Contributors to The Lonely Crowd choose the books they have most enjoyed this year. Part Two follows next week.
The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry follows the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy through the period of intense mourning that followed the sudden death of his first – and latterly uncherished wife – Emma. His remorse over her death inspired his masterful sequence of elegies, Poems of 1912-1913.
When she died, Emma had been pursuing her own writing, evoking her young life in Cornwall before her marriage (later published as Some Recollections); she had also kept a diary through two decades of increasing alienation from a husband, who had effectively abandoned her for his novels, and for vacillating flirtations with other women.
In real life, Hardy burned the diaries, but in Lowry’s novel he reads them first and thus, too late, he discovers Emma’s inner life and is confronted with his own self-unseeing nature, even as the second Mrs Hardy waits in the wings. The gloomy house in Dorset, Max Gate, built at great expense and to Hardy’s exacting demands, is the other character in the novel, spacious yet claustrophobic, hard to heat, comfortable but cheerless, because as Hardy realises, love has died there.
Lowry’s theme is the underside of artistic devotion – the monstrousness of the writing life for those closest, or trying to be.
In the year in which we lost Hilary Mantel, it’s a real joy to have discovered in Elizabeth Lowry another meticulous, restrained and humane chronicler of lives past. I’ll be looking out for more of her work.
In 2022, I adored Martha Wainwright’s memoir Stories I Might Regret Telling You. As a longtime fan, I hold Martha in high esteem and great affection, and it was good to hear her side of her famous family’s ins, outs, ups and downs. Frank, lyrical, and stylish, a must-read for all music fans.
Multiple Joyce by David Collard is one hundred short essays about James Joyce’s cultural legacy; it’s funny, learned, lively, and unique, and I absolutely loved its joyful energy.
I was also enthralled this year by art critic Cristín Leach’s memoir, Negative Space – a beautifully layered dissection of art, and self-fluctuation and care during the trauma of marriage breakdown.
I’m in an Elizabeth Bowen reading group and we have done the stories (fantastic) and are now pacing through the early novels. So far, Bowen’s first novel The Hotel is the one I’ve enjoyed most. It’s set in an Italian hotel and has all the Bowen hallmarks: pinpoint dissection of troubled adults; knowing, wilful children; female friendships; and an uncertain love story. And all dressed up in Bowen’s astonishing use of imagery and animated settings. A shimmery, gorgeous book.
Not being able to whittle my choice of best read of 2022 down to one title, I’m taking the liberty of referencing two, both of which were published in 2021 and both being so good that I read them again in 2022. The two were also deemed excellent and short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Alas, neither ‘won’ if competitions are any judge of such things.
I’m talking about Small Things Like These by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, and Oh William! by American, Elizabeth Strout and although the stories they tell are set in different times and different places, there is much that they share that draws me to them.
These two very short novels focus on secrets and the consequences of keeping secrets: Keegan chooses Ireland in the 1980s and the complicit silences of a community controlled by the Catholic Church. Its central character is Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, who encounters first-hand the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries.
Strout sets her tale in present day USA and is about discovering family secrets late in life. Her central character, is successful writer, Lucy Barton, who re-connects with her ex, William, and recounts and re-assesses her life to date and the mysteries of long-term relationships.
Though stylistically different, these wonderful writers immerse you in the feeling and emotional truths of their stories without drama or sentimentality. Keegan uses a close third person perspective to get near and personal to Furlong, without judgement and with detailed observations. In contrast, Strout uses the first person, and a conversational and intimate style that again is not dramatic, yet is deeply immersive, almost feeling that as a reader you are being addressed directly.
These two writers are what my late mother would have called very ‘knowing women’, in that they know so much about the human condition and can correspond that canniness in few words, knowing and valuing that their readers too, know enough about the human conditions, to join up the dots and understand the power of the unsaid.
This is the sort of writing I like – and aspire to: suggestion not statement, showing not telling, tension not melodrama. And, that when the last word is read, you know that the story is not over as the consequences will play out off the page and will linger long in the mind.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
This absorbing novel is about the bizarre family which produced John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Ruled by the pig-headed patriarch Junius Booth, acclaimed Shakespearean actor and not-so-acclaimed alcoholic, all members of the family suffer; the boys more spectacularly, the womenfolk in the usual way, having no agency in mid-nineteenth century America except compared to slaves. My one complaint about this novel is that in it the misery is more or less unrelieved. That said, Fowler’s style is brilliant, her prose flawless and wry. This is a glum read, but still a riveting one.
“A hat big enough to sail a cat in”; “joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you”: it’s a surprise even to me that my book of the year is the biography of a Sixteenth Century English Metaphysical poet. John Donne was always one of those poets I felt like I ought to like: sexy and god-fearing, witty but stringently formal, above all intellectually rigorous. So it was a relief and a delight to have Katherine Rundell introduce and explain him to me in such a fresh, witty, in-formal and yes even sexy way (see above). At 300 pages her Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is swift rather than exhaustive, but it covers its subject with passion and authority. More importantly, it made me want to read the poems, and gave me the ammunition I needed to do it. Job, er… donne.
