Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to read this anthology in manuscript. This month AMANAT is published!
In the fall of 2018, the Kazakh writer Zira Naurzbayeva agreed to meet me, an English traveller and writer, to discuss her work of nonfiction “The Beskempir,” which I had read online though only in the form of an extract. Like many travellers, whenever I prepare for a journey I gather books of fiction and nonfiction set in each country on my route. However, in the case of Kazakhstan, I found it difficult to track down translations, especially translations of Kazakh women’s writing.
I contacted Zira through her translator, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, in the hope that by meeting Zira I might gain personal insights into a part of the world that was unfamiliar to me. Zira and I emailed back and forth, sometimes in English but also in Russian. I don’t speak Russian so I typed my messages into online translators, and kept my fingers crossed that in spite of our language incompatibility we would manage to make a real-world connection. A last-minute change to my complex train schedule might have scuppered our plans. My route took me from western Europe, through Belarus to Russia, and I entered Kazakhstan via the northern city of Petropavl, later travelling onwards to China.
Fortunately, we did meet on a Saturday afternoon at Astana’s National Library. Zira’s daughter, Hadisha, kindly came along to translate.
At the end of the afternoon, I came away emotionally wrecked. As a former journalist I have enjoyed the privilege of meeting many generous people willing to tell me about their lives, their family histories. But I had never met anyone with such a bewildering and traumatic family history as Zira’s. I believe the intensity of our conversation became heightened because Zira’s daughter acted as an innocent conduit for these appalling accounts of the past, which ended, more often than seemed plausible, in dispossession, famine and starvation. Their extended family history mirrored the gamut of Central Asia’s century of catastrophes: the loss of livelihoods during political upheavals and disastrous macro-economic interventions, the confiscations of livestock by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, dispossession of land when the Bolsheviks pushed to collectivise farming, the destruction of the fishing industry at the Aral Sea. Not forgetting, the loss of good health following the Soviet nuclear testing programme in eastern Kazakhstan.
I also came away from our conversation wanting to know more. I craved more personal reflections on life in Kazakhstan whether those reflections took the form of essays, short stories or fictionalised autobiography, which I could read alongside the limited number of English-language travel guides. I wanted the authentic, insider stories, the authentic voices of women.
Here we have it, in Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan. Edited by Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Zaure Batayeva. Published by independent press, Gaudy Boy.
At last, we can read “The Beskempir” unabridged in English for the first time.
One of the great pleasures in reading these works in translation is our encounter with Kazakh idioms. ‘Why hurry away as if you’ve come to borrow a matchstick?’ (“An Awkward Conversation”). ‘If I pulled one way, my bull would die, and if I pulled the other, my cart would break’ (“Hunger”). In the same story we read about a food vendor: “They have everything but bird’s milk.” And we meet a local dignitary described as a ‘big bird’ (“Romeo and Juliet”).
The reader gleans that the writers in Amanat are connected to a rural heritage even if their families had moved to the cities, away for the steppe and their villages half a century earlier. Indeed, the difficulties in transitioning from a rural life to an urban life is a key theme in Zira’s “The Beskempir.” It records the pressure on grandmothers to leave their auls, their village homes, and help their adult children in the city. An elderly woman sinks into despair having left her aul to live with her daughter in a soulless apartment block. In secret, the daughter sells the family house, and is allocated a larger apartment by coercing her mother to stay. The old woman stands at her window on the fifth floor, and howls.
Though western readers will be intrigued by the portrayal of life under state central control, enthralled by the unfamiliarity, the stories reveal the universal nature of everyday life. Children steal apples from an orchard (“The Orphan”), a woman suspects her husband is dreaming of a lost love (“An Awkward Conversation”), a family feud is sparked over the deathbed wish of their matriarch (“Amanat”), a mother waits for her son to return from war (“Aslan’s Bride”), a woman reflects, while cradling her child, on the deep connection she feels to her grandmothers (“My Eleusinian Mysteries”), and the pervasive love of traditional music (“The Rival” and “The Anthropologists”).
