Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features the Booker Prize shortlist nominations ahead of the award announcement on 3 November.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Vintage Publishing), £16.99.
Damon Galgut’s arresting storytelling has earned him a reputation as one of South Africa’s greatest novelists. His latest literary venture The Promise may be his most captivating project to date. Set during the undoing of apartheid – an issue the twice Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author also tackled in The Good Doctor – The Promise charts the breakdown of the Swarts, a white family living on a remote farm outside Pretoria.
“Blood is the thickest glue” in this Afrikaner household, but Anton and Amor, the novel’s young protagonists, abhor what their family stand for. The family’s black servant, Salome, was promised ownership of her own home. But as each year passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. Their father Manie – who yearns to be “obeyed”, and whose tone mimics that of an “Old Testament God” – resists relinquishing his land, as does their mother Rachel.
The book’s unorthodox writing style, switching between first and third-person narration and intruding into the consciousness of the characters, takes readers along an emotional journey, divided into four sections over decade-long intervals.
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At times unsettling, at other times captivating, The Promise is a stellar entry by Galgut. It is masterful that he managed to take a subject as taboo as apartheid and translate it into something so beautifully crafted and emotionally complex. It is a future classic.
A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta Books), £14.99.
Set during the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war, Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel, A Story of a Brief Marriage, deals with survival in the midst of conflict. His second, A Passage North, is an intensely introspective rumination on all that comes after – the longing, loss and guilt haunting those who make it, and the lingering influence of war. The protagonist, Krishan, works for an NGO in Colombo some years after he watched on television as violence tore his country in two. News of the death of his grandmother’s depressed carer, Rani, who lost two sons in the fighting, sets him on a journey to pay his last respects and prompts him to look at his own life from afar.
Krishan’s split with his girlfriend Anjum, an activist who has found meaning by fighting for a cause higher than herself, still occupies his thoughts, and her sense of purpose acts as a counterpoint to Krishan’s doubts about his own direction. Arudpragasam dives into metaphysical musings on memory and our relationship with the present moment in long, twisting passages that you really have to concentrate on. He questions whether we ever leave war behind after the guns fall silent. As the Sri Lankan army encourages people to forget through a relentless process of renovation, Rani cannot. The mental scars of war remain long after towns and villages are rebuilt.
There’s anxiety and urgency to the novel at odds with the languid, philosophical prose and vivid descriptions of emotional hinterlands. It’s serious fiction – possibly too serious. But it’s also a beautifully crafted and contemplative attempt to untangle the mind’s inner workings.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury), £14.99.
Poet turned memoirist and London Review of Books essayist Patricia Lockwood has long been interested in the impact of being “extremely online” on creativity.
Her novel, No One Is Talking About This, follows the story of a woman deep in the grips of internet addiction, increasingly unable to engage with real life. The first half of the novel is structured in an endless stream of online consciousness, tweet-length snippets of her thoughts and social interactions.
Suddenly, reality’s cruel grasp grounds the protagonist back to real life with two texts from her mother, “Something has gone wrong,” and “How soon can you get here?” Lockwood’s novel is a profound meditation of life in the 21st century with a comprehensive reference to the internet culture of the last decade.
A finalist of the Women’s Prize For Fiction, Lockwood writes without adherence to literary rules on form or genre, making for a unique tale of our times.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Penguin Books), £14.99.
Mahmood Mattan was a Somalian sailor, explorer, gambler, thief, father, and husband. He lived in the Docklands area of Cardiff in the 1940s and 50s – and was the last man to be hanged there. His case was also the first miscarriage of justice to be rectified by a British court: he should not have been killed by the state.
Mattan was hung for the murder of the shopkeeper Lily Volpert (Violet Volpert in Mohamed’s novel) based on shaky evidence and discriminatory testimony. He left behind his wife, Laura, and their three sons. It is this story that Nadifa Mohamed painstakingly and tenderly tells in her novel The Fortune Men.
She masterfully weaves tales of Mahmood’s travelling youth with an unflinching evocation of the gritty realities of post-war Cardiff. With murder, poverty, racism, and heartbreak, there is not a moment’s respite for any of her characters.
Both the Mattan and Volpert family’s stories are delicately told; this is not a story of winners and losers, but a wholesale tragedy and a failure of justice. The murder of Lily Volpert is still unsolved.
Mohamed has not simply written a faithful legal account of the case. Her novel sparkles with literary allusions and ability – from overtones of Sam Selvon to Joyce-like descriptions of flâneury. It would undoubtedly be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers (Cornerstone), £18.99.
Bewilderment is Pulitzer-prize winner Richard Powers’ attempt to grapple with the ugly climate legacy left to the children of today, or rather the children of tomorrow.
It follows astrobiologist and recently widowed Theo and his autistic son (although Theo has his own “crackpot theories” on his child) Robin. Robin has inherited his mother’s overpowering concern for the future of the planet and his father’s obsession with inter-terrestrial life.
After losing his mother, Robin’s fragile mental state falls apart. In response, Theo turns to experimental neural feedback therapy in which Robin merges his mind with an MRI of his deceased mother’s brain.
The unfurling series of disasters that echo in the background of the plot, while grim reading, are unfortunately very much believable as a thinly veiled President Trump thunders against science and reason. Perhaps less credible are the central characters and the relationships.
It’s always tricky for adult authors to write in a child’s voice, and in this respect, Richard often misses the mark for both Robin and his schoolmates.
The characterisation of the central but conveniently absent Alyssa (yet another fictional mother to be subjected to this fate) is a little nebulous and thin. Despite the work ultimately being a compelling call to arms, the extremely, perhaps needlessly, bleak ending mutes this somewhat as it redirects the environmental urgency towards far more personal despair.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Transworld Publishers), £16.99.
Reading Great Circle, one word persistently comes to mind: ambitious. The hefty 600-page book entwines the lives of Marian Graves, a fictional heroine of early air travel who escapes her troubled life by becoming a pilot before disappearing in 1950 and Hadley, a former child star living in contemporary Hollywood, starring as Marian in a film adaption of her life.
Maggie Shipstead takes the reader on a journey across the world and through history, interweaving the two starkly different women. Marian and Hadley are bound not just by the film but by the significance of aeroplanes in their lives (both Marian and Hadley’s parents disappear in-flight and are assumed dead).
The story of Marian Graves and her determination to defy the odds as a woman pilot would make for solid reading alone. Still, the contemporary twist is what makes this book Booker-Prize shortlist worthy. Shipstead flexes her writing muscles, her ambitions met, creating something that soars above the ordinary novel.