Milkman by Anna Burns, 2018, 368p, Man Booker Prize 2018
In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham, 1998, 230p, Pulitzer 1999
In 1920s London, Virginia Woolf is fighting against her rebellious spirit as she attempts to make a start on her new novel. A young wife and mother, broiling in a suburb of 1940s Los Angeles, yearns to escape and read her precious copy of Mrs Dalloway. And Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her smart Greenwich village apartment in 1990s New York to buy flowers for a party she is hosting for a dying friend. The Hours recasts the classic story of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light. Moving effortlessly across the decades and between England and America, this exquisite novel intertwines the worlds of three unforgettable women.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, 2019, 464p, Man Booker Prize 2019
Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood.Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad, 2019, 710p
As the First World War shatters families, destroys friendships and kills lovers, a young Palestinian dreamer sets out to find himself. Midhat Kamal picks his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become enemies and everyone is looking for a place to belong. Isabella Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence from the British Mandate, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War. An intensely human story amidst a global conflict, The Parisian is historical fiction with a remarkable contemporary voice.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, 1895, 310p
Jude Fawley’s hopes of a university education are lost when he is trapped into marrying the earthy Arabella, who later abandons him. Moving to the town of Christminster where he finds work as a stonemason, Jude meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a sensitive, freethinking ‘New Woman’.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, 1886, 445p
In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper. Subtitled ‘A Story of a Man of Character’, Hardy’s powerful and sympathetic study of the heroic but deeply flawed Henchard is also an intensely dramatic work, tragically played out against the vivid backdrop of a close-knit Dorsetshire town.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 1874, 464p
Independent and spirited Bathsheba Everdene has come to Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on the largest estate in the area. Her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman-farmer Boldwood, soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. Each, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions and complicates her life, and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. The first of his works set in the fictional county of Wessex, Hardy’s novel of swift passion and slow courtship is imbued with his evocative descriptions of rural life and landscapes, and with unflinching honesty about sexual relationships.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 2009, 672p, Man Booker Prize 2009
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, 1978, 502p
Charles Arrowby, leading light of England’s theatrical set, retires from glittering London to an isolated home by the sea. He plans to write a memoir about his great love affair with Clement Makin, his mentor both professionally and personally, and to amuse himself with Lizzie, an actress he has strung along for many years. None of his plans work out, and his memoir evolves into a riveting chronicle of the strange events and unexpected visitors–some real, some spectral–that disrupt his world and shake his oversized ego to its very core. In exposing the jumble of motivations that drive Arrowby and the other characters, Iris Murdoch lays bare “the truth of untruth”–the human vanity, jealousy, and lack of compassion behind the disguises they present to the world. Played out against a vividly rendered landscape and filled with allusions to myth and magic, Charles’s confrontation with the tidal rips of love and forgiveness is one of Murdoch’s most moving and powerful novels.
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, 1954, 252p, Man Booker Prize 1978
Jake, hack writer and sponger, now penniless flat-hunter, seeks out an old girlfriend, Anna Quentin, and her glamorous actress sister, Sadie. He resumes acquaintance with formidable Hugo, whose ‘philosophy’ he once presumptuously dared to interpret. These meetings involve Jake and his eccentric servant-companion, Finn, in a series of adventures that include the kidnapping of a film-star dog, and a political riot in a film-set of ancient Rome. Jake, fascinated, longs to learn Hugo’s secret. Perhaps Hugo’s secret is Hugo himself? Admonished, enlightened, Jake hopes at last to become a real writer.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, 2018, 368p, Man Booker Prize 2017
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak, 2018, 392p, translation from Turkish
‘In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…’ For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her…
Bad Magic by AM Stirling, 2019, 224p
When Richard meets his cousin Amanda for the first time in twenty years, he’s still afraid of her; she bullied him throughout his childhood and sexually abused him when they were teenagers. He owns a struggling art gallery that only survives because his wealthy grandmother pays for it. But now Amanda’s back in his life, things look set to change. She’s out to make trouble, drugging Richard with Rohypnol, faking a burglary and trying to persuade their grandmother to change her will.
Richard’s heard a rumour she murdered her mother. Fearing for his grandmother’s life and his inheritance, he decides to give Amanda a dose of her own medicine.
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, 1985, 335p
Macon Leary is a travel writer who hates both travel and anything out of the ordinary. He is grounded by loneliness and an unwillingness to compromise his creature comforts when he meets Muriel, a deliciously peculiar dog-obedience trainer who up-ends Macon’s insular world–and thrusts him headlong into a remarkable engagement with life.
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler, 1988, 336p
The wonderfully moving and surprising story of Ira and Maggie Moran. She’s impetuous, harum-scarum, easygoing; he’s competent, patient, seemingly infallible. They’ve been married for 28 years. Now, as they drive from their home in Baltimore to the funeral of Maggie’s best friend’s husband, Anne Tyler shows us all there is to know about a marriage – the expectations, the disappointments, the way children can create storms in a family, the way a wife and husband can fall in love all over again, the way nothing really changes. Anne Tyler’s funny, unpredictable and endearing characterizations make Breathing Lessons truly entertaining.