The presence of books on social media is an ever growing niche. Around this time last year I wrote an article lamenting the toxicity and homogeneity of ‘Bookstagram’ and while I am no longer an active part of that community I still see some of its refuse appear on my feed from time to time. As a lifelong reader it's frustrating to see the same dozen or so books being rotated around the community. Before you get all hot and bothered I know you have every right to read whatever you want and as long as you’re reading something, I think that’s a positive thing. However, I also have every right to roll my eyes at the pure amount of literary mediocrity going around and so, out of the goodness of my heart and the size of my ego, Auntie Ash is back to recommend some excellent fiction for you to indulge in this summer. As an unintended bonus, they’re all written by women.
The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life by Camilla Gibb
Emma and Blue Taylor, the children of an overworked, distant mother and brutal, batty and absent father, strive to find a sense of belonging and family in very different but ultimately connected places. Blue, haunted by the disparaging comments of his father, cocoons himself in a place of anger and resentment. Emma, longing for more, seeks out something better for herself only to find that the world she so desperately longs for isn’t what she imagined.
This novel is sharp, funny and touching without containing any false sentiments. Gibb’s writing manages to capture the humanity of her characters, but also the finer details of the mundane that really help to bring this novel to life. She manages to blend an appropriate amount of whimsy with the starkly bleak reality of the character and their lives. Having said this, the details of the novel never feel superfluous and her writing doesn’t come across as flashy or insincere. The novel is down to earth without being dour, and her particular sense of dry, refined humour works to highlight the heart that is present in the novel.
As the Taylor siblings grow up, the reader is afforded glimpses into their lives at various stages and we’re able to see how Gibb manages to keep their characters consistent while also displaying a real sense of development and progress. A fascinating examination of family and power with a vivid Canadian backdrop.
After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
In the midst of a heatwave John Cole leaves the city to visit his brother. When his car breaks down he seeks help from a dilapidated house where the residents all seem to know his name and claim to have been waiting for him.
Perry manages to create this claustrophobic, rich, and heady sense throughout the entire length of the novel that really escalates the tensions between characters. The oppressive heat and strange circumstances give the whole novel the feel of watching events unfold through half closed eyes, rendering everything hazy and uncertain. There’s something surprisingly tender about the characters that almost instantly draws the reader into their world. Even though there’s a considerably large cast in a fairly short novel, Perry manages to make them distinct and vivid through her finely drawn characterisations while leaving enough unsaid to maintain an air of mystery. There’s a creeping sense of dread seeping through the novel and while nothing happens in the vein of a traditional horror novel, the unease stays with the reader even after they’ve finished it.
Burial Rites Hannah Kent
Based on the true case of the last woman in Iceland to receive the death penalty, Burial Rites is an intense, atmospheric historical novel with excellent prose and a richly drawn and well researched setting both in terms of space and time. Agnes, a convicted murderer awaiting execution, is sent to live with a respectable farmer and his family while a young priest is selected by Agnes to be her spiritual guide in her final days.
Kent’s writing manages to strike the perfect balance between lyriscim and pragmatism meaning it was lovely to read but didn’t take away from the plot or immersion of the novel. The character work is rich and layered and serves as an interesting psychological portrait of not only individuals but the community as a whole.
Beautifully bleak and starkly surreal, Kent brings the characters to life and makes the reader care about them fiercely, denying to themselves the ending which they know is inevitable. An excellent addition to the historical fiction catalogue, Burial Rites welcomes both established fans of the genre and those looking for an entry point.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Our young, beautiful, and privileged narrator has every superficial reason to be happy with her life, despite her virulent relationship with her boyfriend and derision towards her best friend. However, happy she is not, and so she embarks on a year long quest to hibernate away from the world in an attempt to reset and recharge.
There's something oddly refreshing about seeing female cruelty that stems from a place of genuine scorn and contempt, rather than the mask of ego-boosting. Female bitterness and resentment is often cloaked in the muddy waters of jealousy (usually over a love interest) and so to see the unapologetic, undisguised contempt for others harboured by the narrator feels oddly liberating. Is she cruel and catty? Absolutely. Is it also hilarious and generally delightful to read? It so was. Her cutting comments feel like a genuine reflection of the bitterness festering inside her and the ugly result was just that--ugly, and loudly so.
The narrator's observations of those around her brings the setting and characters into sharp relief. The hyper specificity present in her observations helped to elevate the novel and paint an aggressively clear scene. The ugly spectrum of privileged decadence and sordid superficiality is covered remarkably well. The feelings of the novel feel candid and the stunted and messy emotional state of the narrator is illustrated with sickening specificity. While the narrator shifts between a lethargic fog and taught awareness, the tone of the novel never loses its edge, drawn as tightly as a bow throughout its entirety.