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.
One of the books I have read this years that has stayed with me is Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard. I am sure I must have read some ‘new’ books this year, but they haven’t stayed with me. Most of my reading tends to be of things from the past. Written 40 years ago this has been tested, then tested again and is still in print. I tend to look for slim books that drag me into another world seamlessly, quickly and wholeheartedly then dump me out again to enjoy my own responses. Nature writing, essays, poetry, philosophy, ideas that are transformational, thoughts in words that will show me previously unimagined worlds that really exist for somebody out there, worlds that I do not access through imagining a picture of a place described but through experiencing the feelings felt. I want the writer to be there bang in the middle, a fallible, possibly crazy, human being telling me of their experiences in the face of this majestic existence. Annie Dillard does this for me, she often bypasses logic and drives straight to the emotions as a poet does. I will remember this book for a long time.
I spent the early part of this year – like so many others – struggling to find the concentration to read anything longer than a news report. When I did find the headspace for fiction again, I found myself reading further and wider than ever and with renewed joy. I found time for things I’d been wanting to read for years, like Middlemarch. I read – and adored – David Copperfield. I also read some poetry, which I don’t usually do, most notably Sean Hewitt’s wonderful collection Tongues of Fire. Among the many excellent new novels I read this year were Elaine Feeney’s As You Were and Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers. I found Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss astounding, and I loved her most recent book, Summerwater, too. Having said all that, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnetwas my standout reading experience of the year. It’s the story of Shakespeare’s wife – in this case called Agnes – and their son Hamnet, who died when he was a child. From the opening pages, when the child is coming down the stairs of their home and chooses to jump the last few steps, O’Farrell effortlessly closes the four-hundred-year gap between then and now. It’s a magical and deeply moving portrait of motherhood, marriage and grief, illuminated by the extraordinary character of Agnes. I picked Hamnet up just as we entered the second lockdown, and the empty days that had loomed so long and bleak ahead of me were transformed by that one novel into a heaven-sent opportunity for reading. It’s an exquisite work of art.
It took me a while to get back to reading during lockdown, and when I did it was good to come across books like Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s French Leave, a crazy escapist romp taking me from New York to Paris with a mother and son and their cat Small Frank. Also Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak’s wonderfully inventive whirlwind tour through Istanbul in the company of a disparate group of friends in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.
I find that several of the books I’ve most enjoyed this year have – serendipitously – a connection with motherhood: the honesty about its ups and downs in Laura Besley’s flash fiction collection The Almost Mothers, the frightening possibilities that can spiral out from one false move in Alison Irvine’s Cat Step, and Hilary Mantel’s moving reflections in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost about the lost or ghost children who we – as authors – may be compelled to write into being. While Maggie O’Farrell’s searing exploration of grief over the death of a child in Hamnet tore at my heart.
Strong writing in two novels from independent publishers which have stayed with me over the past months to complete my list: Hannah Persaud’s portrayal of an unconventional marriage in The Codes of Love burrowed its way into my dreams, while Naomi Booth’s taut and elegantly-written tale of an aspirational couple in London in Exit Management makes me shudder still at its dissection of vanity and hubris.
Mother: a memoir is the latest book from Nicholas Royle (the ‘Sussex’ one as opposed to the ‘Manchester’ one) and it’s a marvellous piece of work. It never pretends to be doing its job of mourning and – of course, impossible – reanimation except through the medium of language. The writing is plain and straightforward until Royle gets snagged on a word and starts playing with it, unspooling its innards till you’ve got a whole paragraph out of, for instance, fizzog, which his mother preferred to face: “Fizzog is at the edge of language. Off-centre off stage. It lives and loves somewhere fuzzy. It is not concerned about spelling. Fizzog phisog physog phizog. It belongs to the air. The pleasure of sound. It’s an onomatopizztake.” And so on. There is tragedy in the story – Royle’s mother’s dementia, and his brother’s ravaging cancer – but the book overcomes these to document those splendid, incidental idiosyncrasies that hopefully will make us all, eventually, worth remembering.
The words in Amy McCauley’s new book, Propositions, are not scrabbled into paragraphs as if by chance, as Royle’s sometimes seem to want to seem to be. They are placed there pointedly, even viciously. The book takes its form and its tone from Wittgenstein, if Wittgenstein had found it possible to write properly about desire and pain. The words that do make it on to the page do so under great pressure – all that suffocating white space around them! Even a throwaway sentence (?) like the following, which sits on an otherwise empty page under the title (?) Syntax – “He gave her dog biscuits” – has got a splinter of violence at its heart. Monitor published this short book in a run of just 150 copies. It deserves to be read by many times that number.