We glean the impression through several accounts—whether fictional, factual or semi-autobiographical—that many adults in Kazakhstan have been raised in orphanages, and we learn of one particular orphanage ‘for children of enemies of the people,’ which stopped me in my tracks. Readers eavesdrop in “The Beskempir” on a group of elderly women who meet regularly in the writer’s family home, and who turn out to be former inmates of ‘Algeria,’ the nickname for the Akmolinsky Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. The so-called traitors were ‘repressed,’ often as a punishment for being captured by German forces during the Second World War.
In fact, the Second World War feels ever present in Amanat. “Aslan’s Bride” is the emotionally taut story of a mother waiting for her son to return from the war. Each year she pays the impoverished cobbler in her village to re-sole her son’s shoes in readiness for his return. The story seems to ask if it’s better to know the truth or live with hope. A particularly poignant story with a surprising revelation.
In the latter years of the Soviet Union, in an inflammatory move, Mikhail Gorbachev installed Gennady Kolbin as First Secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan. Kolbin had no close connection to the country and his appointment sparked student riots in December 1986 in the Kazakh capital Astana (now Nur-Sultan). “The Black Snow of December” takes the reader to a newspaper office where a journalist is fearful he has landed himself in deep trouble by examining those student riots in a retrospective exposé.
I found myself drawn to stories in Amanat that reveal the impact of geopolitics on ordinary citizens. The internal collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning in 1991, led two years later to the dramatic overnight issue of a new currency by Kazakhstan’s then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. In secret, the first banknotes were printed in the United Kingdom and the coins minted in Germany. And we see the immediate fall-out of this currency switch in “Hunger.” This portrays a young Kazakh woman studying literature in Moscow who finds she can no longer cash the money orders sent from her home in Almaty. Close to starvation she is forced to take any work she can find to survive. She recalls the phrase, ‘Wash a donkey’s ass, if you must, as long as you earn some money.’
A teenager claiming to be a refugee, finds herself in similar dire straits. She lives on her wits in the richly detailed story, “The Lighter.” Sheltering in the basement of a building under construction, she adopts a reckless strategy for tricking men out of money so she can feed herself and her young friends sharing this basement squat. Nevertheless, her outlook appears hopeful. She stands on the roof of the unfinished building, spellbound by the city sprawl below.
Those stories set in the present-day point to the challenge of corruption (“The School”) and the clash of cultures as Kazakhstan has opened up to foreign workers, academics, aid workers and, I suppose, foreign travellers like me (“The Anthropologists” and “Precedent”). We glean that the undercurrents of ethnic tension are still present, and that a new generation remains caught up in the geopolitical tensions of the region, with young people yearning to see more of the world themselves.
Since my mind-shattering conversation with Zira Naurzbayeva and her daughter in 2018, Zira has ‘derussified’ her name on social media to Zira Nauryzbai, and she will publish under this name for future publications.
If you would like to read Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, it’s now available from a range of bookstores and websites or through the publisher Gaudy Boy. For anyone looking to understand the politics of Central Asia, Amanat is an excellent place to start.
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!
Looking back on this second pandemic year, it appears I took a scattergun approach to my book reading — fiction and non-fiction, variously set in contemporary, historical and futuristic times. I took some surprising turns. In the latter half of my reading year, for example, I found myself deliciously embroiled in all-things-Tudor, as though I needed to inhabit a totally different world to our present one.
Here are some of the top highlights of my reading year, roughly in the order in which I read them. I hope you find a book in this list that appeals to you!
Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet Press, 2014)
I do like a short novel, and art history is a go-to subject for me. Hotel Andromeda is about an art historian, Helena, who struggles with how to structure her next work of non-fiction. She is researching the life and work of surrealist Joseph Cornell who constructed collages within box frames made from scrap wood or drift wood. These collages often incorporated prints from books on astronomy, and one of his best-known works is Hotel Andromeda. Helena’s sister, Alice, works in an orphanage in Chechnya, and a friend of hers turns up unannounced at Helena’s flat. The novel draws out the difficulties we encounter in trying to understand another person, the dangers of miscommunication. Helena cannot seem to understand her sister, and yet she tries to understand Cornell, the most opaque of artists. She has an uncommunicative relationship with Tom, her downstairs neighbour, who is mining Helena and Alice’s relationship for his novel. And Helena’s elderly upstairs neighbour, Ruth, is a sounding board for Helena’s struggles with her book — is it better to analyse the full span of Cornell’s works, stick to a single artwork, or delve into his personal life. A short, complex and rewarding novel.
Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald (Jonathan Cape, 2020)
This collection of short essays was a must-read for me because I loved Helen MacDonald’s novel, H is for Hawk. Vesper Flights did not disappoint! Among my favourite essays were Field Guides, Tekels Park, The Student’s Tale, In her Orbit, The Falcon in the Tower, Vesper Flights… well, I could go on! Perfect reading to turn my thoughts away from the pandemic.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020)
The opening chapter of this novel offers an unforgettable depiction of a heat wave in India, which causes 20 million deaths as the wet bulb temperature reaches 35C. Following this gruesome opening, Robinson focusses on game-changing innovations — a cooperative model for business, employee ownership, carbon coins and geoengineering. And the novel touches on issues of sustainability and species diversity with reference to wildlife corridors, rewilding, electric transport, dirigibles and no-till agriculture. The overall effect is one of optimism, which is one of Robinson’s trademarks.
The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy (Chatto & Windus, 2021)
The Last Migration merges eco-fiction and psychological mystery. McConaghy draws a fascinating parallel between the migration of the last Arctic terns and the human impulse to get away, to leave people behind. She deals deftly with the tragedy of loss. The Last Migration is, for me, reminiscent of Madeleine Watt’s The Inland Sea (see last year’s favourite reads) in presenting a young woman in the throes of self destruction, set against the backdrop of humankind’s destruction of habitat.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2021)
This collection of essays is my top read of 2021, and I believe it will be loved equally by writers and readers. Saunders offers brilliant insights into the writing process and the games that writers play to hook the reader’s interest. He picks apart seven classic short stories by Russian writers Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. Such a generous set of essays, I am sure I will read this book many times over the coming years. It left me feeling inspired to write more short stories!
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, 1987)
This three-part novel has been on my TBR for several years and finally, in 2021, it reached the top of the pile. I relished the novel’s complex structure and its disconcerting mood. Akin to walking on quaking ground, I felt unsure of where the book might lead me. Detective fiction with a surreal slant.
Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (Fourth Estate, 2009 – 2020)
Midway through 2021, I embarked on what would prove to be a deeply rewarding experience, a decidedly unusual one for me. I rarely tackle novels in a series, so I surprised myself by reading back-to-back Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and The Light. This second pandemic year left me somewhat rudderless, and I felt comforted to inhabit the Tudor court for several weeks! Mantel’s trilogy led me to devour a range of non-fiction books and tv dramas set in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I approached the end of 2021 thoroughly steeped in Plantagenet and Tudor history.
Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories, 2021)
I was fortunate to read Malcolm Devlin’s second short story collection prior to its publication. I loved it so much I endorsed the collection thus: “Malcolm Devlin dissects our everyday decisions, our individual tragedies, and summons the haunted feeling that our other selves are out there living alternate lives, and in doing so he offers the reader an unexpected and surreal consolation.” Another fantastic release from Unsung Stories.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (W&N, 2020)
The Weekend is a refreshing novel in bringing together three main protagonists who are all in their 70s. Their friendship spans forty years, and they come together at Christmas to clear the home of a recently deceased friend. All three characters reach a crisis point during this short novel. It’s a brilliant study of women who share a history of mutual support underpinned by the withholding of criticism. For me, this is a novel about tolerance. A good novel to read at the end of this difficult year.
