Contributors to The Lonely Crowd pick the best books that they have read this year.
When I was gifted the much-hyped bestseller Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, I was sceptical. The grandiose claims that this a ‘once-in-a generation book’, that it is a ‘masterpiece’,’ astonishing’, ‘compelling’, an ‘instant classic’ made me weary and wary, and yes, prone to cynicism from the off. However, if the mark of good biographical writing is that it closes the gap between how we perceive a person from the outside, and what that person thinks, feels and desires, then this examination of desire, told from the viewpoint of three distinct women succeeds absolutely. The interior, immersive narrative navigates uneasily the lines between love and lust, instigation and exploitation, fantasy and reality, girlhood and womanhood and all the spaces between. It reads like a propulsive novel yet is the result of eight years of research. It is a channelling of Maggie, Lina and Sloane’s lives through the prism of their seeking for pleasure, yes, but also connection, often in all the wrong places. And to be fair, the author is not the one making any grandiose claims about the work. In her introduction Taddeo states quite clearly that this is the story of three specific women who were willing to share their truths honestly and without censure. That they are all white Americans didn’t bother me as much as I had thought it would, for each women’s experience and voice is entirely unique. They do differ and they do converge. This book articulates intimately and directly the chaotic truths of three women’s stories of sexual relating and intimacy, or lack of it, and in so doing, I think, succeeds in unearthing some powerful universal truths about female desire, its manifestations and transgressions. It makes for uncomfortable and confronting reading at times and was for me a triggering experience, resulting in the surfacing of long buried memories and things I had not been able to articulate about myself, even to myself. My summation? Powerful and resonant. It feels honest and authentic, and yes, revelatory.
I also devoured the world of Olive, Again. How does Strout do it? Write with such a light touch about all the big stuff. Olive Kitteridge is one of my all time favourite literary creations. She embodies all that is contrary and contradictory in human nature; she is an unwittingly terrible mother, judgemental, spiteful, yet also full of (often) misplaced love and surges of compassion. I am in awe of Strout’s ability to explore the dark side of human nature with so much humanity, humour and heart. And what a memorable place the town of Cosby, Maine is, provincial and gossipy with an irascible heart, like its greatest creation, the funny, vital, exasperating anti-heroine, Olive.
Another book that had me reeling was Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier about two aging gangsters waiting at a ferry terminal in Spain for a run-away daughter. Beckettian in its scope and range and unbearably beautiful at the level of the sentence, the two men trade in memories and reflect on the toll a life of crime has taken on their souls. Poetic, lush, hilarious, poignant, brutal. Utterly unique and one to savour.
Lisa Harding is the author of Harvesting.
I’ve had a wonderful year of reading, getting deep satisfaction from so many books. Here are a small selection of the standouts:
The Tipping Line – Paul Maddern (poetry)
Part letter to a young friend, part love-note to the mystical qualities of the north-western coast of Ireland, this poetry book (one long, segmented poem) is a lyrical joy. It’s about travel and landscape, drama and the self, and it’s a book with enormous humour and heart, that flits – dancer-like – from one richly detailed scene to the next. A tour de force.
The Watsons – Rose Servitova (novel)
With wit and heart, Rose Servitova completes Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons. There’s everything Austenites could want here: clandestine lovers, pompous men, big-hearted sisters and silly ones, rich neighbours and those down-at-heel. Funny and compelling, this is a fantastic romp, deftly executed.
Savage Gods – Paul Kingsnorth (non-fiction)
A wonderful meditation on writing, and its possible futility, from novelist, poet and environmentalist Kingsnorth. This book is about a man following his dream – living off the land, rearing children in natural beauty, writing – but still questioning the nature of being and of writing itself. Intimate, explorative and elliptical, it’s a fantastic read. Recommended for writers especially.
The Way Home – Mark Boyle (non-fiction)
Another book about living alternatively in the west of Ireland, this one from the sincere and fascinating Mark Boyle, the so-called ‘moneyless man’. He lives without technology on a small-holding in rural Galway and this book charts his day-to-day existence, foraging for food, negotiating relationships, and finding pure joy in nature. A book to set you thinking about consumerism and the balm of hard work coupled with all natural things.
