House of Day, House of Night
Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob ruffled more than a few nationalist feathers in her native Poland when it was published in 2014. Shining a light on her country's oft-overlooked history of conquest, slavery, and anti-Semitism, The Books of Jacob garnered praise from readers and critics, but drew hatred from Polish conservatives.
Before she was winning awards and riling nationalists, Tokarczuk's House of Day, House of Night was the author's first full-length publication translated to English. Here she deftly blends surreal and distinctly unhappy portraits of Polish village life with a canny understanding of history. House of Day, House of Night is comic, rich with folk wisdom, and typically eastern European in its deployment of irony and humour in the face of tragedy.
The village in question, Nowa Ruda, is scarred by both Nazi and Soviet occupation, and the memories of these occupations leave their marks on the book's cast of characters. Tokarczuk's sense of place and historical context grounds what would otherwise be a loose collection of vignettes and short narratives, drawing them together into a poetic and unforgettable whole.
Olga Tokarczuk speaks about her latest book, Flights, at this year's Hay festival, but this and indeed her whole back catalogue is worth reading beforehand.
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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
A translated book starring a translator protagonist. Dorthe Nors' Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is an obvious meta choice.
It's also a poignant story of a woman trying to find herself in a lonely and unsympathetic city. After Sonja's boyfriend (also a translator) dumps her, she sets out to fend for herself and give her life meaning.
She struggles to learn to drive. She tries and quickly abandons 'meditative hiking.' She can't seem to connect with her older sister, no matter how she tries.
All the while, Sonja's mind wanders back to her bucolic childhood in rural Jutland, all meadows, swans and open skies. Here Nors' prose shines, these bittersweet passages providing a welcome counterpoint to the bleakness of Sonja's Copenhagen and warranting Mirror, Shoulder, Signal's place on this list.
Women Who Blow on Knots
Ece Temelkuran is no stranger to controversy. Once a mainstay on Turkish television and "Turkey's most read political columnist," her criticism of the country's ruling AKP party and writing on the Armenian Genocide cost her job and placed her in the crosshairs of a government lurching towards authoritarianism.
Thankfully, she hasn't been chastened. Women Who Blow on Knots, Temelkuran's second novel, is both a classic road trip story and a meditation on the culture and geopolitics of the Middle East.
The novel follows three Muslim women on a journey from Tunisia to Lebanon. Through these atypical characters, Temelkuran explores universal themes of female bonding and adventure, as well as distinctly Middle Eastern political, religious and feminist issues
Ece Temelkuran discusses this book and more at the Hay festival this year.
My Brilliant Friend
The first of Italian author Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quadrilogy, My Brilliant Friend is a modern Italian classic.
Ferrante chronicles the friendship and growing pains of two young girls in 1950s Naples, as their bond is tested by their differing paths in life and the rigid culture that surrounds them.
As the girls grow and change, so too does their neighbourhood. Ferrante masterfully tells this story at a slow-burning but addictively page-turning pace.
For a bestselling author, Ferrante is famously secretive, shunning interviews and public appearances. Translator Ann Goldstein however appears at the Hay Festival in May to offer a glimpse into her work bringing these Italian hits to the English-speaking world.
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