Spring 2017 reads

Here’s our highly subjective list of unmissable novels, should you have any time over the Easter holiday to read.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

There tends to be one novel per year that we thrust into the hands of our family, friends and any unsuspecting colleague who hovers too long at our desk. White Tears is that novel for 2017. The author Douglas Coupland described a previous work of Kunzru’s as “translit literature” because it collapsed time and space to engage the reader. The same can be said of White Tears which powerfully switches perspective, exposing how flimsy and subjective anyone’s concept of reality is. Kunzru is strong on the opiate-like quality of nostalgia: Seth, the 20 year old who is the main narrator, reflects: “I was listening to songs that had been recorded twenty years before I was born, and they had no ill-effect on me. There was no backwards pull, no sensation of vertigo. I forgot what it was I’d been scared of. I let it all go. I could not remember the last time I had felt so happy and carefree.” Seth and his wealthy best friend Carter work with white rappers and rock bands, attempting to give their music a vintage, “authentic” feel. They are so good at it that when they mock up an old blues record from modern recordings, the move backfires with disturbing consequences. You will need to keep your wits about you in order to wrap your head around what happens next, but every ounce of concentration will be richly rewarded — Kunzru is a feast for the brain. This latest book is that rare thing: a novel of ideas which possesses true narrative propulsion. It’s a must-read.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

When we first heard that Miss Jane was a novel written by a man about a woman who is liberated by being born with a genital abnormality, we were heartily tempted to pass. We could understand that a woman freed from the obligation to marry (in the early twentieth century) might enjoy more freedom than her sister but we didn’t — in all honesty — feel a burning desire to read a man’s take on this. We’re glad we persisted nonetheless as Miss Jane is unlike anything we’ve ever read before. It also made it on to the Wellcome Prize longlist which always throws up some brilliant books. Odd, thought-provoking and beautifully written, we adored this strange historical novel.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is always one to watch and this year’s shortlist is possibly the best ever not least because Gwendoline Riley — one of our favourite living novelists — has made the cut with her sixth book, First Love. It’s a brutal novella-length take on a marriage gone awry. If you like your novels light, this is probably not for you — Riley is like Jean Rhys but with better dialogue and jokes. If plot matters to you more than voice, then this might not be the book for you either — each of her exquisitely written novels (there’s also a collection of short stories) is hard to describe in terms of story. If you’re the sort of person who’s ever had an existential crisis wandering around Debenhams, however, or read Death in Venice on a bar shift during your younger years, then we’ve found the novelist for you. Anyone who, however grudgingly, has admired a Morrissey lyric should buy her entire backlist straightaway. If you’ve already read First Love and liked it, we implore you to read her other titles, particularly Opposed Positions. Riley’s voice seemed to spring forth fully developed with her debut, Cold Water, written when she was just 22 and her facility with language is still breathtaking, five books later.

— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
5th April 2017