Eight Epic Novels to Throw Yourself into This Summer
The weather is finally warmer and the days finally longer; with summer upon us, Elliot Jordan compiles a list of eight incredible and timeless novels to get lost in this season. Whether you’re on the beach, in a park, or relaxing at home by the open window, these novels will take you to worlds both far-flung and incredibly close to home.
The best part of the summer, with all those long sunny days in parks, beer gardens or beaches, is the chance to take a break and read – and, with so many of us unable to travel this year thanks to COVID-19, there has never been a better time to check out from day-to-day life with a good book. The timeless suggestions below are all minutely crafted, immersive experiences in worlds different from our own, and are all superb reads for anyone with the time to spare. Don’t forget to switch your phone off.
1. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
'I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.’
The small size of Pale Fire should not be allowed to obscure the epic scope of Nabokov’s novel-in-verse, an intricately detailed, at times bizarre work in which the reader must attempt to understand everything and believe nothing as they try to decode the murky ramblings of a dead poet, whose 999-line slew of confusing, labyrinthine stanzas are the gasps of a fictional Eastern European kingdom, brought to the genteel world of an American university campus. Pale Fire is a novel – part detective fiction, part stream-of-consciousness – like nothing else.
2. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
‘Nobody who kill a police going to hell but is something else to kill the Singer.’
Nominally set around the attempt made on Bob Marley’s life by a group of gunmen in December 1976, Marlon James’ Brief History is a staggeringly brilliant, brutal epic told in the words of an unforgettable cast of characters whose lives – and deaths – are fatefully intertwined with that of Marley, who, despite only ever being referred to as ‘the Singer’, is the omnipresent ghost behind the story. James takes his readers on an extraordinary tour of 1970s and ‘80s Jamaica, weaving a complex web of political violence, Cold War intrigue and the colonial past and present with consummate skill, fantastic linguistic flair and a searing willingness to confront a horrendous and almost-unknown chapter in Caribbean, American and world history. A must-read.
3. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
‘The allies will be in Paris in two months, I tell you.’
A satire on the social world of Regency London, where the party goes on even as the Napoleonic Wars blaze along across the English Channel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair brings to life the startling character of Becky Sharpe, a cynical, ruthless social climber who bears the same relationship to Jane Austen’s heroines that overproof gin does to water, and whom Christopher Hitchens considered his favourite fictional female character. At times chaotic, always amusing, Vanity Fair is strikingly modern in many of its cynical attitudes to the flaws of its characters, and the greatest antidote imaginable to the po-faced primness of Austen’s works.
4. Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honour Trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender)
‘A group of progressive novelists in fireman’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning-room. Guy was momentarily reminded of Holy Saturday at Downside’.
A wartime trilogy that has been seen as a spiritual successor to War and Peace, Waugh’s Sword of Honour draws on his own experiences in following his hero, the aristocratic officer Guy Crouchback, through the destruction of what remained of European civilisation during the Second World War. This is the older Waugh – the hidebound, semi-spiritual reactionary of Brideshead Revisited, not the vituperative, spitting Waugh of his earlier satires – but he retains the same eye for physical and social details alike in bringing his subjects to life. For comparison, see also the World War Two instalments of Anthony Powell’s roman-fleuve A Dance to the Music of Time, or even Jean Larteguy’s Les Centurions, available in an excellent English edition from Penguin Classics whose translator, Xan Fielding, could easily have stepped out of the pages of Waugh’s trilogy.
5. Thomas Harris, The Lecter Trilogy (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal)
‘Do right and you’ll live through this.’
‘Spoken like a Protestant.’
Made famous thanks to the immortal acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Thomas Harris’ superb series paints onto a canvas of dark modernity the machinations of his unforgettable anti-hero, the immaculately refined cannibal psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter, and his fateful correspondence with the young FBI Agent Clarice Starling. These books are at once the greatest literary thrillers ever written, superb horror novels in the tradition of Dracula and Frankenstein, thought-provoking satires on religion, class, psychiatry, and the darkness of the soul, with streaks of Freud, Nabokov and Melville, and, above all, a wonderful fairytale for the modern age. After you’ve read them, don’t forget to see the film adaptations starring Hopkins.
6. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
‘Yesterday’s gone down the river and you can’t get it back.’
Generally agreed to be the best of Larry McMurtry’s quartet of Wild Western novels, Lonesome Dove is an epic in its own right, narrating the journey of two aging Texas Rangers and their motley crew of cowboys as they ride their cattle drive from the Texas-Mexico border to the unclaimed lands of Montana, traversing the blazing heat and freezing cold of the final, bloody years of America’s wild frontier. At times unimaginably bleak, with moving prose and vast descriptive power to match, Lonesome Dove was only prevented by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – also a must-read – from being acclaimed the greatest modern Western novel.
7. Philip Reeve, The Predator Cities Quartet (Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain)
‘It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.’
Don’t let the ‘young adult’ tagline fool you: Reeve’s quartet is an entrancing work of grand fantasy, set in an immersive post-apocalyptic world where mobile cities roam the devastated continents in search of ever-dwindling resources, a world inhabited by ruthless scavengers, dashing mercenary pilots, maniacal rulers and everything and everyone in between. Bedecked with fantastic descriptions and references to the likes of Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold, and only growing in scope and skill as the series goes on – the fourth novel, A Darkling Plain, is sheer dynamite – Reeve’s deft, fantastical narration lets the reader follow epic journeys by land, sea and air from the Aleutian Islands to the Tian Shan Mountains to the nuclear wastelands of blasted Europe. If you want to take a break from real life, look no further than these novels, which sweep the reader into their world in a way only the best fantasy works can.
8. Hilary Mantel, The Cromwell Trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light)
‘I once heard him say I look like a murderer.’
‘Did you not know?’
Mantel’s trilogy takes a headlong dive into the soul of Thomas Cromwell, the self-made bully behind the bloody splendour of Henry VIII’s rule over Renaissance England and brings him to life in a psychological portrait of truly fascinating depth. Following his rise and fall from brutal childhood beating to fall from grace and horrendous execution, Mantel paints Cromwell as a man blown forward by the winds of modernity and his own innate will to power, and in doing so brings him to life in a way few novelists can match.
And, for when you’re not reading...
Sons of Anarchy (Kurt Sutter)
‘Fear the reaper.’
The neo-Western series is based on Hamlet and although it moves the Danish court to an outlaw motorcycle club in a fictional Northern Californian town, it takes and runs with the same themes of family, duty and personal and spiritual corruption. The series combines fast-paced, gasoline-fuelled action sequences with equivocal, thought-provoking questions of right and wrong and, in Gemma Teller (the series’ equivalent of Shakespeare’s Gertrude), creates a truly memorable cinematic villain. Pairs well with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1967), a fascinating thesis on the biker phenomenon by the great Gonzo journalist.
Only Fools and Horses (John Sullivan)
‘He left us with nothing, Rodney, not even the price of a meal. You know what day that was? My sixteenth birthday. He even took my cake.’
Universally familiar in Britain to everyone above the age of about 30 but virtually unknown across the Atlantic, Only Fools and Horses is a tour de force. The series charts the semi-legal wheeling and dealing of Derrick 'Del Boy' Trotter, a charismatic never-say-die spiv, and follows his get-rich-quick schemes as he tries to drag himself and his younger brother into the dreamy heights of financial success. With cultural nods to everything from urban decay and punk to the Cold War, class, freemasonry, Thatcherism and the Yuppy years, Only Fools is a portrait of late-20th century Britain but above all a rollicking good story of human foibles and family loyalty. It can make audiences cry with sorrow and cry with laughter in the space of minutes and I think I can say without hesitation that it is the greatest work of television fiction ever produced. ▲
Elliot Jordan read history at St Andrews and is a postgraduate sixteenth-century history student at Oxford. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.