Reissue of the year is Brigid Brophy’s novel The Snow Ball, originally published in 1964. It’s as sharp as Spark, as moral as Murdoch, and arguably funnier and more intelligent than either.
My book of 2020 is Irish poet, Micheál McCann’s striking debut pamphlet, Safe Home. McCann’s are keenly observed, sharply crafted poems, realised in language that is both disarming and unexpected; funny and affecting; consistently attuned to literary and artistic influences and traditions, but with a music all their own. Moving between rural Donegal, Derry and Belfast, the collection considers and disrupts notions of ‘home’ and ‘safety’ through its layered themes of identity, family, sexuality and connection – ‘sanctuary spilling out’ (to borrow a phrase from ‘Fried Egg Sandwich’) and settling brilliantly into place.
Some authors remind you why you started writing in the first place. James Kelman does that for me. Published in the autumn, Kelman’s What I Do (Memoirs) is a collection of obituaries, memorials and eulogies to other writers, artists and political figures that have influenced his work. The book starts with Kelman as a young man in the 1970s meeting the American writer Mary Gray Hughes. It ends with the address Kelman gave at the poet Tom Leonard’s funeral in 2018. Given that Kelman’s subjects here are no longer with us, there’s an obviously elegiac note to some of the sections, but what’s really here is life. What I Do asks ‘What does it mean to be an artist?’ and questions mainstream expectations of voice and literary authority. I always come out of reading Kelman refreshed and with a reinvigorated sense of purpose.
The poetry collection that has stayed at the top of my book pile this year is Martin Stannard’s The Review. It’s a long narrative poem that continually exposes us to the limitations of our knowledge and undercuts our expectations with a nudge and a wink. The opening three lines set the tone: ‘I’ve been a bit wrapped up in myself lately / and some people say that’s not a good thing / but I don’t give a fuck.’ The narrative remains in a kind of permanent, slippery evolution, correcting itself as it unfolds to gradually reveal a deeper question around how we perceive events and our place in them.
I began 2020 with An Yu’s Braised Pork. Part noir, part magical realism, it explores ideas of loneliness, isolation and identity. Jia Jia, released by her husband’s death from a comfortable but meaningless life, journeys from Beijing to Tibet to discover the significance of a curious sketch she finds near his corpse. The drawing is of a strange creature, a slithery man-fish. This motif permeates the novel: its unadorned prose is full of watery, slippery imagery, and dreamlike, subaquatic interludes. I found it a delicate, hypnotic read.
My book of the summer was Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice. It brings to light the plight of girls forced into marriage or domestic slavery in Nigeria. When her mother dies, 14-year-old Adunni is sold by her father into an illegal marriage, raped, and imprisoned with her husband’s two other wives. She runs away to Lagos, where she finds herself in the service of the terrifying ‘Big Madam’. We root for Adunni as things go from bad to worse, helped and hindered on her way by a diverse cast of characters, who also illustrate the complexities of the society that Adunni has to navigate. Adunni’s ‘louding’ voice is one of the joys of the novel: from the opening page, Daré’s language is full of unusual rhythms and constructions, and striking imagery that is often funny and original. It is a moving and ultimately uplifting tale.
Finally, a book I have just finished, London Gothic by Nicholas Royle [the ‘Manchester’ one rather than the ‘Sussex’ one in this case – Ed]. These shifty, shady stories evoked a place very familiar to me, even in their weirdness. Woodchip paper and piles of junk mail in entrance halls, doors that lead to nowhere, the amber windows of trains flashing by in the night – a sort of recurring nightmare made of all the flats I’ve ever lived in, all the dark, urban streets I’ve ever walked. Underneath runs a vein of humour that really did make me laugh out loud at times. The claustrophobic, city-centric nature of this collection feels like a fitting end to this confined and airless year.
Was 2020 a good reading year? Lockdown seemed like a bibliophile’s dream come true. But many book lovers say no, a mix of anxiety and lassitude went nibbling away at concentration spans, making eyes dart from pages with their tetchy little black symbols demanding attention, getting on the reader’s nerves.
I found working with my hands was soothing so listening to literature was a thing for me this year. I started with an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, on my son’s recommendation. He lent me his ear buds and off I went to Tokyo of 1984, with its two moons and a town of cats, with the Zen-chilled voices of the actors beautifully conveyed. I knitted a scarf half a kilometre long.