The reader is introduced to a number of different characters in this small town. One might expect pain and cruelty – and certainly all the harsh realities of life and birth and death are here – but there is also kindness and love, and it moved me to tears. My expectations as a reader were turned upside downand the quietest and most unlikely characters became the heroes. It’s a deeply moving novel and I loved it.
Non-fiction book of my year –
Sourced as so much of my reading is from the London Review Of Books, this study of people who might once have been called ‘escaped slaves’ is a revelation in terms of its dates of reference and its re-characterisation of these ‘freedom seekers’. They were captive servants whose only record of existence are the notices of reward for their return after seeking their freedom, posted by ‘owners’ in the London Gazette. Discovering that one such man ran from pressed service in north Wales in 1686 was a revelation. There’s a story there – or a poem…..
Poetry from 2022
Especially rewarding were Michael Longley’s The Slain Birds. Longley is probably the finest poet in these islands.
And Ada Limon’s The Hurting Kind which is one of those American books prefaced by a dozen or so, actually sixteen, quotes of critical appreciation. In this case, thoroughly deserved for the 24thPoet Laureate of the USA.
It’s very difficult to say that I enjoyed one book more than all others in 2022, but I’m giving myself the task of picking one – just one – and I’m limiting myself to books published in 2022 just so that I don’t overwhelm myself. I would most certainly be overwhelmed without that constriction. The book I’m picking is The Night Ship, Jess Kidd’s fourth novel for adults, after Himself, The Hoarder, and Things in Jars, and all of which I’d highly recommend. Her books are published by Canongate. The Hoarder has the title of Mr. Flood’s Last Resort in the United States (a title I really dislike, I confess).
Himself and The Hoarder are both steeped in a dark and quirky humour that is just one of the reasons for their extensive appeal. Things in Jars then saw Kidd moving away from the more direct and deliberate laughs to a darker and more intense narrative and, at the time of reading it, I have to say I missed the humour that is one of Kidd’s great gifts. The Night Ship moves farther away from this humour again (it does still have humour but is meticulously measured) to her most intense and disquieting narrative yet. The difference this time is that I didn’t view the reduced humour as a loss because the richness of the language and the often unsettled feeling the narrative provokes are the great strengths of the book and more humour would have inhibited their effect.
I’m not going to tell you the ins and outs of the story, only say that it’s an historical novel written very much on Kidd’s terms, and so might be different to most historical novels you’ve read before. There are two intersecting narratives (centuries apart) centring upon the tragic true story of the shipwrecked Batavia, which set out from Holland in 1628 for the Dutch East Indies. The monstrous, the ghostly, and the foreboding all thrive, as they tend to in a Jess Kidd novel, and these things work in tandem with the historical subject matter. There are sojourns into magic realism and, admittedly, there is a lot going on, but Kidd shows her great gifts as a story-teller in keeping it expertly under control as well as compelling.
The thing that draws me to Kidd’s books, and will continue to draw me, is Kidd’s incredible quirkiness and her embrace of it. I love it, and few authors have it, and I think only Scarlett Thomas has it as much as Kidd. Her willingness to push that quirkiness out and keep it interesting and unique is her test and by book number four she is passing it with great distinction. The Night Ship is the work of a writer who is sure-footed, knowing exactly the writer she wants to be. There is both beautiful and disturbing poetry of her prose, her voice is increasingly vital, and this is my favourite of her books, and I cannot wait to see what she will do next, and it’s anyone’s guess.
Writers with a close affinity to music always welcome any explication of what’s ineffable about it. Earlier in life, I beefed up on all the historical categories: Early, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary. This year I read Stephen Walsh’s The Beloved Vision: Music in the Romantic Age, published by Faber, with a feeling that this music had trumped all others in even the most unprejudiced music-lovers’ affections. Not that it’s ever a contest – and not that I don’t like almost all music equally; musical history is stellar, not linear. But Romantic music remains the staple of popular music, concert programmes, and film scores. Walsh’s account, though covering familiar ground, is conveyed with style and elegance and includes not a few insights. That’s a bonus for someone like me, who was taught to write music criticism as one might write a poem or a story – with care, finesse, and honesty; and in the hope that it might mean something to the reader. It was a branch of journalism, not musicology.
When you’ve been reading fiction for years and years the influences on contemporary authors are often all too obvious, so you know that even the most apparently trailblazing stuff has been done before. With the case of Jim Gibson, there’s no such obvious influence. He has a unique voice. These stories are like the finest lean meat, so have a glass of red with them and treat yourself.
Photo by John Lavin