Looking to add to your bookshelf? Freelance literary journalist Sarah Shaffi selects April’s best new books.
April’s books feature a lot of people struggling to find their place in the world.
For example, teenagers trying to figure out the path to happiness are at the centre of Sharlene Teo’s Ponti and Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, both debut novels.
In Circe by Madeline Miller and Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam, women adjust to life on islands, and find themselves challenged by external forces.
Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin and Aminatta Forna’s Happiness both feature characters coming to terms with loss and grief, while Lisa Ko’s The Leavers and Nikesh Shukla’s The One Who Wrote Destiny deal with belonging and transport their characters from their homes to other locations.
It’s easy to find novels set during the Second World War, but less easy to find ones that are full of charm and humour yet still convey the difficulties of war - Dear Mrs Bird has all of those things.
And finally, in non-fiction, there is Repeal the 8th, a collection of poems, essays and more published ahead of Ireland’s referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Told from the perspectives of three women and spanning more than 50 years, this Singapore-set story is intimate, despite its vastness. In 2003, awkward schoolgirl Szu lives with her mother Amisa and her aunt, a medium, and forms an unlikely friendship with the privileged and confident Circe. In the Sixties and Seventies, Amisa leaves her family home and is cast as the Pontianak, a kind of mythical ghost/creature, in a film trilogy. In 2020, Circe finds memories of her teenage friendship with Szu coming back to her when her boss asks her to work on a remake of the cult Seventies horror film series, Ponti. This novel captures what it feels like to be a lonely teenager and to think you’ve found a friend, and how frustration and anger can make monsters of the ones who are supposed to love us.
Repeal the 8th ed by Una Mullally
Repeal the 8th is published ahead of a landmark referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment, which equates the right to life of a mother with that of a foetus. It’s a collection of poetry, short stories, plays and essays all ruminating on the movement for reproductive rights in Ireland. This is a powerful set of work; I was moved by all the pieces, but particularly by Kelly’s Story, a script by Mark Halloran, and On Northern Ireland, a look at reproductive rights in Northern Ireland by Siobhan Fenton, which opened by eyes to a situation I had no idea about.
In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
The main action in this poetic debut takes place on and around a London council estate over the course of barely two days. Friends Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf grew up together under the towers of Stones Estate and are now seeing their home become the site of violence, as riots spread following the killing of a British soldier. Their narratives - Selvon’s pursuit of the gorgeous Missy, Ardan’s desire to become a rapper, and Yusuf’s concerns over his brother, Irfan - are mixed with the stories of Nelson and Caroline, survivors of extremism. This novel is a love letter to the language of London’s streets and to its people, but also a blistering look at a city on the edge that’ll sweep you up until you reach the book’s breathless, devastating conclusion.
(Tinder Press, £12.99)
Circe by Madeline Miller
It’s been more than five years since Miller’s award-winning The Song of Achilles, but Circe is more than worth the wait. Born to the god of the sun, Helios, Circe does not look or sound like a divine being, and is shunned by her family. After casting a dark spell, she is banished by Zeus to the remote island of Aiaia, where she initially has only animals for company and harnessing her witchcraft skills to keep her occupied. But over the years, Aiaia becomes a temporary refuge for many, including the messenger god Hermes, the craftsman Dedalus, and of course, the wily Odysseus. Circe may be set in an ancient, mythical world but its tale of a woman feared and hated for her independence, and one trying to find where she belongs, is both relatable and irresistible.
Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam
Like Circe, Things Bright and Beautiful’s protagonist Bea Hanlon finds herself on a remote island. Unlike Circe, she’s not alone - she has come with her husband Max, a preacher, on a mission to Advent Island in the Pacific. Advent Island is inhospitable, but Bea manages to make friends and slowly adapt to life. But when Marietta, the island’s missionary before the Hanlons, turns up for a surprise visit, Bea and Max’s lives are disturbed, with Max gradually losing his grip on reality. A powerful, at times unnerving, look at a marriage in crisis, belief, and survival.
(Fig Tree, £14.99)
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce
Here’s a refreshing take on the Second World War novel. At its centre is plucky, loveable Emmeline Lake, who wants to become a Lady War Correspondent. But instead of landing a job at the local paper, she finds herself typing up letters for a problem page run by her boss Mrs Bird, who refuses to answer any questions she deems as containing Unpleasantness. As Emmeline begins to answer the letters in secret, her undercover actions put her in conflict with her best friend and her colleagues. And all the while, bombs continue to fall on London. Dear Mrs Bird is charming without being twee, full of fun and heart, and will being you to tears.
Happiness by Aminatta Forna
This is partially a love story - Ghanaian psychiatrist Attila and Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, meet by chance on Waterloo Bridge one evening. But this is so much more than a love story. Happiness is the story of immigrants - both human and animal - who have made London their home. It’s about how we co-exist, how we come to terms with loss, and how we find all kinds of love in all kinds of places.
The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla
This expansive novel tells the story of the three generations of the same family. Mukesh arrives in 1960s Keighley from Kenya, and meets the love of his life. In 2017 Neha is diagnosed with lung cancer, and after her passing her brother Rakesh grieves her, and his career as a stand-up comedian flat-lines. And in 1998 in Kenya, Ba’s two young grandchildren visit her for a week, as much strangers to her as she is to them. Told in four sections, each completely different in style, this is a wise and moving novel about family, love and the people we’re destined to be.
(Atlantic Books, £12.99)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Deming Guo is 11 when his mother goes to work one day, and doesn’t come back. After six months he is taken into foster care and eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate, with an almost completely white population, and who change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. The Leavers tells the stories of both Daniel, who struggles in his new life and grows up directionless, and his mother Polly, who is forced to make difficult choices. This is a heart-wrenching and absorbing examination of identity, borders and belonging.
(Dialogue Books, £8.99)
Thinner Than Skin by Uzma Aslam Khan
A group of disparate people are brought together in the mountains of northern Pakistan in Thinner Than Skin. Nadir is a young Pakistani photographer, on a trip back to the country with his Pakistani-American lover Farhana. Irfan, one of Nadir’s closest friends, is hoping the mountains will give him a reprieve from the ghosts that haunt him. And Myriam is a nomad travelling into the mountains to escape persecution. Thinner Than Skin sets the complex relationships of people haunted by loss of different kinds against the stunning background of Pakistan’s mountainous landscape.
(Jacaranda Books, £16.99)
Main image: Pixabay