Polly Samson

(Bloomsbury, £8.99)

In 1960, 18-year-old Erica runs away from her domineering father in London, taking along brother Bobby and boyfriend Jimmy, to the Greek island of Hydra, where a colony of writers and artists has coalesced around her mother’s old friend Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston. From the sidelines, Erica is watching the drinking, sex and bickering going on in this bohemian enclave when couple Axel Jensen and Marianne Ihlen are split up by newcomer Leonard Cohen, who takes up with Marianne and makes her his muse. As the summer goes on, she realises that this progressive idyll is just another patriarchal community with women as the support staff, not very different from the one she left. Based on real people and events, it’s an absorbing coming-of-age story that interrogates the macho principles underlying literary and artistic scenes while conjuring up the scents and pace of life of a sun-baked Mediterranean island.


Marian Engel

(Daunt, £9.99)

In what has been called the greatest Canadian novel ever written, and which is certainly one of the most controversial, an institute is bequeathed an old house on an isolated Ontario island and dowdy archivist Lou is sent to take stock of its contents. While familiarising herself with its library, she also has to look after the old bear chained up behind the house. To Lou, who feels old before her time and defined by the dusty relics she studies, the bear provides a connection to wildness and eroticism, and over the next few months they become increasingly intimate. Engel’s tone is sly, provocative and frequently comedic, pairing Lou’s examination of the colonial mindset of the house’s builder with her bold sexual advances towards the bear. Originally issued in 1976, Engel’s tightly-focused, novella-length fable has lost none of its power, the issues it addresses of appropriation and indigenous culture still no closer to being resolved.


Emma Donoghue

(Picador, £8.99)

Donoghue wrote this well before the pandemic, but its setting – Dublin during the 1918 flu epidemic, with wary inhabitants living under the constant threat of infection – feels uncannily contemporary. Nurse Julia Power works on a maternity ward, caring for infected pregnant women. In the short-staffed hospital, nurses like Julia are working themselves to exhaustion helping women already weakened by poverty and malnutrition. She’s joined by her capable assistant, Bridie Sweeney, and Dr Kathleen Lynn, based on a real person who was a medic during the Easter Rising. Although compassion, female solidarity and dedicated service are at the core of the novel, Donoghue keeps the suffering and terrible conditions front and centre. The Pull of the Stars piles woe upon woe, in uncompromisingly visceral imagery. If it loses its way towards the end, for the most part Donohue steers it steadily, excelling in strong characterisation and a vivid sense of time and place.