It’s hot in the UK. We are now so entrenched into a seemingly never-ending heatwave that no-one can quite remember what a cloud is. Summer, and indeed the heat, shows no sign of going away any time soon, making it perfect weather for doing as little as possible. So grab a cool drink, find a spot in the shade and settle in to do little more than turn a page once in a while with these recommended reads from Southbank Centre’s literature programming team.
This month our literary experts are looking ahead to upcoming Southbank Centre festivals, including Man Booker 50, our celebration of fifty years of the Man Booker prize for fiction; Africa Utopia, our annual festival celebrating the arts and culture of the fast moving continent; and October’s London Literature Festival, which incorporates a day celebrating the best of Young Adult Fiction.
It’s not long now before Man Booker 50 begins and this past month I’ve been immersed in some of the most recent books by former winners and luminaries who will be taking part in the festival. One of the particular highlights has been the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje, a book which for me stands alongside his earlier masterpieces, including The English Patient and Running in the Family.
Set in 1945, Warlight tells the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, who are left by their parents in London in the care of a mysterious man they nickname the Moth. As Nathaniel tells us: ‘Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises.’ Soon we learn that the reason for their parent’s sudden departure is that their mother, Rose, leads a double-life as a spy. This is a novel in which the aftermath of history is felt in the tremors of everyday life, each one captured with precision and tenderness by a writer whose powers of perception continue to expand. Ondaatje has often drawn our attention to liminal spaces — such as the in-between space of the villa in The English Patient — but in Warlight the city of London is where his characters are caught in transition, the possibility of their lives yet to come glimpsed through the murk of the past.
Another highlight has been The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Swimming Home and Hot Milk. In this ‘living memoir’ Levy captures, often with stark humour and bracing honesty, the emotional and psychological costs of marriage and motherhood in the 21st century. Revisiting and reappraising feminist touchstones from Simone de Beauviour to Audre Lorde, Levy lays bare what she describes as the ‘masquerade’ of femininity, as it is defined by men: ‘It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.’
Wherever Levy turns her attention there are insights to be found, not least about the writing life itself, which though it requires ‘stamina’, offers the greatest adventure of all. ‘To unfold any number of ideas through all the dimensions of time is the great adventure of the writing life.’
I’ve been ploughing through several young adult novels this month in anticipation of our celebration of Young Adult fiction during London Literature Festival (18-28 October 2018).
After the Fire by Will Hill has just won the YA Book Prize and it is well deserved. The narrative moves between the times before and after a violent standoff between US federal agents and members of the religious sect the lead character, Moonbeam, has grown up in. Hill was both inspired and disturbed by the Waco, Texas Siege of 1993 where 82 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect and four US government agents were killed.
After the Fire is reminiscent of Emma Cline’s The Girls and explores the power and control that propel individuals (usually men) to being able to convince their commune brothers and sisters that they are a conduit to God. It also has an excellent lead character; the reader is immediately drawn into Moonbeam’s story and to the incredible resilience of young people.
I also recently read Chemistry by Weike Wang. It follows an unnamed narrator, a post-grad chemistry student whose boyfriend has just proposed to her; but far from feeling like her life is falling into place, she feels like a ‘gas particle moving around in space’. We accompany the narrator as her mental health falls apart and she begins to hide difficulties in her work and her relationship from her controlling parents. But as the prose that seems initially to reflect the formality and control of the situation unravels, we are disarmed by the narrator, and drawn into a world that explores the intricacies and warmth of friendship, and how caring about another being, even if that is a dog, can gently open up a door to recovery.
With our programme shifting up a gear as we prepare for our Man Booker 50, Africa Utopia and London Literature Festivals, I have found myself reading more like a magpie than an owl. From being torn between revisiting old favorites from our illustrious line up of writers at Man Booker 50 to finding new favorites in the process of programming for Africa Utopia and London Literature Festival, here are a few of the books I have discovered or re-discovered along the way.
With Paul Beatty coming to the Southbank Centre, I knew I had to revisit his debut novel The White Boy Shuffle. The discovery of this book, for me, was integral to the affectations I would go on to create in my years of teenage rebellion - I was quite literally a bookish basketball player with a penchant for Def Poetry Jam. Although this was not my first time delving back into this book, I was still astounded by the sheer force of Beatty’s prose and observations.
Like a great album, The White Boy Shuffle reveals something different to me every time I read it - including how my teenage pretensions about being someone who ‘gets it’ was precisely the sort of attitude he chose to satirise in the book. In a time when people are announcing satire as dead, Beatty’s writing both old and new (The Sellout) show that satire can not only hold up a mirror to society but also a magnifying glass.
I have also been reading She Called Me Woman: Queer Nigerian Women Speak. As the title suggests this is a moving and deeply personal collection of essays by queer Nigerian women edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu. This collection feels special for a number of reasons. Hearing directly from queer, Nigerian women in a social and cultural landscape that is often dominated by men seems somewhat radical in an of itself. However, the fact that the essays cover a wide spectrum of the experiences of the contributors, from discrimination to acceptance, love to heartbreak, gives the collection life, in the fullest sense.
Another book I have been going through is Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala. Natives is both memoir and socio-political commentary, with Akala detailing his journey from childhood to artist and intellectual, using his knowledge of history to contextualise both his experiences and the contemporary effects of race and class. This book feels both timely and fresh, in that not only does it interrogate contemporary issues around race, class, and identity, it does so with a real scholarliness which is only bolstered by being tied to his own personal lived experience rather than delivered simply as a polemic.
As part of Man Booker 50 fever, this month I’ve been rereading perhaps my favorite Mohsin Hamid book Exit West, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2017. It’s a story of migration, following people — Nadia and Saeed — as they fall in love in an unnamed city being overtaken by unrest and violence, and escape from one unsafe place to the next through magic doors that have mysteriously started appearing around the world.
Although Nadia and Saeed are the book’s focal point - and I was definitely invested in their survival - their journey is one part of a much bigger story of borders, citizenship and responsibility. This is an extremely topical novel - poignantly exploring ideas of mass migration, the refugee crisis, and a global, connected world. What I love about Hamid’s style is the fable-like quality to his writing. Exit West is at once magical and eery - horrendous acts of violence are relayed so calmly and simplistically that it packs a punch. Coupled with elements of magical realism, it allows Hamid to deal with heavy subjects in a way that is both gripping and devastating. I'd recommend this book to people just to experience the style.
Also, I have to give a quick mention of Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s book Slay In Your Lane, which celebrates some of the most successful black British women at work today, and aims to inspire and advise other black women ‘who want to do the same and forge a better, visible future’. There are interviews with women making strides in so many fields - Amma Asante, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Denise Lewis to name just a few - and the topics range from relationships to education to careers. So far it’s been funny, informative and so interesting. And there’s a big emphasis not just on the achievements but also the challenges and setbacks these women have faced in a society that has made them fight to be visible.