Lockdown literature, a model’s memoir and the magic of island life: Orna Mulcahy recommends …
Sarah Hall perfectly captures the fear and horror of an unstoppable virus in BURNTCOAT (Faber & Faber,€15.28), a many-layered story with superb characters that manages to fit into a slim novel. Dying sculptor Edith Harkness recalls her fiercely talented, brain-damaged mother Naomi who allowed Edith the freedom to be an artist. Then there’s Halit, a migrant chef who moves in with Edith in lockdown, becoming her everything in the face of disaster. The story has stayed with me since.
Sarah Moss follows her powerful 2020 book Summerwater with THE FELL (Picador, £11.99), a short taut tale set over one evening and night in lockdown. Kate disappears to the intense unease of her son Matt and neighbour Alice. Kate has just gone for a long walk on the moors but when she still hasn’t returned by nightfall, a search party sets out in nasty weather. With each character taking a chapter, this builds to a satisfying ending.
Fans of Salley Vickers will be delighted with THE GARDENER (Viking €19.90), in which sisters Margot and Hassie buy an old house in Wales and set about restoring the garden with the help of Albanian migrant Murat. Not everyone is pleased at the new arrivals in the quiet, watchful village but old hurts and new slights are overcome through the magic of gardening in this ultimately hopeful novel.
Timely and fascinating, THE HIDDEN CASE OF EWAN FORBES (Bloomsbury, €23.50) by medical humanities professor Zoe Playdon, tells the real-life story of Scottish aristocrat Elizabeth Forbes who thanks to doctors and a substantial fortune, was able to live her life as a man. But, in 1965, on the death of his brother, Ewan Forbes had to endure a court action to take on the family title. Brimming with detail, the book explores the wider story of the rights of trans people in the last century and to the present day.
Model turned actor and essayist Emily Ratajkowski hits back at the grabbing, misogynistic culture of Hollywood and beyond in MY BODY (Quercus, €14.99), which has been teed up, pre-publication, by her claim that Robin Thicke groped her as she made the wildly successful “Blurred Lines” video for Pharrell Williams. The book documents her stunning success and the continued grabbing by men who expect women to be grateful for the attention. Ratajkowski hits back hard at some of the slimier individuals she’s encountered along the way, and if you recognise who they are, so much the better.
PATRICIA HIGHSMITH DIARIES AND NOTEBOOKS (Orion Books, €18.99), is a trove of writing discovered in the writer’s hot press after her death in 1995. Distilled from over 50 notebooks, we see her working on her best-known works The Ripley novels and The Price of Salt (later made into the movie Carol) and also making her way in the literary world where she rubs shoulders with Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles and others.
Ai Weiwei is never far from the public eye as one of the world’s most famous, controversial and playful artists but in his long-awaited memoir, 1000 YEARS OF JOYS AND SORROWS (Vintage, €15.99), he presents at times a lonely, drifting figure, exiled from his country and anguished at China’s moral decay. He talks lovingly of family and offers valuable insights into the events that have shaped his art, including a fascinating glimpse into Beijing’s flourishing antiques and art markets of the 1990s and his travels to Greek migrant camps to document the dispossessed.
For anyone who has dreamed of escaping to a simpler life, Robert L Harris’s meditations on his 30 years on Skellig Michael will be rewarding. In RETURNING LIGHT (Harper Collins, €17.60), Harris recalls how, at a loose end, he answered a newspaper ad and soon found himself as a tourist guide on the island, long before it became famous for appearing in Star Wars. With just puffins for company and a tiny hut to call home, Harris never lost a sense of wonder at living in such a sacred place.
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