This is a fun post where I have highlighted five excellent books I read over the last three years based on a single element that binds them together. These books are different in terms of themes and styles but what they do have in common is a number in the title.
So without further ado, here are the five books listed in the order in which I read them beginning with the latest.
TWO SHERPAS by Sebastián Martínez Daniell (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft)
In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.
Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome. This is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about.
TWO THOUSAND MILLION MAN-POWER by Gertrude Trevelyan
Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, and the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.
The book centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage of Robert Thomas, a scientist at a cosmetics firm, and Katherine Bott, a teacher at a council school; both idealists who believe in progress and prosperity. As they marry, they enjoy a brief period of comfortable suburban living only to be followed by crippling poverty when Robert loses his job. Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War; Robert and Katherine’s relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments.
It’s this placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape that makes the novel unique and remarkable.
CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett
Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.
It crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism, and women living life on their terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader, I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.
THREE SUMMERS by Margerita Liberaki (tr. from Greek by Karen Van Dyck)
Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.
First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”
Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us – the sexually bold Maria, the beautiful and distant Infanta, the imaginative and rebellious Katerina, also the narrator of the story.
Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
I read Station Eleven in March 2020 when the Covid pandemic had just begun and lockdown looked imminent, especially since the premise of the book was eerily familiar to what we were witnessing then. The novel centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath, and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.
Station Eleven is excellent, but to label it a science fiction novel would in some sense be inaccurate. Yes, the central premise is certainly dystopian – a lethal virus contaminates a world and destroys humanity. But the author is much more interested in the human angle of this development and how people adapt to two different realities rather than describing the minute details of an altered world. It is what makes the novel very rich, immersive, and absorbing.