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Top Shelf With Neha Kale

The writer, journalist and critic on the perfect novel, Deborah Levy, and the perks of sleeping with your phone in another room

By Laura Brading

When I heard Neha Kale speak at the All About Women festival earlier this year—on a panel discussing the sad girl novel—I had that specific book-nerd urge to ask her about her favourite books and writers and the stories that mean the most to her.

And so, a few weeks later, it was a pleasure to sit down with the writer, journalist and critic and do exactly that.

A book you recommend to everyone.
“Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is the perfect novel. Like all her fiction, it contains such finely-drawn observations about race and class and the way our messy histories can both implicate and estrange us from each other. But mostly it gives me that feeling I’ve been chasing since I was a kid – of characters who are as real to me as actual people. And a world that through the act of reading starts to exert more power than my own.”

A book you read in a single sitting.
“There are writers who can get away with anything and I feel this way about Deborah Levy. The Cost of Living, the second volume in her Living Autobiography trilogy has pretty much everything I crave in a book. Perfect sentences. Sharp observations about womanhood. The sense that even the most everyday interaction – a conversation overhead in a hotel, Turkish coffee on a balcony – can be emotionally charged.

If there’s a better present for a female friend going through a transition or fighting to take up more space in the world, I haven’t found it yet. I recommend binge-reading outside on a solo holiday with a glass of something delicious.”


If there’s a better present for a female friend going through a transition or fighting to take up more space in the world, I haven’t found it yet

A book that changed your perspective.
“There are books that you can’t bear to re-read but change the way you see completely. I remember thinking this  about Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner when I read it as an eighteen-year-old. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado falls into this category for me. It’s a work of nonfiction which explores domestic abuse in same-sex relationships through different forms: the self-help manual, a romance novel, a choose-your-own adventure. It speaks to gaps in the archive, what kinds of narratives are validated by our culture – some of the things that, as a writer, I care about the most.”

A book you’re embarrassed to have loved but loved all the same.
“I often resent the way that reading and writing have become so performative, how what resonates with us privately has become a public marker of taste. I’m usually put off by anything too earnest, but as a recovering perfectionist who is sometimes anxious about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic totally addictive.”

Do you have a reading ritual?
“I’ve started sleeping with my phone in another room and it’s made me newly excited about the ritual of reading in bed. Something about not having the temptation to scroll is making me slowly remember the relationship with reading I had when I was younger, of disappearing into a book as a reward at the end of the day, the best form of escape.”

You read everything this author writes…
“I often write about the connections between art and society and have always admired the work of Olivia Laing. I prefer her nonfiction to her fiction but her 2016 travelogue The Lonely City – which charts the condition of loneliness through the work of New York artists – probably ranks as one of my favourite books of all time.”

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BY Laura Brading

Laura is PRIMER's books editor

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