AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

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.

“She told me the meal was there, spare, magnificent and perfect”

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

Although I’m not much of a foodie, I have a soft spot for programmes like Masterchef and Great British Menu. I think it has something to do with seeing already talented people excelling themselves, especially when it’s in an area I can relate to but couldn’t venture into myself. There’s also a certain mystery in watching these shows, trying to imagine what the food actually tastes like from the judges’ descriptions. I guess it’s a bit like trying to capture what it was like to read a book that you may well not have read yet yourself.

On that note: here is The Cheffe, the latest novel to appear in English translation from the French author Marie NDiaye (whose Ladivine was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize back in 2016). It is the story of an enigmatic culinary genius, known to us mostly by title rather than name.

From humble beginnings in south-western France, the Cheffe discovers her talent as a teenager, working in a wealthy couple’s kitchen. In time, she becomes a celebrated restauranteur, but she’s not interested in showing off – “cooking was sacred” to her. She also remains intensely private. It’s in the kitchen where the Cheffe is in her element:

…it’s a fact that I never saw the Cheffe make a motion or gesture that wasn’t marked by a magical precision, even in the most cramped or cluttered quarters, every tiny part of her diligently obeyed order to make every move precise, and did so gracefully, what’s more, with a radiant eagerness that suggested everything she did in the ritual space of the kitchen was done in accordance with the precepts of beauty and necessity.

NDiaye’s unnamed narrator is a former employee of the Cheffe; the text of the novel is an interview he’s giving after she has died. This man thinks he knows who the Cheffe was and how she thought, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators. He’s rather obsessed with the Cheffe (as you can perhaps tell from the tone of the quotation above), and that colours his account of her. There’s a sense that some of the narrator’s interpretations, such as his view of the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter (which he sees as a difficult one), might be projections of his own situation.

The end result is a kind of double distancing: an already elusive character made even more so by the overlaying of another character’s preoccupations. We’re apprehending the Cheffe through two thicknesses of glass, as it were – but the impressions left of both her and the narrator are vivid nonetheless. The Cheffe is a tale of imagination filling in the gaps when first-hand knowledge falls short, as tantalising and perilous as that may be.

The Cheffe is published by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US.

#YoungWriterAward shortlist 2019

Over on Instagram, I’ve been reviewing the shortlist for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, which is given to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a writer aged 35 or under. The winner will be announced on Thursday, so now is a good time to put my shortlist reviews on the blog.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

I’m still finding my way when it comes to reading (and writing about) poetry, but this is a collection I really enjoyed. Language and communication are two of the key themes. In ‘Jamaican British’, Antrobus considers both sides of his heritage, and how comfortably (or not) the two words sit together. ‘Echo’ is a sequence of short poems revolving the beginnings of Antrobus’ relationship with sound as a d/Deaf person: “What language / would we speak / without ears?”

Another theme running through the collection is Antrobus’ relationship with his late father. The poem ‘The Perseverance’ depicts the young Raymond standing outside the pub, waiting for his father who has just “popped in for a minute”. On the one hand, there’s a sense here of the poet’s father neglecting his family; on the other, when this situation has become a memory for Raymond, the loss of his father’s laughter is keenly felt.

Elsewhere, Antrobus describes how his father’s dementia “simplified a complicated man, / swallowed his past”. But the collection ends on (what feels to me) a hopeful note, with “Happy Birthday Moon”, in which the child Raymond’s father reads him a bedtime story. The second line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next, which gives a constant sense of rising up, reaching towards.

Published by Penned in the Margins.

salt slow by Julia Armfield

The opening story of this collection sets the tone. ‘Mantis’ is narrated by a teenage girl with a mysterious skin condition that makes her “dream in sheddings” and means that she’s constantly bandaged up. It’s just her genes, the girl’s mother insists, but she still has an uneasy relationship with her body and the thought of intimacy. Then events take a decidedly macabre turn… ⁣

Typically, the stories in Armfield’s collection revolve around a single strange or fantastical idea that gains power from being treated as ordinary. In ‘Formerly Feral’, the narrator’s father falls in love with a woman who has adopted a wolf. The protagonist and wolf are viewed as sisters, leading to some shifts in identity. ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ features a band who incite the most extraordinary level of emotion in their listeners – and we only see this from the outside, which makes it even more disturbing. ‘The Great Awake’ sees people losing their ability to fall asleep, which takes physical form as a shadowy figure haunting each individual, reconfiguring society’s relationship with sleep. salt slow is a collection that lingers on beyond the final page.

