I’m ready for the holidays. I’ve a clean vest ironed, a selection of handkerchiefs knotted in each corner to protect me from the sun’s harmful rays and I’ve been practising rolling up my trouser legs to mid-calf level for a couple of weeks now. This guy is, let me tell you, beach body ready.
In this state of demob happiness my thoughts have travelled via brown ale, whelks and sticks of rock to beach reading. Last month I revealed here my infallible recipe for good holiday literature: a thriller, an anthology, a literary prizewinner, some poetry and a stone-cold classic novel. I’m particularly looking forward to cracking the spine of some O. Henry short stories and getting sand and bits of ham sandwich between the pages of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, for example.
Then I thought about what we’ve endured since the start of last year and the great books that have still emerged in such difficult circumstances. I suspect most of us will be remaining on our island archipelago this summer, so in an effort to aid at least a mental escape across the sea I present 30 of the best European novels published here in paperback translation since the beginning of the pandemic.
From Norway to Spain, France to Russia, most of Europe is here and suitable for dropping into your tote bag with the Factor 50 and some cans. There’s something here for everyone. A continent between soft covers.
So, happy holidays, happy reading and viva Europa!
LEARNING TO TALK TO PLANTS
Marta Orriols, trans. Mara Faye Lethem (Pushkin Press, £9.99)
A darkly funny account of a Barcelona paediatrician coming to terms with the sudden death of a partner who had just announced he was leaving her. Keep an eye out for this highly-rated Catalan author.
EYES OF THE RIGEL
Roy Jacobsen, trans. Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press, £8.99)
The latest example of why Norway’s Jacobsen is one of Europe’s finest contemporary novelists. Completing the trilogy set on Barroy island that began with The Unseen, Ingrid sets out to find the father of her child.
Mitja Čander, trans. Rawley Grau (Istros Books, £9.99)
An amiable, visually-impaired book editor enters the world of politics and finds himself transformed by power and not in a good way. An insightful satire on contemporary Slovenia and the world of politics and the media beyond.
Hasan Blasim, trans. Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, £9.99)
Based on the Islamic principle that God has 99 names Blasim, an Iraqi writer based in Finland, shines a light on the human stories behind the mass displacement of refugees in this thought-provoking debut.
Einar Kárason, trans. Quentin Bates (MacLehose Press, £10)
Kárason’s page-turning novel is based on the true story of the Icelandic trawler Mafurinn, caught in a huge storm off Newfoundland in 1959 with 32 men on board. A vividly imagined account of the crewmen’s battle with furious seas and icy gales.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, trans. Brian Fitzgibbon (Pushkin Press, £9.99)
In 1960s Iceland Hekla longs to be a writer but the times make that a difficult prospect for a woman. Sharing her name with a volcano, when another erupts it’s a sign she must leave to succeed.
THE HUNGRY AND THE FAT
Timur Vermes, trans. Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, £8.99)
Another hilarious satire from the author of the knockabout Look Who’s Back, in which Hitler returned to 21st century Germany to become an internet celebrity. Vermes takes aim here at both the refugee crisis and the vacuity of celebrity.
THE GHOST OF FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN
Éric Faye, trans. Sam Taylor (Pushkin Press, £9.99)
This tie-in with Channel 4’s Walter Presents platform takes us to 1990s Prague where a woman’s claims to be channelling new works by Chopin from beyond the grave attract a documentary maker seeking the truth.
Ismail Kadare, trans. John Hodgson (Vintage, £8.99)
Albania’s greatest living writer and the first winner of the Man International Booker Prize brings us an astonishing portrait of a mother-son relationship that explores creative ambition and personal and political freedom written with insight and dry humour.
Karin Smirnoff, trans. Anna Paterson (Pushkin Press, £12.99)
A dark novel from the darkest reaches of northern rural Sweden, My Brother delves deep into family secrets and their consequences in a story involving love, murder, forgiveness and a bitter homecoming on a family farm.
THREE APPLES FELL FROM THE SKY
Narine Abgaryan, trans. Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld, £12.99)
Set in a remote mountain village in Armenia reached only by an ancient telegraph wire and single winding road Abgaryan’s affectionate portrayal of rural rhythms and unlikely romance is an absolute joy.
THE INSPECTOR OF STRANGE AND UNEXPLAINED DEATHS
Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, trans. Louise Lalaurie Rogers (Pushkin Vertigo, £8.99)
A wonderfully immersive crime thriller that transports the reader back to pre-Revolutionary France for a series of gruesome murders in Paris during the reign of Louis XV.
Aslı Biçen, trans. Feyza Howell (Istros Books, £11.99)
From Turkey comes a highly original novel in which the island of Andalıç becomes untethered by an earthquake and drifts in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey. An original take on modern politics and international relations.
