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Holiday reads: six of the best

Holiday reads: six of the best

From sprawling sagas to historical thrillers, Boyd Tonkin chooses the most transporting beach books

From sprawling sagas to historical thrillers, Boyd Tonkin chooses the most transporting beach books

Boyd Tonkin | July 6th 2016

The perfect “beach book” can push sun, sand and sea to the back of your mind. Indeed, it may even drag you away from some far-flung idyll and plant you in the clinging mud of home. A few years ago, I took a light plane from the domestic airport in Manila. At low altitude we skimmed across the scatter of story-book tropical islands that stud the straits south of the Philippines’ capital. Surely, no printed page could compete with the view from the window? Still, every couple of minutes, I turned my eyes from unrolling vistas of palm, beach and surf to dive back into the paperback on my lap. I sank happily into the dank lanes of 1930s Dorset, where the dashing hero of Geoffrey Household’s great thriller “Rogue Male” scrambles to outwit the hitman sent to avenge his bid to assassinate the (unnamed) Adolf Hitler. We go on holiday to free body and soul. Yet that spell of liberation can send the imagination on a mystery tour that pays no heed to the glossy promptings of booking websites and travel supplements.

True, a few days or weeks of displacement will often encourage vacationers to travel further in their reading – across space, or time, or both. My own choices of satisfying, even addictive, companions for beach, pool or balcony take the long-haul approach to holiday literature. They embed you within other places, other periods, other stories, and invite readers to go native in unfamiliar ways of life. When the sun cream is slapped on, the guard should come down. Curiosity and empathy have a chance to spread their wings. On a small Croatian island, I once devoured Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The White Guard”, a wonderful saga of a Kiev family (in effect, his own) caught up in the turmoil of the Russian revolution. It was almost a disappointment to raise my eyes and see not the snowbound, strife-torn Ukraine of 1918 but the turquoise waters of the Adriatic, lapping gently at calm shores.

It should go without saying that the optimum holiday read has to seize, grip and hold the tired traveller, as airport lounge gives way to cramped flight, sweaty bus and alien surroundings. Without this adhesive charm, no narrative will trump the distractions and disruptions of fresh scenery and new stimuli. All the same, the paperback in the beach-bag – or the e-book on the tablet – may sometimes be too exciting to work the right sort of magic. Too many suspenseful pile-drivers in the “Rogue Male” mode could breach the holidaymaker’s peace: the literary equivalent of a binge on neon-tinted cocktails.

Quieter, deeper absorption pays greater dividends. As does quality: the less time you have to read during the daily grind, the more you should make these days of freedom count. Not too many trippers will yearn to play catch-up with the classics and devote their sessions on the sun-lounger to Melville’s “Moby-Dick” or Joyce’s “Ulysses”. But if you hanker to discover the page-turning as well as the mind-expanding power of modern literary landmarks, then do so at leisure. I would envy any holiday-maker who packed their bags or primed their tablet with as-yet unread copies of (say) Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”, Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” and Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. 

Length need not act as a deterrent. This is the season when blockbusters and doorstoppers come into their own. And multi-storey epics, too: if you have not yet followed the legion of devotees glued to the decade’s two landmark series of semi-autobiographical novels – Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” and Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” – then this summer is the time to begin. Given that holiday reading ought to help us walk a mile (or ten) in someone else’s shoes, then I should urge Ferrante on male vacationers and Knausgaard on female. Both will teach you more about how the other half of humankind thinks and feels than a hundred well-oiled chats on a sunset terrace.

For my own handful of beach reads, I had to draw a line in the sand of some sort. All these novels date from the last 25 years. All presently occupy that curious limbo that divides best-selling success on publication from the assured status of a “modern classic”. All combine substance and ambition with the kind of story-telling prowess that will transfix and transport readers. Interestingly, all picked up a mixed bag of early reviews. Some critics who prefer chiselled elegance and austerity in fiction felt uneasy with precisely the kind of immersive sprawl that distinguishes the best holiday saga. If they can’t quite blot out the sun, these books will certainly drown the jet-ski’s whine. So go away with them and get blissfully lost.

