10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016

10-booksThe longlist for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, was unveiled earlier this week. There are 160 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

I’ve read quite a few on the list, so I thought I would highlight 10 of my favourite ones here.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry
The-temporary-gentleman
“Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack McNulty’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a ‘temporary gentleman’ in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa.”

Academy Street by Mary Costello
Academy Street
“This debut novel has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. It charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person.”

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
Lost-and-found
“This is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.”

The Avenue of the Giants by Marc Dugain  (translated by Howard Curtis)
Avenue of the giants
“This book is loosely based on the life story of California ‘Co-ed Killer’ Edmund Kemper, who was active in the 1970s. It is one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read, not the least because it’s so gruesome and shocking in places, but also because it has such a strong and powerful narrative voice. The first 100 pages are especially gripping as you are placed firmly in the head of Al Kenner, a depraved yet highly intelligent killer. His first person narrative is immediate and rational, yet coolly detached, making for a rather chilling reading experience.”

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett)
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga. When the book opens we know that thespian Ralph Meier is dead and that his doctor, Marc Schlosser, who narrates the story has been accused of his murder through negligence. As Marc prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.”

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
Us-Conductors
“Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin. It’s an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything-I-never-told-you
“This novel focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowns in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.”

The Thrill of it All by Joseph O’Connor
The-thrill-of-it-all
“If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up? Irish writer Joseph O’Connor does exactly that with this gloriously clever novel, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.”

Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Family-life
“In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a tragic situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives an accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs. This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. ‘After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,’ he confesses to God at one point.”

Nora Webster by ColmTóibín
Nora-Webster
“The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.”

The prize shortlist will be published on 12 April 2016, and the winner will be announced on 9 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

Akhil Sharma, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Family Life’ by Akhil Sharma

Family-life

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I recently watched a documentary by British journalist Louis Theroux about patients in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for their lives.

One young man was in a coma and his prognosis was bleak: doctors said it was highly unlikely he’d ever recover and that he’d spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. But his family had other ideas: they refused to believe he would not recover. And, lo and behold, against impossible odds, he eventually came around and could walk and talk again. Hope, it seems, can sometimes have the power to work magic.

In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a similar situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives a tragic accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs.

This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. “After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,” he confesses to God at one point.

Inspired by real events

I heard the author discuss this book very briefly at a Faber fiction showcase earlier in the year. He was smartly dressed and softly spoken, but little did I realise that before he’d finished his five-minute “promo” I’d have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

He started off rather jolly, telling us about how his family moved from Delhi to the USA in the late 1970s, and how everything was new, exciting and filled with perplexing mod-cons — nothing like India.

But then the mood of the room changed as he quietly revealed how his elder brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool one day and never fully recovered. Their new American life, so filled with hope and promise, had changed forever. Family Life is a fictionalised account of that experience.

Family faith

The book largely charts the lengths Birju’s family go to ensure he gets every opportunity to recover. If that means dealing with a long line of charlatans, religious “freaks” and dodgy “quacks”, then so be it.

But when exorbitant medical costs force the family to nurse him at home, it brings new tensions and stresses to bear. Burji’s mother never loses focus on her son — indeed, she becomes rather one-eyed about it, with unforeseen consequences — while his father loses himself in drink. Meanwhile, Ajay tries to get on with his life as best he can, often by burying his head in a book, so he can avoid thinking about his estranged parents and a brother who gets older but never better.

When an insurance pay out means Birju can be installed in a nursing home, it doesn’t neccessarily makes things easier. When Birju’s mother is introduced at a party as “the woman whose son is in a nursing home” you can practically feel the awkwardness of the situation resonate off the page:

“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. My son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”

Despite the subject matter, the story is not maudlin. It’s completely free of sentiment and often filled with laugh-out-loud witticisms. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Burji for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. It might be gallows humour, but it does show the lighter side of human nature and the methods people use to cope at times of great sadness.

As well as being a devastating account of a family plunged into a never-ending crisis, the novel is also a wonderful portrait of immigrant life, American culture and what it is to be an outsider — in all senses of the word.

It is hugely perceptive about so many different issues — dramatic change, unconditional love, friendship, sibling rivalry, marriage and grief, to name but a few — and does it with such a lightness of touch that it’s difficult not to emerge unaltered from such an intelligent and inspiring read. If nothing else, Family Life is a book about hope — of chasing it, holding it and never letting go — even if it might not work its magic in the same way it did for that family in the Louis Theroux documentary.

Family Life will be published in the UK on 1 May.

UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this review, the London Review Bookshop tweeted a link to it. When I thanked them for doing so, I discovered that the shop is hosting an event with Akhil Sharmer and David Sedaris at the end of this month.  To find out more, or to book tickets, please visit the LRB website.