Contributors old and new to The Lonely Crowd choose the books that they have most enjoyed reading in 2020. Given the nature of the year, not all of these titles were published in 2020.
History dominated my reading this year, perhaps because the present was so insupportable. Plague crept in, regardless, particularly in my lockdown read, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – yes, I’m years behind everyone else. Although I’ve read everything else Mantel has written, it took the concentrated time a pandemic offers to steep myself in the Cromwell trilogy. Needless to say, I’m hooked and look forward to starting Bringing up the Bodies over Christmas.
In the same vein, I loved Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, another writer who can’t put a foot wrong, as far as I’m concerned. This is her first foray into historical fiction and it didn’t disappoint. Her Hamnet is less about the boy of the title than his mother, Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes. (Yes, her real name, apparently, which cleverly diverts us from all the stereotypical images with the name Anne Hathaway.) The plague drives the plot here too in a beautifully observed, muscular narrative. It’s as if O’Farrell had inhaled the very air of the period, so convincing was it in terms of sights and smells, yet the tensions and loyalties evoked in the multi-generation household was heavy with contemporary resonance.
Sights and smells also invade Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, a work that crosses several genres – memoir, feminist polemic, autofiction, history and scholarship. Doireann is an Irish language poet who, when translating ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, a seminal 18th century Gaelic lament poem by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, became obsessed with the woman behind it. In sensuous prose, Ní Ghríofa conjures up Eibhlín Dubh, and in the absence of hard, historical facts, she gloriously speculates and richly invents to create a tapestry of a book that weaves in strands of her own life as poet, mother and wife.
This year two stand out books for me have both been short story collections and both of them share a kind of clarity of language to them that rings off the page.
First off is Angela Graham’s collection of short stories A City Burning which has a voice that feels completely new and fresh. With stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy it’s a broad ranging collection but what I particularly loved about it – from characters that range from a gay priest to a First World War wife seeing her injured husband for the first time – was its nuanced and beautifully observed view of the human condition. Graham’s language has a searing quality yet also a humour about it that is genuinely hard to forget long after reading. Very highly recommended – I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Another beautifully nuanced collection I read this year is Lauren Groff’s Florida although this time every story is rooted in the same place – the US state of the title. There is something about the book that emphasises the weirdness of the place, snakes and crocodiles lurk, there are immense storms, sinkholes appear. In this landscape human stories play out, painful, furious, funny, tortured. I fell in love with Groff’s writing and immediately sought out more of her work.
Reading Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island by Ian Cobain, brought back the life hundreds of thousands of ordinary people knew in the early days of what became ‘The Troubles’. It is a shock to recognise that you have lived through it too. Cobain’s painstaking reconstruction of one murder draws the reader into an historical and moral knot of reality which time has not eased although political agendas have striven to obscure and rewrite. Cobain’s book stands in the way of any such tinkering with truth. As does Mary Trump’s portrait of her uncle and the family they share in a book I did not want to read but once started I could not put down. Too much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is like a Greek tragedy in modern dress and even though the plot for the Reality TV ‘star’ is moving on, the world which produced him – of virtual moralities, instantaneous outrage and obsessed narcissism – is unpicked here without remorse. It is a brave and timely book which sends a very necessary warning to those who live their lives detached from the touch, complexity and warmth of human culture. The obverse is also true. For Heather Clark’s magisterial biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath shows what happens when too much reality is contained within one vulnerable mental space. Clark brings a scholar’s insight and discipline to Plath’s American Dream and tells a tale of extraordinary ambition based upon extreme hard work and leaves the reader without any illusion about the cost. This is a dense and hugely significant book; a personal and artistic universe rendered with commitment and sympathy but shunning sentimentality. Which is also true of Derek Mahon’s final volume of poetry Washing Up. He would have been eighty next year but his death earlier this, robs us of a truly great poet though the poems will remain as his abiding testament to the power of art to overcome each and every kind of obstacle; a superb collection from one of the modern masters.