The Hollow Woman on the Island – Nessa O’Mahony (poetry)
One of Ireland’s best-known poets, Nessa O’Mahony, returns with another gem, her fifth collection. There is so much beauty in these diverse poems that touch on ovarian cancer, the supermoon, personal and social history, and the deaths of beloved friends. Birds flicker through the lines like charms and the poet’s intense lyric gifts are to the fore. A gorgeous collection.
Nuala O’Connor is the author of Becoming Belle amd Miss Emily.
Here are some books that I read this year, with which I spent serious time and which I feel I will return to in the coming year.
I feel fortunate to live at a time when there is so much bold, distinctive poetry being written. Roger Reeves’s King Me, Fred Moten’s B Jenkins and Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland are each in their own ways sources of power and knowledge. The publication of Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems makes this essential poet’s vision, intelligence and superb music more tangible than ever. George Seferis, Collected Poems, translated Keeley & Sherrard, is a book I hope to read as long as I can read. Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette is one of the great long poems of recent times. It just keeps on giving and knowing.
Novels that, for me, opened up the world in new ways, each with its own distinct streak of odd comedy were: María Gainza’s Optic Nerve, translated by Thomas Bunstead, Armonía Somers’s The Naked Woman, translated by Kit Maude, Zuzana Brabcová’s Aviaries, translated by Tereza Novická, Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, translated Philip Boehm, The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball and Nobber, by Oisín Fagan. I’ll always return to Henry James and recently this was in the shape of the painful, sublime What Maisie Knew.
I’m always reading and re-reading short stories. Some of the books that stood out for me, and that I’d recommend to anyone, were: Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August, The Complete Gary Lutz, Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time, Maryse Meijer’s Rag, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Helen McClory’s Mayhem & Madness. Bette Howland’s acute, deeply felt stories were reissued and I discovered Eve Shelnutt’s superb The Formal Voice, which I think ought to be back in front of readers.
Three books that are far more than memoirs, that are profound ways of rethinking power and family, agency and morality are: Annie Ernaux’s Happening, translated Tanya Leslie, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, translated by Daniella Shreir (and in the US by Corina Copp) and Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You (published together in one volume). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe book on slavery, memory and consequence is one of the most powerful, and beautifully written, books I’ve read in years. Sharon Cameron’s seven essays in Impersonality explore identity, personhood, self-making, and much else, through the work of Melville, Weil. Empson and others. It’s a rich and rewarding book that I’ll be thinking about for some time.
Bernadette Mayer’s 1984 book Utopia was reissued this year. It’s a brilliant, anarchic work animated by a strange hilarity and I have no idea what genre it belongs in.
The publication of two exceptional books—Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson and Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney—led me back to re-read what is possibly one of their progenitors: Nuala O’Faolain’s essential memoir Are You Somebody?
David Hayden is the author of Darker with the Lights on.
This year has sped by very quickly for me. And almost to reflect this, I’ve been reading a lot of flash fiction. I read quite a few novellas-in-flash. The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan – a moving series of interconnected flash fiction about a young girl, Nuala, caught between the tempestuous relationship between her parents. The Chemist’s House by Jude Higgins was another beautiful observation of a young girl living with her parents in a pharmacy in Wales. Diane Simmon’s Finding a Way (was a moving and gentle novella-in-flash with the difficult theme of a family losing a young daughter to cancer and their perspectives of dealing with the loss and grief. I finally got around to reading Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods and was really annoyed why it was at the bottom of my reading pile. I read these novellas-in-flash fiction with my writer-hat on as I’m working on one myself, and would definitely recommend them to anyone planning on doing the same.
Judith Heneghan’s Snegurochka was one of my favourite reads of 2019. The story of a young mother in a country so alien to her lifestyle and culture, the exploration of motherhood and marriage, friendships and dangerous connections were so wonderfully rendered. I thought this book was amazing in the way that I, as a reader, was transported into the depths of winter in the Ukraine in the 1990s.