Afonso Cruz, trans. Rahul Bery (MacLehose Press, £10)
A novel from Portugal following two Dresden families coping with the city’s wartime destruction. A bird shop owner comes to rely on the voice of a man hiding in his cellar in this complex but deeply rewarding novel.
AND THEIR CHILDREN AFTER THEM
Nicolas Mathieu, trans. William Rodarmor (Sceptre, 8.99)
New out in paperback and a winner of France’s Prix Goncourt when first published in 2018, this is a beautifully-realised story of two French teens battling boredom on the threshold of adulthood and nurturing a desire to escape their small town for something better.
MANY PEOPLE DIE LIKE YOU
Lina Wolff, trans. Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories, £10)
A terrific collection of short stories from the Swedish author of the novel Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs. A collection subversive, witty and frequently bawdy examinations of the human condition that usurp the conventions of everyday life.
ALL ABOUT SARAH
Pauline Delabroy-Allard, trans. Adriana Hunter (Vintage, £8.99)
A Parisian single mother in her 30s drifts through life with an unconvincing new boyfriend until young violinist Sarah explodes into her life. The story of their stormy, passionate relationship was a sensation in France when this sparkling debut was first published.
Andrzej Tichý, trans. Nichola Smalley (And Other Stories, £9.99)
Longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize and the winner of the 2021 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, Czech-born Swedish-resident Tichý’s novel brings an immigrant cellist and a drug addict together in Malmö to explore friendship and love in the marginalised underbelly of Europe.
Marie NDiaye, trans. Jordan Stump (MacLehose Press, £8.99)
Just out in paperback, NDiaye’s novel follows a woman from a poor family in south-western France who discovers a rare talent for cookery. Working her way towards opening her own restaurant, her relationship with her daughter forces her towards a difficult choice.
THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS
Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, £8.99)
Teenage Giovanna, born into a privileged Neapolitan home, overhears her father say she’s developing “the face of Vittoria”, prompting a gripping exploration of the cracks in society where secrets and the vulnerable fall through.
WHAT YOU CAN SEE FROM HERE
Mariana Leky, trans. Tess Lewis (Bloomsbury, £8.99)
When Selma dreams of an okapi it’s a portent of doom that causes consternation in the village and raises old troubles and secrets. A huge hit in Germany where it’s sold more than 600,000 copies.
THE BOOK OF ANNA
Carmen Boullosa, trans. Samantha Schnee (Coffee House Press, £12.99)
In this highly imaginative novel Boullosa takes up the story of Anna Karenina where Tolstoy left off and places her children within the revolutionary political situation of early 20th century Russia. A daring concept, but it works.
THE LAST HOMELAND
Matteo Righetto, trans. Howard Curtis (Pushkin Press, £9.99)
It’s the winter of 1868 in the mountains of the Veneto and one family remains of a community dispersed by hardship. When their smuggling operation is compromised, the daughter sets out to rescue what remains.
FRESH WATER FOR FLOWERS
Valérie Perrin, trans. Hildegarde Sele (Europa Editions, £8.99)
A million seller in its native France, Perrin’s novel sees the world through the eyes of Violette, a cemetery caretaker, and the people who pass through her care, living and dead, with their stories and secrets.
Isabel Bogdan, trans. Annie Rutherford (V&Q Books, £12.99)
There aren’t many books written in German set in a Scottish castle featuring a rogue peacock and some bankers on a teambuilding exercise, not least books that sell half a million copies, but this is one. A fast-paced, page-turning delight.
TO COOK A BEAR
Mikael Niemi, trans. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press, £8.99)
In the far north of Sweden during the 1850s a disparate cast of characters investigate what appears to be a string of bear attacks, killings that may turn out to be something different and expose tensions that have long simmered unspoken.
THE PEAR FIELD
Nana Ekvtimishvili, trans. Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press, £12)
Longlisted for the Man International Booker this year and unlucky not to make it further, from Georgia comes a remarkable novel set in a children’s institution outside Tbilisi. A searing story of determination for a better future against the odds.
THE LAST ONE
Fatima Daas, trans. Lara Vergnaud (Other Press, £13.99)
An absorbing exploration of sexuality and religion in the mainly Muslim Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Daas’s debut is a nuanced tale of finding one’s place in the world fired by a desire to belong forged in one’s own truth.
SNOW, DOG, FOOT
Claudio Morandini, trans. J Ockendon (Peirene Press, £12)
From the always excellent Peirene Press comes this story of a hermit who spends his winters happily alone high in the mountains until the rest of the world gradually begins to impinge on his contented seasonal routine.claud
AN EVENING WITH CLAIRE
Gaito Gazdanov, trans. Brian Karetnyk (Pushkin Press, £12)
A welcome re-issue of Gazdanov’s 1929 debut in which two old friends meet in Paris after a decade. Romance blossoms but triggers traumatic memories of the turbulent Russia they left behind.