CategoryQuin Ann

My favourite books read in 2019

The end of the year has come around again, so it’s time to look back. Going through my list of books read this year has brought back some happy memories, so here are my twelve favourites. As ever, the list is in rough descending order of enjoyment, but they’re all warmly recommended.

12. The Perseverance (2019) by Raymond Antrobus

I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry this year. Antrobus’ highly personal collection – which explores themes of language, communication and family relationships – stood out to me. A worthy winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

11. Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane

I’ve never read a novel that evokes childhood imagination quite like this. A boy in 1940s Australia imagines hidden worlds in the abstract patterns of everyday reality (such as the play of light through glass). The raw, deep feelings of growing up are made vertiginous in Murnane’s prose.

10. Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine

A collection of personal essays in which the act of writing seems at least as important to the writer as what she’s writing about. Pine is unflinching as she explores issues of the (her) family, body and self. The sense is that she’s taking the stuff of her life apart and building it anew.

9. The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

An account of the mid-to-late 20th century whose writing stopped me in my tracks. The narrator’s personal history plays out against and within the broader passage of time. I was particularly struck by the way the text changes shape to reflect different ways of knowing and remembering – stories giving way to fragments of information.

8. The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill

Possibly the book that was the most pure fun to read this year. The Drover’s Wives consists of a classic Australian short story retold in 101 different ways, from ‘Hemingwayesque’ to ‘A 1980s Computer Game’ and even a chart of paint swatches. O’Neill brings out different sides to the original story, and though there’s a lot to smile about, there are some poignant moments too.

7. The Cheffe (2016) by Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

The very last book I read before compiling this list, but one that made a considerable impression. It’s the tale of an elusive culinary genius through the eyes of a former employee who thinks he has insight into her that may be the product of obsession. The ‘double remove’ between us and the Cheffe makes the novel so tantalising.

6. Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2018)

Nothomb takes my ‘should have read this author sooner’ slot for the year. This novel is a short, sharp, 360-degree view of its protagonist’s female relationships, from her jealous mother to the assistant professor who may not be as much of a friend as she appears.

5. Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt
Translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019)

Talking of short and sharp… This is the piercing portrait of a terminally ill young woman who has moved to a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, recently turned into a hospice. Transfer Window is harrowing in its sense of life cut short. Inside the hospice, the protagonist’s old life slips away: for everyone outside, life goes on.

4. The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) by Irmgard Keun
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)

Doris is a secretary with dreams of being a star; she leaves her job and travels to Berlin, where she finds that life’s pendulum may swing in a different direction without warning. Doris’s voice is compelling as the world shifts around her. There are moments of joy, but also signs of the darkness that was to come – signs that seem all the more pronounced from this historical distance.

3. Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)

The final part of Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, and my personal favourite. We follow a version (or versions) of the author on a trip to Sardinia, through four sections written in different styles. The question becomes, can we trust the narrator to be the same individual throughout? The sense of a single coherent ‘I’ grows ever more fragile.

2. Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford

A novel of genuine strangeness that gains power from refusing to explain itself. Ada and her father heal people, but exactly what they do (or even what they are) is a mystery to us. When Ada falls in love with one of her “Cures”, this threatens to upend her entire existence… and that core of mystery gnaws away all the while.

1. Berg (1964) by Ann Quin

I first heard about this novel ten years before reading it, and eventually got to it at just the right time. I was expecting the prose to require some concentration, but I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. Quin’s hapless protagonist goes to the seaside intending to kill his father in revenge, but finds he can’t actually go through with it. Events descend into outright farce… and I found a new book to treasure.

***

So, that was my 2019. How was your reading year?

If you’d like to catch up on previous yearly round-up, they’re here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here.

An avant-garde seaside farce: Berg by Ann Quin

The first sentence sits there on its own page, drawing you in, enticing you to read on:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

I first read this sentence at the top of Max Cairnduff’s review in 2010, and the book caught my imagination. But I didn’t read it: I guess I wasn’t in the right place as a reader back then to appreciate it. Still, I never forgot Max’s enthusiasm for Berg, and when And Other Stories published a new edition in March, that was my cue to give it a try.

Berg (1964) was the first of Ann Quin’s four novels. It is the tale of one Alistair Berg, a hair-tonic salesman who lives with his mother Edith (her imagined voice is a constant presence in his mind). His father Nathaniel left them some years ago; this seems to Berg’s principal reason for wanting to do away with the man, though he’s constantly trying to justify it to himself:

Of course it’s ridiculous to think the whole thing is simply a vehicle for revenge, or even resentment – hardly can it be called personal, not now, indeed I have never felt so objective. If inherent in the age, well and good, though historically speaking the idea perhaps is a little decadent.

Berg is even hesitant to actually do the deed, often passing up the chance when it arises. He seems at least as interested in getting together with Judith, the woman his father now loves. Berg takes an adjacent room in their lodgings; he can often hear them through the thin partition. Intense feelings abound in such circumstances, and Quin’s prose is an apposite medley of description, internal monologue, authorial commentary, and Berg’s own imaginings. Here, for example, is Berg remembering Sunday school and childhood summers:

Only perhaps now recalling the shaft of light, the summer’s half-hearted breezes through the swinging chapel door; the mumbled hymn-singing no one ever really knew; peering through a crack in a grave, in awe at the stick-like bones, or staring at unpronounceable names inscribed on marble, counteracted by own writing on pavements and garden walls: Josie loves Aly; Barney Broadbent stinks. The tree with the swing, the hollyhock bowers; untouchable ladybirds, catching a Manx by its stubby tail; trespassers be warned. But you king of the jungle, a warrior supreme. I see an eye through a slit in the wall, my own unique eye, insouciant at everything, beyond what it can now see.

As Max says, Quin’s writing requires concentration; but, with passages like this, I think there’s ample reward. I also agree with Max that Berg is very funny, surprisingly so: I wasn’t expecting it to turn into an outright farce, but it does. Berg gets into scrapes with a pet budgie, a ventriloquist’s dummy… I won’t say more, as I think these are best discovered for yourself.

Berg is also enriched by its sense of place. The unnamed seaside town is recognisably Quin’s hometown of Brighton, and it’s depicted in a way that reflects the rawness of Alistair Berg’s situation. For example, the boarding house is memorably seedy: “Door upon door, separated merely by strips of plaster and pink wallpaper damp-stained: the carpet as though just unrolled leading perhaps to a saw-dust ring. Everywhere the smell of disinfectant.”

If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate in ten years of book blogging, it’s that so-called ‘experimental’, ‘challenging’ fiction is not sealed off in some rarefied bubble, but belongs equally to an ordinary reader like me. Berg is a prime example: for a novel with this kind of humour and setting to be written in this kind of language still feels unexpected to me, although it shouldn’t (any other suggestions will be gratefully received!). I’ll be reading Quin again, probably The Unmapped Country, the short fiction collection published by And Other Stories in 2018.

Elsewhere

Lee Rourke has written several interesting articles on Quin’s work. Max links to two, from 2007 and 2010; and there’s this one from 2018.

Book details

Berg (1964) by Ann Quin, And Other Stories, 160 pages, paperback.

© 2020 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: