A fully-packed bookcase

Three books that each offer a traditional holiday-reading pleasure

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The question of how many books to take on holiday is a vexed one. My formula (number of days x 2) has the beauty of simplicity, and has disappointment so neatly built into it that I need never face the truth of why I only got through half of one of them. I can tell myself it’s not because I was too lazy, or busy tiring out my children, or too repeatedly semi-drunk to concentrate: it’s because I brought too many in the first place. Just as a man with two clocks never knows what time it is, a man with a toteful of novels will never find a story he absolutely must stick with.

Perhaps I should be less ambitious, both in scale and reach. I’ve never felt that a holiday is a time for fluff and nonsense: airport thrillers with type so large it’s like being shouted at; the walking wounded remains of ladlit and chicklit, so regretfully bequeathed to us by talented writers like Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding; the plodders and stampers of formula literary fiction, covers spatchcocked with wraparound landscapes. No, I believe a holiday — with its underlying rhythm of pleasant boredom — is the time to tackle something bolder, stronger … substantialler. This has led to unhappy one night stands with many of the twentieth century’s finest, and Saul Bellow. (Augie March, my old nemesis — we meet again!)

A man with a toteful of novels will never find a story he absolutely must stick with

But this year I’ve been more careful, and offer three novels I recommend as ideal reading, whether you’re squinting into the sun, hiding in the shade of a gîte or simply sequestered in quarantine after your destination received an unexpected ambering. Each offers a traditional holiday-reading pleasure.

First comes the gentle stretch of the mental muscles and a sense of being taken to somewhere new. Sri Lankan novelist Anuk Arudpragasam, aside from anything else, has quite the wrong length of surname to ever see it stacked high in airports in silver embossed lettering alongside CLANCY, CHILD and PLINY. But he is not that sort of writer anyway. His new novel A Passage North is the sort of painstakingly written story of suffering that prize juries can sniff out at a hundred pages.

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam, Granta, £14.99

He has form in this respect. His debut, The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) was the most beautifully grim story of its year, opening with an amputation sans anaesthetic, and proceeding through an austerely lyrical account of taking a shit (“the whole of his weak, thin body struggling to send out one final offering into the world”) toward the really bad stuff. A Passage North is, more or less, brighter in aspect, and no less aesthetically fine.

The story is Krishan’s, a young Sri Lankan travelling from his home in the city of Colombo to the war-ravaged north-east of the country, to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s servant Rani. Indeed, the book is structured as a series of journeys: the present trip; the memory of his first train journey with his ex-girlfriend Anjum, a political activist; and finally, the funeral cortège he follows.

All the way, he thinks, reflecting on life and death. Why is it, he wonders, that he didn’t take the suffering of his own Tamil people in the civil war seriously “till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts”? On his grandmother’s frailty, he notes that “for most people in most places, death was a process that began decades before the heart stopped beating.” And in what seems a timely, and timeless, observation on collective memory, he reflects that “all monuments lose their meaning and significance with the passage of time, disappearing […] into the vast unseen and unconsidered background of everyday life.”

So stately and formal is the prose that it jolts the reader to see the word “queer” used in the modern rather than the 1950s sense

All this is delivered in long sentences — usually only four or five per page — that are both grammatically precise and characterised by qualification, reading at times like Henry James after a good edit. This has some interesting effects: unlike some modern fiction, it represents trauma not as shattered syntax but as a steady drumbeat. And so stately and formal is the prose that it jolts the reader to see the word “queer” used in the modern rather than the 1950s sense.

Indeed, the prose is so beautiful that it would be perfectly satisfying — for me if not for you — to go on quoting it all day. When Anjum leaves an event where she and Krishan have just met, “it was as if something had been extracted painfully but soundlessly from deep within him.” This is a good likeness for the experience of reading A Passage North, where war, death and loss are so exquisitely rendered, you almost want more. Seeing Rani’s body at the funeral, Krishan felt “totally immersed in what was happening, a participant in this process, whatever it was, rather than a spectator”, and the reader knows exactly what he means — no, how he feels.

