Contributors to The Lonely Crowd choose the books they have most enjoyed this year. Part Three follows later this week.
Manchester Uncanny is the fifth collection of short stories from master craftsman Nicholas Royle. As suggested by the title, all the stories are set in Manchester, although it is a Manchester made strange by an adept focus on the liminal and transitional, on alien interiors or artefacts, building conversions, recently vacated basements and collapsing towers. With skilful shifts the known world becomes unknowable; mapped by anxiety; its fabricated premises providing an architecture of unease.
Royle’s Manchester is resolutely contemporary, and temporary, permanently in a process of change. It is a portrayal of city as palimpsest, endlessly rewriting itself. The collection reflects this diversity in terms of theme, structure, length and experimentation. The tone slips with great facility between the humorous and the unnerving, poignant or bleak. It should be said that Royle is also a master of nuance, and his meticulous prose is perfectly adapted to both the quotidian and the bizarre.
Beautifully produced by Confingo Publishing, Manchester Uncanny is a stylish and compelling read.
Finishing a book is a challenge. I have stacks of half-read books and some of them I have half-read more than once, having lost the plot, so to speak, starting again at page one, only to slack off once more half-way through. It is something I am trying to correct, but perhaps one of the reasons why poetry so appeals. You are not forced to read in a linear fashion, relying on the momentum of memory and the lure of curiosity. On average, I read at least two poetry collections a week, so to pick a favourite would be an impossible task. So, it was interesting to look back at which books overcame my predisposition to abandonment. Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? paperback edition published this year, is one that claimed my attention to the final page. I haven’t read her previous novels, Conversations with Friends, and Normal People, but had seen the television adaptations and enjoyed them. I had also seen a skit on social media, where a comic parodied a protagonist by looking depressed, drinking a cup of tea, walking out of a door, changing their mind, walking back inside, sending a text, and making another cup of tea. At least, that’s how I remember it. But there is something about the precision of pace, attention to shifting tones of mood, and exquisite, although some might say unnecessary, veneration of detail, that is very close to poetry. The two mismatched love affairs that form the basis of the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ plot is not a page-turner, designed to entice the reader to race to the next twist of the sheets. Instead, the real drama, or should that be ‘interest’ is in the intense internal psychological examination – the everyday challenges from over-thinking; ongoing unresolved family issues affecting life choices; and the relevance of personal happiness in a failing capitalist society challenged by climate change, poverty, and war. If anything, the epistolary device of emails between the best friends, Alice and Eileen, is somewhat overt, but the philosophical and emotional space it opens makes it justifiable. Not much happens, but everything happens, which is how I like my poetry, and probably how I like my novels, at least the ones that I get to finish.
If Sally Rooney, is an acquired taste, then a taste that must be acquired is anything by Seán Hewitt. His award-winning eco-poetry is transformational in its affect on the reader with its intense exploration of sexuality and nature, creating a deeper understanding of how we are connected to our environment at a soul level. I read his memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, and I’m not the only one who thinks it brilliant. It won the 2022 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and deservedly so. Hewitt’s cosmic appreciation of how love and religion, upbringing and outcomes, depression and oppression, desire, and danger, are all intertwined, is incredibly moving. The relationship between Seán and Elias, serves as a catalyst to explore the lives of queer figures throughout history, and how their experiences of trauma are routinely preordained by a society fixated on maintaining the status quo and a heteronormative tyranny. Winter, nature, tracks off the beaten path to wilder hidden spaces and the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins provide threads and connections of hope and sanctuary.
The book which has resonated with me most this year is Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, a story about the collateral damage of sectarian violence, a story about love and care and heartbreak. Oh, you think you’ve heard stories like that before? The thing is this: there is level of naked truth in this book which springs from the fact that Kennedy, facing potentially life-threatening illness, was – as she worked on it – literally writing for her life. I felt, viscerally, the energy in this book, felt what it was for Cushla, a Catholic, to fall in love with Michael, a Protestant, and twice her age at that, felt the punch to the gut when tragedy ensured. It is a remarkable book, and I really hope it will not be the last we have from Louise Kennedy.
It’s rare that I read a book and it worms its way so thoroughly under my skin that I am still thinking about it weeks later. With Sophie White’s Where I End the rather prosaic title belies the visceral horror that lies within. This is the story of island-bound teenager Aoileann, who, starved of love and affection by her family, develops an unhealthy obsession with a newcomer to the island and her newborn baby. The prose is tight and sparse and often beautiful, but the insidious dread runs deep, and in Aoileann we confront a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist – the very best kind. Unconventional, disturbing and in some places stomach-turning, this is the kind of novella I would love to have written myself.
