Summer is here, the perfect time to take your reading outdoors and settle into a good book in the garden or the park, on a beach or a balcony. But rather than soaking up the sunshine, our literature programming team have been busy looking ahead to future Southbank Centre literary events, including Africa Utopia, the Man Booker 50 and London Literature Festival’s Young Adult Day.
Here they share what they’ve been reading - from a forgotten classic to a coming of age memoir via a poetic homage to London, and the history of black radical politics - and in doing so offer some top tips for your June reading.
Recently, I’ve loved Madeleine Miller’s Circe, which explores the characters of Homer’s The Odyssey through a very different lens. Circe is the goddess of the island of Aiaia, exiled by her father, the Sun God Helios, because of her growing powers (or so the Madeline Miller version goes). You may have heard about the sorcery and the tempestuous moods of the witch Circe (and even have associated the name with the reign of terror of one Cersei Lannister), but have you ever stopped to wonder why a woman, alone on an island, might have to resort to turning a fleet of sailors, drunk on blood-lust, into swines? Or what the burning temper of the God of the sun might do to a daughter? This book is an exquisite telling of the hidden life of the goddess Circe.
I’m also getting into Young Adult fiction in anticipation of our YA Day for London Literature Festival. S.T.A.G.S. is the debut YA novel by M A Bennett. Following in the footsteps of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the book follows Greer, recipient of a scholarship to the exclusive St Aidan the Great boarding school. Desperate to fit in, upon receiving an invitation to spend a weekend at a country manor with the school’s richest boy and his friends, she jumps at the chance. But the reality of nine young people alone on a bloodsports weekend takes a very sinister turn. An excellent exploration of privilege and the lengths people go, to preserve old world order over new.
From London’s oldest museums to the public toilets of Regents Park, Richard Scott’s first poetry collection, Soho, takes the reader on a journey through the city, ending in the beating heart of Soho. But this Forward Prize nominated collection is far from a tourist guide. It’s a visceral exploration of love, of shame, of the enduring legacy of Section 28 - the 1988 law that forbade ‘promoting’ homosexuality - on the LGBTQI+ community. The collection moves in and out of melancholia, exploring mental health, trauma and abuse. Although at times the poems are painful to read, I will be buying this book for several friends; there is undoubtedly a healing and a kind of balm that this collection offers.
In the run up to our Africa Utopia festival much of my reading has related to this year’s theme, Pan-Africanism. A highlight from this was Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century by Kehinde Andrews. Here, Andrews excellently lays out the history of black radical politics from across the globe, both exploring its roots and guiding readers to a new black radicalism for the 21st Century. The force of this book comes from its unflinching argument that racism is embedded into society, even the concept of the nation state itself, and that the only change to be found must occur outside of the system - a sentiment that brings to mind the titular quote from Audre Lorde’s essay The Master's Tools will Never Dismantle the Master's House.
From the political to the personal, which is never devoid of politics, Ordinary People by Diana Evans - the title and theme taken from the John Legend song of the same name - struck me as a compassionate and detailed investigation of the entrenched melancholy in well worn relationships. Evan’s opens with a 2008 Obama election party in Crystal Palace, contrasting the hope and anticipated change of Obama’s election with their more personal individual malaise. Ordinary People gives us a fresh look at love and relationships, ambition and compromise, with well realised characters that feel both recognisable and honest. I would also recommend listening to the accompanying Spotify playlist while reading, as long as you can resist crooning along to Jill Scott.
I also finally read The White Book by Han Kang, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith. As a big fan of Kang’s two previous books - The Vegetarian and Human Acts - I had been looking forward to embarking on another journey into her writing. Split into three sections, I, She and All Whiteness, The White Book, begins as a collection of thoughts or meditations on the colour white. While the colour white remains a unifying principle through the book, Kang’s novel delves into much broader territory, juxtaposing the imagined life of her sister who passed away shortly after birth with that of the post war reconstructed city she inhabits. As with Kang’s previous books, the prose here is incredibly measured with a poetic sensibility which makes the work all the more affecting.
Senior Programmer for Literature & Spoken Word
One of the joys of working on the Man Booker 50 festival is revisiting many past winners, but perhaps better still is making a fresh discovery from the vaults of the prize. One such revelation was Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which won in 1987 and earlier this month was shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker, selected as the best winner from that decade.
It begins at the bedside of ailing writer Claudia Hampton, who despite being in the twilight of her life declares defiantly to the nurses that she will ‘write a history of the world.’ What follows is a kaleidoscopic retelling of her life from multiple perspectives, capturing a courageous woman in a world before feminism who is conscious both of history enfolded within the present and the fleetingness of her own life. Time in the novel doesn’t move in a straight line, but in spirals of memory, burning brightly but always traced by a line of grey ash, mirroring the mosquito repellent beside the bed of Claudia and her lover Tom in Cairo:
‘The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.’ This is a novel which asks searching questions about love and memory, underpinned by an unshowy yet profound intelligence, which perhaps finds its greatest source of renewal in language itself:
‘We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes - our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, and that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely of hosts, survive and survive and survive.’
Artistic Programming Assistant
I managed to get a lot of reading done this month, though by some distance the stand out book was Yrsa Daley-Ward’s coming-of-age memoir The Terrible. Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father in the North of England, Daley-Ward writes of her turbulent childhood, caught between her mother and her devoutly religious grandparents. The book goes on to track her growth into adolescence, struggles with drug use and depression, and how her her family, mental health and poetry intertwine with her journey into modelling and sex work.
I really enjoyed this book, not only because Daley-Ward has a lot of wisdom to impart and does so with incredible bravery and honesty, but I was also really aware of how the form of the writing impacted the telling. The passages flow from prose to really powerful poetry so that Daley-Ward manages to get to the heart of so many issues - sexuality, depression, race, fear, power, family - in a way that feels very simple and poignant, without taking you out of the narrative. And it feels so effortless! I read this in a day. It can be done.
The Terrible was also reviewed by Rai of the Mostly Lit podcast recently, who discussed how Daley-Ward manages to bring a ‘fogginess’ to her childhood, leaving you with a strong sense of how it must have felt, but with no clear idea of what happened. Something which is so true of all childhood memories, and offers a great example of how the use of poetry aids Daley-Ward in forming these strongly emotive but vague impressions of her experience.
Finally, I love how Daley-Ward talks about her love for her younger brother Roo. It is a thread that runs through the book, and for me it was this that gave her story such a strong sense of hope and joy, even through the most terrible things.