Contributors to The Lonely Crowd pick their favourite books of the year.
The intriguing title of Martina Evans’ Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is taken from a phrase that the author remembers was once spoken when a group of her female relatives were gathered together. All of the women that day were either widowed or single – meaning that complete honesty was at last permissible. The phrase thus signals the speaking without censorship which is the hallmark of this book.
Like Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, Evans’ Now We Can Talk Openly About Men explores the subject matter of murder and violence from an intimate standpoint, producing a linear narrative which demands to be read from the first page to the last. Set in Ireland in 1919 and 1924 the poems show how the lives of a group of women were overturned by the conflicts that surrounded them. Written as a pair of dramatic monologues this work offers the reader an intimate understanding of the impact of the Troubles and the Civil War on the lives of ordinary women.
For Kitty Donavan the spreading violence and chaos is heightened by her addiction to ‘Wrixam’s linctus’ – one of any number of freely available over-the-counter medicines which were laced with morphine. Kitty is also haunted by visions and memories of her husband (referred to as Himself) who may have drowned. The men around her – the rebels, the Tans, the Auxies (British soldiers returned from the First World War sent to Ireland to keep the peace) are themselves often suffering and stupefied and maimed. There is Captain Galway with his missing arm and ‘the empty sleeve that had lured Flora. Sucked her up/ like a hungry straw.’
Evans uses very particular details to bring this work to life, not just the names and dates and places, but clothing (women’s in particular) which in the first monologue she describes using the language of the fashion plate – ‘three-quarter-length smashed strawberry coat’, ‘a gown of georgette in two shades, flame & grey’, ‘the Indian Yellow dress’. But the kaleidoscope of colours vanishes in the second part; now the world is reduced to the black and white and grey of the documentary photograph or the Pathénewsreel. Sewing – which had been so important to the dressmaker Kitty in the first monologue is, by the very last lines of the book, reduced from creation to mere repair work. Using a pun of double meaning, Eileen (Kitty Donavan’s adopted daughter) who has ended up in Kilmainham Jail for her part in the rebellion, says, ‘but all I darned was / men’s socks & they were always on the run.’
Jo Mazelis is the author of Ritual, 1968, Significance, Circle Games & Diving Girls.
Inside the Wolf – Niamh Boyce
A début poetry collection from novelist Niamh Boyce, these are clever, concise poems, that revisit ancestors who gifted the author a legacy of words – their ghostly presences are woven through the work. Boyce has a visual artist’s eye: she dissects fairytales and reassembles them with colour, menace and wit. Her imagery is visceral and she is as comfortable poking fun as shifting the reader’s heart. These are honest poems, open to beauty and to examining women’s complicated negotiations with the world. Inside the Wolf is a diverse, truthful and vivid collection, a fierce celebration of words and women.
Notes to Self – Emilie Pine
A wonderful collection of essays about family, dodgy parenting, alcoholism, fertility issues, illness, loyalty, loss and hope. I read these in one gulp on a ferry across the Irish Sea this summer and I was transported by Pine’s clean prose, wondrous honesty, and insight. The final essay in the book, about over-working, made me re-assess my own tendencies and provoked me to action. What more could you want from an essay than wisdom that causes change? A fantastic book, deserving of all its recent garlands.
See What Can be Done – Lorrie Moore
I accidentally read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure this year and my reading pile has been the richer for it. Lorrie Moore has been writing criticism for over thirty years, and her lively, erudite reviews and essays are collected together here for the first time. Her criticism is more pared back than her fiction, less relentlessly witty, though it still has that left-of-field intelligence and wryness that is the mark of all her work. The book features more than 60 pieces – many from the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books – as well as articles about politics, TV programmes like Friday Night Lights, profiles on people such as Lena Dunham, and events, if you could call them that, like 9/11 and the O.J. Simpson trial. I’d recommend this book to fans of America, to non-fiction fans, to anyone who writes reviews, and to Lorrie fans, alike. It’s intimate and expansive, clever, pensive, and deep-hearted.
I’m a huge fan of flash fiction and two super collections I read this year are both by Americans who live in Europe: Alligators at Night by Meg Pokrass and Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen. Both authors are also editors of flash fiction publications (New Flash Fiction Review and SmokeLong Quarterly, respectively) and their knowledge of the form, and commitment to it, is all over their work. Both excel at wit coupled with pathos; their characters are always vivid, often disaffected and disconnected, and always one hundred per cent believable and humane. A fantastic pair of collections for anyone wanting to read superlative flash.
