This is only the second of my quarterly selections and already things have gone awry – I’ve discovered more excellent novels recently than I strictly ‘need’! But of course there can never be too many good books (or too much shouting about them), so for today’s spring Sofa Spotlight I’ve decided to focus on seven titles which are already out and will hold some back for what is clearly going to be a full-length Summer Reads dozen at the end of May – pointless to resist…
I find it exciting and heartening that thoughtful, distinctive and well-written books like these are being published. Settings include California, Afghanistan, a remote Italian island, New York City via Cameroon, a Canadian lake, the rural west of England and Paris, but not as we know it. They show how deeply the best writers can inhabit the mind, body and emotions of the characters they create, allowing the reader to do the same. They are (coincidentally) all written by women, but several have mastered male perspective admirably. Although only one of these books is contemporary – three are set in recent decades, the others much longer ago – they share a remarkable relevance to the times we live in, whether the focus is social class, nationality or sexual identity; what it means to love, to be happy, to belong or to be excluded.
In addition to the blurbs (adapted from publicity materials), here’s what made each book stand out for me. You’ll be hearing more about them over the next couple of months as I’m delighted to be hosting at least four of the authors on the blog.
Set near San Francisco, this novel follows the fortunes and failures of Jack and Milly for sixty years. They marry in 1952, and typical of post-war couples, shift up a class. Optimistic and full of plans, they see themselves living the American Dream. Through the years they cling to each other despite having little in common. But that doesn’t preclude infidelity or disappointment, and the social changes they live through impact on their relationship in complex and surprising ways. Ultimately, though, what holds them together is stronger than what pulls them apart. This is a love story that tells the truth – or one or two truths – about love and marriage.
Why I chose it: An involving novel, both timeless and of its time, in which every dimension benefits from the author’s wisdom and acute observations of love, marriage and human nature.
SOFA DATE: 15 March Addison Jones – Writers on Location post on the California coast
1930s: Francesco remembers the night in early childhood when life for his family changed: their name, their story, the place they lived. Ever since, he has vowed to protect his mother and to live by the words of his lost father: Non mollare. Never give up. When Francesco is rounded up with a group of young men and herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, someone has handed a list of names to the fascist police and suspicion is rife. His former lover Emilio is constantly agitating for revolution. His old friend Gio jealously watches their relationship rekindle. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.
Elena, a young and illiterate island girl, is drawn to the handsome Francesco yet fails to understand why her family try to keep her away from him. When she discovers the truth, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.
Why I chose it: A genuine standout amongst literary debuts. This complex, brave and powerful novel, both tender and hard-hitting, features fine writing and a transporting sense of place.
When nineteen-year-old Slovakian Mirka gets a job in a country house and wedding venue in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their turbulent marriage. She is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break with her family in Slovakia two years earlier, Mirka is surprised to find that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in.
Why I chose it: This intelligent and mordantly funny exposé of a certain kind of Englishness from a deftly handled foreigner’s perspective had me repeatedly laughing out loud, even from my sick bed. It’s also pretty hot and an education in taxidermy, albeit not in the same places.
SOFA DATE: 22 March Laura Kaye – Guest post on portraying her own country through a foreigner’s perspective.
New York City, 2007: Jende Jonga, newly arrived from Cameroon, is hired as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers bank. Jende’s new job draws him, his wife Neni and their young son into the privileged orbit of the city’s financial elite. And when Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni work and takes her into her confidence, the couple begin to believe that the land of opportunity might finally be opening up for them. But there are troubling cracks in their employers’ facades, and when the fault lines running beneath the financial world are exposed, the Edwards’ secrets threaten to spill out into the Jongas’ lives. Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way.
Why I chose it: A fabulous NYC novel and engrossing story with a commendable even-handedness when it comes to character; I felt for all of the protagonists. The contemporary relevance of this recent-historical take on immigration and American life makes it an important book and, sadly, one likely to cause most pain to those who least need to read it.
At the outset ten-year-old Jim, a boy who wants a dog, is travelling with his Canadian mother and American father from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August. Spanning the pivotal years of his youth and moving from city to country, summer to winter, wellbeing to illness, the novel charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family comes apart. Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec is on the verge of leaving Canada, this is an unconventional coming of age story.
Why I chose it: With a stunning cover which perfectly conveys the exhilarating and panoramic sense of the wild, this book epitomises the strength of the ‘quiet novel’ with its poignant and melancholy study of relationships expressed in exquisite prose. The Quebec independence question and the manifold ‘stay or go’ repercussions have unsettling parallels with Brexit, which could not have been foreseen.
In February 1887, Caitriona Wallace and Emile Nouguier meet in a hot air balloon, floating high above Paris, but back on firm ground, their vastly different social strata become clear. Cait is a widow forced by her precarious financial situation to chaperone two wealthy Scottish charges. Emile is expected to take on the bourgeois stability of his family’s business and choose a suitable wife. As the Eiffel Tower rises, subject of extreme controversy and symbol of the future, Cait and Emile must decide what their love is worth. Seamlessly weaving historical detail and vivid invention, the novel evokes an era of corsets and secret trysts, duels and Bohemian independence, strict tradition and Impressionist experimentation. It raises probing questions about a woman’s place in that world, the overarching reach of class distinctions and the sacrifices love requires of us all.
Why I chose it: A real coup de cœur for this Paris lover, as it will no doubt be for many others. I was enchanted by this touching but mercifully unsugary romance set in a defining period of the city’s history, both elements rendered with warmth and lightness of touch. Fascinating, consuming and wonderfully atmospheric.
Fifteen-year-old Samar and her family are refugees, fleeing the conflict in 1990s Kabul, after the Russians and then the Taliban, turn their lives inside out. They are aboard the Trans-Siberian Express as it travels across Russia towards an uncertain future. With the help of Napoleon, the ticket collector, her beloved copy of Anna Karenina, and her family, Samar narrates the story of their epic journey away from their happy life in Kabul and everything they have known. But as Samar’s tale unfolds and the secrets of the family are unearthed, we slowly discover that the truth is far more devastating – and more full of hope – than we could ever have imagined.
Why I chose it: This book immersed me into an unfamiliar world and I was ‘with’ Samar on every stage of her extraordinary journey. Commendable for the skill and daring of the storytelling and the beautiful writing, but above all, for the compassionate but uplifting portrayal of resilience in the face of unimaginable suffering.
SOFA DATE: 8 March Laura McVeigh – Writers on Location post on Afghanistan.
I hope you’ve found something here to add to your TBR pile. Have you read any of them yet? Which one would you pick?