As always at this time of year, this is an informal round-up of the books I read during my summer blog shutdown (as distinct from my Summer Reads selection of recommended new releases, where I’m delighted to hear that many of you found something of interest). To be precise, it’s my verdict on half of them, the rest to follow shortly. August was a standout reading month in which I deliberately stepped away from new releases and followed my own instincts and interests. As all of the titles are in some way relevant to the novel I’m currently writing, it was inspiring as well as enjoyable, and it was great to do lots of reading in French which is much more than a second language to me.
Winner of The Women’s Prize 2018
The only ‘book of the moment’ because it was chosen by my book group after winning The Women’s Prize, Home Fire has joined the select list of those we all enjoyed and rated (there have only been a dozen in 15 years). This didn’t preclude a lively discussion on this complex and timely story of loyalty, identity and conflicted family ties, which offers a considered and informed take on political and social issues including race, religion and extremism which are prone to sensational and divisive treatment, particularly in the media. The different character perspectives work well and the writing really impressed.
Two bestsellers from a while back
This must be the only proof to have survived five years on my shelf – I knew I’d read it eventually but was put off by the length, for no good reason, as I tore through its 600 pages in four days with great enthusiasm. It is without doubt one of the best contemporary novels about race and it would be a different world if everyone concerned asked themselves the questions about white privilege. (Handily listed – this is not a book where you have to read between the lines). It led to some interesting conversations with my eldest son who was about to leave for a year in Senegal. Main character Ifemelu often came across as judgmental and lacking in self-awareness but if intentional, this was well played on the author’s part – in a book with such a strong message it would have been a mistake to make her too saintly. My response to the character did however prevent me from investing in the love story element. If you liked this, I’d highly recommend Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue’s superb Behold the Dreamers, one of my Books of 2017 which addresses similar issues with a more subtle approach.
I left this until now because I thought it might suffer by comparison with Naomi Wood’s excellent Mrs Hemingway, which I read first. That’s probably true and it seems this is something of a Marmite book in any case, but after a few serious books in French (keep reading and you’ll see), this was just the ticket. I really liked it for the evocation of Paris and the other locations, the period, and the character of Hadley Richardson, whose situation genuinely touched me despite her passivity – it’s easy to criticise from the outside; it doesn’t surprise me that the most difficult people to love can be the hardest to leave. The portrayal of dire poverty which somehow permits extended overseas trips and domestic help is something I often find annoying in bohemian accounts, but that is a matter of historical record.
The author’s Goncourt-winning Chanson Douce (Lullaby/The Perfect Nanny) wasn’t for me but seeing the news that Slimani’s debut novel was also going to appear in English – entitled Adèle – prompted me to read it in the original, and I’m very glad. Despite unmistakable echoes of Madame Bovary and Belle de Jour, Adèle’s is a case of pathological sex addiction rather than that of a bored woman seeking passion or even a sexually insatiable woman, per se. It felt like it was barely to do with sex or pleasure at all, more a quest for self-obliteration – overall, I would not call it ‘erotic’, though some might. It is ferociously intense, disturbing and at times transgressive, with two scenes which shocked me profoundly (note: not easily done). It’s strong stuff but masterfully handled and I’ll be genuinely fascinated to see how it’s received here. If you could handle Hausfrau, this is several notches beyond.
A short novel which I would love to see available to English-speaking readers, publishers please take note (or tell me you’re on it)! It’s a fictionalised account in the voice of Jeanne Hébuterne, a very young woman from a bourgeois family who fell in love with the painter Amedeo Modigliani when she was herself at art school in Paris. I first learned about their passionate and doomed relationship in Michael Dean’s The White Crucifix, and this novel captures its ecstasy and desperation to devastating perfection. Even though I already knew how it ended, it was such a wrench I could hardly breathe. As so often, we know all about the great man – there was a huge exhibition dedicated to Modigliani at Tate Modern earlier this year – but if you have the chance to read it, you’ll see why it matters so much for Jeanne’s story to be told.
LES SAUVAGES by Sabri Louatah – (SAVAGES – THE ST ETIENNE QUARTET, translated by Gavin Bowd)
Although the first two volumes of this saga have been released in English, I had never heard of it until it was recommended by a friend who knows of my interest in multiculturalism in France. Whilst I’m surprised, to put it mildly, that one of France’s most notable literary influencers described the author as ‘the Arab Philip Roth’, there’s no doubt that Louatah has plenty of his own distinctive skills to draw on in chronicling the chaotic and crisis-fuelled lives of the extended Nerrouche family, from St Etienne and of Algerian descent, against the backdrop of the first presidential elections to include a Muslim candidate (a scenario also explored by Houellebecq in Submission). It’s pacy, entertaining and sparkles with energy – I read the first two volumes back to back and was frustrated not to find the next two on my summer trip. Top of my wish list for when I return in November and highly recommended to anyone with more than a recreational interest in France.
The work of Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel – who’s been based in NYC for many years – was recommended by someone close to my writing because of my interest in psychology, relationships, sexuality and all that. I started out watching her TED talks on monogamy and ‘the secret to desire in long term relationships‘ and have now developed all kinds of (but primarily an intellectual) crush on this woman. The light she sheds on what makes us tick sexually, her compassion and open-mindedness extend way beyond the specific remit of each book or talk, to what it means to be human. If you’re in any relationship (it’s not exclusively heteronormative), writing any kind of character-driven fiction or simply seeking to understand yourself better, you may find something of value here.
That’s all for now – in Part 2 you can hear my thoughts on 3 LGBT classics by James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith and Violette Leduc, and 4 titles with elements of life-writing by Annie Ernaux, Virginie Despentes, Magyd Cherfi and Edouard Louis. (All but one of the French originals are available in translation).
Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear what made an impression on you this summer.