Alternative summer reads with a dark side
Like many good summer reads, these three novels are moving page-turners, but their headlong dive into the dark challenge the notion of sun-holiday fiction
Sunjeev Sahota who wrote ‘The Year of the Runaways’. Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Jim Shepard, author of ‘The Book of Aron’
M O Walsh who wrote ‘My Sunshine Away’
The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota
At a chunky 450-plus pages, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is a big book. The title is a bit of a turn-off, too, suggesting, as it does, some kind of wacky YA comedy romance caper.
But something – maybe the cover recommendation from Salman Rushdie? – made me fish it out of one of the perpetually tottering piles of books on the floor of my study, carry it out to the back garden, pour a glass of wine and start to read. And within an hour, nothing short of an asteroid impact would have made me put the book down.
It made me wonder about that tricky literary category, the “summer read”. The Year of the Runaways is the story of a group of young Indian illegal immigrants who share a rundown house in Sheffield.
Having introduced his cast of young men – and one woman – and established that their lives in the English Midlands are, to say the least, challenging, Sahota whisks the reader off to fill in their back stories in India, some of them downright horrific.
Hunger, hardship and misery on muddy building sites hardly constitute anybody’s idea of escapism. But in Sahota’s novel there’s also humour and compassion.
The characters leap from the pages. He builds his fictional world so deftly that you are left with an overwhelming sense of an encounter with a world that is, somehow, real. So if you want your summer reading to a) bring you to a world that is so different to your own as to amount to a parallel universe and b) make you actually give a damn, he’s your man.
The Book of Aron - Jim Shepard
If Sahota’s publisher, Picador, is skating on thin ice by bringing out his book during the season of strawberries and cream, what of Quercus, which has resolutely built its reputation with crime fiction, but whose summer list this year includes Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron? Set in Warsaw in 1939, to say it’s a Holocaust novel is an understatement: so pitiful is the daily life of its nine-year-old Jewish narrator, the eponymous Aron, that he barely notices the arrival of the Nazis.
Shepard likes to use historical events in his work. Often described as “a writer’s writer”, or even “the best writer you’ve never heard of”, he has written about Chernobyl, a tsunami and a Japanese earthquake.
The Book of Aron commemorates Janusz Korczak, a doctor and children’s rights activist who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto and who chose to accompany his charges when the entire institution was deported to Treblinka camp in 1942.
Shepard is celebrated for his comedic flair. Was he reluctant to take on this book, given the topic’s darkness – and the fact that he’d be adding to the large number of Holocaust novels already in the world?
“I was,” he says. “But I’m reluctant to take on almost everything I take on. There’s usually a stage in my process where I think, ‘Really? Are you gonna do this? ‘Cos this seems silly.’
“But, you know, writing about the Holocaust has pitched entirely from the [German philosopher] Theodor Adorno-based notion that no one can do it – ‘there’s no poetry after Auschwitz’, kind of thing – to ‘Oh my God, there are so many of these: do we need another one?’”
The book is based on a real Polish boy whose mother stayed alive just long enough to get him into Korczak’s orphanage. “I’m the kind of strange person who has Korczak’s ghetto diary,” Shepard says. “I’m actually the sort of person who, when you tell me there’s a new 400-page history of the eruption of [Indonesian volcano] Krakatoa, my heart leaps and I rush out and buy it. So I have lots of odd books. And I found that story in there.”
The Book of Aron starts at black and gets blacker. Its downbeat, deadpan tone never varies. We know how it ends. Nevertheless, the final pages are cataclysmic.
My Sunshine Away - MO Walsh
Walsh’s debut novel My Sunshine Awayopens with a cataclysmic event: the rape of a 15-year-old girl in a respectable Louisiana suburb. The crime was never solved.
The story is narrated by a 30-something man who was one of the suspects in the attack which took place when he was 14. He examines each of the other suspects in an effort to solve the crime.
With lots of crouching in the bushes and many mosquitoes, My Sunshine Away might be classified as a slice of Southern Gothic. Certainly it’s closer, in style and subject matter, to the traditional summer page-turner than either The Year of the Runaways or The Book of Aron. Yet its author is adamant that it’s not a crime novel.
“Since it came out people have been asking, ‘Who are your mystery writer models?’,” says Walsh, aka Milton O’Neal Walsh, Junior. “I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery novel. Maybe Agatha Christie? I was thinking more about the characters. I’ve always been attracted to the type of writing where the writer is looking all around the characters – where there’s a sense of what’s behind them, and what’s around them. What the trees are doing is important to me, in a novel.
“I guess I lucked into a mystery structure,” he concludes. “One crime, four suspects: that built its own internal mystery. I was concerned about finding out who did it, but that was not the main thrust of the book. When there’s a heavy emphasis on setting people will call it Southern Gothic. And any time people read anything that’s got a swamp in it, they’re scared.”
To be scared; to be moved; to be persuaded. Such, surely, is what we demand from fiction – even in the summer. We’re repeatedly told that certain books are too dark for sunny days. But this reader, for one, will never believe that again.
The Year of the Runaways is published by Picador. The Book of Aron is published by Quercus and Viking published My Sunshine Away.
Read on: Three you might have missed
Only the Animals Ceridwen Dovey (Atlantic Books)
Ten animals who’ve been entangled in human conflicts over the past century tell their stories in this startlingly original collection. A dolphin despatched to Iraq by the US navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath; a tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War; the book is playful one minute, brutal the next. Just like us animals.
Weathering Lucy Wood (Bloomsbury)
In Notes from the House Spirits, Lucy Wood wrote one of the most memorable short stories of recent times. Her debut novel, a tale of painful love across three generations of women, is imbued with the same other- worldly oddness, plus an enviable ability to paint a scene with just a few strokes.
Sweetland Michael Crummey (Corsair)
The inhabitants of an island off the coast of Newfoundland are offered money from the provincial government to relocate to the mainland – but they’ll only get the dosh if everybody agrees to leave. And wouldn’t you just know it? Stubborn old Moses Sweetland doesn’t want to go. It may sound like a thriller, but Sweetland is actually the opposite. Do not read under any circumstances if you’re in search of a happy ending.