Nuala O’Connor’s books include Becoming Belle, Joyride to Jupiter, Miss Emily & Mother America.
My father in law was a wonderful story teller, he would wrap me in his stories with his voice his accent and words and the way he put them all together. The plot was rarely the point of listening to him, there was a beautiful flow that took me downstream. I like books that do this, that allow me to live my life slowly, that give me space to stop and think for myself, to look around at the pictures they draw. I like the humanity of loose ends and beautiful mature writing that doesn’t feel that it has to explain. For this reason I mostly read poetry and non-fiction, rarely novels. Some novels can take me months to read because if I enjoy them I stop to allow the words to sink in. One of these was Reservoir 13 by John McGregor. I am a lover of thin books and this is a fat book for me, 320 odd pages, that gracefully flow and roll through the changing countryside and the slowly ageing lives of a group of people who have to find a way to live together after somebody who was part of their shared story just disappears. This is not a novel to just sit and read, it is a landscape to explore.
Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole will be published by Harville Secker in April 2019.
Sophie van Llewyn
Vox by Christina Dalcher — Because it’s such a timely book, even leaving aside the fact that feminist dystopias are ‘in.’ Because it’s so easy for a regime to fall into extremism, and for people to become fundamentalists within the shortest amount of time. Because females have been, will be, and are being silenced right now in some parts of the world. And not in the least, because it’s a fun, entertaining book I simply raced through.
Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton — The novella-in-flash is such a fascinating form. Stephanie Hutton frames beautifully the story of three sisters growing up in an abusive environment, and their different mechanisms of coping. It’s a story of stunning psychological depth (no wonder, given the author’s background as a clinical psychologist) and of breathtaking prose.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson — I’m generally a huge fan of Kate Atkinson and of WW2 stories. And I think this may be my favourite out of all of her books, and this says a lot because I love her books, did I mention that?) And when Kate Atkinson writes about spies, well, that’s bound to be fabulous, isn’t it? And it is. It’s racy, twisty, impeccably researched and beautifully written. A novel I’ll certainly return to.
Sophie van Llewyn’s ‘Bottled Goods’ is published by Fairlight Books.
Travel torn, sitting on a balcony/watching the heavy Dalmatian rain…
(from Night Coming)
Modernism has a lot to commend it and an equal amount to answer for. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the world of poesy. That’s a word not much used today but it was beloved of the Edwardian ‘bookmen’, for whom an archaism was proof of depth of learning, and ‘a far-reaching influence’ was always ‘an influence of a far-reaching character’. Among the few who almost contemporaneously shunned them and all they stood for in the way of elegant circumlocution were Evelyn Waugh and the critic Cyril Connolly. Waugh’s style appeared to have no provenance; Connolly early identified the enemies of promise. They brought sense to changed proceedings before the Modern movement, and specifically its third-rate heirs, got rid of baby and bathwater.
The Great War may have encouraged artists to start afresh. Nothing wrong with that, but to the sceptics it grew to seem suspiciously like a licence to be undisciplined. As Hugh Kenner and other critics pointed out, the opposite was true: experiment and innovation demanded rigour. But, on the grounds that anything was now permitted, let alone encouraged, inquiry has burgeoned, and it all demands to be taken seriously, though its claim to seriousness is often risible. Poetry has been a significant casualty. Prose chopped into poetic shape and the scattering of lines and words willy-nilly across the page, each unjustified by any understanding of what a poetic voice is, or what its utterance looks or sounds like, abound. A lot of today’s published poetry is resistant to reading, because it regards ‘meaning’ as something literal and therefore not to be be countenanced.
Another victim is reputation. My book of the year arrived late and with a resounding thud. It was the Collected Poems of Ken Smith, published by Bloodaxe (he was its first poet over thirty years ago) and a veritable door-stopper at almost 650 pages. I doubt if many readers of poetry under thirty will be familiar with his work, or perhaps even his name. Although he ended up living in London, Smith belonged to an almost self-sufficient Northern tradition, in his case centred on Leeds and its university. It included Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill, Wilson Knight, and Peter Redgrove. Even now, from the literary viewpoint, the South is another country. Bloodaxe, arguably the most important poetry publisher in Britain, is based in Northumberland.
