Our guide to the best books for summer 2017
‘I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer,” says Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. “There was so much to read, for one thing and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air.”
Summer is just around the corner, and with it, new books. Like F Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator, we can be reinvigorated by both. Whether planning a short break or a long holiday, here are some titles – some stimulating, some purely entertaining – that are well worth packing.
One of the biggest books of the summer, indeed one of the biggest of the year, is Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Twenty years on from her Booker Prize-winning debut The God of Small Things, Roy’s long overdue second novel is a populous, panoramic fantasia, full of rambunctious energy and riotous colour but also tender emotion and valiant struggle.
At its centre is Anjum, a hijra (male-to-female transgender), and her personal journey across India and around hostile forces to a graveyard refuge where she fosters solidarity and understanding among like-minded souls and eccentrics. We will have to wait two decades to see if the book has the same enduring afterglow as its miraculous predecessor; right now, though, it shines quite brilliantly.
Also dealing with transformation and identity in India, with not one character but five, is Neel Mukherjee in his powerful and deeply absorbing A State of Freedom. Weaving together warts-and-all narratives of individuals from diverse backgrounds, Mukherjee presents an unflinching portrait of a troublingly divided society and examines the lengths a person will go to get out of a rut and change the course of their life.
Orhan Pamuk delivers another accomplished novel that plays in and around his native Istanbul. Part-mystery tale, part-fable, The Red-Haired Woman tells of the filial bond that develops between a worker and his young apprentice, and the threat posed to the relationship by an enthralling flame-headed member of a travelling theatre company.
Fellow Nobel Prize-winner, Svetlana Alexievich’s first and most famous book, The Unwomanly Face of War, is published for the first time in English.
In her last book, Boys in Zinc, she described herself as “a historian of the untraceable”, and once again she expertly assembles a series of silenced or unsung voices, this time belonging to Soviet women who lived through the Second World War. We get tales of courage and horror from captains, tank drivers, nurses, doctors, snipers and pilots, but also the views and fears of women on the home-front and in occupied territories. The result is a shattering, mesmerising oral history which reveals an unseen side of the war.
Staying with non-fiction, Ibram X Kendi provides a lucid, clear-eyed study of how anti-black sentiment arrived in the United States from Europe and became embedded in society over the centuries. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction and its insightful teachings and shock conclusions make for both sobering and incendiary reading.
Persecution of a different kind is on show in Stalin’s Meteorologist: One Man’s Untold Story of Love, Life and Death by Olivier Rolin. One morning in 1934, Alexey Wangenheim, a loving family man and the highly respected head of the Soviet Union’s meteorology department, was arrested on a trumped-up charge and later exiled to a gulag where he lived out his remaining years on a frozen island with thousands of other political prisoners. Rolin has drawn on the letters and drawings Wangenheim sent home to uncover his heartbreaking story and reveal his cruel fate.
Readers who are after something less heavyweight and more escapist should reach for Benjamin Black’s Prague Nights. Black is the alter-ego of John Banville, the author of the hugely successful Quirke novels which follow the investigations of a pathologist in 1950s Dublin, and The Black-Eyed Blonde, which continued the hardboiled adventures of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Black’s latest mystery is another period piece, a thrilling and atmospheric whodunit set even further back in sixteenth-century Prague.
Another exciting and tightly plotted historical crime novel is A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee (no relation to Neel). Mukherjee’s debut novel A Rising Man took us into the dark heart of the British Raj in 1919 and introduced Captain Wyndham and his sidekick Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force. His second novel takes place a year later and sees his dogged duo investigating the assassination of a Maharajah’s son. This fun series has legs.
The third instalment in a looser and more literary series, Anthony Quinn’s Eureka brings back the eponymous heroine of his last novel, Freya, for a vibrant, hedonistic romp through London’s swinging sixties. With her on this outing is a wannabe actress trapped in a relationship with an older man, and a screenwriter up to his eyeballs in drugs. Quinn isn’t as big as he should be; with luck, this zesty, punchy, yet also hard-edged black comedy will give him the readership he deserves.
From novels which evoke a past chapter to those that encapsulate a present concern. Dina Nayeri’s Refuge is a searing and moving meditation on the migrant experience. Nayeri – born in Iran during the revolution and later subject to two years of refugee camp displacement – tells the story of an estranged Iranian father and daughter: the former staying in Iran, the latter fleeing to the United States. Against the ebb and flow of their separations and reconciliations, Nayeri charts the desperate journeys and the hopes and fates of other refugees of different nationalities seeking sanctuary in Europe. A timely read and a compelling one.
Two spellbinding debut novels stand out this summer, both of them vivid coming-of-age tales fronted by memorable characters. Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is a young man’s quirky, drily comical and always engaging account of loneliness, obsessiveness and, of all things, wrestling. This is no niche novel aimed solely at wrestling enthusiasts. Habash’s oddball narrator will charm anyone who roots for an underdog – or, in his words, who “falls for life’s left-behinds”.
Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling – declared a masterpiece by Stephen King – takes us into the confined world of another lonely soul, a 14-year-old girl named Turtle. When she ventures out of her bubble and gets a taste of friendship and love, she realises there is another life away from her abusive father. Turtle’s escape and battle for survival is conveyed in urgent, immersive prose which transports and transforms us. Few first novels leave such an indelible mark.
Finally, those who prefer shorter fiction should look out for Ann Beattie’s latest collection of stories, The Accomplished Guest. One of the United States’ finest practitioners of the form, Beattie explores unlikely alliances, difficult affairs and the trials of ageing in these beautifully observed and perfectly rendered East Coast-set tales. As ever, the most painful or heartfelt scenarios come with bite, heft and even acerbic wit.
Fiction in all shapes and sizes by writers of many stripes. Or in other words, something for everyone this summer.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.