Books of the Year 2019 / Part One
Contributors to The Lonely Crowd pick the best books that they have read this year.
Maybe because I’m far advanced into the writing of a novel, I’ve found myself reading a lot of non-fiction this year, and reluctant memoirists, in particular, it would seem. As a result, all of these writers seem to write slant about personal experience.
Novelist Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am, (a line, from Syliva Plath’s suicide-haunted novel The Bell Jar) came out in 2017 but I’m only getting to it now. From Tinder Press it’s a memoir – from an author who admits she never thought she would write one – charting seventeen brushes with death. I really loved the structure and control of this book which recounts real scrapes and near misses and might-have-beens. Escaping a strangler on a remote path by a strange quirk of fate is placed alongside a mismanaged labour, a childhood illness and the back-draught from the side-swipe of a lorry on a country road. All the episodes are given equal weight until the final chapter which is not about O’Farrell but her daughter, who suffers from a hyper-allergic condition. This means she can be sent into severe anaphylactic shock triggered by the most banal encounters – from sitting beside someone who has had muesli for breakfast to being stung by a bee. “We live then, in a state of high alert,” O’Farrell writes.
The shift from O’Farrell’s preoccupation with omnipresent death in her own life to her daughter’s extreme mortal fragility makes this the most felt part of the book. All the other incidents seem almost like a clearing of the throat. But perhaps that’s the point – the mother’s fear and dread for her child dwarfs even the most perilous situations for herself.
Another reluctant memoir is Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss (Blackstaff). An Irish novelist, and masterful short story writer, Ní Dhuibhne found she couldn’t write fiction after the death of her husband. This wonderful memoir is the result of her grief-stricken writer’s block. The book, a two-stranded narrative, tells of her courtship with her Swedish husband Bo, intercut with a heartbreaking account of his final illness and death. It’s a remarkable memoir in that it manages to replace the usual confessional revelation with a kind of confiding discretion, so that we are witness to the immediate and the profound. Much is left out – the relationship’s middle years, the couple’s children – and yet there isn’t a feeling of with-holding. All the important emotional truths are there. Nothing earth-shattering happens – it is, rather, a personal testament to a romantic courtship and long-lived marriage set against a social history of 1970s/80s Ireland. But the juxtaposition of Ni Dhuibhne’s student days full of Catholic dread and her formal but transforming courtship with the unsatisfactory twilight days of the relationship, means it becomes a general meditation on the nature of time and a specific excavation of the helplessness of patients and families in the face of the awful bureaucracy that bedevils the Irish health system. Written in Ní Dhuibhne’s deceptively deft style, this is both formally inventive and deeply affecting.
On Chapel Sands : My Mother and Other Missing Persons (Chatto and Windus) is a memoir by the Observer’s art correspondent Laura Cumming but it’s a displaced one, as it concerns Cumming’s mother’s life rather than her own. Betty Elston was kidnapped as a toddler from the beach at Chapel St Leonard’s, Lincolnshire, in the autumn of 1929. She was missing for a number of days before being returned mysteriously to her parents dressed in new clothes. No one spoke about the episode and Cumming’s mother had no memory of it, and no inkling that it had happened until she was well into her 40s. Cumming’s book is part-memoir, part-sleuthing exercise, as she tries to unravel all the secrets and lies – and there are a lot of them – that kept this knowledge from her mother for four decades, and how many people were complicit in the secret.
It’s also a contemplation of art – Cumming’s parents were both working artists, and her rather forbidding grandfather was an amateur photographer. His telling Vermeer-like photos grace the book so Cumming is also reading his images and making new discoveries about their meaning in the light of the truth she uncovers. Immaculately written, Cumming lovingly recreates rural Lincolnshire and a lost wartime world.
Mary Morrissy’s recent works include The Rising of Bella Casey and Prosperity Drive.
I’m pretty sure I prefaced last year’s list of books with an apology (perhaps to myself) that I hadn’t been able to read much in 2018. That hiatus has continued through 2019. Alongside a one-year-old baby, I took on two hefty commissions and judged both the Rheidol Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. My head has been so full of text, that I’ve had to be harshly interrogative of, that it’s felt there’s simply no room for further words to fit in. It took something very special to break through this.
