The summer holidays will soon be upon us. In order to truly get away and switch off, we need absorbing reading material. One of the biggest books of the summer – “big” in both senses of the word – is Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Clocking in at 700 pages and traversing more than 300 years, Proulx’s first novel in 14 years is both a multigenerational epic exposing human greed and ambition, and a cautionary tale about man’s ruthless destruction of forests. Don’t be intimidated by the length, the weight or the four pages of family tree: this is an approachable, exquisitely written and deeply immersive novel from one of the best American writers at work today.
We get another engaging saga in the form of Homegoing, the remarkable debut novel from Yaa Gyasi. While Proulx opens her book in 17th century Canada and tells the stories of two men and their descendants scattered across the globe, Gyasi begins hers in 18th century Ghana and charts the lives of two half-sisters and their descendants who wash up in America. This profound and moving work about race, ancestry and lives buffeted by history heralds a vital new voice in fiction.
A slimmer read with just one family at its heart is France, Story of a Childhood, an autobiographical novel from Zahia Rahmani. Narrated by the daughter of an Algerian veteran who fought on the French side during the Algerian War of Independence, the book explores the tension of growing up with the struggle of dislocation and discrimination in a foreign land.
Also dealing with conflict within society is Sayed Kashua’s Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life. Sometimes wry, sometimes impassioned, but always focused and perceptive, Kashua’s anecdotal adventures and observations as an Arab in Jerusalem are rich in truth and judgment about both people and place.
Following the hit-and-miss series of Jane Austen novels reimagined by contemporary authors, we now have the far superior first instalments in the Shakespeare Retold range. Hot on the heels of Jeanette Winterson’s rewrite of The Winter’s Tale and Howard Jacobson’s spin on The Merchant of Venice comes a third cover version, Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl. An update of The Taming of the Shrew, Tyler’s novel promises to be funny and offbeat; but it will be interesting to see just how sharp, modern and independent her protagonist Kate Battista is, and how Tyler goes about adapting the Bard’s original, infamously misogynistic material.
A clutch of thrillers of markedly differently stripes will keep enthusiasts rapt. The pick of the bunch is Lying in Wait, the latest dark, tortuously plotted offering from Liz Nugent. Equally suspenseful and deliciously grisly is Hell Fire, the 12th outing for Inspector Konrad Sejer by the so-called Norwegian Queen of Crime, Karin Fossum. Meanwhile Commissaire Adamsberg gets his ninth case in A Climate of Fear, which weaves in murder, a shadowy organisation, a puzzling symbol and, of all things, an Icelandic demon. Lastly, The Final Bet – supposedly the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English – by the Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi, gets a welcome reissue. Anglophone readers who missed the book on its initial publication in 2008 can now sample Hamdouchi’s short, tight, Casablanca-set mystery and try to work out before the end whether the main suspect did indeed kill his wife.
Another Moroccan author – for some the country’s greatest – Tahar Ben Jelloun, impresses once again with About My Mother. His last novel to appear in English, the ironically titled The Happy Marriage, dealt with a husband and wife and their acrimonious break-up. His new one centres upon a mother and son, with the former finally airing her hidden secrets and telling her life story to the latter.
Summer wouldn’t be summer without some books by big names. July sees the publication of Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers, in which a mother and her two sons embark on a bumpy but revelatory road trip to Alaska. With Peacock and Vine A S Byatt takes a break from fiction and delivers an elegant study of two charismatic artists, Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. In This Must Be the Place by the ever-dependable Maggie O’Farrell, a love affair develops in a small Irish village between an American professor and a world-renowned actress. And then in August, Jay McInerney returns with Bright, Precious Days, the third of his novels to track the charmed lives and rough edges of Russell and Corrine Calloway in New York City.
There are two notable biographies to watch out for. Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited appears 50 years after the novelist’s death. With help from Waugh family members and drawing upon a cache of unpublished diaries and letters, Eade offers a fresh look at one of the most complex and colourful literary characters of the last century.
Two months later, and a year after his biography at the hands of Adam Sisman, John le CarrÃ© tells his own story in his first memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. Prepare to be taken to some of the corners of the secret world he once inhabited as a spook, and to some of the battlegrounds he visited on reconnaissance trips for his novels.
Further non-fiction highlights include two fascinating books by journalists: The Way to the Spring, Ben Ehrenreich’s vivid and insightful portrait of Palestinian lives; and Generation Revolution, Rachel Aspden’s searching examination of four young Egyptians rocked by and wrestling with the opposing forces of change and tradition.
A lighter read from an eminent journalist eschews political turmoil for cultural revolution. In Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, Clive James leaves behind his recent, more erudite subject matter of Proust and Dante and turns his attention back to the box, analysing 21st century TV dramas and comedies with his trademark intelligence and wit.
Finally, away from the roar and blare of heavily-hyped new publications, we find a low-key release which may well cause a ripple but deserves to make a splash. I Hid My Voice by the Iranian novelist Parinoush Saniee is a novel based on fact about a boy who couldn’t speak until the age of seven. Now 20, Shahaab looks back on his life and shares his ordeal. He is mocked by friends, shunned by his father and understood only by his grandmother who gradually helps him to find his voice again. Saniee’s book shines a light on one child’s helplessness and, by extension, everyday Iranians’ inability to speak out.
It is also proof that a book doesn’t have to be a big-name blockbuster to be an immensely satisfying summer read.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.
Source: art & life