Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
By accident rather than design, I read less in 2018 than I had in quite some time. However, unlike last year, it feels right to do my usual list of twelve favourites. One thing that really stands out to me is what a good year it’s been for short story collections – I have four on my list, more than ever before. 2018 was also the year when I started reviewing for Splice, and you’ll see that reflected in my list, too.
As always, the ranking is not meant to be taken too seriously – I like to have a countdown, but really I’d recommend them all. I haven’t differentiated between old and new books, though as it turns out, most are from this year. The links will take you to my original review of each book.
You can also read my previous favourites posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year. It’ll be the tenth anniversary of this blog, so I have some plans for looking back as well as forward.
12. And the Wind Sees All (2011) by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Andrew Cauthery and Björg Árnadóttir (2018)
I read this book only a few days ago and it made such an impression that it went straight on to my end-of-year list. Part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series, And the Wind Sees All is set in an Icelandic fishing village, during a couple of minutes during which Kata, the village choir’s conductor, cycles down the main street. Like the wind, the novel flows in and out of the lives of the villagers Kata cycles past, revealing secrets, losses, fears and joys. The writing is gorgeous.
11. Fish Soup (2012-6) by Margarita García Robayo
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe (2018)
The English-language debut of Colombian writer García Robayo, Fish Soup collects together two novellas and seven short stories. Among others, we meet a young woman so desperate to escape her current life that she can’t see what it’s doing to herself and others; a businessman forced to confront the emptiness in his life; and a student being taught one thing at school while experiencing something quite different in her life outside the classroom. All is told in a wonderfully sardonic voice.
10. Three Dreams in the Key of G (2018) by Marc Nash
This is a novel of language, motherhood, and biology, told in the voices of a mother in peace-agreement Ulster; the elderly founder of a women’s refuge in Florida; and the human genome itself. Perhaps more than any other book I read this year, the shape of Three Dreams is a key part of what it means: it’s structured in a way that reflects DNA, and the full picture of the novel emerges from the interaction of its different strands.
9. Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (2018)
This was a book that had me from the title. A composite of corpses comes to life in US-occupied Baghdad. It starts to avenge the victims who make up its component parts, then finds those disintegrating, so it has to keep on killing to survive… and becomes a walking metaphor for self-perpetuating violence. Saadawi’s novel is powerful, horrific, and drily amusing where it needs to be.
8. The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas
Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute (2018)
A collection of stories where the extraordinary intrudes on the everyday – such as a cinema showing the never-ending film of someone’s life, or a mysterious treasure trail leading the narrator to an unknown end point. Melnikas’ stories become richer by reflecting on what this strangeness means for the characters, an approach that was right up my street.
7. The White Book (2016) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)
Another deeply felt book from a favourite contemporary writer. The White Book is structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from snow to swaddling bands, all haunted by the spectre of a sister who died before the narrator was born. Reading Han always feels more intimate than with most other writers; her prose cuts like glass, bypassing conscious thought and going straight to the place where reading blurs into living.
6. T Singer (1999) by Dag Solstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally (2018)
My first experience of Solstad’s work, and it’s like reading on a tightrope. A synopsis would make it seem that nothing much is going on, as Solstad’s protagonist seeks anonymity by becoming a librarian in a small town. But the busyness of Singer’s inner life creates a contrast with his essential loneliness, an abyss for the reader to stare into.
5. The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark
Every time I read Muriel Spark, I’m reminded of why I want to read more. Set in a post-war London boarding house for young women, this is a tale of lost (and sometimes found) opportunity and missed communication. I love the way that Spark twists her characters’ (and reader’s) sense of time and space, the undercurrent of dark wit… No doubt there’s even more to see on a re-read.
4. The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood
Everything that Lucy Wood writes ends up in my list of favourites. I love the way that she evokes a sense of mystery lying beneath the interaction of life and place. The stories in The Sing of the Shore are set in off-season Cornwall, a place where children take over other people’s unoccupied second homes, the sand advances and recedes, and both people and things are transient.
3. The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (1993)
I loved this Norwegian classic about a girl trying to come to terms with her friend’s disappearance. Vesaas’ novel is full of the raw sense of selves and friendships being formed, and examines what it takes to find one’s place in a community or landscape. The prose is beautiful, crystalline and jagged, like the frozen waterfall that gives The Ice Palace its title.
2. Mothers (2018) by Chris Power
Stories of family and relationships, travel and searching – each illuminating and resonating with the others. Three stories following the same character’s journey through life form the backbone of Power’s collection. In between, there’s a frustrated stand-up comedian, a couple walking in Exmoor who find their relationship tougher terrain, a chess-like game of flirtation in Paris, and more. I can’t wait to see what Power writes next.
1. Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018)
A novel about a woman who has worked in a convenience store for 18 years, trying to find her own sort of normality. The protagonist’s sense of self is challenged, and the reader is also challenged to empathise with her. Convenience Store Woman is a vivid character study that builds to the most powerful ending I’ve read all year. I won’t forget this book for a long, long time.
