CategorySpark Muriel

My favourite books read in 2018

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.

Reading out loud: The Girls of Slender Means

I’ve been intending to read Muriel Spark (last time was The Driver’s Seat) again all year, what with it being her centenary. It took me until the autumn to actually do that, but better late than never…

I’m trying something a bit different with this post, taking inspiration from that Twitter discussion of The Rings of Saturn in the summer. I tweeted my thoughts on The Girls of Slender Means as I was reading it, and am now collecting them together here. I’ve called this “reading out loud” because it’s more off the cuff and impressionistic than a proper review would be. I felt that a ‘known’ book like this could support that kind of post.

To introduce the book briefly: The Girls of Slender Means was first published in 1963. It’s mostly set in 1945, and concerns the May of Teck Club, a London hostel for women aged under 30. I’ve expanded the original tweets a little for clarity, but still I doubt the post below will make much sense if you haven’t read the novel. If you’re looking for a recommendation, though… consider the book recommended!

***

It’s been too long since I last read Muriel Spark. I’m enjoying it from the first sentence: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Instantly recognisable voice: reading it feels like coming home.

Already the narrative is being subtly destabilised (which I’m coming to expect from Spark). The present-day passages feel more like intrusions than an alternative plot strand.

Interesting that present-day passages (which discuss a character’s death) are all telephone conversations. I need to read further to understand what this means, but I’m thinking it’s perhaps a comment on the distance created by that form of communication.

I love the little details that punctuate a scene with humour, such as the arguments over brown wallpaper in the drawing-room, or the frequent soundtrack of lines from Joanna’s elocution lessons.

Just twigged that there’s a theme of missed (or misunderstood) communication: the present-day phone calls that break up, the rote learning of elocution lessons (lines that are repeated but not necessarily felt by the person saying them).

A bomb explodes in the club’s garden towards the end of the book. Interesting that this is explicitly framed as disrupting the girls’ sense of time and space. Time is experienced differently by those trapped inside the club, and those outside who realise how urgent the situation is.

Besides bringing the plot to a point of singularity, the fire seems to bring individual characterisation to a head. I noticed this especially with Joanna reciting her elocution lines – which manage to be both empty and all too meaningful.

The closing scene of murder and violence amidst the WW2 victory celebrations underlines themes of darkness beneath events and distance from authority that have run through the book.

I love that the final paragraph manages simultaneously to link back to the start of the novel, push forward into the future, *and* leave the present both open and closed off.

Book details

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark, Penguin Books (2013 edn), 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

My favourite reads of 2012

It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.

So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:

Adrian Barnes, Nod

Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium

Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.

Katie Kitamura, The Longshot

The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.

Jonathan Lee, Joy

A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.

Simon Lelic, The Child Who

Here, by coincidence, is another incisive  character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder  whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.

Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child

An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass

Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)

Zadie Smith, NW

A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.

Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat

A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.

Lucy Wood, Diving Belles

My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are  by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.

***

This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.

Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (1970)

When first we meet Lise, she’s out shopping for a brightly coloured new dress; but she takes exception to the sales assistant highlighting that the dress is made of stain-resistant fabric (‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes? […] Do I look as if I don’t eat properly?’ [p. 8]). She eventually buys a dress (equally colourful, but not stain-resistant) in another shop, teaming it with a coat that clashes. Immediately we’re wondering what sort of person this is, who would buy such a conspicuous outfit and seemingly wouldn’t mind if it got dirty.

A few clues – and more mysteries – emerge presently. Lise is secretive: the furniture in her apartment is hidden away behind wall panels, to be taken out when necessary. She’s dedicated: she has booked a holiday from work, but is remarkably reluctant to take time off to pack, even though her manager encourages her to. Perhaps most of all, though, she is doomed: Spark reveals early on that Lise will be murdered on her holiday; we read the rest of The Driver’s Seat trying to anticipate how that will happen, and who will do the deed.

There’s no shortage of characters who might turn out to be Lise’s murderer. Take Bill, the macrobiotic diet enthusiast who sits next to her on the plane, and invites her to catch up later at their destination. Take Carlo, the garage owner who offers to take Lise back to her hotel after she’s caught up in a student demonstration, but would actually rather take her somewhere else. But the thing is that Lise seems actively to be courting some men; goes on about them being (or not being) her ‘type’; and changes her story at will. She doesn’t seem the passive kind.

So, as its title suggests, a key issue in The Driver’s Seat is control. How does a woman apparently so in command of her destiny lose that command so dramatically? In answering that question, Spark’s short novel reveals the product of a dark psyche, but refuses to explain it – which makes The Driver’s Seat one of the most unsettling pieces of fiction I have read in quite some time. An uncertainty over place (neither Lise’s home city nor her holiday destination are identified) and dialogue which often sees characters talking at right angles, only enhance that feeling.

Simon from Stuck in a Book and Harriet Devine hosted a Muriel Spark Reading Week in April; I was unable to take part in that, which is one reason I wanted to read something by Spark now. I wish I had been able to participate, because The Driver’s Seat made such an impression on me that I want to explore and discuss Spark’s work further.

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