Must-read autumn books

James Walton

As the weather gets cooler, curl up by a window and poke your nose into these brilliant books

An imaginative, ambitious thriller set in a dystopian future and a rich story of love, family and sacrifice are our favourite literary picks for the start of autumn…

 

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

(Hutchinson, £20)

The Second Sleep opens with a priest arriving on horseback in a Wessex village in 1468. Or so it seems. Within 20 pages, though, it’s clear that the novel is set not in the past but in a distant future where Britain has reverted to a medieval way of life and the Christian Church is all-powerful again. Church teaching is that around 2025 in the calendar of “the ancients”, God punished them for their blasphemous faith in science by unleashing the Apocalypse. But what if that isn’t true? What if the disaster that befell the ancients—with their rumoured flying machines and global communication devices—was man-made?

In other words, Harris has returned to the speculative fiction of his first novel, Fatherland, set in 1964, when Germany had won the war and nobody was allowed to wonder where the Jews had gone. Once again, there’s a wholly convincing alternative world in which a few brave heretics are determined to uncover the truth.

The result is a brilliantly imaginative thriller—although, not surprisingly, also a rather sombre one. “All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable,” writes one ancient in a letter from 2022. “History warns us that none is.”

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

Like Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett writes novels that take us deep into the mysteries and mythologies of an individual family. Like Tyler as well, she’s often been wrongly criticised for being too nice. Admittedly, both share the unfashionable (but surely accurate) belief that most people try to be good. Yet, that doesn’t prevent either of them from including lots of darker moments—or from noting the damage that even good people can do.

The narrator of The Dutch House is Danny Conroy, whose mother left home when he was three, and whose father then left the parenting to Danny’s beloved older sister Maeve. Until, that is, the arrival of a bona fide evil stepmother…

From there, Patchett takes us through the lives of all concerned with complete assurance, plenty of lovely writing and a powerful awareness of both human fragility and human resilience. “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” Danny asks Maeve at one point. But, while the answer seems to be “probably not”, Danny keeps on trying, constantly changing his perspective in a way that’s always engrossing—and sometimes startling.

 

RD's recommended read

History Hunter

Lara Maiklem started taking long walks along the Thames as a way to heal her soul; little did she know, she was about to open a door to a fascinating past…

In 2002, Lara Maiklem moved to Greenwich in London, near the Thames. Because she was going through a painful break-up, she spent quite a lot of time wandering along the river—at first aimlessly, but then with a sudden sense of mission. Once she started to walk the river’s muddy shore (or foreshore) instead of the concrete path, she realised she was treading on history. Underfoot were any number of souvenirs of life in the Tudor palace that had stood nearby, and all were available for collection and investigation.

Unlike say, the Seine, the Thames is tidal—constantly washing centuries-old items on to the foreshore where they can be discovered at low tide. And, since the mud contains no oxygen, it miraculously preserves what’s usually perishable. Soon, Maiklem had become a fully-fledged mudlark: studying when the river’s lowest tides would be, before setting off to see what she could find. In this delightful book she shares her enthusiasm so infectiously that I suspect I won’t be the only reader who vows to try mudlarking as soon as possible.

Strangely, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the kind of stuff Maiklem looks for was considered of much interest. When the Victorians built new bridges, they sometimes came across genuine treasures—but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that ordinary objects used by ordinary people could also provide a real insight into the past. Mudlarking proves just how wrong they were, as Maiklem mixes tales of her finds with fascinating glimpses into the everyday history they reveal.

Here, she’s near London Bridge where the fact that the lowest tides in memory won’t come until after midnight doesn’t, of course, put her off…

On the night the tide was due to fall to its lowest point, I found I wasn’t alone. As I lurked in the shadows, others began to arrive. We spoke in hushed tones, respectful of the unique moment we’d been afforded. It’s hard to explain the excitement of an exceptionally low tide: imagine Christmas Eve when you were about seven—a tummy-churning, heart-pounding, light-headed euphoria.

As the tide dropped lower, my head torch lit up treasures all around me: buttons, coins, buckles and shards of 18th-century tea bowls, many hand-painted with delicate flowers; thickets of pins, beads and tiny metal studs that would have decorated medieval leather belts and jerkins; more clay pipes than I’d ever seen before.

Every time I stopped to scrutinise the foreshore there seemed to be something new to collect. I found a worn Georgian farthing and a blackened Elizabethan penny. My torch reflected off a late-16th-century jetton, the thin copper-alloy tokens imported from Germany and used as a reckoning counter to keep accounts, together with a chequered board. (The government’s accounting department is still known as the exchequer, after these boards.)

I had already emptied my finds bag into my rucksack twice when my torch ran over an open-ended oblong box, slightly thinner than a cigarette packet, with two comma-shaped perforations on either side and a scalloped edge. I could see it was carved from a single piece of bone or ivory, and something about it looked familiar. It was about the same shape and size as a scabbard chape—the protective fitting from the end of a sword sheath —but I’d only ever seen them in books and museums, and those had been made of metal. I wrapped it carefully in a plastic bag...

It turned out my scabbard chape was Roman, from the late second to third century—when it would have been specially commissioned for the auxiliary army. It is one of only two complete examples found in the UK. Its original owner would have worn a simple mail or scale shirt over a tunic, leather or woollen trousers in cold weather, and a metal helmet. He would have carried an oval-shaped shield and a spear or long sword from which the chape had fallen. It is unlikely he was British. Auxiliary soldiers were usually stationed in provinces away from their homeland to make them easier to control. I imagined a homesick soldier, serving his time in Britain and hoping for Roman citizenship as an acknowledgement for his services to the Empire. As his unit marched through London, his scabbard chape worked loose and fell off. Somehow it found its way into the river where it was preserved in the mud for almost 2,000 years. If it hadn’t been for such a low tide, if I hadn’t gone out in the darkness that night and if my head torch hadn’t pointed down in just the right place at just the right moment, I would never have found it.

 

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