Books of the Year 2018 / Part Three
Contributors to The Lonely Crowd pick their favourite books of the year.
It’s been a strange twelve months. I had a baby right at the start of it. That pretty much blew reading out of the water for most of the year. I was sent a lot of unbound proofs ahead of publication, and some of them, I knew, would be great. But I just couldn’t focus. So! The books below are sort of handholds in a strange year.
The night before the baby was born, I read Tim Pear’s The Horseman – the first of his West Country Trilogy. I did then read the second and third parts as they were sent me. Beautiful. I hadn’t felt that sort of connection with the people of an extended narrative since reading Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country as a young teenager.
Utterly different, in September, and on the recommendation (nigh on insistence) of my Dutch publisher, I read An Untouched House, by Willem Frederik Hermans. It’s a sundering short novel, written in 1951, but translated into English as a stand-alone translation only this year. A partisan finds himself in an apparently abandoned house after retreating troops devastate a spa town… I’ll say no more, and meanwhile bet, like me, that you’ll read it in a sitting.
The same Dutchman gave me Feeding the Rat while I was in Amsterdam. Exhausted as I was, very few books made me want to ‘get to bed to read’. This got me back into that habit. It’s not necessarily astonishing writing, but Al Alvarez’s story of legendary climber Mo Anthoine addresses a simple, fundamental question: Why the hell do we do what we do?
That’s perhaps an appropriate question, too, given both Pears’ book and An Untouched House are war stories. As is the book that made the strongest impression on me in 2018. I was early to a meeting with my agent and went into a bookshop. I picked up Roald Dahl’s Over to You. Ten short stories connected by his time in the RAF. I have goose bumps now, just remembering them.
Cynan Jones’ most recent novels are Cove and The Dig.
One of the more surprising results of the election of Trump has been its effect on my reading habits. Nothing that has transpired in my life – not even the birth of premature twins – has ever derailed my reading for longer than a few days, until Donald Trump was elected U.S. President. For the first six months I hardly read a single novel and even now, over two years later, I am plagued by a fractured attention span that I blame entirely on him. What’s happening in Washington is so awful, and yet so horribly compelling, that I have become addicted to the news feeds on my phone. An antidote this year was a novel that fed my habit, while glorying in the altogether better class of administration that was the White House under F.D.R. Amy Bloom’s White Houses is a fictionalised account of the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickock. Hickock was an Associated Press reporter who interviewed Eleanor on the campaign trail and subsequently moved into the White House to be close to her. Not surprisingly she had to give up reporting because of her impartiality and instead travelled the country collating information on The Depression for the White House. The novel is narrated by ‘Hick,’ with a wonderfully authentic voice and loving period detail – think Cole Porter and Gershwin and sidecars by five o’clock – and Hick’s own life, which saw her escape a childhood of poverty in South Dakota to become a reporter working on the most sensational stories of the day, is quite a story in itself. There is also the fascination of Hick’s intimate view of the mighty Eleanor, and the glimpses she offers us of Franklin, who she describes as ‘the greatest conman on earth.’ But White Houses is above all a love story, about a passion between two middle-aged women who are not conventional beauties, as Hick tells us. “That’s what we’d say, and laugh, as if we were some other kind.”
My other book of the year is The Vogue, by Eoin MacNamee. McNamee has been a favourite of mine ever since the magnificent Blue Tango, which I still rate as one of the very best Irish novels of many a year, and The Vogue is a worthy successor to it. Seeped in the same sinister atmosphere and dripping with the same poetic language, the novel is set against the bleak landscape of a vast abandoned WWII airbase on the County Down Coast. A young woman’s body has been found in a shifting sandpit, but the body may not be contemporary, bringing us back into the dark, layered history of the place. The novel revisits the nineteen forties, when a black US soldier stationed at the base took up with the local minister’s daughter. But there’s a later history in the nineteen seventies, when the airbase was used as a children’s home. A cabal of local men populate all these layers of history, right up to the present day, and it is they who provide coherence to the story. This is dark stuff – in some ways it reminded me of the TV drama Ozark – but there’s tenderness here too, particularly in the treatment of the lives of women. Most of all there’s beauty, appearing sporadically in the story but flourishing at all times in McNamee’s supremely stylish writing.
Kathleen MacMahon is the author of This Is How It Ends and The Long Hot Summer.
