Sunday, August 1, 2010

Those lazy hazy days of summer


Summer reading. What a lovely phrase that is, conjuring up images of swaying hammocks under shady trees, comfortable old couches on verandahs, lazing next to sparkling swimming pools. Sipping cool drinks and enjoying cool books - because summer reading should be like summer drinks: cool and light and fun rather than dark and heavy and serious.

Although light, when it comes to books, doesn't have to mean frivolous, brainless or badly written. Some of my all-time favourite books have been read during summer holidays, in a hammock or on a beach or on the deck of a boat. Many readers regard crime fiction or thrillers as perfect summer reading, others like biographies or non-fiction with a light touch. I tend to go for humorous novels with a literary undertone - or literary novels with a lot of humour. But then I tend to go for humorous literary novels in autumn, winter and spring too. A good summer read should be a good read right through the year.

Last month, while spending a sunny week on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, I managed to read four novels in five days. That's pretty much my idea of a perfect vacation. All four books were humorous and serious at the same time, but the most memorable was Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club. Coe's translated novels have been popular in France for at least a decade; The House of Sleep won the coveted Prix M├ędicis Etranger in 1998, and my French partner has read most of his books. But since it seems easier to find Coe's publications in France than in South Africa, where I buy most of my English reading matter, I haven't read him until last month. And what a delightful discovery it was!

The Rotter's Club is a richly comic coming of age tale set in 1970s Britain, featuring, among other things (quoting the jacket): 'IRA bombs, prog rock, punk rock, bad poetry, first love... prefects, detention, a few bottles of Blue Nun, lots of brown wallpaper...' You get the drift.

But it deals with much more than 'just' adolescence. The teenagers' parents and even grandparents' lives and loves are featured too, and the story is seen through the eyes of two of those erstwhile teenagers' children two decades later. It is above all a novel about the ecstacies and the agonies of the seventies. It would certainly be enjoyed by readers of all ages, but if you happen to have been young in the seventies, you might just adore it.

I grew up in seventies South Africa, which was a very different place from seventies Britain, and yet also eerily similar. In fact, reading this honest, sometimes tragic, often vividly funny account of Benjamin Trotter and his friends' struggle towards adulthood among ugly brown wallpaper, I was reminded that adolescence is always another country - no matter in which country the adolescent actually lives: Britain, South Africa, France or the dark side of the moon, like most teenagers.

And thank heavens for authors like Jonathan Coe who can lead us back to that country, laughing out loud in wonder and embarrassment, while we sip a chilly drink in a shady spot. Ah, the joys of summer reading...

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