August is Women in Translation Month (established by Meytal from Biblibio), and I have a few books lined up to read (some of which will also fit into Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months). We’ll see what I can get through, anyway. I thought I would start with a book that I didn’t manage to review during this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadowing.
Han Kang has swiftly become one of my favourite writers (she topped my “books of the year” list two years running, after all). The White Book is a little different from The Vegetarian and Human Acts, more abstract. It’s structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from swaddling bands to salt, frost to light and paper. There are images of a white city, destroyed during the Second World War and then rebuilt (though not named, this city is Warsaw, where Han spent time on a writer’s residency).
There is also a certain figure haunting this novel: Han’s narrator (a version of the author herself) describes how her mother’s first child, a girl, died only a couple of hours after being born:
Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling-up of the lungs. Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun.
(translation by Deborah Smith)
The narrator begins to think of this dead sister as she walks the white city. She imagines a life for her, which is what fills the longest section of the book:
There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When the pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.
Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent – which sometimes, as here, bubbles to the surface – focused on the question of what it means for the narrator to have brought this “she” into (imagined) being. The implications of this are powerful.
As I always find with Han Kang’s writing (with Deborah Smith’s translation, too), there are moments when The White Book just slips straight in and cuts like glass. This, perhaps above all, is why I read fiction: that deep reaction to writing, which electrifies the nerve endings and makes living more intense.
The White Book (2016) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2017), Portobello Books, 162 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).
This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.
So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.
12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015
A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.
11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016
In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.
10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011
This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.
9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004
I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.
8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015
The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.
7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015
Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.
6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys
This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.
5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.
4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield
Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.
3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016
At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.
2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.
1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016
I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.
I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; and 2009.
You may have heard about the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival. The flaws in Shriver’s argument have been outlined elsewhere (here, for example); but I was struck by how clearly some of her underlying assumptions illustrate a particular approach to fiction.
“Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls?” asks Shriver. “The fiction writer, that’s who.” At first glance, this might just seem to be common sense, but it assumes a particular relationship between the writer and her material: not just one of taking, but also one of assuming control over what is taken.
This can lead to situations such as one from Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, which she describes later in the speech:
In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.
From Shriver’s account, Luella exists within the novel solely for the purpose of teaching Douglas a lesson, and being part of a neat little artistic counterpoint; and never mind that she ends up humiliated and presented as bestial. At one point in her speech, Shriver takes issue with the idea that there may be a difference between ‘representing’ and ‘exploiting’ characters. I would suggest that one definition of exploiting a character might be this: manipulating a life purely for fictional ends, with no concern for the implications.
So, what alternatives are there? One good recent example of a different approach, I think, is Han Kang’s novel Human Acts. This concerns the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in Han’s home town when she was a child; but, even so, the book does not treat the experience of the event as ‘belonging’ to the author. Indeed, the epilogue (written from Han’s viewpoint) brings the question of how to write about the uprising into the work itself. It suggests that Han could only apprehend these events from a distance and in fragments; and this is also how readers experience the novel. Han allows her material to be what guides her way of writing.
Human Acts is stronger as a work of art because it confronts the problems inherent in its own making. It illustrates something that I often feel about fiction: in the best work, there is a sense that the author has spent time considering what it is that she’s doing in writing that work.
You might well have heard the news by now, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize.
As you can imagine, I’m very pleased with that result: The Vegetarian was my favourite book of last year (here’s my review for Shiny New Books), not to mention my favourite book on the MBIP longlist. I’m pleased that this win will bring it to a wider audience; and it’s good to see such a singular, uncompromising work getting this kind of recognition.
This also brings to an end our award shadowing for this year. Thanks to Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, and Lori for being such excellent reading companions. We chose the same book as the official jury, albeit from rather different shortlists – I’ll champion The Vegetarian to anyone who will listen, but do check out the rest of the MBIP longlist because there’s some really good stuff on there.
What next? Reports are that fiction in translation is thriving, and my hope is that Han’s and Smith’s win will open the door wider. I will continue to search for more of these remarkable books from around the world, and report back here and elsewhere (I’m quite keen to read more Korean fiction, and this reading list by Han Kang seems a good place to start). Reading experiences like The Vegetarian don’t come along every day; but there is always another one out there, waiting.
Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2015), Portobello Books paperback
Today’s the day when we’ll find out the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in its new incarnation. But first, we have a shadow winner to announce.
It was close – extremely close. After our initial round of voting, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine narrowly missed out on a place in the run-off vote…
…and, in the final vote, Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water came a close second…
…but our shadow winner is:
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
This means that, following last year’s IFFP result, this could be the second year running in which the shadow and official winners coincide. Given how much I love The Vegetarian, I actually hope it will be. Only a few more hours to wait…
Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.
I saw this Guardian blog by Alison Flood doing the rounds on Twitter the other day: “Don’t read classic books because you think you should: do it for fun!” The particular context was reporting on a YouGov poll to find the 19th century classics that British people would like to read “if they had the time and patience”; writers including James Smythe and Sarah Perry had reacted to the poll on Twitter, pointing out – quite rightly – that they’re all just books in the end, and you can just… read them.