Another traditional holiday reading experience is to read about other people’s summers, as in Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (the only author I know of whose name evokes not one but two camp pianists). This is the first UK publication of a Greek modern classic, published there in 1945 and titled The Straw Hats. (Translator Karen Van Dyck justifies the name change on the, to me, slightly spurious grounds that in the US, straw hats have “a different class valence, more hillbilly than bourgeois”.)

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki, translated by Karen Van Dyck, Penguin, £8.99

No matter. The book is a worthwhile addition to the exceptionally interesting and highly various Penguin European Writers series. Three Summers features three sisters — Maria, Infanta and narrator (most of the time) Katerina — and is a book of atmosphere as much as action, of feeling as much as meaning. “I remember those days as if they were one year, one moment,” Katerina tells us near the beginning, her story representing the jumble of memory.

“Everything took on a tremulous beauty,” she says later, “and I tried to capture that beauty but it always escaped me.” Not quite: the book captures the nebulous quality of youthful summers neatly, and there’s a Cider with Rosie-ish quality to the way Liberaki delivers a very mixed bag of experiences — rape, social constrictions, even the trickle of Jews into Palestine — with such light charm, and a style that combines the naivety of youth with the shadows of adult retrospect.

This is a book of atmosphere as much as action, of feeling as much as meaning

“Every day” has “the same heat and goldfish tint” but time passes, and the sisters become women, with Maria the first to marry and give birth. (“There’s nothing as exasperating as conjugal bliss.”) There is plenty of intrigue to punctuate the routine milestones, including a missing grandmother, the sisters’ mother’s secret and Katerina’s own ambivalent romance.

What makes Three Summers perfect holiday reading is that the plotlines are scattered through the book, lifted and dropped as memory dictates — so it permits, even benefits from, being read in short snatches as the rigours of relaxation allow. “It’s a shame,” Katerina says, for all the “beautiful things” she’s seen “to last only as long as I’m looking at them.” And correcting that is one thing novels are for.

The final requirement for holiday reading is, of course, comedy; and Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse fits the bill nicely. First published 30 years ago and set around the stock market crash of 1987, it’s been given a sprucing-up by the redoubtable people at Daunt Books. It’s a book that, like a great pop song, focuses on one thing and hammers it and hammers it: the one thing here being Mrs Fitzgibbons, a perfect comic grotesque.

Ride a Cockhorse Raymond Kennedy, Daunt Books, £8.99

Mrs F is a once-meek loan officer at a New England bank who has, via a lightning bolt or can of spinach or what-the-hell-something, become a new woman: ambitious, uncompromising and … hot (which third may be a function of the first and second). She warms up by seducing a local youth, making him watch her try on clothes (“Is it too tight? In the thighs?”) and proceeds to supplant her boss, using a mix of soft soap and bullying to take advantage of man’s feebleness in the face of flattery.

Any book of surprising content or style must eventually cease to surprise, though the ending puts the tin hat on things aptly

Mrs F is full of herself, literally: overflowing with character and swelling to the edges of the page. She is semi-estranged from her daughter Barbara (who is “practically brain damaged”), and relishes the freedom granted by widowhood from her late husband Larry (last words: “What were my last words?”). She succeeds, becoming CEO of the bank and a local personality — half Lucrezia Borgia, half Fred the Shred — through a combination of force of personality and others’ willingness to accept being told what to do, sacking people at random pour encourager les autres.

Comedy cannot be restrained, and when we see Mrs F make a colleague’s wife prostitute herself as a honeytrap for an enemy manager, we know Kennedy has held his nerve. And any book of surprising content or style must eventually cease to surprise, though the ending puts the tin hat on things aptly. Commentators have suggested that Mrs F predicted the rise of Sarah Palin (remember her?), or represents the rapacity of capitalism unbridled. Well, it’s holiday season, so I’ll take a break from analysing that. Instead just pick up these books, find a pool to sit by, and dive in.

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