Originally published on the Stanfords travel blog, but now with an EXTRA book. Wowee.
Ah, that rare phenomenon: the British Heatwave. Despite its elusive reputation, here in Bristol we’ve recently been blessed with long, sunny days filled with the flip-flops and bare torsos that are quintessential to our normally chilly island. (This is in addition to the muggy days of torrential rain and thunder that go hand in hand with the British summer, but we’ll ignore those…)
This glorious weather deserves a book that will do it justice. Here are some of my favourite titles that personify those sweltering days when the sun just won’t let up.
Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
Levy is never one for backing down when it comes to unsettling themes, and her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home is characteristically dramatic. It would read like a cool, classic noir (think beguiling but troubled femme fatale, haunted male protagonist, pervading sense of doom etc etc) if it wasn’t for the incessant summer sun that pervades every page, illuminating the foibles of the Jacobs family while on their holiday in Nice. The book is weighted with the tension of a long-lived family estrangement, and the prospect of impending tragedy is switched from simmer to boil when they discover a naked girl swimming in their holiday pool. It’s a novel that embodies the stifling heat of the French summer perfectly, and you certainly won’t forget it in a jiffy.
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
I feel like I may have missed something with this book, because to me it didn’t seem like a particularly rigorous exploration of Australia’s songlines, but many people are evangelical in their adoration of it. (Songlines are ancient and invisible paths that connect Australian communities and landmarks, which are shared by the Aboriginals through a complex system of songs.) It is, however, an interesting exploration of the effects that modernisation has had on Aboriginal communities, and Chatwin’s life amongst them is expertly and compassionately observed. Australia’s vastness plays a key role, as does its wilderness – the pervasive sand, the tufts of spinifex, the sun that makes your clothes sodden with sweat. Here Chatwin tells the story of Australia from a perspective that no typical guide book would offer, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.
No One Writes to the Colonel, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
This is one of Garcia Márquez’s less widely-read books, and it would be easy to include his more eminent works on this list instead. But I like this little novel a lot. It’s feisty, it’s uncomfortable and it’s tragic. Concerned with the desperation and poverty of a grieving couple during Colombia’s La Violencia (the civil war of the 1940s and 50’s), we join the colonel while he waits for his elusive pension and gives the last of their food to his prize-fighting cockerel. The personal and political turmoil is inseparable from the climate, and Márquez is inimitable in his ability to make the suffocating Colombian heat sear every page. If you think I sound over-dramatic, trust me: this book will make you want to dunk your head into an ice bucket. Read it on a very,very hot day for full impact.
The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
The Sheltering Sky makes me feel all funny inside, as if Bowles has met me and knows exactly what’s going on. This is a novel for anyone who is old friends with the black dog.
Port and Kit, our unhappy couple, are just that: very, very unhappy, both in their marriage and with life in general. Their misery makes them foolish, and during their African travels they masterfully propagate their own suffering. I’ve never known two characters who are so bloody stupid. This stupidity is, of course, what makes them relatable as characters and you can’t help but wince as they stumble deeper into catastrophe. I’ll say no more about the plot before I start hurling spoilers everywhere. But, like Port and Kit’s despair, the heat of Africa is omnipotent: it envelopes all, and devours it. The Sheltering Sky is an exploration of the darkness that can often impel us to run away and, like No One Writes to the Colonel, should be read on a scorching day for maximum oomph.
The Enchanted April, Elizabeth Von Arnim
Let’s end on a more positive vibe. Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April has been a favourite of mine for a long time, and for one reason: it is unashamedly pleasant. That may sound odd – maybe even dull – but it’s surprisingly hard to find a novel that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy that isn’t stereotypically ‘chick-lit’. It’s the tale of four women who occupy a Mediterranean castle together, somewhat begrudgingly at first. But it doesn’t take long for the Med to hold sway over them, and before they know it their lives are evolving towards something like (dare I say it) happiness. The Enchanted April may be the old trope of people ‘discovering themselves’, but it’s also subtly humorous, full of complex characters, and deliciously evocative of the Italian spring.
Love these books? Don’t love these books? Have your own preference for summer reads? I want to know, so say hello in the comments section!