2020’s weirdness extended to my reading habits – it was harder to finish books, but here are some I managed to stay with, because I really loved them:
I’ve been sober-curious for ages and this book convinced me to try an alcohol-free life. I wondered, at first, if I was Whitaker’s target audience (I wasn’t a night-after-night boozer or rampant, endless partier), but there are hard facts in this upfront book about the downsides of alcohol, and great pep-talks too. So I’m now convinced that if you read it, and it helps you to sobriety, or a better understanding of alcohol’s drawbacks, it’s the right book for anyone trying to live a healthier life.
Ulysses – James Joyce
2020 was finally the year I read Ulysses from start to finish. To help me in the endeavour, I enrolled in Caroline Elbay’s ‘Ulysses for All’ course, run by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. It has been an absolute pleasure to discuss the book once a week, and walk with Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, alongside Caroline and my fellow readers, through the 16th June 1904. What a funny, inventive, wise, rude, and rollicking novel Ulysses is. Wonderful stuff.
An impressive historical fiction début, this novel follows the life of early 19th Century Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins. Delicately written and gently paced, it’s a gorgeous look at nature, male-female dynamics, family entanglements, friendship, and the joys of being a quiet individual. An elegant, beautiful work.
This is a tender, heartbreak of a novel about Elizabeth Bowen and her great love, Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie. The reader is swept into early 20th Century Ireland and the impossible relationship between Ritchie and Bowen, played out in London and Bowen’s Court in County Cork. Gorgeous, haunting, and bittersweet.
A concise, fast-paced study of the feminist movement in Ireland from the 1960s on. Sweetman weaves her personal story of family disruption into her awakening as a feminist and her further commitment to the women’s movement. The tone is exasperated and warm, and I loved Sweetman’s unblinkered look at an emerging modern Ireland. The personal memories were fascinating – perhaps the author will treat us to a full memoir soon.
2020 was a year that had a profound effect on what I read. Often I returned to classic and well-thumbed texts as if seeking comfort-food and the need to be grounded in the familiar. This list has included translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Zola’s Germinal, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and my go-to Bronte titles, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
2020 has also given me the thrill of the new: the wonderful insights into character offered by Elizabeth Strout in her novel, Olive, Again; and the exploration of women’s bodies and women’s minds explored in The Illness Lesson, a novel by Claire Beams.
The Black Lives Matter Movement also prompted me to explore writing I should have perhaps explored before, and I have read a lot of non-fiction, including a powerful memoir by Dwayne Betts entitled, A Question of Freedom in which he tells of his own experience – and the wider Black Experience – within the US Criminal Justice System.
For me, this year has seen my concentration span shrink. Never before have the sayings ‘small is beautiful’ or ‘less is more’ been more relevant. I have turned to ‘small’ works, often by lesser-known, independent presses. Among these I have relished the second poignant novella by Cath Barton, In the Sweep of the Bay, for its structure and authentic feeling, and an innovatively crafted novella-in-flash by the wonderful Mary-Jane Holmes entitled, Don’t Tell the Bees in which she does the most wonderful things with language.
But the short story genre has continued to work its magic for me, and there at the top in 2020 has been encountering Belfast-born, Angela Graham’s work for the first time in her debut collection, A City Burning.
This is an exemplary collection illustrating the creative possibilities of the short fiction form: twenty-six stories set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy spanning a time from the end of World War 2 right up to the current COVID-19 era.
All the stories allowed me to feel the emotional intensity of a range of characters as they stand at pivotal moments in their lives in the aftermath of personal tragedy. This is due, I believe, to the innate understanding that Graham has for the ‘stuff’ of the short story: suggestion rather than statement; rising tension rather than high drama; the power of the unsaid; and the realisation that endings are not neat and tidy and tied up.
These are stories about loss and transition as characters make choices and learn to live in a new ‘now’. Above all, they are stories that have lingered in my mind long after the final page was turned. Graham’s voice is not singular, but plural: political, lyrical, philosophical and colloquial and one that I will look out for again and again.
Lockdown has certainly given me the opportunity to read more widely and I’m very grateful for this silver lining! I’d been meaning to read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust for years and found it completely compelling. Walking is so important to me, it’s the driving force behind my thinking and writing. Solnit’s history of walking made me realise how much of our walking is trespass and also highlighted how hard it has been for women to claim the privilege of being able to walk alone, unmolested and unjudged.
