Five Books for Winter

As winter deepens and it gets colder, it’s time to curl up indoors in a cosy room with mugs of hot drinks and good books that capture the essence of the season. I wrote these seasonal posts for Summer and Autumn and now that we enter the last week of December, here are five atmospheric reads for Winter.

Click on the links for detailed reviews…

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (tr. from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending this deeply atmospheric novella an other-worldly quality.

ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury. To make matters worse, Ethan and his wife Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan. In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan.

It’s a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

WINTER LOVE by Han Suyin

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain during winter at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses. During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across the beautiful, wealthy, dreamy Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

The novel, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. 

THE ICE PALACE by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)

The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond in a narrative where things are implied, never explicitly stated. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship, redemption and recovery and the power of nature.

ICE by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred. When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves who continues to remain elusive. The disorienting nature of the book is precisely its strength, it’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not. Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers – the world she has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice, on the brink of an apocalypse.


A Month of Reading – November 2022

November turned out to be a great month. I read six books – a mix of contemporary literature featured on prize lists such as the Goldsmiths Prize and the Irish Book Awards, translated literature from Norway and Canada, a forgotten classic recently reissued and a graphic memoir.  All were excellent but the best of the lot was Trespasses.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.


Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You is a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up. Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside. While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.

AUTUMN ROUNDS by Jacques Poulin (Translated from French by Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off. It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart.

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)  

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality.

THE GLASS PEARLS by Emeric Pressburger

The Glass Pearls is a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run. We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos.

It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon learns that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.

Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and his panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?

The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and how fate can play cruel tricks.


This book came to my attention thanks to the One Bright Book podcast hosted by Dorian, Rebecca and Frances and it is lovely. This is a graphic memoir written and illustrated by Kate Beaton and gives an account of the two years she spent working at the Alberta Oil Sands.

A resident of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia Canada, Beaton majors in art and wishes to pursue a museum career but she has a big burden to bear – crippling student loans – and in order to repay that debt she needs money, which a career in art is hardly going to fulfill. Hence, she heads west to Canada’s oil fields like so many other Canadians from different parts of the country with hopes of raking in some moolah.

Beaton gets employed as a tool attendant and while she is a hard worker soon gets disillusioned by the people who surround her. In a largely male-dominated workplace, misogyny is rampant and Beaton is often at the receiving end, unfortunately facing a harrowing ordeal herself. The ghastly behaviour of quite a few men makes her wonder whether they are portraying their true selves at the camps or whether it’s a persona they are putting on for survival, fuelled by the need to belong, a result of being away from their families for so long.

This is a book that explores loneliness, survival, the clash between man and nature, the huge costs of exploiting the environment in the quest for development (the three legged fox is one symbol), the difficult choice between making money and pursuing your dreams and how the two are often divergent, and a tough, misogynistic work culture. It’s a statement on the economic and political landscape of Canada against which Beaton’s own personal story plays out.

The graphic artwork is gorgeous capturing the stark beauty of the boreal forest, the pristine snow and the majestic Northern Lights in a palette of grey, white and black; the stunning depiction of nature a sharp contrast to the ugliness of the industrial oil machinery that has encroached upon it. In a nutshell, Ducks is a wonderful book…honest, poignant and humane at the same time and heartily recommended.

That’s it for November. In December I’m reading Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament which is absolutely brilliant and I plan to complete the remaining three volumes from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill and March Moonlight). I also plan to release “My Best Books of 2022” list somewhere around mid-December, I’ve read some great books this year.

Aliss at the Fire – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I loved the first two volumes of Jon Fosse’s fabulous SeptologyThe Other Name and I is Another – and have yet to read the final book, but thought I’d first read his much shorter work Aliss at the Fire which has been recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

To Signe, that day was like any other day, whereupon Asle expressed his wish to head out into the fjord on his small, unsteady boat, an excursion that became part of his daily routine, only that time Asle failed to return home.

Signe persistently wonders why Asle is consumed by this pressing need to take his boat onto the fjord practically every other day. Initially, Signe does not think much about it and even accepts it as a matter of course, but on days leading to that fateful evening Asle’s isolation, his withdrawal into himself and that craving to head out onto the fjord even in inclement weather are occurrences that begin to disturb Signe. And the weather on the day he disappears is turbulent laced with heavy rains and gusty winds, conditions not at all conducive for rowing on the waters.