Among my other favourite reads are Grove by Esther Kinsky (Fitzcaraldo, 2020), Exit Management by Naomi Booth (Dead Ink, 2020), and The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, 2020) – a worthy winner of The Arthur C Clarke Award. And this morning I finished Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2021), a blistering, heartrending novel that will take me some time to assimilate.
On my bedside table: Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (Jonathan Cape, 2021), The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador 2021), Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx Press, 2020). I expect these three novels will be on my Best Books list for 2022! Let’s see…
Many thanks to all of you who have posted your own favourite reads this year.
Happy reading, everyone!
I imagined at the start of lockdown that I would play catch-up this year by reading all the still-unread books on my shelves. Great idea!
However… new releases inevitably proved too tempting. So my favourite reads during 2020 include both old and new releases. At times, I’ve found it a challenge to read long form, when news stories seemed evermore urgent. I overcame this problem by turning to books I can’t resist—those delving into writers’ lives, whether fictional or non-fictional. And that’s where I will start with year’s round-up.
Lampedusa by Steven Price (Picador 2020)
I read Lampedusa as the reality of Covid-19 unfolded, as the virus started to spread from Italy. I was in France at the time and decided to dash home to Scotland. Steven Price’s novel, set in 1950s Sicily, depicts a time when Europe still reeled from the destruction of the Second World War. The novel imagines the last days of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa as he struggles to finish his novel, The Leopard, a classic of Italian literature, published posthumously. Once wealthy, he now lives in poverty with his wife in the bombed ruins of their mansion. An intimate novel, ultimately uplifting, and one that has stayed with me.
Barnhill by Norman Bissell (Luath Press 2019)
In a similar vein, Barnhill is a well-researched, fictionalised account of the time George Orwell spent on the Isle of Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Norman Bissell adds much to my appreciation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. At Barnhill farmhouse on Jura, Orwell contended with great hardship, growing his own food, catching fish, while battling with poor health and caring for his son, Ricky. The novel moves back and forth between Jura and the literary world of London during Orwell’s final years. As an aside, I was delighted to learn he took the steamer between Glasgow and Jura, passing the Isle of Bute where I now live!
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Granta 2013)
Following the joy, last year, of reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and essay collection Coventry, I picked up Leaving the Atocha Station—the first in Ben Lerner’s trilogy—hoping for the same auto-fictional thrill. Leaving the Atocha Station follows Adam, an American poet, during his writing residency in Madrid. I loved this witty novel! Initially the narrator inhabits a zone of uncertainty owing to his poor Spanish, and he almost enjoys mis-communicating with the people around him. He repeatedly loses his way in the streets of Madrid, constantly on the verge of spinning out of control with his medication, hash and booze. He tells lies about his family because he can get away with it—no one in Madrid knows his background. But gradually his Spanish improves and his lies start to catch up with him. I expect I’ll read the next two books in the trilogy pretty soon.
The Love-charm of Bombs—Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury 2013)
As we all entered lockdown, I found myself—along with many writers!—dwelling on how to write fiction in the era of Covid. So, I looked back to see how writers approached their fiction during the Second World War. The Love-charm of Bombs provided a lengthy yet compelling reading experience at a time when I struggled to tear myself away from news bulletins. Lara Feigel gives a detailed insight into the writing lives, loves and wartime occupations of key writers of the era—Graham Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber 2018)
Two intertwined storylines are set in Vineland—a 19th-century utopian community, but now an unfashionable suburb. A modern-day family grapples with complex relationships between generations. A traditional family in the 1870s aspires to climb the social ladder. We meet Mary Treat, the real-world naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, and this provides an enchanting thread, the most seductive part of the novel for me.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura (Clerkenwell Press 2017)
A Separation delves into the minutiae of a marriage in the process of disintegration, and is mainly set in rural Greece—a Peloponnese landscape scorched by wildfires. The atmosphere is menacing, conveying a sense of impending disaster regarding the main character’s missing husband and the future of the natural environment. Kitamura’s writing is precise, exquisite. The narrator’s observations about her husband, boyfriend, in-laws and hotel staff are penetrating. Simply breath taking.
