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You grow, gorl! 12 transformative books to read this spring

Spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Here, we pick some of our favourite books – new and old – to inspire your own spiritual rebrand

ASTRAGAL ALBERTINE SARRAZIN (1965)

Albertine Sazzarin’s semi-autobiographical book Astragal tells the story of Anne – a 19-year-old woman who leaps from her prison window and breaks her ankle in the process (‘l’astragale’ takes its name from the bone in question). Picked up from the side of the road by a charismatic convict called Julien, the two go on the run, hiding out at various nefarious Parisian joints as they wait for Anne to recover. With her original escape taking place across Easter, Anne spends much of her time in bed, ruminating on resurrection and rebirth, as she pens poetry and laments the idea that she may be a burden on her new lover – though she never paints herself as a victim. Beloved by Patti Smith, who questions whether she’d be the woman she is today had she not stumbled on a dog-eared copy of the book in a Greenwich bookstore in the poignant essay that precedes the story itself, Astragal is a spirited journey through the dark underbelly of Paris in the 1960s that leaps from the page like a Jean-Luc Godard movie. Buy a copy! (ED)

PURE LIFE – EUGENE MARTEN (2022)

“This is not yet the time of girls, it is a time of fields, diamonds courts, fake leather; vacant lots and asphalt, broken glass and blood.” So begins Pure Life, Canadian writer Eugen Marten’s stunning new novel. It’s about the rise and fall of a former professional American Football player, Nineteen, who claws his way from a working-class background to wealth and fame before losing everything.

As Nineteen gets older, the physical damage he has incurred through repeated head injuries begins to destroy his memory, but he refuses to take part in a class-action suit: he’s too committed to the system he was part of even though it has taken everything from him. An experimental brain damage procedure in Honduras offers him a final shot at rebirth, but it doesn’t go according to plan. 

Pure Life is about clinging to the things you once hoped would give you purpose. It’s about the depths to which people will sink for the chance to begin again, and the way that some damage cannot be reversed. Eugen Marten, while criminally under-heralded, is one of the most powerful and exhilarating prose writers at work today. (JG)

MODERN NATURE – DEREK JARMAN (1991)

Is there anything more hopeful than a garden? In 1987, five months after being diagnosed with Aids, filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman bought an austere fisherman’s cottage in the shadows of a nuclear power station in the bleak shingle landscape of Dungeness. He began planting the garden, transforming the barren land and bringing in new life. Every time the harsh winds of a storm rip up his work, he starts again. When the roses wither and die in the salty air, he plants sea kale, wild peas and poppies. He documents it all, recording the fate of each new plant as carefully as he records the rising tides of sickness and the gradual decline of his own body. And as he loses friend after friend to Aids, he returns to his garden and the eternal life of soil, sprouting buds, and blooming flowers. (AP)

OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA – JULIA ARMFIELD (2022)

The majority of Julia Armfield’s strange romance takes place in the darkest depths of the ocean. Leah is on a submarine for an unexplained deep-sea mission – a claustrophobic trip filled with ghostly whispers, bad smells and monstrous shadows – before things take a sudden turn for the worse. Miles above, on dry land, her fiance Miri unknowingly waits for her return. Although it flirts with a number of different genres, the book is mainly a transformative love story: a study of the metamorphic nature of relationships, the slow fade of memories, and the fitful pain of romantic grief. (DS)

DETRANSITION, BABY – TORREY PETERS (2021)

Detransition, Baby doesn’t frame transition or detransition as the single most definitive moment in a trans person’s life – Torrey Peters chooses to omit the details of any of the character’s transitions. Instead, she chooses to hone in on smaller moments of transformation: take the shared fantasy between Reese, a trans woman, and her cis boyfriend that Reese’s PrEP is really ‘birth control’. Their suspension of disbelief holds a transformative power for them both – especially Reese. The book’s narrative structure, which flits between the past and present, affirms that life is rarely coherent, transformations are often continuous and seldom ‘fixed’, and that sometimes, it’s the smaller moments that end up meaning more than the bigger ones. (SS)

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS – PATRICIA LOCKWOOD (2021)

Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This perfectly distils the experience of being deluged by the internet’s swirling mass of images and opinions. It’s a hilarious, poetic, and deadly-incisive novel about the lure of what Lockwood calls “the portal” as opposed to the discomforting horror and alarming beauty of real life. 

Death-scrolling her life away, the novel’s nameless protagonist navigates absurd trends, disproportionate irreverence, moral outrage, and wild sasheys of public opinion while negotiating a career built entirely on having composed a viral tweet asking, ‘Can a dog be twins?’ Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate,” writes Lockwood. “Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.”