Published by Picador Books.

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

⁣We don’t so much read about the life of this novel’s protagonist as piece it together. She has a Brazilian mother and an English father; the book explores her life within and between these two cultures, and what it means to belong. The questions come: where are you from? How do you pronounce your name again? Why don’t you have an accent? There are moments of happiness and joy, but also trauma that makes the protagonist feel a stranger in her own body. ⁣

The structure of Stubborn Archivist is fragmentary, and the style veers between prose and poetry: language that bends and stretches to accommodate what this person needs to say. The nearest match I can think of is Anakana Schofield’s Martin John – very different in subject matter, but both novels organised to create meaning for the protagonist more than the reader. She’s not there to tell us her life story; we are allowed in – and the honour is ours.

Published by Fleet.

Testament by Kim Sherwood

When celebrated artist Joseph Silk dies, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter among his effects that brings back a past he had tried to shake off. Silk was born Jószef Zyyad, who left Hungary as a refugee in 1945. Unlike his brother László, Jószef was determined to leave that part of his life behind, and Eva knows nothing of his experiences during the Holocaust. The letter she finds is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, asking Silk’s permission to use in an exhibition his account of the time, which has been found in the museum’s collection. ⁣

There are then three strands to Sherwood’s novel: Eva’s present-day uncovering of the past, and the contrasting historical stories of Jószef and László. There are some powerful moments as the truth is gradually revealed, and Sherwood explores what it means to bear witness.

Published by riverrun.

Thanks to FMcM Associates for providing review copies of the shortlist.

100+ Books That Shaped My World

You may have seen the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World“, compiled by a panel of writers and commentators. Well, the other week, Nina Allan was inspired to make her own list of books that had shaped her world. I was really taken by the idea, so I’ve been compiling a list myself.

My 100 entries include novels, story collections and series, English-language works and books in translation –they’re all key parts of my reading history. The only restriction I’ve given myself is one entry per author.

Like Nina’s, my list is arranged in rough order of first reading, from my early childhood to this year. It’s the first time I have attempted to put my entire reading life in one place. I can see the evolution of myself as a reader – the continuities as well as the changes.

The resulting list isn’t really meant to be representative or comprehensive. But each of these books and series played its own part, small or large, in making me the reader I am today.

100 NOVELS, COLLECTIONS AND SERIES THAT SHAPED MY WORLD

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
The Hodgeheg by Dick King-Smith
Flames in the Forest by Ruskin Bond
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
The Conker as Hard as a Diamond by Chris Powling
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp
The Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (et al)
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The Legends of Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and John Grant
The Virtual Reality Adventure series by Dave Morris and Mark Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
253 by Geoff Ryman
Quicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury
Escardy Gap by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove
The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived by Robert Rankin
Ye Gods! by Tom Holt
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Royal Changeling by John Whitbourn
The Saga of the Exiles series by Julian May
The Great Game trilogy by Dave Duncan
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Orokon series by Tom Arden (David Rain)
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Gold by Dan Rhodes
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
Solo by Rana Dasgupta
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Loving by Henry Green
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Longshot by Katie Kitamura
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Nod by Adrian Barnes
70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado
Communion Town by Sam Thompson
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Zone by Mathias Enard
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila
The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash
T Singer by Dag Solstad
Berg by Ann Quin
Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

The Measure of a Man – Marco Malvaldi: a European Literature Network review

On the table today, an Italian novel: The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi (translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor). If you like the idea of a Renaissance murder mystery featuring Leonardo da Vinci, with added political intrigue and a few sly nods at the present day… you’ll want this book in your life.

Click here to read my review of The Measure of a Man for European Literature Network.

Book details

The Measure of a Man (2018) by Marco Malvaldi, tr. Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor (2019), Europa Editions, 272 pages, paperback.