Another great find for me was poet Alice Oswald’s University of Oxford lecture series by podcast. Like going to the well: replenishment of the imaginative soul. She’s wonderful on fluidity as metaphor, on birdsong as poetic voice, on the poet as predator too (Ted Hughes).
This year was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Paul Celan. I came across a You Tube interview between Paul Auster and Celan’s translator, Pierre Joris: new translation of Celan’s posthumous prose, Microliths, by First Contra Mundum Press, is a diamond.
Irish poet and translator Mícheál Ó hAodha I encountered when reviewing Exiles, his translation from the Irish of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh’s cracking novel of the great 50’s diaspora to Britain. Welsh independent publishers Parthian produced this.
My most precious lockdown discovery was Edna O’Brien’s magnificent novella, Night. First published in 1972, the audacity of voice is as inspirational as it is demanding of the female writer: ‘I’ve met them all, the cretins, the pilgrims, the scholars, and the scaly-eyed bards prating and intoning for their bit of cunt.’ Follow that, sisters.
The Kabul Olympics John McAuliffe
I was delighted to have close contact with John’s latest collection in this year of unfastenedness. To begin with I was eased, happily, across the familiar surfaces of this poet’s domain— the quotidian environments and engagements— and then, by the recording of some extraordinary events, there opened up tunnels and spectral pathways for my imagination to follow. As in the nature they invite us to experience, the poems stand as memory-trees, their branches decorated with catkins of everyday phrases and bristling with articles in motion. And then a touch of anxiety indicates the inner bowers. Inviting travel and dreaming, and a changing of our focus as the adventures extend. The eponymous Olympics are evoked and re-purposed. St Patrick’s Day dissolves into a display of light. There are tantalising and dangerous journeys in cars, boats and aeroplanes through Kerry, Manchester, Germany, The Everglades and to the blessed hilltops of imagination. There are explosions a-plenty. Smoke gathering and dissipating. Destinations are just resting places, stopovers, clearings, on the road to some other ultimate thing. All the while The Robin and The Blackbird are seen to bide their time. Something is always imminent. A settling of identity?
It’s marvellous to find such insight, where familiar words and phrasing fuel the trip to the other. The continuum of the poet’s truthfulness gives good assurance and guided experience. There is an iridescence to the whole of this work and I wondered if it’s coming from something shuddering the pages. A distant hoof seeking direction, questioning.
This poet does not ignore the potentialities of atrocity; he does enthuse about great deeds real or imagined, finished or otherwise, and always settles for the surety of life going on, despite everything. The thrust is always onwards.
However it did it, this work came in unison with the urgent reflections of the times, the unexpected and reflexive tuning with nature. Lit fires to warm anxious, restless minds.
I am not a great reader. As in, I read slow, painstakingly slow. I am always looking for the stuff hidden behind the wardrobe, little tricks the author’s subconscious might have left behind, trophies for my own subconscious to find. And Alice Lyons’ first novel Oona is brimming with such complex gems. From the opening, I felt a deep connection with, and empathy for, the flawed and fragile protagonist. I could try to summarise the story neatly by saying it is a coming of age/coming to terms with loss story centered around the eponymous Oona, child of first-generation European immigrants living in a privileged New Jersey suburb, a place ghosted with tragic Native American history. But this multi-layered novel is impossible to summarise. Oona’s mother dies early in the novel. Her premature death is surrounded by a dissociative silence, a hushed denial the vulnerable child Oona is compelled to be complicit in. Thus begins a surrendering of self. She embraces the shackled silence, and enters a chrysalis-style stasis through which she navigates loss and adolescence, and from which she eventually emerges, blinking, as adult, painter, embedded member of society in Celtic-Tiger era rural Leitrim, Ireland (my own beloved backwater). In a recursive twist, the First-Person narrative frequently references the creative practice process itself, with emphasis on painting. And yes, the story is written nearly entirely without the letter O. This omission, rather than drawing attention to itself, mirrors back the turmoil that can be inflicted on the Self when parts are constrained, repressed, or blacked out. Consequently, this fettered language turns up some unpredictable, inventive, beautiful turns-of-phrase, and the novel often slides seamlessly into intuitive prose-poem territory, a crafted communion between consciousness and subconsciousness. My kind of thing.
See The Lonely Crowd this week for parts 3 & 4 of our Books of the Year. Read Part 1 here.
Banner photo by Jo Mazelis.