No One Is Talking About This is about the impossibility of making sense of the world while mediating our experience so thoroughly through the internet, alleviating difficult feelings by reaching for our phones, and drifting further and further into a state of wretched dislocation. Lockwood writes: “When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

Despite so powerfully and comically evoking what sometimes feels like the meaningless reflexivity of modern life, there is hope. Without revealing the plot, reality makes an incursion into the story in a way that can’t be clicked away or scrolled past and it is gorgeous, sad, unifying, and happening in the room. (ED)

BOLLA – PAJTIM STATOVCI (2022)

Pajtim Statovci’s searing new novel Bolla is both a haunting tale of queer love, and a devastating portrait of displacement. The story starts in Kosovo in April 1995, when the country is on the brink of war. 22-year-old Arsim, newly married, has just begun an intense clandestine affair Miloš, a Serbian medical student. Their lives (and psyches) are irreparably changed in the years that follow, as the war intensifies and forces the pair apart. It’s a novel for those who like their yearning to be as wrenching and heartfelt as possible. After all, as Statovci poses in its pages, “If everyone got what they wanted, would there even be a word to describe desire?” (Read James Greig’s interview with Statovci on AnOther here). (AH)

DUNE – FRANK HERBERT (1965)

I went to see Dune last year and then, like many people, read the book (and then promptly went to see it again). It’s amazing – the OG sci-fi book and a masterclass in world-building. Honestly, I reckon it’s the best-constructed fantasy world after Middle Earth? There are complex politics, philosophies, economics and ecologies, all woven into a gripping (but admittedly quite long) intergalactic adventure. Anyway, it relates to rebirth as it follows Paul Atreides’ transformation from futuristic posho to revolutionary leader. Picking up the new and infinitely more exciting names ‘Usul’, ‘Muad’Dib’, ‘Lisan al Gaib’ and ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, he becomes a kind of messiah for the ‘Fremen’ (the indigenous population of Planet Arrakis) and leads their resistance against the oppressive House Harroken regime. Is it a bit ‘white saviour complex’? Potentially!! But is it a great story? Yeah definitely. (TS)

IN THE DREAM HOUSE – CARMEN MARIA MACHADO (2019)

This is a story about abuse. About abuse in queer relationships, the repercussions, the silence that surrounds it. For years, Carmen Maria Machado struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive relationship, struggled to find the language for an experience that has been so little documented, that’s missing from the collective queer history. We so rarely talk about women being abusive towards women. Machado speaks into this silence and in doing so reclaims her power.

This is a story about how we use narrative tropes to shape our experiences and our perceptions of our experiences, as we search for a way to make sense of what has happened. In the Dream House borrows from dozens of genres, reimagining and retelling the relationship through every lens: as folktale, as American gothic, as noir, as choose-your-own-adventure. There is never one reading and the book shapeshifts under you, unsettling, wrongfooting, ensnaring you. It recreates the past and resuscitates the dead, and in the end it offers a rebirth for its author. “The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,” Machado writes. (AP)

PURE COLOUR – SHEILA HETI (2022)

It was the death of her father in 2018 that prompted Sheila Heti’s transformation. In an attempt to navigate her feelings of loss, the author wrote Pure Colour: a strange, amorphous novel building on the creation myth concept. In it, God is watching over our universe as a critic, logging the complaints and tribulations of humanity as feedback for his next big project. “I didn’t know what grief felt like until my dad died,” she told AnOther earlier this year. “I was surprised by how psychedelic it was. The whole architecture of what life is, anchored by a parent, falls away. The universe felt like a completely different place suddenly, and, absurdly, I felt like I was on drugs... I want to put down in books what I haven't really seen from other humans. What books are good for is expanding our ideas of what life – and death – can be.” (AH)

FIRST BAD MAN – MIRANDA JULY (2015)

It’s impossible to try and encapsulate Miranda July’s The First Bad Man in a few paragraphs. The book immerses us in the surreal but strangely-relatable inner world of the narrator, Cheryl Glickman. As one of the great tragi-comic heroines of literature, Cheryl unwittingly sets in motion a painfully beautiful and weird chain of events that resolve themselves with such unexpected harmony and clarity that every detail – even the sexual fantasies involving the oversized snails – begin to make their own kind of warped sense.

Perhaps you could say it’s a story about motherhood and the bringing into being of a child in the most circuitous and convoluted way imaginable. It’s also a novel about desire and all the bizarre and outlandish ways lust can manifest itself in our imaginations. Alongside all this, it’s a tale about the erotic and romantic ‘spells’ cast over us and what happens if and when we choose to exorcise them.   

Of all the books I love, The First Bad Man is the least likely to ever be made into a movie – it wouldn’t be possible to confine a story so exquisitely poignant, gross, hilarious, fantastical, restorative, lovelorn, and heartbreaking to the literalness of cinema’s visual language. Of all the novels on my shelves, it’s also the one I’ve bought and given away most copies of to friends, and the book I’ve underlined most frantically, desperate to try and keep hold of it all in some tangible way. (ED)

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION – OTTESSA MOSHFEGH (2018)

Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, polarised readers on its publication in 2018, largely thanks to the misanthropy and unapologetic privilege involved in the narrator devoting an entire year of her life to snoozing in her Upper East Side apartment. On the other hand, Moshfegh’s sleepy-eyed narrator can be seen as a revolutionary for our times. Instead of using her wealth and beauty to get a leg up in the vapid art world of millennial New York, she chooses to check out of a life lived under the constraints of late capitalism – to become useless – echoing the misery and disillusionment of millions of young people across the world. Admittedly, few of us have the resources to enjoy months of drug-fuelled “hibernation”, like she does, but Moshfegh doesn’t let this privilege slip by unnoticed, mining it for moments of dark comedy. Even more enticing is the fact that the narrator’s self-imposed exile from normal life actually seems to work – in its own, warped way – culminating in a symbolic rebirth as she pops her final pill and prepares to re-enter the changed world beyond the confines of her bedroom. (TW)