There have been so many excellent poetry collections published this year. I was very impressed by the quiet grief contained in Heidi Williamson’s third Bloodaxe collection Return by Minor Road. Williamson was living in Dunblane at the time of the primary school shootings and this sensitive and articulate collection uses landscape to explore ideas of memory and trauma in a profoundly moving way.
I’m missing trips to London so Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking helped me to reconnect with the Thames. It made me appreciate how small, everyday objects contain so much detailed social history. I wonder how future generations will interpret my life when they find fragments of it in the mud…
I’ve always been fascinated by the Oulipo movement (ouvroir de litterature potentielle – a group of mostly French writers and mathematicians who, in the 1960s, explored the idea of constraints in writing.) I am devouring The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry, whose introduction is a tour de force. I’ve just ordered Georges Perec’s Life – A User’s Manual as well as I Remember which was inspired by Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, so of course that’s on order too! And I couldn’t resist Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo. Elkin’s superb Flâneuse was one of my books of the decade and a very suitable companion to Solnit’s book with its focus on the history of women walking in urban environments.
I’ll clearly be spending Christmas playing with the freedom of constraints with all my Oulipo books. Let’s hope I get some poems from the process!
You could argue that all fiction asks you to do one of two things: to believe or to suspend disbelief. You could also argue that, providing one or the other is possible, they yield the same outcome – a state of willing collusion with the author. In my own experience, the more immersive I’ve found a story at the time of reading the more I’m likely to have enjoyed it, and to remember it.
Carys Davies is immensely skilful in accumulating the tiny increments of detail that build a sense of immersion. So much so that when deeply improbable events take place, albeit at times within the most mundane of circumstances, the reader is primed, cleverly and unobtrusively, to accept them. Her persuasiveness, and she is the most persuasive of writers, also derives from a consistency and intimacy of tone that imbues her stories with credibility. Her characters are built from their doubts, their disappointments, their failures, and yet her narratives, more often than not, are driven by hope. The desire to know how or whether that hope will realised, or even to learn exactly what manner of hope is being unfurled, is the force that pulls the reader through the story.
This collection, her second (she has also written two novels) consists of seventeen stories, none very long and some short enough to fall into the category of flash fiction. The stories sit well together and are bound by two main themes. In one way or another – physically, psychologically, geographically – her characters find themselves alone. They are isolated within their circumstances. And they possess secrets by which they are burdened, which are cleverly hidden from the reader, and which lead them to yearn for some sort of release or fulfilment.
These stories have much to say about the intractability of lives lived in unforgiving conditions. But more than anything they are concerned with the exchange of hidden elements of personal history, with improbable moments of empathy, and with the urgency of the human heart needing to unburden itself.
In the depth of lockdown, I reached up to my bookshelf for the comfort, knowledge and escapism that only books can bring. This year, two books in particular have struck me as original and compelling – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening and Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary.
Translated by Michele Hutchison, Rijneveld’s prose is raw, vivid and disturbing. It tells the story of a pious family dealing with grief in a way that is sparse and compelling. The narrator of the story Jas is off-key and all the more real for it, as she evokes the confusion children often have with adults and how they deal with the world. We only knew about the harvest that came from the land, not about the things that grew inside ourselves. When Foot and Mouth disease arrives at the farm, it’s like watching a stomach-churning nightmare unfold, such is the power of her prose. On some level, I’m sure I felt a resonance with our own pandemic experience – a disease upending everything familiar to us.
For anyone who loves words and dictionaries, Eley Williams’ book is a pure delight. It tells the story of an intern Mallory who is digitising an 1899 dictionary, a dictionary with lots of mountweazels [made up words put into dictionaries to protect intellectual property]. Williams cuts between Mallory and Winceworth, the dictionary’s author in alphabetical chapters named after various mountweazels. It’s a very satisfying book in lots of ways – a love story, a mystery and a comedy with some entertaining late Victoriana at times. It’s an interesting exploration of how we use words to define things, ourselves and others. At one-point Mallory wonders about Winceworth’s mountweazels – were they invented to feel in control of a whole universe of new meanings? A succinct question about the nature of language itself and our love for it and a testament to how it helps us navigate the world and our place in it.
Image by Jo Mazelis.
See The Lonely Crowd next weekend for Part Two of our Books of the Year series.