An ode to autumn: books for a changing season

By Katie Tobin

It’s the time of year where the city of Durham is slowly but surely settling into autumn. The weather calls for knitted jumpers and thick coats; the leaves are no longer a vibrant green but a rich amber. For many, turning to familiar works of fiction is one way to welcome the colder months. 

First and foremost, Donna Tartt’s superb The Secret History is a wonderful read for the autumn season. Secret History opens at the start of a new academic year at a prestigious liberal arts college set in New Hampshire, a place synonymous with all things autumn. Beyond its excellence as a campus novel, which ushers in that back to school feeling, the novel is a wonderful inversion of the detective story. The reader follows Richard Papen as he recounts the events that led to the death of his friend Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran and ​​the lasting effects of Bunny’s death on the academically and socially isolated group of Classics students of which he was a part.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray feels aptly fitting as the evenings get darker and you long for an eerie read, although a tale of vanity and corruption may feel all too fitting after a week of debauchery during Freshers’. Wilde’s only novel follows anti-hero Dorian Gray, who, in a bid to keep his youthful looks, watches his portrait morph into an unrecognisable monster. Wilde’s novel is a cautionary tale, urging the reader to approach hedonism with caution. In the winter months, it’s hard not to picture Durham’s cobbled streets and cathedral’s architecture as anything but a fitting setting for Wilde’s novel.

In the winter months, it’s hard not to picture Durham’s cobbled streets and cathedral architecture as anything but a fitting setting for Wilde’s novel.

The Night Circus is also regarded by many as the perfect autumnal read. A beautifully atmospheric fantasy about a fantastical circus is perfect for those who are after a slow burn. 

Perhaps an unconventional take, John Milton’s Paradise Lost makes for a challenging but worthwhile read. Told in two narrative arcs, one following Satan, and the other Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Milton’s magnum opus opens following Lucifer and his fallen angels’ banishment from hell. Dark, atmospheric, and compelling, Milton’s poetic retelling of the Bible is well worth persevering with. 

Last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction went to Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In a lyrical imagining of Shakespeare’s life, O’Farrell resurrects the short life of his only son, Hamnet, and his tragic death. One may be mistaken in thinking that Hamnet is the central character of the novel, when really, it is Agnes – Shakespeare’s wife. A compelling figure, Agnes remains shrouded in mystery, a gifted herbalist who is closely followed by her faithful kestrel. A novel that evades the cliches of historical literature, Hamnet is a wonderful book of magic that a reader could easily find themselves immersed in on a cool autumn evening. 

Image: Alisa Anton via Unsplash

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