Arnold Thomas Fanning
Autofiction seems a genre that is increasingly vital to the times we live in. It’s a hard-to-categorise, hard-to-pin down, and above all hard-to-define form; my 1994 desktop Collins Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for it, blithely skipping in its entries from ‘autoeroticism’ to ‘autogamy’ (“self-fertilization in flowering plants”, in case you’re wondering); but its online iteration does, pithily defining it as “fiction that draws heavily on the author’s personal experiences”. Those who appreciate the best in autofiction know it is so much more than this however. It’s apt for the times we live in to find definitions for autofiction so easily online, as it seems such a 21stCentury form, even though it has a longer tradition; but apt too for my choice for favourite book of the year, Joanna Walsh’s Break.Up, for this narrative of a love affair that is over before it is consummated has a narrator adrift not only in the cities of Europe, but in an increasingly alienating online world as well. “All love stories begin with the letter I”, the narrator of this haunting novel begins, and we follow this ‘I’ as she travels the continent, experiencing liminal spaces, shaken by her past, broods, reflects, remembers, and above all questions herself and an enigmatic ‘you’ who has abandoned her, who has left her bereft and alone, and who has done so not only in the real world but in the virtual one also. A stunning addition to the canon of autofictional writing.
Arnold Thomas Fanning is the author of Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery.
I think it’s been a rich year in Welsh publishing, although maybe not as much has come out as has in previous years – that means it’s very difficult to choose the best, because so much of it has been really good. In fiction, though, David Llewellyn’s A Simple Scale is the one that stood out for me. Llewellyn is the real deal – it’s a thoughtful, superbly written story that drips with largely realised literary ambitions. As you’d expect from someone who writes a lot of audio drama, his dialogue pings, particularly in the sections of the book set in golden era Hollywood. But he’s not afraid to evoke the ghosts of Solzhenitsyn when the story then moves to the Gulags. Not an easy switch to pull off, but A Simple Scale is a classy complex utterly satisfying literary novel.
Outside of Wales, my reading has been limited if I’m honest with you. There are only so many hours in the day. But I wholeheartedly agree with the plaudits for Sally Rooney. Normal People is written with such control it offers the reader such a feeling of freedom – and that is one pinnacle of the craft. My favourite book of the year (although technically it came out late in 2017) is Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a magnificent personal creative essay on the work of translating Roland Barthes. I’m choosing that as my book of the year, even though it doesn’t quite fit into 2018, as it will be a book I return to year on year and I don’t imagine it ever feeling anything other than fresh and timeless and important, and everything I think great literature can be – personal, universal, beautiful, poetic, frustrating, real.
I’m no good at choosing favourites at the best of times, and to give justice to this long year of snows, heatwaves, storms and the books that defined it, I’m giving you more of a list than a digest. I know I’ll have missed a lot out. At the same time, it feels like 2018 has been whipped out from under my feet before I’ve even had time to feign balance. There is an anti-list hovering under my list, of all the books I meant to read this year, but didn’t fit in. They are legion.
I’ve spent a lot of the year urging people to read Abi Andrew’s debut novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness, and will continue to do so. It acts as both an antidote to the ubiquity of hyper-masculinity and adventure porn in nature and place writing. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is the most lucid exploration I have read of the difficulty of choosing to have children, or not. Dionne Brand has long been one of my favourite poets, but her latest novel Theory is the first of hers I’ve read, and it’s magnificent. I read Sarah Perry’s third novel Melmoth in short chunks because it’s genuinely unsettling and I needed the right headspace to read it. I think it’s her best yet. Similarly, the perfectly-realised worlds of Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows and Catherine Fisher’s The Clockwork Crow, whilst aimed at younger audiences, will haunt me a long time.
2018 has been the year I’ve found the nonfiction I needed, much of which deals with the complexity of living with chronic pain and illness. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman, Invisible by Michele Lent Hirsch, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber, Sick by Porochista Khakpour, Handywoman by Kate Davies, and the 3 Cups Press anthology On Bodies all made me cry and laugh in recognition and solidarity.
I’ve also been moved by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Marina Benjamin’s Insomina, Vivek Shraya’s I’m afraid of men, Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice.
