Nicholas Lezard on books for holidays. Even if the only trip you’re taking is in your dreams.
Some of the best books to take on holiday; five of the best, in fact.
There is nothing that can make you tear through a book like taking it on holiday (major disclaimer: not if you’re on holiday with children. Let’s assume you’re not).
Of course, you need the right kind of holiday book. It shouldn’t involve too much concentration, unless you’re the kind of person who takes Proust in your luggage (and I have been known to do this, and, once when in Italy, Dante – in the original Tuscan, without a translation. I did better than I thought I would…).
But it shouldn’t be mindless. No Da Vinci Code, no 50 Shades of anything. And it’s nice if it involves travel, especially to the place you’re travelling to.
1. The Golden Rule, Amanda Craig
Craig’s latest novel, just out in paperback, is a nifty potboiler. Two women on a train are having hellish times with their husbands, so they agree, in the manner of Highsmith, and Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train, to murder each other’s. The idea being that with nothing to connect them, the crimes can be committed with impunity.
Of course, as with the original story, it all goes horribly wrong. Like Craig’s last book, The Lie of the Land, which is at least as good, the plot cranks up, until by the end there’s a race against time to stop something really terrible happening.
Craig is concerned about the state of the nation, so we get a lot about the class system and how ghastly things are for Cornish natives. The Lie of the Land was about how ghastly things are for people in Devon. Chances are you won’t be going abroad this year, so take one or the other depending on which county you’re going to.
The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig (Little, Brown)
£8.99 paperback, £16.99 hardback
2. Widowland, CJ Carey
It is a by-law in most parts of the country that each holiday cottage must contain a copy of Richard Harris’s Fatherland, his novel set in an imaginary past where the Nazis won World War II. But you’ve all read that by now, haven’t you? So try this one for your alternate history fix: a new novel by an established writer normally known as Jane Thynne.
Thynne/Carey has, with her Clara Vine novels, considerable experience when it comes to writing books set during the last war. Here, though, we are in 1953, in a miserably Nazi-occupied Britain, very plausibly imagined.
Our heroine, Rose, is employed rewriting literary classics to conform with the authorities’ stifling attitude towards women. You know, make Dorothea Casaubon or Jane Eyre less intelligent and independent, that kind of thing. Women are divided into categories, depending on their utility as baby-providers.
So as well as Harris, it’s also 1984 meets The Handmaid’s Tale. As I was reading this I was thinking, “hang on, there was something the Nazis did which was even worse than this”, but it gradually becomes apparent that Carey knows very well what she’s doing.
Widowland by CJ Carey (Quercus Publishing)
£8.99, £14.99 hardback
3. Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb
This 1937 Hungarian novel wasn’t translated into English until 2001 and a lot of people are now very happy it has been. The translator, Len Rix, learned Hungarian precisely to translate this book, which cultured Hungarians consider to be absolutely essential reading.
It’s narrated by Mihály, a man for whom the word “diffident” might have been coined. He accidentally, or accidentally-on-purpose, abandons his wife Erzi during their honeymoon and then goes wandering through Italy in a kind of existentialist daze.
It’s a book with serious themes – such as the Hungarian fascination with suicide – yet it deals with them with such a tender, humorous grace that you don’t feel as if you’re reading anything substantial at all. Until you get to the end and realise you’ve just read one of the best novels ever written. And feel like starting it again.
I’ve recommended this novel perhaps more often than I have any other, and I’ve never had any complaints yet. If you’re holidaying in Wales, read his The Pendragon Legend, which is more of a romp, with ghosts and spies and castles, like a grown-up Tintin adventure.
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (Pushkin Press)
4. Killing Floor, Lee Child
Frankly, anything featuring Child’s errant army veteran, Jack Reacher, will do. Killing Floor, from 1997, is the first. If you haven’t come across him, Reacher is a giant of a man; an ex-military policeman with more than a touch of the Sherlock Holmes about him. Peripatetic, whose only luggage is an ATM card, travelling toothbrush, an expired US passport. And the clothes he stands up in.
He travels by Greyhound bus or hitchhikes all over the US, and always ends up, despite wanting a quiet life, involved in the most heinous plots. Often in out-of-the-way places, but he does get to go to New York or Paris or London every so often.
He is usually up against some seriously evil hombres and the odds are stacked incredibly against him. But he is as tough as he is smart, and always acts honorably to decent people. Hates racists and misogynists.
We love him. Bonus fact: Lee Child’s prose is impeccable, like stripped-down Chandler.
Killing Floor by Lee Child, (Transworld)
5. Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess
Many years ago, as a young man, I went on a trip all the way up Italy on the back of a friend’s motorbike. This was my holiday read, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better one. Burgess had a brain the size of a planet, and this book takes us all around the globe and through the 20thCentury, tackling the big questions of good and evil and whatnot.
And yet without it ever being a strain on the reader. It’s perhaps the most deliberately outrageous opening line of all novels. “It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
My Italian motorbike-riding friend, who like many Italians is suspicious of the Catholic Church and homosexuality, read this with a shudder and handed it back to me. I know I said holiday books shouldn’t involve too much concentration – and amazingly, you don’t need too much to enjoy this. Just let it all wash over you.
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (Hutchinson)
Nicholas Lezard has been a freelance writer since God was a boy. He writes the Down and Out column for the New Statesman, and lives in Brighton.
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