…because this darkness, this endless darkness all the time now, she can’t stand it, she thinks, and she has to say something to him, something, she thinks, and then it’s as if nothing is what it was, she thinks, and she looks around the room and yes everything is what it was, nothing is different, why does she think that, that something is different? she thinks, why should anything be different? why would she think something like that? that anything could really be different? she thinks, because there he is standing in front of the window, almost impossible to separate from the darkness outside, but what has been wrong with him lately? has something happened? has he changed? why has he gotten so quiet?

Asle agrees and decides to go for a walk instead, all alone, but everytime he urges himself to head back home, he resists. He senses Signe standing by the window staring into the dark; she can’t see him, but he can sense her presence and can’t bring himself to walk back into the house.

As Signe increasingly frets about Asle’s absence, she is paralysed by fear and uncertainty. How will she cope without him if something terrible has happened, but meanwhile in the immediate present what must she do – should she head out to the fjord to search for him? How can she do that all by herself?

As Signe waits for Asle on a day that on the surface seemed normal and yet underlined with a different quality, Signe reflects on their marriage, how they met and were destined to be together and even whether she needed Asle more than he needed her.

Asle, meanwhile, has become a recluse, shunning company as much as possible. There’s a darkness raging inside him that is the colour of the darkness enveloping the fjord, black and impenetrable. It is possible he is suffering from depression and it seems that Signe’s company now does not offer him the solace he desires, his trips onto the fjord is the only activity that entices him.

…but anyway it’s probably all right just to go out for a little walk, he thinks and he starts to walk down the big road and it’s terrible how dark it is now, late in the autumn, they’ve already got to late November, it’s a Tuesday in late November, in the year 1979, and even though it’s only afternoon it has got as dark as if it was evening, that’s how it is at this time of year, late in the autumn, he thinks, and after not much longer it will be just dark, dark all day, with no light left to speak of at all, he thinks, and it’s good to go for a walk, he likes that, he thinks, it sometimes does take some effort to get out of the house, true, but as soon as you’re out it’s better, and he likes it, he likes to walk, he only needs to get going, to re- ally get going, to find his own pace again, and then it’s good, he thinks, it’s as though the heaviness that other- wise fills his life gets a little lighter, it gets taken away from him, turned into movement, it leaves behind the heavy thick motionless blackness that life can be the rest of the time, he thinks, but when he’s walking, he thinks, he can feel like a nice piece of old woodwork…

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach (“it’s a big fire, and pretty, the yellow and red flames in the darkness in this cold”) around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past.

We are introduced to Aliss while she is busy throwing sticks mounted with sheep’s heads into the fire (“that’s Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That’s Aliss at the fire”), and her son Kristoffer (Asle’s great grandfather) by her side, a young boy then and completely entranced by the sight before him. In time periods that effortlessly blend and fuse, we also see Kristoffer as an adult married to Brita and their two sons Olaf (Asle’s grandfather) and Asle (Asle’s granduncle). We learn of the tragedy that befalls Kristoffer and Brita when their 7-year old son Asle drowns in the fjord; a fate that shares a striking parallel with Signe’s husband Asle who has also likely drowned. This intermingling of two Asles, how their fates are inextricably bound together and yet different is a recurring theme that is also resonant in the Septology.

Aliss at the Fire, then, is a haunting, lyrical meditation on marriage and the fluctuating emotions within, the pain of loss and seemingly insurmountable grief and the wicked play of fate. As far as their marriage goes, a union of more than twenty years, Signe ponders on what makes two people committed to each other for so long (“what ties two people together?”).  

…and he just opened the door and walked out, she thinks, but then again there are no problems between them, everything is good, they really are the closest couple you can imagine, the two of them, they never say anything to hurt each other, and he probably doesn’t even know, she thinks, what good he can do for her, he can be so unsure of himself, not knowing what he should say or do, but there’s not any resentment of her in him, she’s certainly never noticed any, she thinks, but then why would he want to be out on the fjord all the time? 

The theme of grief and loss is explored not only through Signe’s yearning for Asle and her efforts to process her grief all those years later, but also the grief of a mother and father losing their child (seen through Kristoffer and Brita’s eyes) and the strength required to carry on (“and in the woman’s eyes, her big eyes, there is something like a yellow sunbeam of despair”).  

