This third instalment covers two months of what was a passably good summer here in the UK beginning with an unexpected treat in July. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll have gathered that Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers. In September 2018 we were treated to Transcription then less than a year later Big Sky saw the return of Jackson Brodie after a hiatus of nine years. Jackson’s living in a cottage in his native Yorkshire looking after his teenage son while Julia, Nathan’s mother, finishes off the latest in the TV police procedural series in which she stars. It’s not long before Jackson becomes embroiled in a case that encompasses historical sex abuse, modern day slavery and people trafficking. As with the previous four Brodie novels, Big Sky tackles social issues with a sharp wit and dry humour. Fingers crossed that the BBC have Jason Isaacs lined up for an adaptation.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her. Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Achingly sad at times, it’s an affecting, clearly heartfelt piece of fiction. Fingers crossed it will win the Costa Novel Award for which its been shortlisted.
Four August favourites, the first of which is set against the backdrop of the Bauhaus, the German art school whose designs I’ve long admired and whose centenary year this was. Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game begins in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, telling their story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy. Written in the form of a confessional, it’s a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. It’s a smart, accomplished piece of fiction, through which Wood lightly weaves her meticulous research.
The next three novels are all published by small publishers although Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.
My second small publisher, Charco Press, is a comparatively new kid on the block, set up to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Argentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending his car. Pearson and Gringo are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback. The result is a striking, thought-provoking piece of fiction
High summer finished with a collection of short stories whose lovely jacket caught my eye on Twitter. Comprising seventeen pieces, Chloe Turner’s Witches Sail in Eggshells is about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents, all delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose. There’s not one dud amongst them but you don’t have to take my word for it: the tiny Reflex Press have cleverly put one of Turner’s stories, ‘The Hagstone’, on their website for all to read.
Sadly, the end of my literary summer’s on the horizon and with it the advent of winter although autumn offered some gorgeous colours to distract me from the inevitable. The last quarter of 2019 turned up some of the best titles of the year for me including the story of a family told through the history of their house, the welcome return of Olive Kitteridge and an art heist which is very much more than that. All the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first two quarters they’re here and here.