Year of the Drought review – coming-of-age tale that overturns expectations

Set in Switzerland during the heatwave of 1976, Roland Buti’s first novel to be translated into English builds to an apocalyptic conclusion

Here is a literary sorbet for a hot summer. The first book to appear in English from prize-winning Swiss novelist Roland Buti, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, is set in the European heatwave of 1976. To our narrator, 13-year-old Gus, it seems a torpid time with “the earth as hard as a turtle’s shell” and home life boring him, but change is on the way.

Ostensibly the drama is driven by a stranger coming to stay with Gus’s family – one of the oldest gimmicks around – but this is a trick of a book. It hides its turmoil behind everyday details, often beautifully observed (like a fridge’s “brief, electric shudder of exaltation”), and the story’s emotional heart lies in the animals as much as the people.

A beloved and now dying horse, an elderly dog and a lame dove all stand for bigger things. “She wants to die standing up,” says Gus’s grandfather of Bagatelle the horse. “Not on her knees, not lying down, but standing up.” Little by little, what seemed a gentle coming-of-age story overturns the reader’s expectations until it arrives at an apocalyptic conclusion.

• Year of the Drought by Roland Buti and translated by Charlotte Mandell is published by Old Street. To order a copy for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

John Self

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila review – a comic tale of late-night mayhem
Set in a bar in a Congolese mining town, this hip, award-winning debut takes a while to warm up but ends up gripping like a vice

James Smart

06, May, 2016 @3:15 PM

Article image
Panorama by Dušan Šarotar review – a Sebaldian journey
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: A Slovenian writer seeks perspective and peace in this shifting, melancholy narrative

Nicholas Lezard

06, Dec, 2016 @9:30 AM

Article image
Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel review – criminally good
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Lively tales from Russia’s first modernist about the Ukrainian port city once run by Jewish gangsters

Nicholas Lezard

01, Nov, 2016 @3:40 PM

Article image
Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva review – romance in Biarritz
Sex and death push the story towards its tragic conclusion

Emily Rhodes

19, Jul, 2019 @9:01 AM

Article image
The Empress and the Cake review – a mitteleuropean nightmare
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: an old Viennese woman and her sinister housekeeper ruin a young woman’s life in this disturbing story by Linda Stift

Nicholas Lezard

28, Sep, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Seamstress and the Wind review – from Paris to Patagonia
As fun as it is mystifying, this surreal and intriguing novella takes the form of a gossipy odyssey

James Smart

05, Aug, 2016 @4:29 PM

Article image
The Burrow by Franz Kafka review – a superb new translation
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: Ranging from a single paragraph to 40-odd pages, these stories of strange animals and clerks oppressed by bouncing balls are richly rewarding

Nicholas Lezard

31, Jan, 2017 @9:29 AM

Article image
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio review – family lies
The young narrator of this vivid Italian novel feels doubly abandoned: ‘an orphan with two living mothers’

Emily Rhodes

17, Aug, 2019 @9:01 AM

Article image
Cheese: A Novel by Willem Elsschot review – self-improvement through edam
Nicholas Lezard’s paperback of the week: an absurdist tale of a useless, cheese-hating clerk who tries to become ... a cheese merchant

Nicholas Lezard

14, Mar, 2017 @9:30 AM

Article image
The Sea Cloak by Nayrouz Qarmout review – debut short story collection
A brutal rendering of daily life in Gaza is a picture of innocence corrupted

Emily Rhodes

24, Oct, 2019 @9:00 AM