Somewhat inevitably, with a lot of work on, my 20 Books of Summer list to finish and a lovely stack of review books in for Shiny, I’ve fallen a bit behind with my NetGalley reading. This was one that came out in July but I kept seeing people talking about it and wanted to get it read and reviewed.

I really enjoyed it, although it packed more of an emotional punch than I was perhaps expecting, and certainly had some strong (and important) themes around mental health that could be triggering to some.

Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

(14 May 2021)

‘Harishbhai’s son,’ Mukesh said, wondering if the boy had a name but appreciating Harishbhai’s clear and strong sense of branding. ‘Let’s go, over there, there are a few lonely souls who need a flyer.

It’s 2019 and Mukesh, who lost his wife two years ago, is just existing, really, a set of answerphone messages from his three bossy daughters and an interaction with the jolly grocer, Nikhil, who helps him with cooking tips, his only real human activity. He watches Blue Planet re-runs and fears he’s losing touch with his young granddaughter, who always had an understanding around books with her grandma. One day, he decides to make a trip to the local library to return his dear Naima’s last library book – he has read it (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”) and found it helped him through his grieving, but now he’s stuck.

At the library, he encounters disaffected library worker Aleisha, doing a summer job and bored silly. She’s rude to him, but comes to regret it. Can she use the library system to tempt him back, with a reservation for another book from this weird list she’s found on a scrap of paper? And Aleisha has got a lot on her plate, as she and her brother are caring for their single mum, who is going through a mental health crisis and has been for months. Nothing can reach her sometimes and they’re at their wits’ end.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, in 2017 we find all sorts of people finding the same book list popping up here and there, in a narrative which feels a bit confusing but does stitch together. The community of library workers is a lovely one, and their regulars, and Mukesh is pulled into this plus back into his original community in the Hindu temple (he moved to the UK from Kenya when his and Naima’s daughters were small). As a side point, I loved the positive portrayal of Mukesh and Naima’s arranged marriage and the space his parents gave her to take her time settling in when she moved in with them; so often we get the same narrative of pain and upset and overbearing in-laws and it’s nice to see a different side.

Friendships grow and flourish, helped by talking about the various books on the list. Mukesh even starts to bond with his granddaughter as he gets to grips with this reading lark after all these decades not bothering with books. But there’s trouble brewing: his friendship with one of Naima’s oldest friends gets noticed, and while Aleisha starts to feel able to talk about her mum with her new friends, her brother doesn’t seem to have that opportunity.

Appealing to fans of “The Lido” and other community-based books, with its nice multicultural cast, there’s an event at the library which pulls almost everyone together. It’s nicely structured and well-done, and there’s a fair bit of humour, but it’s also not all light and fluffy and certainly one event (which is quite cleverly foreshadowed but took me by surprise) is a big emotional punch and I wonder if it could have been rolled back just a little bit. Hard to talk about without disclosing the plot however. I will definitely look out for this author’s next books.

Thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Reading List” was published on 22 July.