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The Great Literary Escape: What to Read This Summer

From the dazzling heat of the French Riviera to the suburbs of Tokyo, these beguiling books will take you on an exciting journey (even if you can't leave the country)

By Martha Alexander

24 May 2021

his summer, as we emerge blinkingly from lockdown, the desire to go somewhere – anywhere that isn’t the four walls of our pandemic existence, is acute. We’re freer than we have been in months but still bound by ever-changing travel restrictions and quarantine laws. It is a cliché but true nonetheless that books allow you to journey far away when all else fails: a portal to new locations, new feelings. Some authors conjure a sense of place so effortlessly that you feel enveloped by its landscape and language.

This selection of fiction, mainly by women, will take you to Japan, Colombia, rural Ireland, Iran, Bosnia and beyond. Some are forthcoming debuts by new talent, others are classics by literary heavyweights. Many are tales of homecoming. All will take you elsewhere, not necessarily to paradise – this is not ‘easy read’ escapism – but you’ll definitely feel you have been away.

The Mismatch by Sara Jafari

British-Iranian author Sara Jafari’s debut is, on the face of it, a coming-of-age tale about a sensitive young Muslim woman, Soraya, who falls for the archetypal rugby-playing white boy, Magnus. But this is only part of the story. There are dark and unexpected aspects to The Mismatch including addiction and abuse that take this far beyond the boundaries of a standard girl-meets-boy yarn.

The meat of the novel lies in the relationship between Soraya and her mother, Neda, whose life in Tehran at the start of the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s and her subsequent move to England, take up much of the narrative, with Jafari depicting an Iran very different to the one we often see in the media.” Published 24 June

‘Some authors conjure a sense of place so effortlessly that you feel enveloped by its landscape and language.’

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is Gyasi’s second novel – the follow-up after her much-praised debut Homegoing. But Transcendent Kingdom proves the author is not a one-trick pony – it has been shortlisted for this year’s Women Prize for Fiction. It might be set predominantly in Alabama but the story’s heart is in Ghana, where our protagonist, neuroscientist Gifty, has her roots.

Gyasi tackles difficult topics, including addiction and depression, with clarity and a complete lack of pretence. This is the sort of authentic prose that makes you feel grateful to be led wherever it goes.

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

The heat of August in the South of France, where protagonist Ellen has come for a week of wanton liaisons, sizzles from the pages of this slim volume that was banned in several countries when it was first published in 1965 for its depiction of female sexuality.

The French Riviera is ablaze with beautiful bodies and lots of money but Ellen’s carefree quest doesn’t go as planned. Be warned, this is not sunlounger erotica, it’s a fraught and anguished tale that is often shocking and very sad, but Ellen’s interior world is always in safe hands with O’Brien.

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

This multigenerational tale, following three Cuban women, triggered a hotly contested 10-way auction before it was published in April. The family tree Garcia has created of flawed but resilient Cuban women is a dextrous framework for exploring big themes such as immigration and war.

She also executes place so beautifully – taking readers to Cuba, Miami and Mexico – with some of her shrewdest lines skewering how “gringos” romanticise Cuban culture: “Some just want to hear some Buena Vista Social Club, want to hear about how my grandma met Fidel Castro when he rolled through the city in a victory parade.”

Catch The Rabbit by Lana Bastašić

A road trip with a toxic former friend through the country you ran from might sound like the stuff of nightmares – and it’s true that Catch The Rabbit isn’t exactly an easy read. It is a strange and odd tale of Sara returning home to Bosnia (“for me, the Balkans are a color [sic] not a name”) but the narrative moves between the present and the vaults of her distant memory. Bastašić’s writing is shot through with a detached, dark humour, with biting observations on the nature of friendship.

She also tackles war, family and loss without trepidation and her descriptions of place are completely devoid of cliché and some of the most exciting parts of her work: “Mostar glimmered like a polished jug”, “Vienna is swollen like a corpse”.
Published 27 May

Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

This extraordinary novel from 2020, focuses on motherhood and the role of women and their bodies in Japan. We follow 30-year-old Natsuko, her elder sister Makiko, and Makiko's adolescent daughter, Midoriko. All three women have fears relating in one way or another to their bodies – how they look, how they function or what they may or may not become.

Location looms large in Breasts and Eggs, which was lauded by Japanese literary legend Haruki Murakami. It’s a fascinating insight into working-class life in both Tokyo and Osaka – a far cry from the cherry blossom and ancient temples most tourists come for.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Trevor’s 2009 novel is set in a small pocket of 1950s rural Ireland at a time when farmers’ wives delivered eggs in person, ‘strawberry fairs’ were the highlight of the summer and affairs are conducted in the tumbledown gate houses where the “lavender was uncut, the grass untrodden”.

There is an overarching theme of growth and decay throughout the Booker-shortlisted novel, which tracks the relationship between a grown-up foundling, Ellie, who is married to a man still grieving his late wife, and the slightly louche, lost Florian whose parents’ once-grand house is about to be sold. Love and Summer not only transports you to the Irish countryside, it is a masterclass in the subtle power of the unsaid.

The Melting by Lize Spit

This violent debut novel is set in Flanders and started life as the Belgian author’s script-writing thesis. The novel went to auction but instead of signing with a big publishing house, Spit made the unusual decision to go with a small emerging publisher that needed crowdfunding. Since then, The Melting has met critical acclaim across Europe and been published in 13 languages. A potent thriller with a keen eye for detail, narrator Eva return to the rolling rape fields and dairy farms of her youth to take revenge for a dark childhood incident.

Spit writes rural nostalgia well – the hum of tractors, the stench of manure, the white of penned-in geese – and captures the unnerving menace of teen girls, describing the girls at her school as “finely sharpened knives”. One for those who fancy a break from their comfort zone.

Florida by Lauren Groff

This unsettling collection of stories from 2018, by the author of the bestselling novel Fates and Furies, is anchored in the eponymous Florida. Groff evokes the swampy, humid state with cloying intensity, as she writes of houses overrun by snakes (At The Earth’s Round Imagined Corners) and a woman who awaits a hurricane (Eyewall).

There is menace and the promise of violence throughout the collection – and her stories are usually populated by angry, frustrated women. You feel as though you are on track for a nasty surprise, in the best possible way.

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Catherine Menon’s 2021 debut novel has won high praise from literary titan Hilary Mantel for its ability to engross readers – untangling a Malaysian family’s rich and complex history in a tale spanning almost a century.

With a keen sense of place, Menon peppers her prose with Malay phrases, as we follow protagonist Durga’s as she returns to her homeland from Canada. At the heart of the story is Durga’s fraught relationship with her grandmother and the memory of her dead mother – not to mention lifetimes of dark secrets that threaten to reveal themselves.

The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

The opening paragraph of Pachico’s 2020 novel The Anthill thrusts readers into a vivid Colombian landscape: “Trashy nightclubs like Oh My Sweet Jesus. Grinning statues of machete-wielding farmers, Texaco gas station stars. PANADERÍA bakeries on every corner, scraggly half-dead grass on the side of the highway.”

It is the story of Lina, who is returning to Medellín after 20 years in the UK. The novel’s name refers to the children’s refuge run by Lina’s childhood friend – whose perspective on the past is at odds with her own. Both Lina’s and Colombia’s traumas are explored in unexpected and shocking ways.

The Short Stack

Escapism comes in many forms. A great author can immerse you in a new culture and landscape, with just the power of their words.

By Martha Alexander

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