Ghost Species by James Bradley (Hodder & Stoughton 2020)
Ghost Species is a captivating novel and it formed a wonderful, early highlight for me in 2020. The story brings together a tech billionaire, a secretive laboratory in a remote location in Tasmania, and the vexed issue of species resurrection. The relationship between scientist Kate and Eve, a child, is beautifully and sensitively drawn. It’s an emotional read. And, if you’d like to know more, read this piece in Los Angeles Review of Books – “Writing Fiction in the Era of Climate Catastrophe: A Conversation Between Anne Charnock and James Bradley.”
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press 2020)
Without doubt this contemporary novel is both powerful and brutal. The parallels are clear between the unnamed narrator’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe and species extinction. Absolutely, I feel the author achieved what she set out to achieve. So, full marks. The narrator is an aspiring writer who works shifts as an emergency-dispatch operator. She appears to believe she has no control over events affecting her life. In the same way, I suppose many people, in the face of rolling ecological disasters, feel a similar attitude of surrender-to-circumstances. This intimation of defeatism Ieft me feeling dispirited, but I’m certainly glad to have read The Inland Sea.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Picador 2020)
I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novels, particularly Cold Earth (see last year’s favourite books). Summerwater is a quiet novel with multiple points-of-view, much to my taste. I see this novel as a subtle form of eco-fiction, with a contemporary setting on a holiday park in the Scottish Highlands. By turns, Summerwater is dark and light, menacing and humorous, centred on everyday family tensions and holiday dramas.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel (Picador 2020)
I held high hopes of this novel, and it delivered! I particularly enjoyed the tense relationship between the main character, Vincent, and her half-brother, centred on his theft (or appropriation as he saw it) of her five-minute video collection. A complex narrative, multi-stranded, about the wealthy people brought down by a Ponzi investment scheme. But for me the novel also described the conflicting attractions of city life versus living closer to nature and wilderness. As such it seemed to speak to our pandemic experience.
The Divers’ Game — Jesse Ball (Granta 2019)
Impressive and deeply unsettling, The Divers’ Game holds a mirror to the current splits in society and the fear of otherness. The story is set in a future where poorer people and immigrants are segregated. They’re treated with contempt and cruelty. Society is controlled by fear and the population enacts bizarre public rituals, grotesque—in my minds’ eye, reminiscent of Goya’s darkest work.
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (Dialogue Books 2019)
I met Yvonne Battle-Felton in the Second Life Book Club during lockdown where our avatars gave readings! Remembered is an historical novel opening in 1910 in Philadelphia amid city riots. The main character, Spring, explains to her dying son about their family history. And so the novel develops as a multi-generational story, which takes the reader through the years of slavery and emancipation. It’s a novel of revelations, about the heart-breaking decisions mothers were willing to take to undermine the plantation owners.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books 2012)
Last year I dipped into this essay collection, but this year I read Sightlines straight through. Kathleen Jamie’s landscape writing is poetic, authentic and unshowy. She takes the reader to the most remote islands of Scotland as she studies petrels and gannets, seals and orcas. In her essay “Pathologies,” Jamie takes the reader into the pathology lab of a Dundee hospital as she inspects diseased cells through a microscope, detecting those details that signal a patient’s chance of survival. It’s almost an odd-one-out essay in the collection, and it completely swept me away. I’ve thought of it repeatedly during this pandemic year, as Jamie’s microscopic observations offer a strange consolation.
