July might be the cruelest or kindest month of all for authors and publishers, depending on whether they’ve made the cut for the Man Booker longlist, one of the most tense times in the literary calendar with the announcement of that ‘Man Booker Dozen’ as it is known, and the subsequent delight, disappointment and debate. Although the Man Booker prize often chooses novelists who already have a considerable reputation and plenty of prizes under the belt, there are also relatively new writers who at times welcomingly wash up on the shores of public consciousness.
This year the crowdfunded debut novel The Wake by Paul Kingsworth, published by Unbound, made the list, an ambitious novel set in the aftermath of the infamous 1066 Battle of Hastings – and the first ever crowdfunded book to make the Booker longlist.
This has got me thinking about the books which throughout history have conversely failed to make it on to prize lists, or those that have been left off the Summer Reading Lists, those who have suffered the fate of obscurity or languished discarded in dusty corners without being chosen even for a reprint. Like the B side of LPs or singles, it can actually be those B sides, those out of the limelight, that carry the most artistic – if overlooked – merit. There are welcome initiatives seeking to unearth lost literary gems, such as FaberFinds ‘The Place for Lost Books’ (www.faberfindsblog.co.uk), a treasure trove of lost books now found again.
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If you’re looking for some summer holiday reads to slip in your suitcase, or indeed are reading from the comfort of your couch instead, here are some Summer reading recommendations, from old classics to those just about to be published.
One of my choices for a classic by a British writer that should be better known would be Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, often overshadowed by her famous husband Robert. Aurora Leigh challenges the form of the novel itself in being a verse-novel: part novel, part poetry. She likewise challenges the structures not only of fiction but of society, too, and the place of a woman with an artistic inclination in a patriarchal world – how can art and life be reconciled?
As for more contemporary fiction, this year has seen a raft of great books which happen to have colours in the title such as The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble, which beautifully grapples with age-old themes such as the possibilities of innocence, and the complex entanglements of family (if you’d like to discuss this novel in more depth, I’ll be Guest Moderating the Canongate Book Club on the novel on Wednesday 31st July).
From gold to black, for Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun thrillingly explores the affliction of having insomnia and what the world might be like if everybody was besieged by the trauma of not being able to fall asleep; it’s a dark story indeed but shot through with flashes of light, too. White Crocodile by K.T.Medina, published this summer and set both in Cambodia and England, delves disturbingly into the murky recesses of its characters’ psyches, drawing on the author’s own experience of working in Cambodia. The narrative also opens with somebody who can’t fall asleep: Tian has been awoken by a brief cry, like the sound her mother would let out when she saw a rat, but afterwards sleep will not come, and so instead she tiptoes to look at the outside world, at how the “moon slid from behind a cloud”, and the gripping narrative is filled with sudden, startling images.
A mention here must also go to my all-time favourite books with a colour in the title, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which acutely depicts the mind in turmoil.
If The Yellow Wallpaper is a haunting tale of a mind tortured by what might or might not be there, a new novella out this summer which is also immensely haunting for its presences – but more so for its absent presences – is Touched by Joanna Briscoe, which opens in “what was surely the prettiest village in all of England”, and yet the cleverly constructed narrative compellingly unearths the ugly goings-on beneath the shiny veneer, skilfully peeling back the surfaces of daily life to reveal the destructive desires teeming beneath. “All my novels are haunted, but until I was asked to write Touched, I didn’t realise this”, writes Briscoe in an Author’s Note. “One way or another my characters are haunted by their pasts, their mistakes, their longings; pursued by guilt and desire so strong, it could infiltrate a life”. This excellent novel will send a sharp chill down the spine even on the warmest of summer’s days, making the reader newly aware of the shadows cast by the sharp rays of sun.
Opening in late July, in a hot prayer room, is The House of Ashes, Monique Roffey’s new novel following the 2012 publication of the excellent Archipelago. “The chant of the madman is the only salvation”, wrote David Rudder, the epigraph to an atmospheric novel rigorously exploring the boundary between sanity and madness in the vivid character of Ashes, a scholarly family man who finds himself embroiled with a fringe spiritual group. What does it mean to belong? What would make a teenager wield a gun? Just some of the profound questions at the core of the novel.
This is also a particular strong year for those tricky second novels and there are notable ones by authors who have managed to avoid ‘second novel syndrome’. Akhil Sharma’s beautifully written and heartrending second novel Family Life should surely have made the Man Booker List. Other titles include the visceral Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, set in Manchester, in which vivid scenes of drinking and sex are juxtaposed with those more elusive emotions that haunt us; thinking about babies and the future, for example: “I stood staring out of the window and sensed a huge thing turning in the supposedly great beyond. The pull of it made me grip the sink”. The author is particularly good at conjuring those disorientating feelings that leave us reeling and the reader is gripped by the narrator’s journey as she lurches through life seeking something firm to grip onto. Then there is Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla, grappling with identity in the digital age, in which “meatspace” is defined as “the physical world, as opposed to cyberspace or a virtual environment”, and the conflict between the two is the cause of the considerable tension throughout. Emily Mackie’s In Search of Solace is soon to be published, and having had a sneak peak at a proof this is a novel that might not bring solace but instead deliciously disturb the emotions as the author also grapples with the challenges of Twitter, email, Facebook and a character with a major existential crisis.
Meanwhile, debut novels include My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown which comically traces the adventures – but mostly misadventures – of the narrator as he tries to rebuild a broken life anew in Buenos Aires, only to realise that some stories demand to be told instead of buried, and the baggage of the past is never far behind.
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Glancing towards the horizon, novels not yet published but ones to pre-order include Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner, forthcoming in August. The engrossing narrative opens in 1984 as the narrator recounts sitting until dawn in an overheated Accident and Emergency waiting room. The novel is striking for its unique use of language: open any page and find phrases of gritty poetry (“I saw the silent blitz of incendiaries flash and signify softly upwards”). If their lips talk of mischief, this absorbing novel hooks the attention in the vast gulf between what is said and what is done, as characters poignantly struggle to breach the gap between their aspirations and achievements.
Also opening in 1984 is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, just shortlisted for the Man Booker, and after reading it, it’s impossible not to have your perception of time and the relentless ticking of the clock changed forever.
“I was going to say something”, begins Michael Faber’s enchanting new novel, The Book of Strange New Things – what exactly is going to be said will have to remain something of a cliffhanger, but suffice to say that in this novel it is often what is unsaid that has the most impact, as the author subtly chooses what to leave out, as well as what to put in.
Judging from the wealth of choice on offer – both those that made the prize lists and those that didn’t – July is perhaps the kindest month of all, proffering memorable narratives that bravely explore humanity in both its cruelty and tenderness.
More recommendations can be found on www.anitasethi.co.uk
Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and critic. She tweets at @AnitaSethi