My poetry highlights include:
Kaveh Akbar Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Billy-Ray Belcourt This World is a Wound
Vahni Capildeo Venus as a Bear
J.R. Carpenter An Ocean of Static
Sophie Collins Who is Mary Sue?
Kate Davis The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk
I also have to offer a counter-balance to Heti in Liz Berry’s luminous pamphlet The Republic of Motherhood, and some magical intervention from Spells: 21stCentury Occult Poetry (ed. by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás.
Lastly, I think I’ve only read one graphic novel this year (an error, surely) but it was the brilliant Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, which more than met my needs.
Polly Atkin is the author of Basic Nest Architecture.
This has been an extraordinary year for fiction. I’ve spent so much time reading over the last twelve months simply because the recommendations kept rolling in: friends telling me about novels they couldn’t put down and stories they couldn’t forget. One of these is Manon Steffan Ros’ dystopic tale Llyfr Glas Nebo (‘Nebo’s Blue Book’), which won the Prose Medal at this year’s Eisteddfod. I hope it’s translated into English soon (and other languages too), so that as many people as possible can experience its perfect storytelling. Set on a farm in rural North Wales after an apocalyptic event, a mother, teenage son and baby daughter, cut off from the world, struggle to make a life for themselves in strange and dangerous circumstances. Unlike many recent novels, Ros succeeds in delivering a startlingly unexpected ending; the sort of ending which makes you see everything in a new light. Alongside novels, there were several important short story collections: Brief Lives by Christopher Meredith – a contemplation of mortality, beautifully expressed through historical and futuristic settings, the astoundingly versatile Stevie Davies’ Arrest Me for I Have Run Away and João Morais’ Things That Make the Heart Go Faster, a wittily observed and exciting portrait of Cardiff life.
Outside of Wales, two other books changed my life a little this year. The first was Polish writer Olga Tokarzuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a dark murder mystery to follow the international success of her mesmerising memoir-like fiction in Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft). The second was Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, a slim novel published in 1988 which made a huge impression on me. Exploring the colonial legacy in her home nation Antigua, Kincaid’s elegant prose invites a white British reader to think carefully and critically about the ethics of tourism and, by extension, that British imperial past that many believe Britain can simply shrug off. A Small Place may have been written thirty years ago, but its message is as strong today, if not more powerful, than ever before.
Eluned Gramich is a Welsh-German writer and translator. Her long short story, ‘The Lion and the Star’, was recently published as part of the series Hometown Tales.
Meadhbh Ní Eadhra
From a Low and Quiet Sea Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan writes in such a way that you forget about Donal Ryan and there you are with his characters, immersed in their world. It’s like music; the writing sings. This novel is filled with familiar and unfamiliar terrain, bringing us further afield than usual to Syria and then right back home to Limerick. Farouk, Lampy and John’s distinctive voices carry their stories into our lives with a quiet power and compassion one cannot deny. This book is laced with humanity and humour, and as I came to know Ryan’s characters, it felt strange to call them characters. They are people, and I felt their presence so strongly that it did not seem inconceivable that I may bump into Lampy someday as we both stand waiting impatiently for a bus. That is writing at its very best.
Meadhbh Ní Eadhra is from Galway and is the author of Rua, Fáinne Fí Fífí and Faye.
I make no apologies for choosing one of this year’s most important reprints, and one consisting of a single poem, rather than a new collection or anthology, the reason being that the work in question is, quite simply, the greatest poem written during my lifetime, Basil Bunting’s Brigg Flats.
I do not intend to rehearse the supreme qualities of the poem itself: its symphonic rigour and poetic power, the unshowy virtuosity in the use of language, the sheer musicality of rhythms, tones and cadences, its utter formal and structural integrity. Rather, I would wish to celebrate the splendour and excellence of Bloodaxe’s edition, which first appeared in 2009, and which has already undergone two reprints prior to the present one.
In addition to the text, the volume contains some short essays by the poet himself, one on the poem, another on the relationship between the words and their sounds, and, most importantly, the poet’s views on the nature of poetry, the creating and performing of it, and its misappropriation by various coteries of charlatans, not only those that inhabit the factions and gangs of the poetry establishment itself, but also those who use the reading of verse to satisfy their own attention-seeking agendas. He reserves his greatest scorn, however, for the pretentions of academics and pseudo-intellectual literary critics, declaring: ‘That sort of knowledge will make it harder for you to understand the poem, because…you will be distracted by a multitude of irrelevant scraps of knowledge’, a fundamental insight that resonates today as tellingly as during the decades when Brigg Flats was conceived, written, and published.
