With Valentine’s Day all around, why not escape it with some unusual, quirky and thought-provoking tales of love in all its forms? Our Books Editor Simon Savidge has picked five of his favourite love stories with a difference.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
(Paperback, Penguin Books, £8.99)
In his mid-seventies, Barrington Jedidiah Walker is a well-known character around the streets of Hackney and has been since he came to the UK from Antigua. Yet Barry, as he is known to his friends, has a big secret. He has been in a relationship with his childhood friend Morris, who came with him, and it has been going on for sixty years. His wife Carmel knows Barry is cheating on her but she has no idea who with. If the secret were to come out, how would she, their children and grandchildren cope?
As you may guess, the secret does come out early on, so that is not a spoiler. We then follow the aftermath as Barry and Carmel’s lives unravel and big choices have to be made. What I love so much about this book is how Bernardine makes us fall in love with, understand and root for characters that are not always likeable and come fully formed and fully flawed off the page. Barry is never depicted as a villain, the reasons for the secrecy are heart-breaking, and Carmel is never the victim because she has her own secrets too. It’s a slice of real life; these things have happened and from heartbreak can come hope, understanding and in Bernardine’s hands, tears of sadness, joy and laughter.
I love this book, its characters, what it is saying and the journey it takes us on, looking at how love can hurt, heal and what we will do for the ones we love. If you love this (let’s see how many times can I get the word ‘love’ in this piece) I would also recommend Bethan Robert’s My Policeman and Sarah Winman’s Tin Man, another two of my favourite love trysts of all time. And speaking of Sarah Winman…
Still Life by Sarah Winman
(Hardback, 4th Estate, £16.99)
My absolute favourite book of last year. At its heart a book that celebrates the love of friendship and found families, Still Life looks at all the forms that love can take.
One night in 1944 during the war an unlikely friendship is struck up between Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier and Evelyn Skinner, sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. Kindred spirits are born. We then follow the two from that night (and occasionally discover more about them before that night) as they almost meet again and as other friendships, loves and adventures meet them along the way.
This book is pure joy, as Sarah Winman intended in response to the last few troubled years. It’s a constant delight meeting the wonderful characters who inhabit the pages, even a talking parrot called Claude.
It looks at how we find our tribe, the people we find who replace family or accentuate it and the journeys – quite literally – we go on with them. It is also about the love of art, the love of Europe and travel.
I loved getting completely lost in this novel and the four decades it crosses. It shocked me, surprised me, made me laugh out loud, made me ugly cry. It also reminded me of how a book you truly love can make you escape from everything and leave you feeling hopeful, even in the most trying of times.
Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan
(Paperback, Bloomsbury, £8.99)
Sarah Crossan’s first novel for adults Here is the Beehive is not only one of the most beautifully written books I have read in some time but also one of the most thought-provoking.
Ana and Conor have been having an affair for three years, sharing secret trysts, secret meetings, always hidden and never discussed with anyone else. When Conor suddenly dies Ana is left with huge grief that she cannot talk about to anyone. The premise is such a fascinating one to me and one in which Crossan asks so many questions. Can we help who we fall in love with? Should we fight the love we feel? Can we love more than one person and if so, should we? How can we lose someone the world never knew was ours? How do you deal with that? It isn’t always comfortable, but that is the point of great books.
Here is the Beehive is written in verse which adds to its power and the passion that ripples off the page. In poetic miniature glimpses of both Ana’s grief and how the relationship came to be, we have these stunning condensed vignettes of emotion, the whole spectrum of love from its highest heights to darkest depths. Utterly, utterly incredible.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
(Paperback, Atlantic Books, £9.99)
With a title like that you might be thinking ‘how on earth could this have anything to do with love?’ and that is a fair question. The answer is everything. My Sister, The Serial Killer looks at the love between sisters and just how far we might go for those we love in our family, even when they do the darkest of things.
When we first meet Korede she is out having dinner and rudely interrupted by her sister Femi calling, her sister who has just killed her third boyfriend. Korede’s response, before she begrudgingly leaves the table and goes to help her clear up the mess, is that once you have killed three people you are officially labelled a serial killer. (You can giggle, the book is very funny with some very poignant undertones that come to the fore.)
What Braithwaite looks at with her debut novel is how far we can stretch the bonds between siblings and familial love. She also, once Femi takes an interest in the man Korede is in love with, tests the points at which that love could break. After all, we all know what happens to Femi’s boyfriends. What underlies all this, and I think is Braithwaite’s masterstroke, is if we know and have experienced trauma with someone, what will we do to protect them even when the way they handle that trauma takes them on the darkest of paths? Just brilliant.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
(Hardback, Penguin Books, £14.99)
My favourite book of 2022 so far is Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees. Ada Kazantzakis is living a lonely life as a young girl in London. Her mother died the Christmas before and her father has lost himself in his ecological work. Asked to write an article on her family, she despairs as her father and mother moved over from Cyprus before she was born and never talked about the past. We soon begin to learn her parent’s story, how they met and fell in love during one of the darkest parts of Cypriot history, told by the fig tree that Ada’s father is burying in the garden for winter. Yes, that’s right, I said we are told it by a fig tree and it is AMAZING.
In using the fig tree, a cutting from the Happy Fig restaurant Kosta and Defne would meet at secretly, one being Turkish and one Greek, we discover not only how they met but the turbulent times in which they fell in love. Their love story has ripples of Romeo and Juliet, which I really enjoyed. What I relished just as much was how through our fig tree, we learn so much about nature. I had no idea we shared 50% of the same DNA as trees, that some trees have no gender, that stalks used to sing until something happened in Cyprus (ok, that’s a legend but myths and legends are part of the book) or how parrots can grieve and how scientists used to think plants could see. I could go on.
Elif Shafak does something so wonderful with this book as it looks at the ways humans can love despite everything and how nature will do its best to adapt and survive anything. It reminds us that both are precious and essential but might not be around forever. It is very much a love letter to nature and the best parts of the human condition. Phenomenal. I really, really, really loved it.