In Autumn I was sent a proof copy of Samantha Harvey’s A Shapeless Unease. This ‘story’ of a suddenly-descended insomnia re-engaged my will to read. Beautiful, broken, angry, vibrant. Totally unique. Technically astonishing. More than anything, demanding of us that we don’t go under. Whatever the pressure. It’s an absolutely stunning piece and even as I write this my skin is goose-bumping with memory at the way it made me feel.
It will be out in January.
Cynan Jones’s most recent works are Stillicide and Cove.
I was privileged to be shown an advance copy of Glyn Edwards’s debut collection Vertebrae (The Lonely Press), and honoured to be asked to contribute to the recommendations printed on it. Glyn Edwards is a true original who is not swamped or drowned out by channelling his predecessors from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes and beyond. He brings his own sharp observation, deep feeling and gift for language to the mix and makes everything his own. The bedrock of this collection is a tenderness grounded in empathy, starting with close family, and bringing that emotional openness to the contemplation of a drowned boy, an eccentric solitary, a lamb given a poignant monologue Les Murray would have been proud of, and historical figures such as the soldier poets of the first world war. The poems of the natural world are breathtakingly vivid and the reader becomes gifted with the poet’s ability to see with exceptional clarity and steadiness. And not just see, but feel for and about. ‘I huddle into my coats/ and hurry across the shore like a sandpiper.’
The insufficiently known Paul Ashton has written several novels before this year’s Alice in the Afterlife (Any Day Now), and none of them is quite like anything he or anybody else has written. Its 2017 predecessor, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture (MX Publishing), purports to be the book Sherlock Holmes planned to write in his retirement, only recently discovered in a car-boot sale. It is actually a Borgesian fiction, finding Holmes keeping bees very methodically, but also meeting contemporaries from Lenin to Marie Curie and Picasso. Holmes nearly comes to grief when emerging from retirement to save the honour of one of Europe’s crowned heads, before taking on the German spy network at the start of World War I. Alice in the Afterlife develops both this penchant for introducing famous people and the elements of a thriller. Alice’s afterlife, following a motor-accident in middle age, turns out to be a recreation of the best of earthly existence in a replica of Tuscany where, before traveling to distant galaxies, hearing heavenly choirs, and voyaging underwater in earth’s oceans to observe the fauna, Alice meets a host of the departed, including famous writers, artists and thinkers, and unsung heroes of both sexes and many countries. It’s a very social novel, and the dialogue is assured and convincing. Life, or Afterlife, is full of partying punctuated by exquisitely conveyed rural enjoyments, but we learn jaw-dropping things about the hierarchies among the angels, the real history of Satan’s relationship with the Almighty, and the possibility of a new conflict. The realisation of this prospect takes us to the novel’s dizzying climax. I can’t say every novel I read changes me, but this one leaves me, like Glyn Edwards’s Vertebrae, with an increased appreciation of the rich possibilities of life on earth.
Those possibilities are now endangered by the climate emergency which is on all our minds, and I find Naomi Klein’s new collection of talks and essays On Fire (Penguin, Random House), while it pulls no punches, heartening because it analyses the problems so clearly and shows how varied and energetic are the forces gathering to grapple with them. We can only succeed, she argues, by combating climate change, social injustice, xenophobia and the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby all at the same time, rather than seeing them as separable issues. She concludes her address to graduating students at a particularly enlightened college by exhorting them not to beat themselves up by supposing that it is up to them individually to do everything that needs doing; within the overarching movement, we all have different roles to play according to our talents. It isn’t just graduating students who need to hear this message, and in context there is never any danger of taking it as an excuse for complacency.
John Freeman’s most recent collection of poems is What Possessed Me.
There’s only been one story on Brexit Island this year, apparently, despite climate change, increasing poverty and homelessness, and the refugee crisis, so I’m going to plump for Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure. A stunning condemnation of the imperial dream and all who seek to re-float that particular vessel and bathe in the dubious simulated splendour of Britain’s glory days, and all the rascally villains whose pockets are so well-lined that crashing out of Europe will not harm them, and the sorry and misled millions whose poverty and ignorance led them to vote for damnable Brexit, and all the hate and vileness that has sprung from it. From Boris Johnson scoffing his wife’s toast on the maternity ward while she sleeps – why can’t greedy Boris buy more toast? he wonders, and concludes that the best way to achieve the free-market dream of replacing the grub intended for your post-partum wife is to privatise the NHS – to the man who received a targeted advertisement from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment company (Somerset Capital Management) offering him advice on protecting his investments after a no-deal Brexit, this book lifts the lid on such a can of worms as to keep the reader amazed and horrified by turn. In the end, inevitably, I was depressed as hell, but O’Toole’s intellect and acumen and ability to analyse the psychology and motivation of the Brexiteers with unswerving and searing accuracy was, despite the miserable content, a fascinating glimpse into the dark heart of our very own post-colonial nightmare.