I don’t read much historical fiction, but the winner of Richard and Judy’s Search for a Bestseller Competition, The Unexpected Return of Josephine Cox by Claire Gradidge, kept me turning the pages very quickly until I got to the end! It was all the more interesting as the book is set quite locally, and I loved recognising locations and imagining the story unfolding in these places that feature very often in my ordinary daily life.
I love books that really immerse the reader in the places that they are set in. And it is always a pleasure for me to read the next instalment of Inspector Chopra’s investigations as they bring back memories of old haunts and familiar nooks and corners of Mumbai. So I was thrilled to be sent a proof of Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra’s Bad Day at the Vulture Club. Inspector Chopra and his partner in crime – a baby elephant – is lovely to have as company on rainy days when all you want is a cosy crime novel, chai and chocolate biscuits.
Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights is a quiet and concise novel, but so powerful that I found myself reflecting on the characters and their situations long after I had finished reading it. The father-daughter relationship portrayed was refreshing to read as I’d read quite a few books with the mother-daughter themes.
Another book that really made me sit up and read every word: every magical, twisty, tantalising, clever, simple, complicated, sensual, crafty and amazing word is Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie. I love her bold, rich and different style of writing short stories. I read each story and then sit back and think – how did she do this?
My girls and I pick a few books for me to read aloud to them every year. This year, we absolutely loved The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf – a story of friendship, loss and seeking refuge in a new country. It’s told with humour and the innocence of childhood comes through even though the topic is a difficult one, and we found ourselves in tears or laughing out loud alternately and is one of our much-loved books this year. We are now reading The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy. It’s an old favourite of mine but reading it with my children gives it a totally different perspective. It is like Watership Down in idea, but with feline characters and their animal friends and enemies roaming the bustling streets of Old Delhi. There is magic realism, adventure, rich sensory details, terrifying fight sequences and the exquisite joy of spending time reading a book all about cats.
Susmita Bhattacharya’s most recent book is Table Manners.
Some of my favourite new fiction I’ve read this year uncannily aligned with the Booker shortlist. This never happens. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been a worthy winner (although I haven’t yet read Girl, Woman, Other as yet). The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is also good, but there’s no doubt the Booker judges botched the job this year, giving half the prize to Atwood, it seems, for her career body of work, which is an unforgiveable confusion with the Nobel remit. And I have to admit Lucy Ellmann’s gargantuan Ducks, Newburyport remains on my tbr pile, goading me from the corner of the room for my lack of courage. When I was thirty-six it took an eight-day stint in hospital for me to read Middlemarch, so hopefully a bout of ill-health one day soon will open up my timetable. I used to read a lot of big books, but life seems to have become more frantic in the last five years. I read Anna Karenina over a series of baths in my twenties. Bolano’s 2666 was unputdownable. Life seemed to have more space to it back then.
Nowadays, I devour shorter stuff. Cynan Jones’ Stillicide is superb. But the literary event of the year (if you forget Atwood for a moment), must have been the new collection from Ted Chiang, Exhalation. Chiang is… what’s the opposite of prolific? Whatever it is, Chiang is a genius.
I’m lucky enough to have to read Welsh work for the radio programme I present for BBC Wales, The Review Show. Cynan Jones’ book came to me that way, as did really brilliant new novels from Alys Conran (Dignity) and Patrick McGuinness (Throw Me to the Wolves), that I may have otherwise not found the time to read.
As my last novel was something of an old-fashioned literary thriller, when writing it I got into some of the great thriller writers of the twentieth century as I tried to study the craft. And that’s kind of stuck with me. I come to amazing new writers almost every week. This year’s knockouts for me have been Cape Fear by John D. MacDonald (recommended to me by writer James Lloyd, from his home in Istanbul, via Instagram). The novel is perfectly constructed, and neither film versions do the book, or its villain Max Cady, any justice. I also read for the first time Margaret Millar (A Stranger in the Grave) and Geoffrey Household (Rogue Male). These are masterclass writers.
