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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.

#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.

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]

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.

The Drover’s Wives – Ryan O’Neill

Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).

First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.

The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.

Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.

The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.

In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.

Special offer

Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.

Book details

The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.

The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons this week, with a review of Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Dollmaker.

Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.

Click here to read my review in full.

The Dollmaker (2019) is published by riverrun in the UK and Other Press in the US.

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

Night Boat to Tangier: trapped in the conversation

In Kevin Barry’s newly Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier (pub. Canongate), ageing Irish gangsters Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond have travelled to Spain to search for Maurice’s missing 23-year-old daughter Dilly. Towards the start of the novel, the pair corner a young Englishman named Benny, who looks like he belongs to the kind of crowd they imagine Dilly has fallen in with. They question him over whether he might have seen her:

Benjamin? Maurice says. We’re not saying ye all know each other or anything, like. Sure there could be half a million of ye sweet children in Spain. The way things are going.

Charlie whispers –

Because ye’d have the weather for it.

Maurice whispers –

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.

Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.

Under the starry skies, Maurice says.

Charlie stands, gently awed, and proclaims –

‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Whose line was that, Maurice?

I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it might have been Little Stevie Wonder.

A genius. Little Stevie.

The dialogue rolls on like this, trapping the reader in the conversation as surely as Benny himself is trapped in the encounter. This is not a situation with any rules that Benny can grasp, and the sense of uncertainty builds: will the next line be friendly or lethal? It’s electrifying to read.

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Plume – Will Wiles: a Splice review

This week I’ll have two reviews up at Splice: here’s the first. Plume, the third novel by Will Wiles, is the story of a lifestyle journalist keen to interview a reclusive cult writer who may (or may not) have some special insight into what makes modern society tick. Plume goes from harrowing depictions of its protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism to a sharp examination of how precarious urban life can be. It makes an interesting point of comparison with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is something I talk about in the review.

Read my review of Plume here…

…and here are some more reviews. In The Quietus, Nina Allan considers Plume as a London novel. Jackie Law at Neverimitate is also largely positive. In The Spectator, Christopher Priest calls the novel “joy unconfined”.

There’s also an interesting interview with Wiles over at Minor Literature[s].

Book details

Plume (2019) by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 352 pages, hardback.

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