My novel of the year was the English translation of Berta Isla by Javier Marías. Marías never fails to astonish. The extraordinary lucidity of his prose and the erudition – which is simply there, rather than planted in a way to show itself off – and the mass of incidental detail by which Marías wrestles with but yet remains detached from the world; all this in an absorbing tale of espionage and betrayal. Even here though, Brexit leaves its mark:
Politicians never dare to criticize the people, who are often base and cowardly and stupid. … They have become untouchable and have taken the place of once despotic, absolutist monarchs. Like them, they have the prerogative to be as fickle as they please and to go eternally unpunished, and they don’t have to answer for how they vote or who they elect or who they support or what they remain silent about or consent to or impose or acclaim.
Richard Gwyn’s latest novel is The Blue Tent.
Looking back on my reading year is always an important moment for me. So much so that when I found I struggled to remember everything I began a reading diary. Flicking through that now I’m loving how mixed my highlights for 2019 were! Here’s a handful of them:
Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. I’ve read Lehmann before but I picked this up in a free ‘help yourself’ street library and realised it’s one I hadn’t read. Published in 1932 it’s a shimmering, humane, human novel and brilliantly set in the run up to a dance and the event itself in the life of a young woman. Her work still leaps off the page after all these years.
The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris, published this year. I love the set of characters headed by Vianne Rocher that begun with Chocolat and that Harris returns to for the fourth time in this novel. Again, a beautiful, sensual feast of a novel with the moving theme of children only ever being lent to us. I loved it.
Rosamund Lupton Three Hours – also published this year. Lupton is absolutely at the top of her game in this novel. Poignant, relevant and terrifying – it grips you by the throat and doesn’t let you go.
The South by Colm Tóibín. I’ve read his short stories before but not his novels. I was absolutely blown away by this, the luminous truth and humanity in the pages. I was similarly blown away by M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts. NOT what I was expecting at all, it is a heart rending zombie novel. Completely extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve read before.
Finally, Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Not only a beautiful, unique read but a helpful and important one.
I count starting my reading diary as one of the best things I’ve done as looking through it at the past year I celebrate and enjoy the richness of what I’ve read rather than mourning what I’ll never have time for.
Kate Hamer’s most recent novels are Crushed and The Doll Funeral.
Sometimes it feels as if there’s a new book every day calling for attention and it’s simply not possible to either catch-up or take in everything. The standout books which sit beside me include The Poems of Dorothy Molloy (Faber) – a serious volume of poems it is too; of a richly lived life, all producing the sense of a wonderfully coloured yet tragic tapestry. Molloy died in 2004. Born in the same year as Molloy (1942) Eilean Ni Chuilleanain’s new collection The Mother House (Gallery), like the book’s cover ‘Giotto’s Circle’ by Janet Mullaney, is both truly enigmatic and physically direct at the same time. There is no one else who can do this double-take as convincingly as the Cork poet. Having lived all his life at the other end of the island, Belfast poet Ciaran Carson’s final collection, Still Life (Gallery) is teeming with the visual world of numerous artists whose individuality Carson celebrates with the force of nature at his disposal. He was one of the country’s greatest poets and his passing earlier this year was a shock. These poems are some consolation. Fellow-northerner, indeed fellow Honest Ulsterman, Frank Ormsby’s latest collection, The Rain Barrel (Bloodaxe) is one of his finest and follows on from a hugely creative few years – a volume of new and selected poems, Goat’s Milk (2015) and the complexly challenging The Darkness of Snow (2017) – both from Bloodaxe. Ormsby has just been named Ireland Professor of Poetry (2019-22), succeeding Eilean Ni Chuilleanain. And if poetry isn’t your thing, look no further than the dense yet lucid and well-paced historical study, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War (Little Brown). I can’t put it down.
