Books of the Year 2022 / Part Three
Contributors to The Lonely Crowd choose the books they have most enjoyed this year. Part Four follows tomorrow.
In Ruth, the central character in Loved and Missed, Susie Boyt has created a multi-faceted portrait to rival the work of one of her literary heroes, Henry James. If the novel’s early pages are notable for Boyt’s disarmingly witty prose style while conjuring up a world of shabby flats, heroin addiction and secondary school teachers, then all the signposts of the narrative’s melancholy conclusion are nevertheless hiding in plain sight. What takes the reader unawares, however – or this reader, at least – is the ever deepening philosophical complexity of the subject matter.
Like Henry James, Boyt is a chronicler of human consciousness and so this is most definitely not a novel with a sudden twist at the end – such as say might happen in Nabokov, where Ruth would surely be revealed to be a deeply unreliable narrator – but rather a work where new layers of insight are added. When there is a switch of narrator in the final chapter, it only serves to affirm all that we have known or suspected about Ruth from a different angle; adding light and shade to aspects of her character and new layers of sadness to the narrative. These layers of sadness come in waves towards the end of the novel. ‘The sadness of life can be overwhelming at the best of times’, a priest says to Ruth during these final stages, as though to explicitly state what is happening not only to Ruth but to the sobbing reader.
It is safe to say that this novel does not chronicle the best of times but it does record tangible moments of hope and joy. And above all it is a work which, despite its melancholy conclusions, is suffused with love. In fact in many ways it takes love as its subject matter. Love not always given and not always received – or even accepted. Love that often misses the mark. Love that is always deeply, often painfully, real.
My book of the year is Hilary Llewellyn-Williams’ The Little Hours which was published by Seren in July. As well as some old favourites from her previous collections, Hilary’s book has some sparkling new poems including ‘A Long Goodbye’ and ‘The Side Gate’. There is something of another of my heroines, Lynette Roberts in the earlier work, yet Hilary’s is very much her own voice: confident, capable and sparkling. It’s a collection I will be going back to.
I have whittled my favourite books of 2022 down to one novel, one short story collection and one poetry collection.
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
Patel’s protagonist is an arts freelancer living in south London. She has two obsessions: the married man she wants to be with, and the woman he’s having an affair with. Through a series of short chapters, this novel examines race, gender, the patriarchy and social media. I gobbled it up in one sitting.
Send Nudes by Saba Sams
The ten stories in Sams’ debut short story collection explore girls and their bodies, family, and friendship. The settings are often grubby, with stories taking place in pubs, clubs and festivals. While the subject matter can be dark, the stories are also funny. In ‘Tinderloins’ the young narrator, Grace, loses her virginity to Ryan: ‘The sex hadn’t gone as I’d imagined, but it had gone, and that was the main thing.’ I keep finding myself returning to this collection, craving its addictive energy.
Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning
Mari Ellis Dunning’s much anticipated second poetry collection explores maternal journeys. As well as the very personal ‘A Sudden Mother’, the poet writes about Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Fictional characters including Zelda Fitzgerald and Bertha Mason are also given voices. This is a wonderful collection, one of delicate beauty and raw vulnerability.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of reading this year, poetry and prose, most recently what I believe will turn out to be a Christmas Classic, the much lauded Small Things like These by Claire Keegan. But I particularly love sink into books that have stood the test of time and one I started early this year grabbed and still holds on is Milton’s Paradise Lost, not just because of the story (which has captured me completely) but also the thought of John Milton, sitting at his desk with quill and lamp and realising that he has made Satan the hero, the image is delicious.
Padraig Regan’s poem ‘A Machine for Harvesting Olives’ has lived in my brain since I first read it in 2021. The piece is compact and precise; a sharply drawn image of a sentient olive tree and its falling fruit give way to a wider idea of bodily sensation, autonomy and agency. The poem is one of my favourites from Regan’s collection Some Integrity, released in early 2022, which unfolds like a portfolio of paintings that bear witness to the complexities of bodily impermanence. Death, food and desire are in a constant dialogue throughout the poems in this collection. These themes pool around a recurring idea of the body and its shifting states and sensations, never quite settling in a state of love or longing, hunger or satiety. But perhaps Regan’s most enigmatic skill is their capacity to create imagery to these ends that is delicate, and yet so exact that it feels like magic. So often the images Regan creates show a sort of absence: An olive that is ‘a symbol meaning olive’, a spatchcocked chicken that is ‘nothing like a book’, a grapefruit whose fragrance is a silent scream. These voided images are like relief drawings, showing us what is not present in order to allow us to feel what is. It’s this generous lightness of touch, combined with a gentle but insistent push for integrity of sensation, which make Padraig Regan’s first full length collection one of the most unsettling and quietly beautiful poetry books of 2022.