…he too stood there like that in front of the window, like she now sees herself standing, before he disappeared and stayed gone, gone forever, he often stood like that and looked and looked, and the darkness outside the window was black and he was almost impossible to tell apart from the darkness out there, or else the darkness out there was almost impossible to tell apart from him, that’s how she remembers him, that’s how it was, that’s how he stood, and then he said something about how he wanted to go out on the water for a little while, she thinks, but she never, or almost never, went with him, the fjord was not for her, she thinks, and maybe she should have gone with him more often? and if she had been with him on that evening, then maybe it never would have happened? then maybe he would be here now?

That fate is arbitrary and unpredictable is all too obvious through the repeated occurrence of an event across the five generations with varying outcomes. Kristoffer as a child accidently falls into the fjord waters and Aliss manages to save him in the nick of time, yet Kristoffer’s own child Asle, alas, is not that lucky and drowns at a time when Kristoffer is not around.

The Norwegian fjords are a character in their own right – fierce, sinister, inscrutable and especially ominous during seasons of autumn and winter when the days get increasingly dark and gloomy. This is a deeply atmospheric novella with a vivid sense of place; a mysterious, menacing air that surrounds the fjords and the fates of the characters within the novella’s pages.

…in the summers, rowing out on the fjord when the fjord is sparkling blue, when it glitters all blue, then maybe it’s tempting, when the sun is shining on the fjord and the water is calm and everything is blue upon blue, but now, in darkest autumn, when the fjord is grey and black and colourless and it’s cold and the waves are high and rough, not to mention in winter when there’s snow and ice on the seats of the boat and you have to kick at the rigging to get it loose, get it free of the ice, if you want to free the boat from its moorings, and when snow-covered ice floes are floating on the fjord, why then? what’s the appeal of the fjord then?

The fluid shifts in various points of view and across time spans are seamlessly accomplished within the space of a few paragraphs and sentences; it’s as if the distant past, the immediate past and the present are compressed within the confines of a single space.

Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality. In a nutshell, Aliss at the Fire is an excellent novella and a perfect entry into Fosse’s unique world if you haven’t sampled his work before.

Haunting, Dreamy Reads for Autumn

We are in September and autumn beckons – the season of red and gold leaves, coziness and even a whiff of melancholia. “Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize,” wrote George Eliot in a letter to Miss Lewis, 1841.

Autumn also seems the perfect time to immerse oneself in haunting, atmospheric, dreamy reads and here are eight books that fit the bill…

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. Haunting and mesmerizing, it’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections.


Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

THE GATE by Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-D’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for that ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill. Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.


Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of obsession, madness and colonialism.

Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. 

Some Favourite Book Series

Given time constraints, I am increasingly drawn these days to shorter books. Yet occasionally in the past, a brilliant series came along, longer books that required commitment, but so good that one could just sink into them.

So, without much ado, these are some of my favourite book series that made for a truly wonderful reading experience.


Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies – at the core a brilliant portrayal of a marriage against the backdrop of war – helped me navigate some challenging times in 2019.

The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. 

While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters with their marriage a focal point of these books, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet Chronicles, comprising five books, is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London around and during the period of the Second World War.

These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.

Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature. 

THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

THE COPENHAGEN TRILOGY by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

ChildhoodYouthDependency  (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

THE SEPTOLOGY SERIES by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

This is a bit of a cheat because I’ve yet to read the third (A New Name), but I loved the first two so much (The Other Name and I is Another), it’s safe to say I’ll feel the same way about the third. The Septology Series is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship. Among other things, the striking feature of these books is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique. A hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, these novels are simply exquisite.


These five Patrick Melrose novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk & At Last), penned by Edward St Aubyn, easily rank among my favourite books of all time. The central character Patrick Melrose is an upper class anti-hero, troubled and vulnerable. The subject matter is quite dark (abuse, drug addiction and so on).

These themes have been done to death in countless other books and films. And yet, Aubyn manages to make these novels quite special. What makes them stand out is the liberal dose of caustic wit and black humour sprinkled throughout. Plus, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the prose is pristine.

THE RIPLEY NOVELS by Patricia Highsmith

These are the novels that ignited my love for Patricia Highsmith – the utterly compelling sociopath Tom Ripley and Highsmith’s uncanny ability to make the reader root for him. These books (The Talented Mr Ripley, Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game) showcase her signature themes – identity, morality and obsession – to brilliant effect.  

Meanwhile, are there any series that you rate highly? I would love to know.