The four shortlisted books for this year’s Summer Reading Group all had plain writing styles making them easy to read despite some heavy themes. After some interesting discussion, the votes for Best Summer Read were spread equally over all 4 books, with one reader’s last vote tipping the balance in favour of “Afterlife.”
“Afterlife” by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic) was chosen as Best Summer Read 2021. Set in Vermont, USA, this is a story about an immigrant Dominican family of four sisters, one of whom is the protagonist. She has just lost her husband and is faced with a couple of more dramas to deal with as the story unfolds. Readers liked the book and warmed quickly to the narrator. They enjoyed the relationships between the four sisters and could relate to how easy it is to fall back into specific ‘roles’ when with family members. Readers found that the immigrant stories were portrayed in a humane way and liked the Spanglish used throughout. They felt that the descriptions about dealing with grief of losing a loved one were nicely written and moving.
“I’m Staying Here” by Marco Balzano (Italy) is a historical novel set in South Tyrol in the 1920/30s at the time of Italian fascism and German Nazism, which centres around the building of a dam that wiped out a whole village. Readers found it a very easy read with most of them enjoying it a lot. Some liked the writing style while others felt that it was a bit simplistic. They found it hard to connect emotionally to the narrator, but liked some elements of her journey (the letter writing to her missing daughter). One reader felt that there was a nice mix of personal and historical context.
“Our Lady of the Nile” by Scholastique Mukasonga (Rwanda) is a coming-of-age novel set in an elite Catholic boarding school for girls in the hills around Kigali, fifteen years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Readers found the story highly accessible and very funny at times. They enjoyed the interesting mix of characters and the relationships between the teenage girls. They liked the setting and agreed that the build-up to the story’s harrowing climax was well done. Some readers also liked the mystical elements in it.
“Low” by Jeet Thayil (India) was chosen as Nicola’s Coup de Cœur Summer 2021. Set in present-day Mumbai, this novel brings the reader on the drug-filled journey of a man coping with his wife’s suicide. Most readers didn’t enjoy the book finding it alien and somewhat disturbing. Sticking with it for the book club, they did end up liking the protagonist and could appreciate how he dealt with grief. Some readers thought the descriptions of his weird and wonderful world were fantastic. Nicola found the story funny and sad at times, she enjoyed the humour, liked the hallucination dream-like sequences, and she loved the ending, which she felt was filled with hope.