This time of year, when the nights are long and the weather is not exactly enticing, our favourite refuge is between the pages of a good book. Here are some great reads from the team here at Port Eliot Festival to help you escape the long British Winter – we wager you’ll find a new favourite here.

Catherine St Germans, Port Eliot Festival Director

THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. The collection of stories written over a period of twenty years, are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

GARDEN TIME by W.S. Merwin

Poet W.S Merwin is nearly 90. His eyesight is failing, and he cannot see well enough to write. He dictated many of the poems for his new collection Garden Time to his wife. The result is spectacular. Take some time to get to know Merwin, who lives on the Hawaiian island of Maui and was Obama’s Poet Laureate.  One of my favourite poems is Rain Light from The Shadow of Sirius. Other recommended works include The Rain in the Trees.

This year, at Port Eliot Festival, we will be focusing on the life and work of the great Merwin, friend of Ted Hughes and considered the greatest living American poet. As part of our Merwin celebration, we will also be screening the recent film documentary, Even Though the Whole World is Burning, an intimate portrait of Merwin, his poetry and environmental activism.

Colin Midson, Port Eliot Associate Director

WELCOME TO LAGOS by Chibundu Onuzo & WHO KILLED PIET BAROL by Richard Mason

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I can heartily recommend two new African-based novels that will help transport you away to warmer climes. Richard Mason’s recently published Who Killed Piet Barol? takes a richly drawn cast of characters on a journey across a lushly imagined South African landscape during the early 20th century. He has created a fairy tale of sorts. I was enchanted. Equally exotic and preoccupied with similar themes of escape and hopes for the future, Chibundo Onozu’s Welcome to Lagos is published in early January and brings a different version of Africa – contemporary Nigeria – vividly to life.

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter

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We were lucky to have had two great debut novelists at the festival this year, both of whom have written books that will stand the test of time. In Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter toys with the possibilities of language as he attempts to unpick the trauma of dealing with death. It’s melancholic, moving and ultimately consoling.

THE MANY by Wyl Menmuir

Wyl Menmuir found out that his novel The Many had been long-listed for the Booker Prize in the week leading up to this year’s festival and I was lucky enough to have interviewed him about it. His slight but deeply affecting novel ostensibly chronicles the struggles of an outsider trying to set up home in an unwelcoming, Cornish fishing village. But there are darker forces at work, and Menmuir’s language and tense plotting make for an unsettling read.

EXPLORERS SKETCHBOOKS by Hugh Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

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In the non-fiction shelves you could do worse than opening up the treasure that is Explorers Sketchbooks. This beautiful book, compiled and edited by Hugh Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert, delves into the diaries and sketchbooks of some extraordinary explorers, ranging from Stanley and Livingston through Scott and Shackleton to more recent and unlikely accounts of derring-do. The sketches themselves are utterly captivating and, as the pages turn, you are transported from tropical paradise to Arctic glacier, from Egyptian tomb to Pacific Island.

WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams

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And for younger readers – or those of us who might want a nostalgia hit – now seems like a good a time as any to revisit Richard Adams’ Watership Down. There’s a reason this has become classic of 20th Century children’s literature: it creates an entirely plausible and beguiling world and makes us ask important questions of our own. It is dark and brooding at times too.

Simon Prosser, Port Eliot Co-Director and Publishing Director of Hamish Hamilton

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by Marcel Proust

My book of 2017 is Marcel Proust’s epic multi-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past), which I have been meaning to read for as long as I remember. Previous attempts have stalled at the end of Book 1, ‘Swann’s Way’ but this time I have broken through to ‘In a Budding Grove’ — and am 650 pages into the first 1000 page volume. It is perfect night-time reading. Half an hour of Proust’s extraordinary, imagistic but precise and detailed prose makes the day slip away and night fall with great gentleness.

The beginning of the book is legendarily quite hard — not that it is difficult to read, but it has an incantatory and philosophical quality that is very different from most other fiction. But then Marcel eats the famous madeleine and the book relaxes and stretches out into a sequence of gorgeously described memories of a privileged country childhood where his path crosses with that of Monsieur Swann, and subsequently his mistress (then, scandalously, his wife) Odette. As the drama unfolds, the story becomes as addictive as a perfectly-baked madeleine. With luck I may get to the next volume by the end of this month, and to the end of the whole cycle by the end of July, just in time for Port Eliot.

Our literary line-up for 2017 is set for release in April; stay tuned for the latest news. 

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