Gerald Dawe’s new poetry collection, The Last Peacock (Gallery) has recently been published. His volume of essays The Sound of the Shuttle: Cultural Belonging and Protestantism in Northern Ireland will be published by Irish Academic Press in January 2020.
Sophie van Llewyn
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead — this book has all the ingredients to become a classic. It’s the story of Elwood Curtis, a diligent, hardworking, ‘sturdy’ (in the words of another character) young man of colour who ends up in a ‘reform school’. This story of injustice it’s so heartbreaking that it’s hard to read at times — in the sense that I, for one, don’t find it easy to read about extreme violence being inflicted upon children — but the prose is exquisite, the story is absolutely gripping, and the themes (discrimination, racism, and preserving an acute sense of human dignity, in spite of it all) make it a monumental book.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng — I loved this book more than I can express! It’s a story about mothers and daughters, with a secret and a moral dilemma full of grey zones at its core. And all of these exciting things are happening in a quiet suburb. I fell completely in love with all the characters, which is such a difficult feat to pull, since someone has to be The Bad Guy (or The Bad Woman, in this case), but Celeste Ng writes with so much compassion for all her characters, that it’s impossible not to sympathise. Plus, this is the most magnificent omniscient narrator I’ve ever read. Seamless.
All That Is Between Us by Ken Elkes — If you don’t know what flash fiction is, or what it can do, this collection is a good place to start. And if you do know what flash fiction is, you’ll simply love this collection.
Sophie van Llewyn’s book, Bottled Goods, has been longlisted in 2019 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
My choice for 2019’s most impressive book is From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. It is a short novel but one that repays reading twice: the language is beautiful, and as you go along, absorbing the plot, you may miss the subtle
signs of the interconnection between the three men whose stories are told here.
Each man’s story is given a section to itself: Farouk, a trained psychiatrist and Syrian refugee, is mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, drowned in a storm when they were crossing the sea in an old and highly rickety boat supplied by the trafficker. He is rescued, spends time in camp but eventually ends up near Limerick in Ireland where each of these stories are set and gets work at the hospital where the mother of the second character featured, Lampy, works as a cleaner.
Lampy, illegitimate, father unknown, lives with his grandfather Dixie who is pictured as a classic Irish-pub joke and story-teller, and his mother Florence who gets little mention until the final chapter. Lampy is obsessed by his loss of girlfriend Chloe, frustrated by being unable to make much of his life and works as a mini-bus driver and general helper in an old people’s home run by the stingy Grogans. In snowy weather the new bus breaks down and Lampy arranges for the old bus to be brought out from the local garage. But he forgets one of the wheelchair patients who then dies of hypothermia. Another shock, another loss.
And the third section, in my opinion the weakest, deals with John, a money-lender/lobbyist and thoroughly unscrupulous character, recounts the loss of his brother and his section is written in the form of a confession. He has fallen in love with a young waitress, pursues her determinedly only to discover she has a boyfriend Javier, John arranges for Javier to be attacked and beaten. Nasty.
The very last section ties the stories of these three men together in an unexpected way but the book must be read to discover how.
Its title comes from a poem written by one of Lampy’s fellow school mates, a poem praised by the master but ridiculed to the point of violence by the other boys, a small incident perhaps but one in accord with the depicted violence (Farouk’s story of the traffickers/ John’s story) and mockery (Dixie’s lampooning of people in the pub) and the inability to escape their circumstances of all three characters.
A wonderful read.
Gill McEvoy’s most recent collection is The First Telling.
One of my favourite reads this year was an unexpected gift from my mother, a second-hand copy of Patricia Highsmith’s collection of short stories, The Black House. We are both fans of the Ripley novels, and these psychological stories deliver the same unsettling mix of obsession, guilt and murder in concentrated form, like downing shots of a particularly bitter espresso. The cat disturbs a neighbourly game of scrabble when it brings in a pair of human fingers; two cruel hosts demolish an unwelcome dinner party guest; the creepy crew of a fishing boat rescue a girl floating in the sea. I particularly liked the tale of a childless couple who decide to adopt an elderly husband and wife: their teeth-gritting stoicism as the new houseguests proceed to exploit and manipulate them is hilarious and frightening. Each story is an examination of the twisted flaws of human nature, but underneath there is something like forgiveness.