A Month in the Country by J L Carr (Penguin Books 1980)
How have I not read this gorgeous short novel before? It offers proof that novels do not need to be doorstoppers to convey emotional depth and offer real insights about our relatively modern history. A Month in the Country depicts the poverty of post-First World War life in rural Yorkshire, where a de-mobbed and shell-shocked young man renovates a Medieval fresco in the village church of Oxgodby. Art, history, romance, and an archaeological mystery. Wonderful.
Next on the reading pile:
The Silence by Don DeLillo, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici.
Happy reading, everyone! And here’s wishing you a happy holiday season even if it’s a quiet one!
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!
Nina Allan’s astonishing novel The Rift came to mind last weekend, and not simply because of its imminent release. (I was fortunate to read this novel pre-publication and it is published today by Titan). It came to mind as I arrived home from my cycling holiday on the west coast of Scotland. I felt as though I’d slipped through a rift of sorts myself, from a parallel universe of spectacular scenery, of quiet roads and CalMac ferries, of clean air, seals and sea otters, where the intensity of the real world seemed unfathomably distant.
The Rift centres on the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Julie and her reappearance twenty years later to the astonishment of her sister Selena and her mother. Where has Julie been? Does she dare to tell them?
The novel starts out as a compelling contemporary mystery and morphs into speculative territory via a rift, it seems, in the fabric of space. Allan prepares the reader for this with subtlety. For example, there’s passing reference to her father’s interest in alien abduction testimonies. It’s also neatly presaged by Selena and Julie’s teenage in-joke about aliens.
Indeed, Allan foreshadows the alien worlds of Tristane and Dea: “Selena tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where everything was the same as it was in reality with one exception.” I knew something fantastical was going to happen when I read that! Read more
I’ll keep this as brief as I can for all you lovely but busy people: I’m in a fab line-up of authors for the short story anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories), and any support for the Kickstarter will be massively appreciated! There’s a special edition of the anthology with its own cover art for the Kickstarter campaign. Fingers crossed we meet the target.
Stories by Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, James Smythe, Lavie Tidhar, Aliya Whiteley, David Hutchinson, Cassandra Khaw, Desirina Boskovich, Ian Hocking, Oliver Langmead and me.
My own story, “A Good Citizen” imagines a future with weekly referendums and a universal wage. Picture a world with a recurring nightmare of near-Brexit proportions!
Early reviews for Dreams Before the Start of Time
Publishers’ Weekly has given a starred review to my upcoming novel. This is a brilliant start for Dreams Before the Start of Time, my third novel. For those who don’t know PW, this New York-based magazine reviews some 9,000 novels a year and gives a starred review to those ‘of exceptional merit’. It’s a go-to magazine for those in the publishing industry. So needless to say I’m pretty chuffed. Read more
I had not one but THREE brief chats with my author hero Michael Cunningham at Hay Festival—at his author event, at his book signing and, by sheer coincidence, at the bar of the Old Black Lion. No, I wasn’t stalking!
Unbelievably, in my opinion, this was Cunningham’s first appearance at Hay Festival. He told me he’d been waiting for an invite.
Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for his exquisite fourth novel The Hours, which happens to be my favourite novel of all time. The film version of the book was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Clare Danes. In his Hay Festival conversation with Rosie Goldsmith he said, “I must be the only living author who’s happy with the film of their book.”
Incidentally, his fifth novel, Specimen Days, was written in three parts and included a science fiction element. I asked about this foray into SF because of my own writing inclinations and he said that science fiction was definitely part of the zeitgeist at the time he wrote the novel.
The Snow Queen is his latest novel and it opens thus: Read more
Happy New Year! While you’re all chilling on New Year’s Day I thought I’d offer some book recommendations based on my recent reading. What’s surprising is that I’ve not read a single eBook over the past month – only print copies. Here’s a fab selection including three novels from the Man Booker 2013 shortlist and some old favourites. I can recommend them all:
In-Flight Entertainment, short stories by Helen Simpson (several stories touching on issues around climate change);
The Testament of Mary, short story by Colm Toibin (Booker shortlisted. A reading highlight of my year); Read more
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