This autumn, the headline news in books is the release of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’ve already read that one (or aren’t planning to), here is a selection of other new books to dive into as the leaves begin to fall…
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
The Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming’s previous book, The Vanishing Man, was a superb biography of Velazquez combined with a historical detective story. This new book, while far more personal, is another subtle elision of art and mystery. Telling the story of her mother’s childhood, which begins with an abduction from the titular Lincolnshire beach, Cumming attempts to unpick the secrets of her family’s opaque history, with this main narrative underscored by reflections on how we look at and understand art. On Chapel Sands is beautifully written, immersive and moving – and it’s one of the finest books of the year.
Live a Little by Howard Jacobson
You will be hard pushed to find a more enjoyable novel to get stuck into this autumn. Set in the Finchley Road, what starts as a dual character study slowly becomes an unlikely nonagenarian love story. The cantankerous Beryl Dusinbery aka The Princess, is a former teacher with a catalogue of former lovers, two politician sons she can’t stand and a pair of eccentric carers who she constantly bickers with. Into her bizarre life steps (or should that be hobbles?), Shimi Carmelli, an old fella whiling away his years by reading the fortunes of the customers at the Chinese restaurant he lives above. Shimi is in demand among North London’s ageing widow population, mainly due to the fact he’s the only man his age in the area who can still do up his own fly. This is not a novel stuffed with plot, but rather an affectionate portrait of an odd couple excavating their pasts and quite possibly creating a future for themselves in whatever time they have left. Thanks to its warmth, humanity and humour, Live a Little feels like the ideal book for these autumnal months.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
Levy’s new, Booker long-listed novel starts with an accident. It’s the late 1980s and the narrator Saul, a young and (even if he does say so himself) beautiful academic, is knocked down by a car on the zebra crossing in Abbey Road made famous by the Beatles. Not long after that he’s having sex with his artist girlfriend, getting dumped by her and heading off to East Berlin on a research trip. From here, Levy’s short but dense book jumps forwards and backwards in time, with characters, motifs and plotlines recurring and shapeshifting to a dizzying degree. The reader is never allowed to settle on what exactly is or isn’t unfolding, and reading it in one or two sittings will certainly help amplify all of these echoes and overlaps. A book that might be hard to love (mainly due to the fact that Saul is more irritating than eczema), but it is certainly one to admire.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris
Harris is a master of the blockbuster thriller and his latest is another one to race through. The year is 1486, an old priest in a Wessex village has died and a young clergyman, Christopher Fairfax, is sent to oversee the funeral. Almost as soon as he arrives the villagers are hinting at untoward reasons for their priest’s untimely demise – Fairfax discovers that the dead man was a collector of strange objects from the ‘ancient’ times and his preaching was somewhat out of step with official Church teaching. As Fairfax closes in on the truth, so Harris’s novel reveals its mysteries – this medieval world is not what it seems, and what initially appears to be nothing more than an elegantly written historical crime caper turns into something else entirely as past and present collide. Avoid further spoilers and you are in for a treat.
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
This debut short story collection is a series of snapshots of life in contemporary Protestant Belfast – and it’s completely brilliant. Among the disparate group of people on show is a depressed gangster who takes a break from terrorising the neighbourhood to give hypnosis a go and a widow who pines for her estranged grandchild while obsessing over the Somali Muslim family who live over the road. Erskine’s stories are shot through with moments of sadness and disorientating twists, which all contribute to the overarching idea that what most unites people these days is a sense of loneliness and quiet despair. Thankfully, Erskine’s gift for understated black comedy, crisp dialogue and sharp characterisation ensures that Sweet Home is no wallow in kitchen sink misery. Reading it is an enlivening experience and Erskine’s career is one to keep an eye on in the years to come.