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)
Childhood, Youth, Dependency (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.
THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS by Edward St Aubyn
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.