At this time of year I love to look back on the books I’ve enjoyed reading, those that made a lasting impression on me. I keep a log of my reading and of the 45 books I read in 2019, these are (some of) my highlights:
The Cemetery at Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2018)
A short novel that obliges the reader to make guesses. I felt I’d tuned into a radio play having missed the first five minutes. It denies completion for the reader and emphasises the unfinished nature of most experiences.
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (Granta, 2010)
Another novel that had me searching for answers. It’s a compelling story about a remote archaeological dig. Are the archaeologists truly stranded? Is everyone in the outside world dead? Will the plane arrive on the agreed date? Are members of the team hiding the true gravity of outside events. Are other team members colluding? And there’s an undertone of humour—all these characters with PhDs but minimal survival skills.
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus (Penguin, 2017)
I love writer biographies and this is a fine example. Acker made her mark as an experimental writer in 60s New York. She flitted between New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and London. Her connection with the art world figures—Vito Acconci, Carolee Schneemann, Martha Rosler, Dan Graham, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Serra, Lucy Lippard, Sol LeWitt—offers fascinating asides. A biography that gets into the detail of Acker’s writing methodology.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber and Faber, 2018)
Although some readers found this book challenging, I found myself sucked in straightaway. I learned a great deal about daily life during The Troubles. I felt extremely grateful for this insight, and I’ve recommended Milkman to all my friends.
How Should A Person Be by Shiela Heti (Vintage, 2013)
This is a novel—part memoir, part fiction—which explores how to navigate the world as a creative person. At the core lies a simple question about the main character, Sheila: Will she or won’t she finish writing her play? But the over-arching question posed by Heti is whether art is a narcissistic endeavour. An authentic story about a playwright who is a hairdresser by day.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (William Heinemann, 2018)
At the outset, I felt slightly daunted by the length of this novel, but I found myself zipping along thanks to the four-part structure and a fascinating range of point of view characters. For me, the highlight is found in the wonderful character of Patricia Westerford, a tree specialist, who I’ve thought about many times since I finished reading the novel. Her academic reputation is trashed by male peers when she suggests that trees can communicate. A fascinating and redemptive storyline, within an ambitious novel.
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (Macmillan,1970. Flamingo, 2010)
Sophie Bentwood lives in Brooklyn and is bitten by a stray cat, leading to her uncharacteristic decision to go for a middle-of-the-night drink with her husband’s business partner. And in these strange circumstances, she rashly reveals to him that she has had an affair. She reflects on that affair through this short novel, and on her husband’s disinclination or inability to explore his feelings, or other people’s motivations. The novel’s theme—that chaos might overwhelm polite society at any turn—is brilliantly set up in the opening pages in its descriptions of a part-gentrified but still seedy Brooklyn neighbourhood.
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray, 2019)
I was intrigued to read how Amitav Ghosh addressed climate change in this novel, coming in the wake of his non-fiction work The Great Derangement—his reflection on realist fiction’s limited ability to handle environmental and climate catastrophe. I enjoyed this novel partly for its setting in the mangroves of the Sundarbans, the delta of the Bengal River. It deals with the human impact of flooding. And one of his main characters is Priya, a marine biologist who investigates the beaching of freshwater dolphins. This novel feels one step removed from realism as it delves into local myth and doesn’t shy away from unrealistic coincidences in its plot.
Outline Trilogy and Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber and Faber, 2014-2019)
Cusk’s Outline trilogy and her collection of essays, Coventry, provided the high point of my reading year. I read the first two parts of the trilogy—Outline and Transit—in quick succession. Later in the year I read Coventry and, finally, the third part of the trilogy, Kudos. Cusk is one of the most audacious writers around at the moment, experimenting with form, specifically with the visibility or invisibility of her narrator. I’m glad I read these four books in the order I did, because her essays informed how I read Kudos. The trilogy is a brilliant and I can’t wait to read more of Cusk.
The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber, 2019)
Unlike some readers, I feel the most successful part of this climate-change novel is that set on The Wall. I felt drawn into the life of Kavanagh who patrols this massive coastal defence, aimed at repelling climate migrants. Lanchester slows down time as he describes, in pared back prose, the detail of being on shift, with the monotony and the ever-present fear of attack. There is sufficient backstory. Minimal info-dumping. And for me the elements of concrete poetry worked well. The later sections seem a little rushed but the ending is satisfying.
The Body Lies by Jo Baker (Doubleday, 2019)
This is a compelling, fragmentary, multiple point-of-view novel that deals with violence against women. More specifically, it examines how a violent event has shaped the psyche of a creative writing tutor. Smart and very readable. A true literary thriller.
Always North by Vicki Jarrett (Unsung Stories, 2019)
A novel of two halves. The first is set on a seismic survey vessel operating illegally in the Arctic and is totally convincing in its detail of seismic operations. Jarrett successfully creates an eco-thriller vibe with strong characters. The second is set some years in the future revisiting some of the original crew members who are now surviving as best they can in an environmentally ravaged world.
Stillicide by Cynan Jones (Granta, 2019)
This is a poetic and beautifully structured novel set in a world that is suffering water shortages as a result of climate change. The story is told in the form of vignettes, which are linked by the various characters’ sometimes tenuous relationships. I do recall, back in the late 70s, some serious discussion about the feasibility of towing icebergs from the Arctic to the Middle East. In Stillicide, icebergs are towed to the UK!
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Granta, 2018)
Another short read and my last of 2019. I’ve been meaning to read this since its release and following multiple recommendations by friends. It didn’t disappoint. I enjoy the detail of other people’s working lives and I truly warmed to this convenience store woman whose personal motto seems to be, If you are going to do a job, you might as well do it well. A good note to end my year on!
I was fortunate to read ahead of publication, M. T. Hill’s novel The Breach, which will be published in March 2020 (Titan), following his well-received 2019 novel, Zero Bomb. The Breach is a crossover of psychological thriller, horror and hard SF. Hill displays his signature gritty style, and The Breach is the most visceral of his novels to date. Hill brings together the worlds of journalists, climbers, steeplejacks and urban explorers among a cast of totally authentic characters.
Happy reading, everyone!