Looking back on the books I’ve loved in 2022, my list is packed with long and short fiction titles by Welsh and Irish authors, particularly by women writers. From Wales, these include a number of stunning short story collections, such as Carolyn Lewis’ Some Sort of Twilight and Jane Fraser’s Connective Tissue, as well as Fannie by Rebecca F. John, an exquisite re-imagining of Fantine from Les Misérables in novella form. From Ireland, my favourite titles of 2022 include Jan Carson’s The Raptures, Wendy Erskine’s Dance Move, and Bernie McGill’s This train is for. To reduce such wonderful works of nuanced complexity and beauty to just one book is very difficult indeed. However, one work of fiction to which I’ve returned in both hard copy and audio format is Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, Trespasses.
Set against the backdrop of The Troubles in 1970s Belfast, Trespasses is a tender, shocking story about survival and love in the most difficult of times. Cushla Lavery is a twenty-four-year-old Catholic primary school teacher who, like everyone else, is trying to manage her day-to-day amidst the reality of violence and religious and political divides. We join her in her classroom where seven-year-olds are all too aware of bomb scares and beatings as they prepare for Holy Communion; in young Davy McGeown’s house as she checks in on a family subjected to the relentless torment of hostile neighbours; and in other parts of the city where she has Irish classes and secret meetups with Protestant barrister Michael Agnew. At home, there’s her mother Gina, a woman of wit and character navigating the effects of alcoholism. It’s a heartbreaking story where place is evoked so rawly; where language beats not only with the words of the community from which it originates, but where it also assumes the steady, at times, urgent rhythm of a desperate period defined by desperate actions.
The book of my 2022 is How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang. Even in that gorgeous title I hear again the lyricism and the questioning, the searching, that abounds in this novel. Set in the wild west during a gold rush, this is a story that pushes all the well-worn narratives to the margins. This isn’t another tale—not even another revisionist tale—of cowboys or Native Americans. Zhang overturns that binary. There are other stories to tell. Instead, Zhang’s heroes are Lucy and Sam, two orphaned young sisters of Chinese heritage. We first meet them in an arresting scene: they drag their father’s corpse through the desert, in search of the two silver dollars they must lay on his eyelids to let his spirit pass. So begins their quest to lay to rest a ghost. But there are many ghosts to exorcise: their trauma, their parents’ trauma, their grandparents’ trauma, all those unmet dreams:
And so Lucy fears that unwritten history… to stare down that history makes Lucy dizzy, as if she peers from the wrong end of a spyglass to see Ba and Ma smaller than her, Ba and Ma with bas and mas of their own, across an ocean bigger than the vanished lake.
Lighting the darkness, however, is the girls’ fierce will to overcome this spyglass history of displacement. They long to find a home in this land of buried fossils and gold, even though they question what home means. Zhang alternates between the two sisters’ points of view, allowing us to know the secrets they keep from each other and those around them. As is true in many families, they respond to their trauma in different ways; they are wonderfully distinct characters. Zhang made me love them both. Unlike many novels with shifting viewpoints, I did not prefer one voice to the other. It is this relationship between the siblings, the conflict and the connection, that propels this story. I loved it. I must read it again.
Georgi Gill’s debut poetry collection, Limbo is very impressive. This sequence of 65 poems centres on the experiences of the enigmatic B, an androgenous individual who is an object of desire and fascination to the regulars at a Berlin nightclub in the pivotal year of 1933. Its range of characterisation, its handling of a variety of voices and its confident narrative control over a tight time frame of ten days marks it out as the work of a poet who is serious about the craft. She also has the imaginative stamina to sustain such a long sequence. It was deservedly shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year, 2022. I reviewed it for the Cardiff Review here. Georgi Gill edits The Interpreter’s House, a substantial (in every sense of the word) online poetry journal. And a brief shout-out about Christopher Meredith’s Still. Just lovely, such deftness.
Part Four of our Books of the Year is online tomorrow. Click on these links for parts One and Two.
Photo by John Lavin.