2022: The Halfway Point! So far this year, my reading has been overwhelmingly dictated by research for my current manuscript — I am surrounded by piles of pretty dense non-fiction. When I have found time for fiction, I admit I’ve mostly opted for ‘safe bets’, novels I hope and expect to fall in love with. This is not the most adventurous approach, and I do wonder if it’s part of the effect of lockdown on my reading habits.
So here is a selection of my personal top reads so far in 2022, roughly in the order in which I read them.
The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador, 2021)
A must-read for me, as I love Moss’s previous novels Cold Ground, Ghost Wall and Summerwater. The Fell is a Covid novel, mostly told through interior monologue which feels appropriate, for Moss’s characters are coping with loneliness and isolation, their thoughts constantly pin-balling. The question at the core of this novel is posed by a crow who appears to the protagonist in an hallucination: What mistakes have you made in your life that led you to make this ill-fated decision to break isolation?
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape, 2021)
I greatly admired this book, as I did her previous novel, A Separation. Kitamura’s writing is cool and measured, a style that reflects the incisive, deliberate work of her main character, an interpreter at the International Court in The Hague. She tries to detach herself from the victim testimony. Having lived in many countries as a child, the interpreter feels unmoored and now finds herself adrift in an unfamiliar city, tentatively making new friends and taking a lover. Meanings fall between the cracks in often-stunted conversations. The novel raises complex issues around who is held accountable for their crimes and who is not.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador 2022)
Where to start? So much has already been written in reviews, so I will be brief. This is a long novel, a tome, and it could have been trimmed by a hundred pages or so. But I felt ready at the start of this year to lose myself in a work of this weight. So, whereas I would normally feel frustrated (preferring, as I do, short novels to long ones), I simply went with the flow. This is a multi-stranded novel with repeated character names and a sense that the story dips into the successive, dispersed generations of one family. I love a fragmented narrative, and I am glad to have read it! There, I said I’d be brief.
Double Blind by Edward St Aubyn (Harvill Secker, 2021)
Another complex novel with a fragmented structure. Double Blind has multiple viewpoint characters, and the point of view switches within chapters. Within each chapter the timeline shuttles back and forth. The novel’s form thus appears to mirror the complexities of the natural world and the scientific disciplines being explored by a wealthy start-up investor. I thoroughly enjoyed this ambitious novel. The characters and their relationships are intriguing, and Sebastian, a schizophrenic, is the star of the show for me.
News of the Dead by James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
An excellent multi-stranded novel, part historical and part contemporary, exploring the stories and myths that surround a fictional Christian hermit. The story unfolds against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a subtle book about survival: the survival of a hermit, the survival of left-behind inhabitants in a Scottish glen, the survival of an educated but impoverished journalist, while (some) soldiers return from of the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, this novel is about the survival of ancient stories, their inevitable distortion over time, and the readers’ obligation to fill in the gaps. Heart warming, humorous, absorbing.
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela (W&N, 2019)
As a recent convert to bird watching, how could I resist this title? A story of three Muslim friends on a road trip to the Scottish Highlands. A tender and revealing portrayal of three women’s differing experience of immigration and integration. It delves with sensitivity into the power relationships between these three friends, and the reader witnesses the subtle shifts as they spend time together in close proximity.
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband, 2021)
A super-smart, nested story that splices fact and fiction, leaving this reader dizzy but enthralled. A story centred on an anti-psychiatrist, Arthur Collins Braithwaite, who takes pot shots at leading psychiatrists of the day, lambasts the inhumane treatment of shell-shock victims, and writes his own treatise on the treatment of mental illness in a fictional book titled Untherapy – comprising anonymised case notes on several of his clients. Interspersed through the novel are the notebooks of a young woman who blames Braithwaite for a family tragedy. Who is real in this novel? Do we really need to know? Burnet’s brilliant novel explores the notion of selfhood, asking if we ever know ‘the real me,’ or if we each embody a range of ‘real me’s’.
I am currently reading Circus of Dreams: Adventures in the 1980s Literary World by John Walsh, which is a delight of literary gossip. Also, Jan Carson’s dark and hilarious novel, The Raptures. Next on the pile are How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu and Adam Roberts’ The This. I have already purchased a non-fiction title on my go-to subject matter: Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford.
Among the books I am absolutely desperate to read are the latest releases from Hannah Kent (Devotion), Amy Liptrot (The Instant), NoViolet Bulawayo (Glory), Jennifer Egan (The Candy House), Emily St John Mandel (Sea of Tranquillity), Geoff Dyer (The Last Days of Roger Federer) and Haruki Murakami’s non-fiction release coming in November, Novelist as a Vocation.
As ever, I look forward to other readers’ book recommendations!
In the meantime, back to my scribbling.
Happy reading, everyone!