The newly published zeitgeisty debuts, tender memoirs and literary dystopias to read now and in the months ahead
Spring is an unpredictable season; one minute the sun is shining and you’re wondering whether it’s time for an Aperol spritz, the next you’re lamenting the loss of your umbrella. The trick to surviving might be carrying a book at all times. Caught in a rainstorm? Grab a hardback and get cosy. Clear skies on your lunch break? Go al fresco with a fresh new read. With these emotionally involving, politically prescient and thought-provoking recent releases, you can be ready for any eventuality.
1. Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic, published by Pushkin Press
Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel explores social media’s promise of an intimacy it’s unable to deliver. The story follows a lonely graduate named Alice as she moves to New York, hoping to uncover her origin story. When Alice comes across the Instagram profile of Columbia writing teacher Mizuko, she feels an instant connection. Armed with information gleaned from online stalking, Alice orchestrates a “chance” encounter with Mizuko and begins to wheedle her way into the life of the unsuspecting writer (like Tom Ripley, with an iPhone). Shot through with dark humour and prose that burns like a laptop overheating on your thighs, Sympathy captures the exquisite agony of life online.
2. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, published by Faber
Vivek Shanbhag’s books have been published in India to wide acclaim, but this slim novella marks the first time his work is available in English. Translated from Kannada, Ghachar Ghochar tells the story of a close-knit Bangalore family who experience an upswing in fortune when their uncle starts a successful spice company. In the move from a cramped, ant-infested building to a large house on the other side of town, the family’s dynamic, along with their desires, begins to change. Shanbhag writes with subtlety and precision, producing an unsettling morality tale about wealth and consumerism in modern India.
3. Oola by Brittany Newell, published by The Borough Press
Brittany Newell’s debut novel is an electric new take on a classic theme; it lingers in that sinister space where love edges towards obsession. Music school dropout Oola meets wannabe writer Leif at an east London party and the pair fall in love. They spend the summer house-sitting, travelling across Europe and the U.S. until they reach a cabin in the Californian woods. It’s here that Leif, a kind of gender-fluid Humbert Humbert, begins a granular study of Oola. Ostensibly gathering material for a book project, Leif tests the boundaries of their relationship, journeying to the outer limit “just to prove it’s there”. In prose that’s as beautiful as it is dizzyingly smart, Oola is a penetrating exploration of desire, privilege and its victims.
4. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, published by Hamish Hamilton
The latest novel from the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a powerful and timely love story about a couple searching for a new life. In an unnamed country, beginning to swell with refugees, Saeed meets Nadia during an evening class. Their courtship progresses against a backdrop of mounting unease, but as their country lurches towards civil war, Nadia and Saeed smoke weed and share political memes – not realising they’re in danger until it’s almost too late. With hints of magical realism, this is an unmissable novel which serves as a warning against the privileged assumption that your homeland will always be safe and familiar to you.
5. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter, published by Picador
Megan Hunter weaves a haunting dystopian tale unlike any you’ve read before. In the aftermath of an environmental disaster, London is submerged by floodwater and the narrator, who remains unnamed, is forced to flee with her newborn baby. Despite the world as they know it crumbling around them, mother and son grow and thrive in this dangerous new Britain, where they’ve been recast as refugees. Poetic, precise, and surprisingly full of warmth, this is a beautiful story about the first months of motherhood and the places where hope springs, even in the darkest of times.
6. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, published by Bloomsbury
The first novel from masterful short story writer George Saunders is set over the course of one fateful evening in 1862. In a Washington cemetery, President Lincoln visits his son Willie, who has just succumbed to a fever. Willie is in the “bardo”, the liminal state in Buddhist belief between death and the next life. Surrounded by a ragtag group of lost souls (all of whom have their own reasons to resist moving on) we watch a father grieve for his son. As the night draws on, the graveyard becomes a microcosm of a nation in the midst of civil war. Told in a kaleidoscopic oral history, composed of character dialogue as well as historical sources, Saunders delivers an emotionally charged story about duty, empathy and standing up for what you believe in.
7. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher, published by Daunt Books
This month Daunt books is re-releasing a classic of food writing, M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. The autobiographical essay collection charts Fisher’s life and loves through the prism of meals she shared. From a peach pie eaten by the side of the road as a child in California, to the elaborate meals she encounters as a young academic’s wife in Dijon, Fisher’s writing transports us beyond food and into feeling. “When I write of hunger,” Fisher says in the book’s preface, “I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it […] it is all one.”
8. Insomniac City by Bill Hayes, published by Bloomsbury
A blend of memoir, photography and diary entries makes this soulful book from Bill Hayes, the partner of writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, an intensely personal read. It’s both a love letter to Sacks and an ode to New York City; to the opportunities urban life throws up to make valuable connections, however transient. Bill and Oliver’s partnership was built on a shared love of thought and words, as well as an amusing balance between Bill’s romantic inclinations and Oliver’s scientific way of thinking. (Hayes gets excited by the sight of fireflies, while Oliver panics because if you accidentally swallow one, the luciferase is toxic.) It’s a delightful, life-affirming read that breaks and mends your heart numerous times over.
9. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper, published by Hodder
Political tensions are running as high as the August temperatures when Edward, a young Brit, arrives in Paris seeking relief after the death of his sister. He takes a room owned by Frédérique, a left-leaning art book dealer who’s no stranger to grief herself. The relationship that unfolds between this unlikely pair forms the backbone of this assured debut, but it’s the voices of various neighbours in their apartment block that make this novel special. When debating a family’s application for one of the recently vacated apartments, some residents expose the bigotry lurking behind their home’s cosy facades. Others find the city’s influx of migrants a convenient way to account for their personal failings, but still more discover that when they take the time to get to know their neighbours, they have more in common than they initially thought.
10. Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, published by Bloomsbury
Melissa Febos is more qualified than most to tell you that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. Her first book, Whip Smart, chronicled the double life she led in her twenties; a bright college student by day, Febos was hiding a heroin addiction and working as a professional dominatrix. With her second non-fiction offering Febos traces the story of a different kind of addiction; an obsessive, all-consuming romance. Woven into the love story at the centre of the book is Febos’ search for her birth father, a Native American named Jon who left when she was two. In learning more about her ancestry, Febos comes to terms with some of her darkest compulsions for self-erasure. With visceral prose, she charts a wild story about love, loss and inheritance.