What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in November

In this series we ask authors, Guardian writers and readers to share what they have been reading recently. This month, recommendations include mind-bending fantasy, brilliant memoir and Greek myths retold. Tell us in the comments what you have been reading.


Emily Bootle, writer

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands has provided some slow-burning, mind-bending light fantasy in recent weeks. Though there is less of the outright self-absorbed irony of her millennial favourite, My Year of Rest and Relaxation – a book that hugely appealed to me, being an ironically self-absorbed millennial myself – in Death in Her Hands there is the same slow character unravelling, the same uneasy stream of consciousness. Here, the blurriness comes in the form of the murder that the protagonist sets out to solve after finding a mysterious note in the woods, with a backdrop of pine needles, plain bagels and memories of a belittling husband (it is punctuated occasionally with the familiar warm lick of her dog, who is unconcerned with this not-quite-real detective work). This is a story about stories: primarily the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what happens to us. Not least for its frequent invocations of William Blake, Death In Her Hands has strong parallels with another of my favourites of recent years: Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Both novels are about ageing women who find themselves preoccupied, in some way, with death.

Related: Mud, murder and homemade schnapps: eco-thriller Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead roars back

Ultimately, both characters end up embarking on exercises in avoidance, embroiled in quests for certainty to quell feelings that are essentially unsolvable. Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing: How to Love and other essays is providing me with rich material on why emotional grey areas are worth looking towards and embracing in their own right. Unknowing is not a problem to be solved but a necessary state: it serves the present not as “the defensiveness of wilful ignorance but the defencelessness of not knowing yet”. Not all our problems can be blamed on the relentlessness of our online lives – but I have found undeniably that the more I become absorbed by social media the more I feel I should be having what Ogden describes as “lightning flashes” of intensity and clarity all the time. And yet, as she writes, while “it can be good to attend to moments of passion, clarity, revelation, ecstasy, discovery”, we must also recognise how fleeting they are. Ogden illustrates, elegantly and authoritatively, why we should be looking at those “blurriest, fleetest experiences”, and sticking with them.

This Is Not Who I Am: Our Authenticity Obsession by Emily Bootle is published by Ortac Press (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Tom, Guardian reader

I picked up Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and its sequel The Women of Troy in Athens airport when I was sad about my holiday coming to an end. I wanted to read something that would keep Greece alive in my thoughts.

Both the novels are a retelling of the Iliad, focusing on the fate of the Trojan women captured after the Greeks seized the city of Troy. The famous heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus are all present, but we see them through the eyes of these desperate and frightened women. The stories are heavy with a constant threat of violence and they present a nightmare world where men brutalised by years of savage warfare exercise uncontrolled power over their female captives. The violence is often shocking, and there’s one particular description of human sacrifice which I haven’t been able to forget.

I suspect Barker’s greatest achievement is still the Regeneration trilogy, but these two novels work in a subversive way to burrow beneath what we think we know about the Iliad and present an alternative narrative.


Sabba Khan, artist and writer

I have to confess, I have a bitter relationship with the act of reading for pleasure – I am forever trying to find the time, buying and borrowing books, surrounding myself with them, but then never finding the time to sit down, to actually relax into a chair where I can fall into the pages.

But winning the Jhalak prize for my graphic novel earlier this year urged the writer in me to give myself the time to read. I’m happy to share that I have read so much more than last year, including Consumed by Arifa Akbar, which I’ve read twice now. On second reading it was even more iridescent than the first. Akbar captures the twisted timeline of immigrant family constellations from a unique perspective of her own relationship with her sister. Not only is it personal and vulnerable, Akbar holds our hands in zooming out, in seeing the bigger picture, and shows us what deep familial and state neglect looks like, and the far wider reaching ramifications on black and brown diasporas in the UK. If you haven’t read this already, please do.

Arifa Akbar.
Unique perspective … Arifa Akbar. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

Lots of my friends have opinions of Rachel Cusk and her work. Until recently, I’d never read any of her work. I was advised to start with Outline, and initially, I didn’t quite understand what I was reading. But by the end, Outline turned out to be exactly what I needed: it felt like a physical slowing down. I was invited to enter Cusk’s mind and unpick, unpack, ruminate, muse over what was happening to the central character during her trip to an overseas writing course. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Being a diaspora Londoner, I loved Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. It felt like a love-letter to all of us who are in the big city because this is where our parents learned to survive, and we also continue to survive.

The Roles We Play by Sabba Khan is published by Myriad Books (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Deepak, Guardian reader

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a compilation of eclectic tales that draw from experiences across the Indian diaspora. It effortlessly tells of the joys and sorrows of ordinary life in small enough parcels to draw you into its worlds without testing your attention span. Many authors know how to write a poignant story, but few know when to stop. This book came highly recommended by my partner – and I can see why.