Another book I really enjoyed this year was My Sister the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It is entertaining, stylish and refreshingly different. Despite the title, this is really a book about family, and that special relationship between sisters: jealousy, love, protection and mandatory responsibility. Korede is a nurse who excels at her job but not in her love life, while Ayoola is the spoilt, alluring younger sister who spends her time on snapchat or vlogging about her fashion designs. Oh, and she’s also a serial killer. I loved the voice in this book – the jaded resignation as Korede once again has to clear up after a sister, ‘incapable of practical underwear’, who carries a knife ‘the way other women carry tampons’. The novel is created through pared down scenes and fragments: short chapters which move it along at a cracking pace. Lagos hovers at the edges: traffic jams, corrupt police, food markets, or pots of èfó simmering on the stove, hint at life in the city, although much of the story occurs in the girls’ bedrooms, surrounded by Ayoola’s soft toys and lacy bras. The sisters take refuge here from a past that is gradually revealed. The plot gathers momentum, and moves towards a sharp and subtle ending.
Justine Bothwick’s novel, And Still, I Lie, was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize for Fiction 2018.
The first of my books of the year is actually two books in one, as Aleksandar Hemon’s twin memories My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong To You were published this autumn in a single volume (Pan Macmillan). In My Parents, Hemon reflects on the story of Yugoslavia through the experiences of his parents and a life as refugees from the conflict in Canada, while This Does Not Belong To You is a series of short stories, moments and memories from the author’s childhood. Together they are a powerful portrait of a family and places, combining big themes like ideas of home, exile and belonging with Hemon’s abilities as a writer of acute observation and attention to all the little details that combine to shape our everyday experiences.
Another book I read for the first time this year – although it was published (in English) in 2012 – is also one which also deals with place, history and the power of memory. Trieste by Daša Drndić (MacLehose Press) tells the story of a single person through WWII, the Holocaust and beyond, and yet is also a work of literary witness to the crimes of the Nazis, combining the power of fictional storytelling with meticulous historical research. It feels to me that storytelling of this kind is increasingly important as the generation who witnessed these events with their own eyes are slowly leaving us. This brings me to On the End of the World by Joseph Roth (Pushkin Press), reissued this year. A collection of the journalist’s essays between Hitler’s ascent to power in January 1933 and Roth’s death in exiles in Paris in 1939, they are also something of a witness statement, as Roth documents Europe’s slow slide into darkness, offering the contemporary reader a stark warning of the dangers of nationalism.
Two of my three choices are works in translation – Trieste translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and On the End of the World by Will Stone – and I wanted to finish with a shout-out to all the translators who bring the literature of the world into English. The importance of what they do cannot be stressed enough, especially in these darkening days.
Paul Scraton’s debut novel is Built on Sand.
My standout book of the year is the non-fiction Underland by Robert MacFarlane, a marvellously written for meaning in our relationship with the underworld, from earliest cave paintings to undersea mining to ancient burial chambers to hidden cities to the various myths about descending into the bowels of the earth. MacFarlane’s scope is broad and in spite of its massive subject and intimidating near-500 pages, the book has an urgency: environmental catastrophe is never far away, and MacFarlane’s passion for the planet is evident.
Also notable: The Naked Irish by Clare O’Dea, the follow-up to the Irish journalist’s The Naked Swiss. Returning home after years abroad, O’Dea surveys contemporary Irish society, debunking the stereotypes about drink, sex and Irish mammies in a thoroughly-researched primer on the current state of the nation.
On the fiction front, there were many great novels which I read, including The Firestarters by Jan Carson, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, and Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, but nothing affected me as much as Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier; a melancholy, elegiac, tragicomic tale of Maurice and Charlie, two past their prime but still fearsome gangsters waiting out the night in a Spanish port, hoping for a sight of his Maurice’s estranged daughter. Filled with magic, lust and violence, Barry’s customary dark humour and linguistic inventiveness, this is a brilliantly-written, extremely moving love story.
Niall McArdle is winner of the Penguin Ireland / RTE Guide short story competition.
Photography by Jo Mazelis.
Part Two of our Books of the Year special will be published this Friday (06/12/19).