But after all that waffling, there is only one book that can be my book of the year, and that’s The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells. Full disclosure: it’s the book I’m currently reading, but it already has all the weight of a book that will change my life. It’s about climate change. I’m not going to wax lyrical about it, because you should just read it, put down whatever you’re doing and make it a priority. It’s opening line is “It is worse, much worse, than you think”, which is an opening line I want to steal for my next novel. The book is about the reality, not the politics, or, much more depressing, the media distillation. Listening to the radio just before writing this, a commentator said that government policy to reach net zero emissions by 2030 was impossible because the industries that would be involved in these efforts would not be able to guarantee a return within that timeframe. Yes, folks, it is worse, much worse, that you think.
Gary Raymond’s most recent book is The Golden Orphans.
For me, this year has been the year of the pamphlet, or the very, very short book; poetry, essay, fiction, memoir – these modes are becoming ever more mixed; fiction and the life of the writer is becoming ever more openly interconnected on the page.
Ed Garland’s brief and ear-opening book Earwitness: A Search for Sonic Understanding in Stories begins with a picnic with his wife on noisy, wind-swept Tan-y-Bwlch beach. The sweet moment opens the way to a discussion of sound in literature, especially Welsh women’s writing – Margiad Evans, Deborah Kay Davies, Brenda Chamberlain. Tender, astute, funny, Garland weaves his own experiences with tinnitus, hearing loss and depression with literary criticism. The power of books, in other words, and the surprising soundscapes they contain.
Hanan Issa’s debut poetry pamphlet My Body Can House Two Hearts is also a kind of tapestry – not of sound and genre, but of language and identities. A paean to the complexities and nuances of Welsh identity, Issa’s poems explore her Welsh-Iraqi self – drawing powerful comparisons between Wales, Syria and Iraq in poems like ‘Croesawgar’ and ‘Beauty and Blood’. The opening poem with its beautiful lines – ‘hen wlad fy mamau – the home I have loved halfly’ – threads English, Welsh and Arabic. As a hybrid Welshwoman, Issa’s deep engagement with an individual’s ability to be more than one nationality, one identity, struck a chord. As she describes it, ‘Kan yawma kan, I am a woman of neither here nor there.’
Multiplicity and hybridity are at the heart, too, of Tilted Axis Press’s fantastic pamphlet series Translating Feminisms. Four Asian writers are translated into English – Vietnamese, Korean, Nepali and Tamil (the latter translated and edited by the wonderful Meena Kandasamy). Some for the first time. The luminous Night by Nepali poet Sulochana Manandhar, translated by Muna Gurung, and the dreamy prose-poetry of Moon Fevers by Nhã Thuyên, translated by Kaitlin Rees, particularly stood out for me. Not only the poetry, but the translators’ beautifully-phrased notes on the process of moving across and reimagining poetic languages. Rees perceptively describes the ‘author-translator friendship’ as ‘an intimate closeness that is, as love often is, also bound in infinite distance.’ Gurung draws inspiration directly from Sulo’s poetry. One of the lines she cites as motivation for translatory bravery is, I think, also relevant for us all with the coming of 2020 in all its uncertainties and unknowability:
Do not complain about darkness, instead
Light a light
Do not run away from night, instead
Become night’s friend
Eluned Gramich is the author of Woman Who Brings the Rain.
I like chance in creativity and in coming across books. This year my three most fruitful finds have managed to connect thematically. The first was an enormous tome by Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End, which I found on top of a recycling bin while walking my dog (along with a pair of wonderfully battered brown boots, also now in my possession).
The End is Knausgaard’s sixth and final book in his My Struggle ‘autofiction’ cycle, and my first reading of him. For me The End is an examination of the possibilities of human identity – the nature of the ‘I’ in writing, how unreliable a construct. The book itself is a kind of commodious recycling bin in which one moves from a magnificent close reading of two poems by Paul Celan to, and with a sense of danger in the slide, finding oneself reading from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and visualising a young Hitler in Vienna.
