28 of the best books for your summer holiday – Telegraph.co.uk
The great explorer Thor Heyerdahl, when asked to consider the question of borders, answered: “I have never seen one. But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.”
Heyerdahl, I think, would nonetheless have enjoyed two of the timeliest travel books to have appeared in the past six months; books that I would urge you to make room for wherever you’re heading this summer.
One is The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr (Faber & Faber), who has walked and canoed the currently barely noticeable division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It’s a border that, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, has lost watchtowers and bunkers and softened. Post Brexit, though, when it will be not just an Irish frontier but a European one, it might need hardening again.
It’s Carr’s contention that Ireland is more divided than any of us suspected — not in two but in three: north, south and borderland. That third state, with its frontier-slipping people, springs to life in his pages.
In Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova (Granta) turns her attention to the land where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another, which in Cold War days was “Europe’s southernmost Iron Curtain”. Twenty-five years after she left Bulgaria, where she grew up under communism, she returns to see what has become of the border villages and towns that were military strongholds, the rivers and forests that for two generations were off-limits.
Border is not just a topical book but an urgent one, for it spells out the human consequences of nationalism and totalitarianism; of a narrow focus on identity and ethnicity; of divisions and fences and walls designed to keep “them” from “us”.
What else should you be reading this summer?
Below are suggestions listed under some of the destinations most popular with British travellers. There are books that are evocative of place, or illuminating of culture or that have caused a bit of a stir locally or even internationally.
Most have been published over the past year or so. If you are a first-timer in your holiday destination, keen to read yourself in, you might find it useful to dip into our earlier guide, which has plenty on history and contemporary politics.
A country-by-country listing doesn’t allow, of course, for travelling and writing that range beyond national boundaries. In Limestone Country (Little Toller Books), Fiona Sampson takes four communities bound together by a shared geology and points up their differences in fine portraits of both place and people: a French hamlet, the Karst region of Slovenia, a rural parish in Oxfordshire and the city of Jerusalem.
Flying short-haul, but keen to be transported farther? Then open the recently published paperback of Island Home by Tim Winton (Picador), which is both a celebration of Australia’s wild places and an impassioned argument for their preservation. It’s shy of 200 pages, yet airy with the space of the great southern land.
Walking closer to home? Then try One Man and a Mule by Hugh Thomson (Preface). The title’s a little economical with the truth, as Thomson has human company much of the way, and the mule’s a bit of a contrivance, given that it shoulders less baggage than its master, but this is still a companionable account of a coast-to-coast walk across England.
Amid the huffing and puffing about what Brexit might mean for Gibraltar, Footprints in Spain by Simon Courtauld (Quartet), which chronicles the long history of relations between Britain and Spain and has a chapter on The Rock, could be a useful primer.
Visitors to the Alhambra in Granada, and Andalusia in general, will benefit from two newly published histories: The Moor’s Last Stand by Elizabeth Drayson (Profile) and Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, 1492-1614 by Matthew Carr(Hurst).
The Low Voices, by the Galician writer Manuel Rivas (Penguin), is billed as a novel but reads like a memoir. It’s a portrait of north-west Spain as it was under Franco, and of the people who made Rivas a writer.
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis (Harvill Secker), a best-seller in France, is an autobiographical novel of a young man growing up poor and gay in the northern village of Hallencourt, where half the locals support the far-right Front National. It’s a book that helps explain why a white underclass has been powering the populist movements of Europe.
Paris is much changed from the 1960s, but it’s still worth seeing through the eyes of the late, great architecture critic Ian Nairn. Nairn’s Paris, which has recently been republished (Notting Hill Editions), is an invitation to “look, hear, smell and taste”. “The whole city,” he declares, “is urging you to greater depth of feeling, the opposite effect of a Birmingham.”
A thriller for the sun-lounger? Try Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Liane Bellion and her husband Martial are enjoying a beach holiday on the island of Réunion with their six-year-old daughter when Liane vanishes, the police find the couple’s room spattered in blood — and then Martial and his daughter disappear…
Interstate by Julian Sayarer (Arcadia Books), which was named Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year last autumn, is a portrait of the United States as seen by a British hitchhiker towards the end of the Obama administration — one who found Americans disenchanted with conventional parties and politicians.
