I hope your summer reading has been every bit as enthralling as mine. Julian Barnes’ new novel The Only Story smashed me to pieces. His navigation of human emotion and the nature of love is without rival. I can’t wait for the world to read this book. I’ve also been tucking into some very promising local debuts, fiction in translation, noteworthy non-fiction and more.
If you only read local, English and American fiction then you’re missing out on a whole world of voices and ideas. Reading good fiction in translation can be like taking on a whole new way of seeing the world. I made sure a good chunk of my summer reading has come from a range of international voices. Read on for reviews of three of my favourites.
Reviews by Ben Hunter
When a single reading copy of The Only Story got delivered to Booktopia there was an immediate squabble as to who would get to read it first. I knew Julian Barnes was good, but I didn’t know he was book fight good.
Late at night, on finishing this book, I walked out my front door and continued all the way to the ocean’s edge. I sat there looking into the black water for a very long time. For days following, the people I live with would ask what was wrong with me – I’d become almost mute – “I’ve read a book,” I’d tell them.
The Only Story benefits from the same qualities as Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning, screen-adapted novel, The Sense of an Ending. An aged man looks back on a youth of privilege, passion and disappointment, and puzzles over how he or anyone else can evaluate their life. This searching for the true essence of things warrants acute self-editing from the narrator, cutting through the humdrum with fantastic flashes of wit. Through this Barnes delivers the reader a supremely crafted book, something that’s a delight to read even in its darkest moments.
The narrator of this book obsesses over the life-defining idea of romantic love – love that eclipses family, that is only improved by difference and struggle, love that is perfectly and wholly irrational. What smashes me to pieces about this novel is that as quickly as he is able to propagate and latch onto his obsession for it, love escapes him in the worst possible, and yet most inevitable, of ways. For decades this man keeps a notebook of cliches and aphorisms on love, crossing out those which don’t hold true. Every one of these scribblings has the power to open up a whole worlds of rumination in the reader. The urgency and truth in this writing surpasses that of The Sense of an Ending. You’ll be taking midnight ocean walks of your own after reading… Learn more.
Ever since the groundbreaking first pages of her 1988 debut Kitchen, people the world over have been finding and falling in love with Banana Yoshimoto. In her latest book to be translated to English, the beautifully understated Yoshie sets herself up in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district following her father’s sudden death in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. Her family home, secluded in a leafy upper-middle class suburb, has suffocated her with her dead father’s presence. She wants Shimokitazawa to become a refuge where she can create a life for herself. The neighbourhood is famous around the globe as a haunt for artists and bohemians – cramped streets of restaurants, thrift stores and record shops bustling with foreigners and young people. For Yoshie, it’s a new beginning. Something that she wants desperately. But her widowed mother wants it just as badly.
A simple coming-of-age story is made much more complex and beautiful when Yoshie’s newly-widowed mother moves into her small, aging apartment to build a new identity of her own. Together they witness each other change and recreate their relationship. They’re each haunted by Yoshie’s father in their own remarkable ways. The author’s carefully curated observations take readers on a small but deeply satisfying journey of discovery… Learn more.
When the once-celebrated children’s book illustrator, Daniele Mallarico arrives in Naples to babysit Mario, his four-year-old grandson, he has no idea of the physical and emotional turmoil he’s getting himself into.
In Domenico Starnone’s playful new novel, Mallarico is trying to create new pictures for an illustrated edition of the Henry James ghost story, The Jolly Corner. Returning to his family home in Naples charges him with a whimsical energy and he wants to get to work. This is hindered by Mario, who, desperate for his attention, criticises his work with the honest brutality only children can muster. Mario’s words break the aging man and their playtime together deteriorates into full-blown conflict, mirroring that of Mario’s quarrelling parents. In Mario’s eyes, Mallarico can only see his ineptitude and lost youth. If he is to meet his commision deadline, he needs to face off with his own ghosts first.
I love the way in which this novel is contained entirely inside the world of the Naples apartment. It becomes a kind of pressure cooker for family tensions. Starnone’s storytelling, focused around the moral pitfalls of the family infused with Italy’s beauty and brutality, have rightfully earned him comparisons with Elena Ferrante… Learn more.
Following on from the huge success of her Man Booker International prize-winning The Vegetarian, Korea’s Han Kang has returned with a wholly different kind of book. Told as a reflection on a list of seemly unrelated white objects, The White Book is an autobiographical meditation on the death of a baby sister – a girl born premature to a two-hour life of pain. Each brief passage of devastating prose transforms something white – salt, rice, a pebble, fog – into an embodiment or ritual of mourning. These passages are occasionally broken up by a page of photography of an interaction with this whiteness.
The White Book is a mysterious thing full of the kind of cleansing sadness that only death can bring. Han Kang’s use of language and colour has the power to touch readers and ignite them with her pain. Pick up this little book and you’ll see for yourself… Learn more.
Review by John Purcell
At first I thought Robert Lukins’ The Everlasting Sunday was going to be a homage to Golding’s Lord of the Flies – a home for delinquent boys cut off from the world by the worst snowstorm on record. Cue all hell breaking loose. But instead I found myself reading a book more akin to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
The Manor is a home for boys ‘found by trouble’. We enter with seventeen year old Radford who has been unceremoniously dropped off by his uncle as the snowstorm worsens. We don’t know what he has done to deserve being sent away, we just know he is apprehensive and determined not to bend to the will of others.
Books about young men, especially those whom society rejects, tend toward an unrelenting brutality that never quite rings true to me. In The Everlasting Sunday, the boys are more rounded. They are vulnerable. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They crave affection. Saying that, Lukins doesn’t shy away from their faults. The adolescent boys can also be extremely violent and cruel. Lukins depicts these outbursts, and their aftermaths, unflinchingly but they are always part of a larger whole. The boys are not savages. The bonds they form can and often do lead to affection and even to empathy.
Outside the Manor weeks of heavy snow isolate the boys from society, but it also provides a dangerous playground. Lukins even gives Winter a role to play, a dark reminder of our inherent fragility. And Radford and the boys flirt with oblivion, intentionally and unintentionally.
The Everlasting Sunday is a beautifully written, subtle novel, dealing with loss, forgiveness, love, redemption and the complexity of our natures. It will reward readers who loved, as I did, The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop and The Good People by Hannah Kent… Learn more.
About the Contributor
Ben is Booktopia's dedicated fiction and children's book specialist. He spends his days painstakingly piecing together beautiful catalogue pages and gift guides for the website. At any opportunity, he loves to write warmly of the books that inspire him. If you want to talk books, find him tweeting at @itsbenhunter