Smith was modern to a fault, in that he recognised no geographical or social boundaries. His unsettled father bequeathed him a wanderlust. He travelled abroad, including to Cuba, from where he returned having contracted Legionnaire’s Disease (he died in 2003), and from this social stratum to that, at one time being poet-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Smith didn’t so much champion the dispossessed and disaffected as give them their day on the page. He trawled life for words and images, which he transmuted, not always successfully but with his art in the right place. He was always writing and lived to write. There are 632 poems in this lovingly edited and constructed volume. As a solid testament and memorial it is almost lapidary. But nothing for Kenneth John Smith was set in stone: it was modern, fluid, on the move, and he was always chasing it.
Nigel Jarrett’s latest books include Slowly Burning & Who Killed Emil Kreisler?
Man Booker Prize Shortlisted The Mars Room has to be on my list. It’s just a fantastic, rich piece of work. Rachel Kushner’s meticulously researched meditation on incarceration reads like 80’s era Delillo, had he for some reason decided to write Orange is the New Black. Filled with sharp claustrophobic prose, dark humour and the kinds of nonchalantly delivered acts of cruelty that will have you wondering if Kushner created them, or had them recounted to her during her time with real inmates. To get a flavour, I recommend checking out the extract Stanville, published in the New Yorker earlier in the year.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People was another obvious stand out. Rooney’s characters are holographic and her prose is so confident and smooth that it seems to dilate time.
I particularly adore how Rooney addresses class in her work. The weight of its presence is impossible to ignore, but acknowledged only in the most surgical of ways. The rest of the time it just looms, this invisible mass, tampering with the gravity these characters exist in.
I’m pretty sure Rooney has written a classic. Time will tell.
Have a stack of catching up do over the Christmas break – Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Danny Denton’s Earlie King and The Kid in Yellow, Anna Burns Milkman!
I’m very behind, I blame video games.
Paul Whyte is an emerging Irish writer. Most recently his work has appeared in The Bohemyth, The Moth & The Lonely Crowd.
Of all the authors, across all the genres, that I have spent time with this year, there is one that has stayed with me long after I closed the cover. Indeed, I have returned to it more than once. Perhaps three times or more. And that is Cath Barton and her novella, The Plankton Collector, the worthy winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 in the novella category.
As a genre (I hate this word as it is so arbitrary and based on a word-count range that seems to fluctuate everywhere I look for codification) the novella has come in for a lot of criticism recently and has something of the unspoken attributed to it. At the Hay Festival this year, I was interested to hear agents and publishers feeling the need to call it ‘a short novel’. Personally, I see it as a ‘long short story’ in that it takes place over a relatively short time span, has a limited number of characters and themes, has a simple plot line, and structurally moves like an arrow in flight. And yes, has relatively few number of words if word count matters.
Cath Barton’s The Plankton Collector fits into all the preceding boxes, and in just seventy-three small and beautifully formed pages took this reader on an unforgettable emotional journey from grief and loss to hope and healing. Though the words are few, they are wonderfully chosen and linger long in the mind.
Barton is a writer who knows nature and knows people. This is a writer with life experience who often tells rather than shows and is ever-present on the page: ‘we remember erroneously’, ‘seaside holidays made happy by a trick of memory’. She engages directly with the reader in a comforting and close story-telling mode which for me has echoes of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s learning to read with Janet and John and Peter and Jane. Using imperatives such as ‘Look’ and ‘See’, she takes the reader from a world of exteriors to a world of interiors revealing a family coming undone though grief, secrets and lies, the unsaid or the unexpressed. And then, gradually putting the family back together again through the visits of the mysterious Plankton Collector.
The Plankton Collector, in various guises, visits each member of the family enabling them to confront what is ailing them spiritually, find happiness in past memories, and so start to heal. He seems to breathe life-giving oxygen into them that begins the process and that’s why I found the title so pertinent. And then he leaves when they no longer have need for him, which again has echoes of Nanny McPhee, Mary Poppins, or even Crow in Max Porter’s ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’.
