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Ballast for the suitcase: Caroline Brothers’ summertime reading list

Caroline Brothers is the author of the hauntingly beautiful novel The Memory Stones about Argentina’s ‘disappeared’. Our previous Book of the Week, it’s a novel that will break your heart but ultimately offers hope with its themes of loss and redemption. Caroline reveals her recommendations for summer reading:

Summer – hurrah! Time to catch up on those fantastic books you’ve been dying to read all year but never got a chance to dive into. Here are my top 10 recommendations, mostly fiction but a couple of nonfiction titles, to weigh down your suitcase or fill up your kindle:

1) Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

The coolest book to be seen reading this year, from a consistently fascinating storyteller (Bel Canto, State of Wonder). This is the first book I know of that puts the Sticklebrick families of the post-divorce era centre stage – the winners and the losers, their difficulties and pleasures, the way the kids have to somehow rub along, their parents seemingly in a different world. Patchett is too sassy a writer to tell her tale straight, and subverts your expectations at every turn. Her masterwork, and a pleasure to read.

2) The Gun Room, by Georgina Harding

Here’s another one that will stimulate your mind while you indulge in some summer relaxation. This book opens in a village in Vietnam just after the arrival of US troops, where Jonathan, a war photographer, takes a picture that is syndicated around the world and becomes his ticket out. Traumatised by what he has seen, however, he goes to Japan to try to escape his war experiences. In the clean lines of Japan’s modernity, in his relationship with a young Japanese woman, he hopes to leave his own history behind, but the past has unexpected ways of catching up with us, while meanings sometimes take longer to attach themselves to what we’ve seen. A profound and thoughtful book for our image-soaked, violence-obsessed era.

3) The Golden Age, by Joan London

This is a luminous, subtle, life-affirming novel that lingers with you long afterwards, and if you missed it when it came out in 2014, read it now. London’s story focuses on the polio epidemic that hit Australia in the 1950s, and particularly on a centre for convalescent children in Western Australia, The Golden Age, established in an old pub of the same name. Frank Gold, one of the two adolescents at the heart of the story, is from a Hungarian refugee family which is trying to adapt to their strange new country; it is chiefly Frank’s coming of age, his falling in love, and his finding his vocation with which this splendid novel is concerned.

4) The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien

This one zoomed to the top of my list after I heard O’Brien read from it recently. Widely hailed as her masterpiece, O’Brien’s first novel in a decade takes as its premise the arrival of a Balkan war criminal, who has reinvented himself as a holistic healer, in a village on the west coast of Ireland. There are parallels with Radovan Karadzic, the so-called Butcher of Bosnia, though the novel has its own chilling twists and turns unrelated to his story as the villagers respond to his presence among them.

5) His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I am dying to get to this ‘true crime’ story that is in reality a dark psychological thriller. A surprise inclusion on the Booker prize shortlist, this second novel by Macrae Burnet looks like a page turner. It purports to be the memoir of a 19th century crofter who, at age 17, is awaiting trial in Scotland for three bloody murders, and which the author claims to have discovered while investigating his own family’s roots.

6) A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler

This short, gentle novel has been a huge best-seller in Germany, and was shortlisted in translation for the International Booker this year. Beautifully told, it is the life story of a man, Andreas Egger, who arrives in the mountains of Austria to live with his uncle when he is orphaned as a very small child. He struggles through childhood, mistreated by his uncle, and grows up to work as an engineer as the cable cars begin to arrive in the Alps. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the telling, or the quietness of Egger’s expectations, his loves and sorrows, his joys and tragedies, that make this novel so powerful ­– the trajectory of a life.

7) The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard

With Hazzard’s death on Dec. 12, Australia lost one of its finest writers whose prose, in the words of one critic, was ‘one of the glories of English literature.’ The Great Fire is considered Hazzard’s greatest work, and I for one was gripped by it when I read it some years ago. The novel begins two years after the end of World War II with the arrival of a British war hero, Aldred Leith, on a Japanese island administered by a boorish Australian brigadier and his wife. It is the growing awareness of love between Leith and the brigadier’s 18-year-old daughter Helen, 15 years his junior, that provides the impetus for the novel. But Hazzard traces the emotional trajectory of her characters against momentous events – like the bombing of Hiroshima – that seemed to challenge the very possibility of a future; it is this dual awareness in part that makes the novel so fine a read.

8) A Meal in Winter, By Hubert Mingarelli

  • A Meal in Winter is another short novel that punches way, way, way above its weight. Translated from the French into crystalline English, it tells the story of three German soldiers in the Second World War who walk out one morning into the frozen Polish countryside in search of ‘one of them’, ‘one of them’ being a Jew. The story takes place in a single day, and what happens when they find one – the ordinariness of their day, the chillingness of its subtext – make this an unforgettable read.

    9) The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

  • I’m desperate to read this one. An account of slavery in the American south, it has been described as wildly inventive in its narrative form and allegorical in its deeper meanings. Cora, an escaped slave, is pursued by the slavecatcher Ridgeway throughout this novel that has won rave reviews in the US and abroad.

    10) Are we smart enough to know how smart Animals are? by Frans de Waal, and The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

    Two nonfiction books this time. I’ve been impatient to read de Waal’s book ever since I heard him interviewed on the radio about his early, groundbreaking research into bonobos. Exploring the workings of animal intelligence, this book I’m told turns our understanding of animal behaviour completely on its head. Like Wohlleben’s book on trees, I suspect this book will make us wonder how we could have been so blind about nature for so long.

 

 

Caroline Brothers’ novel The Memory Stones, about the stolen children of the Disappeared in Argentina, is published by Bloomsbury.

 

 

 


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