy Warhol, whose art ‘is surprisingly eloquent on isolation’ despite his famously social lifestyle. Highly recommended.

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Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

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Simple Passion

An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire

In Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, France’s most celebrated memoirist and newly minted Nobel Laureate, distils her two year long, passionate affair with a married man into a punchy 48 pages. Those familiar with Ernaux’s writing will know she’s the master of dissecting emotions, condensing them into something almost clinical which has the unexpected power to make you cry. I challenge anyone not to recognise some part of themselves in this book. An unashamedly honest portrayal of desire.

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I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava

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I Fear My Pain Interests You

A stylish but detached tale of benumbed modern life

There’s a curious contradiction at the heart of I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava, a novel about pain where the central character is unable to feel it, at least not in a physical sense. Tapping into the ongoing vogue for books about unhappily destructive rich girls, this is Margot’s story. The daughter of a celebrity couple, she has grown up with fame and privilege and an inevitable price to pay for it. A psychotherapist’s dream, Margot’s daddy issues have led to entanglements with unsuitable older men, one of whom attempts to solve the riddle of her congenital insensitivity to pain. Much talked about, this book engaged the brain but left the heart untouched.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

A Tsarist Count surviving in revolutionary Russia

It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things

Great storytelling with humour and ambition

Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Gathering Moss

Small is beautiful

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life

Eloquence, integrity, and lots of sheep

Silence – In the Age of Noise

A peaceful little must-read

What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron

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What Happens at Night

Emotional depth and purposeful peculiarity

Irresistibly billed as a combination between a Kafka story and a Wes Anderson movie, What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron is a mesmerising work of psychological fiction. The action, inaction, and plain weirdness centres around an unnamed, middle-aged American couple and their quest to adopt a child. Dying of cancer, the wife wishes to provide her husband with someone to love when she’s gone. Their destination is an orphanage located in the chilliest reaches of northern Europe, but first they must navigate the peculiar world of the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel and its eccentric inhabitants.

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