The book is simple in structure and syntax, clearly signposting the reader from the set-up with its foreshadowing of dark days to come: ‘But look, already the leaves of the corkscrew willows are yellowing, presaging the decays of autumn and the deep sleeps of winter’, to the denouement and resolution where autumn is seen as a season of renewal, in a well worked narrative arc. Each family member has a perspective along the way, and each a distinctive voice: father, mother, son and daughter. All come together on the final page “to live as a family once more.”
However, the most distinctive voice is that of Barton herself, whose lyrical prose seems to effortlessly meld magic realism and nature writing into something utterly believable and life-affirming.
I once asked the wonderful Welsh writer and former lecturer of mine, Jon Gower, what made for a great short story or novella. His answer was simple: reader satisfaction. Not necessarily a tied up ending for as we know, life’s not like that; but more like all the air being squeezed out of an accordion. I saw that image. I understood it. And I feel it now in this novella by Barton.
Jane Fraser’s first short story collection, The South Westerlies, will be published by Salt next year.
Becoming Belle by Nuala O’ Connor transports us, via sumptuous and well-considered language, to the streets of Victorian London. It was with eagerness that I followed the journey of the sisters Bilton from their military home in Hampshire to the bright lights and plush surroundings of London’s Empire Theatre and finally to Belle’s marital estate in Ballinasloe. Relationships are drawn within these pages with great sensitivity – I was moved in particular by the friendship between Belle Bilton and her ever-dependable, Wertheimer. Evocative and engaging, this is a triumph for Nuala O’ Connor – possibly her best work to date.
Not one but two stunning anthologies were published this year, both by independent publishers. The first is the astounding Reading the Future, an anthology of 250 Irish writers edited by Alan Hayes of Arlen House, to celebrate 250 years of Hodges Figgis bookstore. This anthology includes household names such as Edna O’ Brien, Donal Ryan, and John Boyne alongside Ireland’s newest talent. One of the lovely things about this anthology is the range of writers included, but also the fact that it celebrates all types of writing, in English and in Irish, from novel extracts and short stories to poetry and plays in every genre imaginable.
The second wonderful anthology is Stinging Fly Stories edited by Declan Meade and Sarah Gilmartin, celebrating twenty years of the Stinging Fly journal. Again, the range of writers included is admirable – and it is particularly interesting to see how far many of these writers have come since first being published. The anthology includes some of my favourite short story writers including Claire Keegan, Molly McCloskey and Danielle McLaughlin, alongside newer practitioners such as Sara Baume, Oisin Fagan and Wendy Erskine. Declan and Sarah are to be commended on this selection, which showcases the best of the Stinging Fly, and for their continued dedication to publishing new and exciting short story writers.
In a world where humorous writing is in short supply, Cheet Sheats, the debut fiction collection from Edward O’ Dwyer is sure to give you something to giggle about. The book is made up of 108 stories of infidelity ranging from the ridiculous to the mundane – but the overall effect is anything but. The writing is conversational in tone, the humour reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie – an unfaithful woman is impaled by an umbrella when her bus crashes, a man mistakes an elderly lady for his date when he’s disoriented by the darkness of a cinema, a man is made a cuckold when he returns home to find his wife in the company of a naked clown… Each story is told with a wry and clever wit. I’m looking forward to the second volume of Cheat Sheets to be published next year.
Tanya Farrelly is the author of When Black Dogs Sing, The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close.
Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal doesn’t need any extra publicity from me, however Horatio and I have a ‘history’. I was on the interviewing panel at Atlantic College in 1990 when a nervous, skinny boy, recently expelled from his private school came for interview. Horatio describes this in his second book, Truant. I didn’t actually teach him while he was there, butmuch later he taught some of my classes when I was away at a conference! Last year I chanced upon his essay in the Autumn section of Seasons(Edited by Melissa Harrison) and was struck by the clarity of his prose, its scope and its verve; it is only three and a half pages long. The Light in the Dark is much longer – though it is easy to read in one sitting – and more inward looking: ‘I am aware of an inner fighting, of a struggle not to lie down under the battering of these dim, thudding days.’ There are also many ecstatic passages of description, which wrap cosily around this winter reader, yet somehow, I prefer his Autumnal essay.
Ellie Rees’ poetry has appeared in The Lonely Crowd, New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, Roundyhouse, The Cabinet of Heed & The Swansea Review amongst other places.
Part Two of our Books of the Year can be found here. Part Three will be published on Saturday.
Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.