Hilary Mantel, “A Place of Greater Safety” (1992)

“Wolf Hall”, the first in her series of Tudor epics, was not Mantel’s first triumph as a spinner of yarns from the bloody stuff of history. In 1992, “A Place of Greater Safety” animated the French revolution and its leading actors with a verve and passion unseen in English fiction since Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. As with Thomas Cromwell in her Tudor books, she shows with piercing insight how the early lives of Danton, Robespierre and other revolutionaries shaped the course of national upheaval. If you want to know how Mantel began to blast the dust off historical fiction, start here.

Vikram Seth, “A Suitable Boy” (1993)

With luck, we may glimpse “A Suitable Girl” – the long-awaited follow-up to Vikram Seth’s super-heavyweight family saga – by the end of 2017. No better moment, then, for newcomers to take a deep breath and plunge into the 1,350 pages of this mammoth novel: Tolstoyan in sweep and scope, but also touching, droll and intimate. It never bores. As suitors circle around young Lata Mehra in the fictional “Brahmpur” of the early 1950s, the middle-class life of one post-independence Indian town becomes the stage for a hundred interwoven dramas. With lavish generosity, Seth gives us both the state of the nation and the landscape of the heart.

Louis de Bernières, “Birds Without Wings” (2004)

Less of a chart-topping cult than “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (with which it shares a few characters), this is arguably the finer, grander and more deeply imagined book. With immense skill and sympathy, De Bernières portrays an Ottoman village in the early 1900s where Muslim Turks happily live alongside Christian Greeks and Armenians as friends, neighbours and lovers. Then the rise of ethnic nationalism and the disasters of the Great War – culminating in a virtuoso narrative of the Battle of Gallipoli – wreck this multi-cultural paradise. Poignantly, the ruins of the village that inspired the novel still stand on the Lycian coast. 

David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” (2004)

After the promise of “Ghostwritten” and “number9dream”, Mitchell confirmed his gifts as a spellbinding sorceror in prose with this multi-stranded story that interweaves six plots – and half a dozen styles. From the South Pacific of the 1850s and the musical circles of 1930s Europe to a dystopian future in Korea, he shows that he can do just about anything, and go just about anywhere. However, Mitchell never writes as a flashy show-off but stays grounded, humane – and often very funny. Binding this tapestry is a dark thread that explores man’s inhumanity to man, but celebrates the acts of love and imagination that may overcome it.

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch” (2013)

As it glides between grainy realism and flights of fantasy, Tartt’s third novel brims with enchantments, discoveries and a fairy-tale glamour that fuses the worlds of Dickens, Proust – and maybe Disney too. After he loses his mother in a museum bombing in New York, Theo Decker’s path through life shadows the journey of a lost painting: Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch”, which really exists (at the Mauritshuis in The Hague) but was never stolen. Both deeply artful and playfully naive, Tartt’s tale of growing up, and gaining wisdom, moves from Manhattan to London to Las Vegas, but never loses sight of the power of art to make, or break, our lives. 

Orhan Pamuk, “A Strangeness in My Mind” (2015)

In this big-hearted, wide-angled saga, the Nobel literature laureate returns to his beloved Istanbul and to one extended family of rural incomers. From the 1960s to the 2000s, street-seller Mevlut and his clan witness and assist the labyrinthine city’s transformation. With Pamuk, it’s the intimate landscape that counts: Mevlut’s marriage to Rahiya, local feuds and friendships, the secret dreams and fears that shadow the big headline stories of modernisation. Tender, generous, consistently entertaining, and translated with verve and flair by Ekin Oklap, this domestic epic deserves to recruit a new audience for Turkey’s national storyteller.

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