Other books that have left me reeling in 2022 were A Man at War by Johnny Mains which is the brutal and chilling character study of the thoroughly damaged protagonist, elegantly told through its unusual structure of three interlinked novellas, and Jackdaw by Tade Thompson – a fever dream of a book which depicts an unsettling, absurd and sometimes comedic transgression of social norms and an ascent to the glorious echelons of madness.
My book of the year for 2022 is Edith by Martina Devlin: a thoughtful and beautifully written portrayal of the writer Edith Somerville. Prior to reading, I knew little about Somerville or her friend and writing collaborator Violet Martin, and so it was not only an intriguing story but also one full of revelations. I did, as a child, watch the TV series The Irish RM and loved the rogue Flurry Knox (played by a young Brian Murray) with whom Edith communes during the course of this novel. Supernatural elements such as Somerville’s communing with the dead, automatic writing sessions with her dead partner, and engaging the services of a medium were of particular fascination. The political unrest of the era is skillfully and objectively handled – as is the ambiguous nature of the relationship between Somerville and Ross. Devlin exercises diplomacy at all times, and breathes life into this extraordinary woman.
Two other fascinating works by Irish authors released in 2022 are reprints: Catherine Dunne’s A Name for Himself and Another Alice by Lia Mills. Both were re-published as part of the Arlen House Classics Series. The former is an intriguing if uncomfortable account of Farrell, a man so obsessed with his wife Grace, that he will go to any length to ensure they stay together. This is a novel focussed on coercive control, written before the term had become such common currency. Lia Mills’ novel is no less uncomfortable as we follow Alice through childhood and into motherhood, discovering as the story unfolds how an abusive past has had a dire impact on her formation as an individual. The writing is beautiful with recurring motifs such as music used to portray mood and atmosphere. Both novels are as relevant now if not more so than they were when originally published in the 1990’s.
The Stopping Places – A Journey Through Gypsy Britain, by Damien Le Bas, was published in 2019 but only came on my radar in 2022. And very glad indeed am I to have read it! Le Bas set himself the challenge of travelling along old routes mapped out by his beloved Romany maternal grandmother, his Nan. The routes are strung between the atchin tans, or traditional Gypsy stopping places, some in deep countryside, others in industrial wasteland, most somewhere between the two. The book takes us on a road trip, affording a fascinating glimpse into a world that exists parallel to the everyday modern world but is, for the most part, closed off to those who do not belong there. A runner-up for my Book of the Year would be ‘Rodham’ by Curtis Sittenfeld, an alternative biography of Hillary Clinton, which imagines how her life might have panned out had she not met and married Bill. It’s an intriguing premise and Sittenfeld exploits it with invention and verve, and considerable political insight.
Released at the end of 2021 on the back of the pandemic, the unwieldy and confronting Harrow, by Joy Williams, haunted me this year. To describe Harrow as a post-apocalyptic parable of the climate crisis, as it so often is, only limits the scope and vision of this wondrous work. With Harrow, Williams, a master of the short story, applies her prodigious talents to upend the concerns and form of the contemporary novel: ‘The old dear stories of possibility. No one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.’ Williams destabilises narrative expectations, time, place and point of view, rejecting the self-involved obsessions of today’s ‘trauma plot’. (‘Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves,’ she told the Paris Review.) Her characters, including ‘born-again’ Khristen, and Jeffrey, a precocious ten-year old Judge, lurch through an absurdist, denuded and cruel American landscape devoid of animals. No one has the language to describe the catastrophe, or the will to take responsibility. “Here’s our situation,” says one character. “We’re learners and seekers but we don’t know what we’re searching for. We don’t have the words, or the words we have are the wrong ones.” Like an Old Testament prophet crying out in the wilderness, Williams combines the Biblical language of lament with Kafkaesque humour to confront the ‘natural’ outcome of our self-obsession, our contempt, our petty insecurities, our greed. This is fiction at its finest, a story about the stories we tell ourselves at the end of the world.
I’m a latecomer to Anne Tyler’s fiction so I’ve still got a fair chunk of her back catalogue to devour for the first time. If her past novels are anything like 2022’s The French Braid then I won’t be disappointed. The novel tells the story of the Garrett family, encapsulating the tensions and trauma of their lives over several decades. What I love about Tyler’s writing, and about this novel in particular, is how she condenses so much content, so many well-drawn characters, into a narrative that isn’t overly long – there’s no hyperbole, no words wasted – and yet there’s so many layers to the story. It’s definitely a novel I’ll return to again and again.
Photo by John Lavin