Now on Instagram

I’ve joined Instagram, where you can find me as @davidsworldofbooks.

I’d never really considered it before, because I’m not much of a photographer. But then I started to think about it as a way of structuring a blog, and then it seemed worth a try.

At the moment, I’m experimenting with using Instagram for shorter posts, and reserving this blog for longer ones. I’ll try that for a while, and see how it works out. I may end up cross-posting back here, but for now I’m linking to Instagram from my reading log.

If you’re on Instagram, please stop by!

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2019

The shortlist for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced on Wednesday:

  • Amy Arnold, Slip of a Fish (And Other Stories)
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mark Haddon, The Porpoise (Chatto & Windus)
  • Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Vesna Main, Good Day? (Salt Publishing)
  • Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

It’s been a good few years since I did a proper shortlist readalong (apart from the Man Booker International Prize, of course), and I already have half of these, so I’m going to read the list and report back. The Goldsmiths usually comes up with some gems, so I’m looking forward to it already.

Blog tour: The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis

Today’s post is part of a blog tour for a new Welsh novel: The Jeweller (Y Gemydd) by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies, published last week by Honno Press). Lewis is a prolific writer for adults and children in the Welsh language, and has also worked on the TV drama series Y Gwll/Hinterland and Craith/Hidden. She won the Wales Book of the Year Award for her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco, which was translated into English (by Davies) as Martha, Jack & Shanco. I reviewed that book for Fiction Uncovered a few years ago, and I’ve looked forward to reading Lewis again ever since.

The Jeweller is the story of Mari, who lives alone in a cottage by the sea with her cat and her monkey, Nanw. Mari runs a market stall selling jewellery and vintage clothing; she also helps her fellow trader Mo with clearing out dead people’s homes, in return for for first refusal of anything she might like to sell.

So, Mari spends her time surrounded by the bits and pieces of other lives. But her most prized possession is a piece of raw emerald that first caught her eye as a child. She would love to cut it just a little, to see the shine within. However, Mari knows enough to be wary:

But yes, of course such gorgeous uncut gems can trick you. She’d heard of jewellers sent insane by years of knowing a stone’s face as incisively as they did their own. They’d put all their faith in it. Been led to believe they had the key to every cell. That it was rock solid. But they’d take up their tools and it would flake to powder just the same. Leaving the memory of that germ of beauty.

This illustrates one of The Jeweller‘s main themes, which is about what lies beneath the surface of life, and how fragile it may all be. For a start, Mari’s market is under threat of closure. There are also hints of secrets in Mari’s past. They don’t come into full focus until the novel approaches its end, so there’s a sense of tension throughout as you never know which way things will turn. The Jeweller adds up to a portrait of a character at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of her options but in need of a direction.

Book details

The Jeweller (2007) by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies (2019), Honno Press, 208 pages, paperback.

Tamarisk Row: a world in glass

There are a number of writers I’ve been intrigued to read, whom I’ve heard about through blogging. Ann Quin was one; another name that has kept cropping up is the Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Murnane’s work has not been that widely available in the UK, but And Other Stories are in the process of publishing several of his books. I’ve been reading his 1974 debut, Tamarisk Row, which is previously unpublished in this country.

Tamarisk Row chronicles the childhood of Clement Killeaton in 1940s Victoria. Each section is a single paragraph, sometimes pages long. This is a novel that asks you to slow down and focus on the writing. When you do, what opens up is quite something. Murnane will insert Clement’s daydreams and imaginative games seamlessly into the middle of his long paragraphs. This creates vertiginous spaces where the everyday reality of the book seems about to twist into something transcendent. A particularly striking example comes when Clement imagines a world within the shifting light of his front door’s coloured glass:

Creatures neither green nor gold but more richly coloured than any grass or sun try to find their way home through a land where cities of unpredictable shapes and colours rise up on plains of fiery haze, then vanish just as quickly while some of their inhabitants flee towards promises of other plains where cities may appear whose glancing colours will sometimes recall for those few who reach them certain glimpses of the places that have gone…

Long, winding sentences like this draw the reader in; then there are these flashes of a world beyond.

Book details

Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, 288 pages, paperback.

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