The theme of fascism incubating in the heart connects to my next find, Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann, which I actually went out and bought following a review stumbled across on a random Twitter feed. Written in the Sixties, published in translation this year, Bachmann’s first-person narrative concerns a woman in a desolate post-war Vienna who ‘walks a tightrope between two men in her life’ (according to the blurb). Obliquely the ‘I’ of this story comes into view through coercions of a male-owned, supposedly post-fascist society in which the enormity of what has happened takes hostage of language and the brutality of Nazism is mirrored in private relations. Bachmann, long before Knausgaard, pushes the autofictional form to new possibilities. Reading her biography on Wiki I was intrigued to find that one of her lovers was the poet Paul Celan, and that Celan’s suicide is memorialised in Malina: ‘My life is over, for he drowned in the river during deportation… He was my life. I loved him more than my life.’
This all sounds very dark but there is also savage humour in Malina. Needing a cookbook to create a romantic evening for her lover the narrator despairs of her useless library. A long list of her books follows: ‘THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, read under 60 watts in the Beatrixgasse, Locke, Leibnitz and Hume, in the dismal light of the National Library…Kafka, Rimbaud and Blake read under 25 watts in a hotel in Paris, Freud, Adler and Jung read at 360 watts in a lonely Berlin street…’ I love this drawing into the space of the novel the experience of reading and the places it has occupied, the listing of milestones in civilisation and the sense of a woman’s mind entering that space of genius.
Both of these autofictional writings fed into my attempt to write a short story, ‘Space is a Doubt’. I took the title from a sentence by George Perec, another friend of Celan, who also wrote out of the trauma of fascism. I found it (Twitter again) in an anthology of brilliant essays, George Perec’s Geographies, published in October this year and free to download from UCL Press.
In these perplexing times, watching the rise once more of mentalities of hatred, my serendipitous discoveries were valuable for me.
Fiona O’Connor won the Hennessy Award for her short story ‘Empire’.
I’ve become increasingly interested in weird fiction and the uncanny over the last couple of years, so it’s no surprise that my favourite books of 2019 are a little strange. One of the best novels I read this year was Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut, Water Shall Refuse Them. Anyone who’s read Lucie’s short stories will know that she’s a wonderful stylist, but this also proved that she has a great eye for the longer form. A compulsively readable tale that reminded me strongly of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, it also – like Banks’s novel – marked the arrival of a major talent. I should also mention Catriona Ward’s Little Eve. Published in 2018, it has gone on to win a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award in 2019. A near-perfect gothic tale that has elements of The Wicker Man’s folkloric weirdness, but is entirely its own beast.
As for short fiction, I enjoyed Laura Mauro’s Sing Your Sadness Deep immensely. Many of the stories had previously been published in Black Static and horror genre anthologies like Shadows & Tall Trees, but there’s a literary sensitivity and lightness of touch to Mauro’s writing that lifts them above most genre fiction. I was also pleasantly surprised by Linda Mannheim’s collection This Way To Departures. Having expected very little of it, I was constantly impressed by Mannheim’s invention and the quality of her prose. ‘Facsimiles’ in particular stood out, with its surprisingly sensitive magic-realist take on 9/11, but there isn’t a dull story in the collection. It has more in common with Mauro’s collection than you’d expect, too, which goes to show that the ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ labels are more use to marketing departments than they are to the average reader.
Dan Coxon is the editor of This Dreaming Isle and The Shadow Booth.
I’ve just put down Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures which I did not want to end. The distinct voices will stay with you, as will the deftly described universes of Mannheim’s characters, and the reach of her intimate, skilful language. A rare equilibrium of story, setting, voice and empathy, fully recommended. Earlier this year I was late to enjoy Joan Wickersham’s The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, which I found charged with a profound humanity, and an unembellished clear-sightedness through the woods of love. Each year I also like to return to classics and after rereading Albert Camus’ Nobel Prize acceptance speech I went back to l’Etranger this autumn, even more powerful than when I read it decades ago. Stark and seemingly unfeeling, with the fall-out from a pointless action landing the protagonist before the unstoppable wheels of justice, set under the searing Algerian sun.
Catherine McNamara is the author of The Cartography of Others.
See our website next week for Part Three of our Books of the Year special.
Photograph by Jo Mazelis.