Polls like this, and articles like the Guardian’s, are not uncommon; but these in particular touched a nerve, because of the ways I have been trying to think more about how and why I read. It struck me that one of the things I’ve tended to do as part of that process is to step away from ideas like “reading for pleasure” or “reading to be challenged, and focus instead on what it’s like to read an individual work.
When I think back to the experiences of reading (to choose two powerful recent examples) Mrs Dalloway or Human Acts, a concept like “pleasure”, wide-ranging and malleable though it may be, doesn’t seem enough. These experiences were complex, visceral, and unique to themselves; what they did, ultimately, was to intensify the experience of being alive. Scott Esposito put it well in an essay from last year – talking, coincidentally, about Mrs Dalloway:
I spent so much time just trying to get Mrs. Dalloway to talk back to me. In my previous 22 years of life I had never read sentences of the sort Virginia Woolf writes in that book. They came on like the onslaught of some undiscovered microbe, the intense fever they promulgated within me inducing blurred eyes and a dazed head that could just not think of the usual things. I spent a week with this illness, and when I eventually recovered I understood that for all the times I was destined to fall so ill again, the infection would never be quite so revitalizing. Nearly 15 years later this is still why I seek this search for the silence that brings that revitalizing fever.
Esposito’s essay is calling for ways to talk about novelty in literature without resorting to the language of “difficulty”. I think that’s analogous to what I’m trying to do on here: find a better, more precise way to describe what it’s like when I read. “Read Human Acts for the experience of reading Human Acts” may not be the most informative recommendation, though it may at root be what I need to say. This blog is here to help me unpack that experience and others like (or unlike) it.
Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.
When you shake off the hundred-plus books of a year’s reading and find that the one clings the longest is the one you read first, chances are that it’s a special book. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was exactly that, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reading Human Acts, her latest book to appear in English (like its predecessor, translated superbly from the Korean by Deborah Smith). The new novel is just as powerful (If not more) as I could have hoped; but it also makes for an interesting thematic comparison with the earlier one.
The Vegetarian explored themes of personal control, the body, the larger ramifications of individual actions – but within the context of a scenario that was clearly exaggerated and artificial. Human Acts has a similar approach, but it revolves around a real event: the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, in which students and factory workers demonstrated against the ruling dictatorship, and were brutally suppressed. The fact of that reality – how to deal with it, how to write it – is the black hole that sits at the heart of this novel.
Each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a different character, but the main link between them is the subject of the first: Dong-ho, a boy who goes to the gymnasium being used as a makeshift morgue in order to find the body of his friend, and ends up becoming one of the volunteers handling all the corpses. One thing that particularly struck me on reading Human Acts was that the smallest things were often the most powerful – such as this from the opening chapter:
A thin scream rang out several times from the top of the road, and three soldiers carrying guns and clubs raced down over the hilltop, surrounding the young couple. They looked to have been pursuing someone, and to have turned down this alley by mistake.
‘What’s the matter? We’re just on our way to church . . .’
Before the man in the suit had finished speaking, you saw a person’s arm – what? Something you wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Too much to process – what you saw happen to that hand, that back, that leg. A human being. (p. 26)
That first chapter has no shortage of specific detail of violence and the gruesome drudgery of dealing with so many bodies and coffins; but what most hit home was this moment of incomprehension, in which people can only be seen as abstract body parts. I’m grateful to Melissa Harrison for helping me clarify my thoughts on this, when she suggested on Twitter that Human Acts embodies the way one’s brain tries and fails to grasp what is happening. I think she’s right: the horror is right there in front of us, but so vast that it almost becomes background noise – and so it is the smaller moments that leap out, such as an involuntary somersault, or the seven slaps to the face which one character spends her chapter trying to forget.
So much in Human Acts comes back to bodies, not just as repositories of sensation, but also as markers of identity. In one chapter, the spirit of Dong-ho’s friend hovers around his old body as it festers among others in a pile. “Without bodies, how would we know each other?” he asks. “Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?” (p. 55). Elsewhere, the body becomes a battleground: one chapter describes the torture of a prisoner, who realises that the brutal treatment being meted out to him and his fellow captives is meant to make them believe they are “nothing but filthy stinking bodies” (p. 126). A few pages earlier, however, he describes what it was like to be in the uprising, among the crowd facing the soldiers:
I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it. (p. 121)
A body could be lowest thing of all, but also something greater; it all depends on perception. The struggle for that perception – that meaning – is, it seems to be, underneath all that happens in the novel.
At the end of the book, Han tells of how she came to write Human Acts; by framing this as an epilogue, she brings the problem of writing about the Gwangju Uprising into the fiction itself. We can see echoes in the novel of Han’s experiences as narrated in the epilogue: for example, she was a young child in Gwangju at the time of the uprising, and her first encounters with the event are overheard snippets of adult conversation; likewise, the reader’s view is largely ground-level and piecemeal. But the question remains for Han: how can this event be treated most appropriately in fiction? Rather than zooming out and trying to encompass the uprising in a novel, she focuses in on its component parts – the individual human acts that make up even the largest swathes of history.
Now read on…
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2016), Portobello Books paperback