Keen to understand why blue-collar America backed Trump? Then read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis (William Collins), in which JD Vance, who grew up in rust-belt Ohio, reports on people for whom “poverty’s the family tradition”.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Fleet), a novel in which he makes a literal network of tracks and trails from the metaphorical one that helped slaves in the South reach freedom in the North, has won numerous prizes. Reviewing it in The Daily Telegraph, Duncan White said: “by giving the Underground Railroad a new mythology, [Whitehead] has found a way of confronting other myths, older and persistent, about the United States. His book cannot have enough readers.”
Until 2014, John Boyne, best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, had never published a novel about his native Ireland. Now there are two, the second, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Black Swan), being an account of both an individual and a country. Opening in 1945, with a pregnant teenager being denounced from the pulpit, it ends in 2015, shortly after Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage. Along the way, it tells the story of one man’s search to discover who he is and where he belongs.
Solar Bones (Canongate) won Mike McCormack both the Goldsmiths Prize and the BGE Irish Book of the Year prize last autumn. A novel narrated in a single sentence, it is, among other things, a celebration of the rhythms of life in small-town Ireland.
Devotees of Elena Ferrante, author of the bestselling novels of female friendship in post-war Naples, have readily accepted her argument that she writes under a pseudonym because it’s essential to her work. They were outraged when a journalist claimed last autumn to have “unmasked” the writer. In Frantumaglia (Europa Editions), a collection of letters and interviews whose publication was overshadowed by the row, Ferrante offers a glimpse into her working life and the way in which jumbled fragments of memory find fictional form.
The House at the Edge of Night (Windmill Books) is the first novel for adults by Catherine Banner, a Briton in her late twenties living in Turin. Over the sweep of a century, it chronicles the lives of the Espositos who, whatever the upheavals — war, fascism, tourism and recession — never close the doors of the family bar: The House at the Edge of Night.
Walking through forests in Germany (or closer to home)? You’ll seem them with new eyes if you read The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, a bestseller by the ranger Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books), who has summarised his findings in The Daily Telegraph.
Why We Took the Car, an award-winning novel written for young adults by Wolfgang Herrndorf (Andersen Press), is a darkly comic coming-of-age story in which two social misfits hit the Autobahn to escape parents, teachers and their own peers.
The Dutch, having flirted with the grey-maned rabble-rouser of the far right, Geert Wilders, spurned him at the polls earlier this year, supporting the claim of Ben Coates, a Briton who has settled in Rotterdam, that the Netherlands remains “arguably the most tolerant, peaceful and prosperous corner of a generally turbulent world”. In Why The Dutch Are Different (Nicholas Brealey), he tells how a nation that made him welcome got to where it is today and speculates on where it might go tomorrow.
The open-mindedness of the Dutch is also dear to Peter Ferry, an American teacher and travel writer who lived among them in the early 1990s. In the novel Old Heart (Unbridled Books), he has his American protagonist, Tom Johnson, whose children want to put him in a retirement home, flee to the Netherlands in search of his wartime sweetheart.
In our turbulent times, the Greek tragedies, those stories of darkness, obsession and revenge, seem to be gaining new resonance. Writers reinterpreting them, and putting women at their centre, include Natalie Haynes, who in The Children of Jocasta (Mantle), tells the story of Oedipus from the viewpoint of his wife (and mother) and youngest daughter, and Emily Hauser, who in her debut novel For The Most Beautiful (Black Swan), sees the Trojan War through the eyes of two female slaves. Hauser’s follow-up, For The Winner, tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece through Atalanta, the only woman on the journey.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Vintage) was short-listed this year for the RSL Ondaatje Prize, for works “evoking the spirit of a place”. Set in Switzerland, it’s a novel about friendship and longing and how the lives of two men are sculpted by decisions their parents made at the time of the Second World War.