This is confirmed by Peter Bell’s terrific 1982 film, in which the poet discusses his work, eschewing all invitation to indulge in any extraneous meanderings and conjectures. That this is offered with the book on DVD, along with an audio CD of Bunting reading Brigg Flats, along with fine contributions by Richard Caddel, Neil Astley and Don Share, makes this whole issue a matter of historical as well as literary significance. Essential reading and listening for anyone who claims an interest in the poetic arts, practitioners especially.
Chris Hall’s books include Balladz f Bedlam and Bneath Cragshhaddo.
My book of the year is, in fact, a couple of books: volumes 1 and 2 of Peter Riley’s Collected Poems. Weighing in at around 1200 pages, these books bring together poems from a period of five and a half decades. One of the great values of the project is that we are presented with poems which had never before been published. Around a tenth of the work comes into this category. Shearsman is to be congratulated on undertaking this challenging task and producing such handsome volumes that do honour to one of the most important and moving bodies of work produced in recent decades. Riley does not do poems about language or poems about places. His poems are self-reflexive meditations on what it might mean to inhabit a specific location, and what it might mean to compose an adequate music about that. He is also, like W.S.Graham, continually enquiring into how and what poetry shares with its readers. He wonders what it does while doing it. His work is full of ethical enquiry as to how people and the environment are set to work for others’ gain. He wants to know what’s left of common good. It feels like a great and unexpected gift to have this beautiful and stirring work assembled and presented, here and now.
Peter Hughes’ recent publications include Selected Poems and Cavalcanty.
Earlier this year and perhaps late to the party, I became aware of some remarkable poetry being published on Kate Clanchy’s twitter feed. Raw and unflinching, those works of migration and loss, identity and dislocation later became the content of England, Poems from a School, ed. Kate Clanchy, published by Picador. It is an anthology that continues to astonish me each time I re-read. The young contributors are children from Oxford Spires Academy, a comprehensive school to the poverty-stricken east of Oxford, a world away from the famous spires of its name.
It is a place notable for its pupils’ diversity of culture and backgrounds, with 30 different languages being spoken and a mix of nationalities: Syrian, Lithuanian, Turkish, Brazilian, Bangladeshi, Korean, to name a smattering. But perhaps its most surprising feature is the school’s approach to making poetry accessible to everyone, which is to say that it flies poetry like a flag, champions it like a game of Quidditch, and has made writers of its students.
The England of the title is less the subject of these poems than a trick mirror through which to view the past. In ‘War Memoir’, Azfa Awad writes: ‘I was five years old, / hiding under the bed, / listening to the footsteps / of approaching soldiers.’ Later in the same poem, nature becomes part of his unnatural reality: ‘And when I ran / away from their biting guns / my feet could dance, / skim above rose petals / dripping from my toes.’
Throughout the collection, landscape, language, trauma and loss fill the gutter between England and the route across.
‘I don’t remember the place / where the only colour I saw was green’ writes Ismail Akthar, before recalling the minutiae of his early childhood, the vividly described animals, his free-range life.
There is little sign of the child’s voice in these works; their unflinching appraisals are beyond their years, though not experience. Mohammed Assaf’s spare, three-line poem, ‘The Word Ummi’, breaks hearts: ‘My beloved mother. / When I go to my house, the pain of missing her / Arrives before me.’
Kate Clanchy’s extra-curricular classes have, over nine years, produced a stable of young writers as fine as any you’re likely to find, important not just for their sophistication and verve, but for the dialogues they will begin. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from ‘Ghazal’ by Halema Malak:
‘I am flying high above my country, over the Hindu Kush / mountains, over my village, on my wings. / I see the grey landscape, the grey towns, the green trees / near the mountains. I feel the dry wind under my wings. / I see the grave of my father, who I never knew, / I, Halema, on my black wings.’
Tracey Rhys is the author of Teaching a Bird to Sing. She was recently a writer in the Literature Wales/Cadw project, Weird and Wonderful Wales, in collaboration with the artist Pete Fowler.
Part One of our Books of the Year special can be found here and Part Two here. See the website this Sunday for Part Four.
Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.