By Catherine de Guise | @catherinedeguis
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
“Afterward I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”
Beginning in the summer holiday, Conversations with Friends tells the story of two students at Trinity College Dublin who encounter a married couple, and the relationships forged between them. Narrated by Francis, an aspiring writer, we hear of her troubles – with her health, with money, with family, friends and with romance. These may seem rather tired and self-absorbed concerns, but Rooney counteracts this by constructing scenes that feel very real, in a tender and fragile way. At times this seems a little indulgent, however, it is saved by having enough awareness of this for it be funny, capturing a human tendency to catastrophise and an excess of emotion that we can all fall victim to.
Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman
“Let summer never end, let him never go away, let the music on perpetual replay play forever, I’m asking for very little, and I swear I’ll ask for nothing more.”
Another book of which it might be said that little actually happens, and with an intense protagonist on the verge of adulthood; it captures the strength of feeling brought about by a slow summer and a confused comprehension of one’s own desires amidst dazzling skies and heady heat. Call Me By Your Name describes the summer romance between Elio, a teenage boy, and a student who comes to stay at his parents’ home on the Italian Riviera. It details his frustration, longing and pain, as he falls in love with this suave, American student, against his wishes. The result is a sublime evocation of overwhelming passion and an intoxicating romance, which celebrates emotion and learning to experience it without shame or judgement.
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
“He felt himself to be one of them, who can live neither in the world nor out of it. They are a kind of sick people, whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely; and present-day society, with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure, offers no home to these unhappy souls.”
The novel begins with Dora Greenfield, a former art student, travelling to rejoin her estranged husband, an art historian who is undertaking research in a lay religious community in Gloucestershire. The setting provides a disconnect from the real world that suffuses the novel with a sense of the surreal. The story is told from the perspective of three protagonists: Dora, Michael Meade and Toby Gashe. Michael was the founder of the community, where he sought to establish a way of living, apart from the increasingly complex and alienating world around him. Toby is a young man hoping to find a purer and simpler life within the community before going up to Oxford. The characters are unable to live up to their high ideals, as the novel details the decline of the community, troubled by past sins and current ones.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
“Some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James’s Park on a fine morning – indeed they did.”
Despite having been published almost 100 years ago, Mrs Dalloway still captures a London summer as we would recognise it. The heat of the city is palpable, Woolf describing familiar London locations where the light is clear enough to be blinding, and the atmosphere is stifling, almost oppressive. The book details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party, and of Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War veteran suffering from PTSD. We witness them trying to get through their day, both facing what might seem on the surface to be very different struggles, and dwelling on the past and the future. The book deals with mental health, sexuality, the impact of war and feminism in ways that might seem unfamiliar to us now, but is still intense and personalised, reflecting Virginia Woolf’s own experiences, and showing us the ways in which things have changed, and the ways they haven’t.