Books of the Year 2018

It’s been an unusual reading year for me; new work has meant I’ve read lots of things I wouldn’t have otherwise and it’s no coincidence that, for the first time, there’s a poetry collection included here. It’s also the first time there’s been a graphic novel in my list, although I’ve confused myself here as The One Hundred Nights of Hero is one of my favourite books and I’ve no idea why it didn’t make the list last year. Anyway, here’s my favourite fifteen books published in 2018, if there’s a theme to the list it’s this: feminist as fuck.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Until last week, I’d known what my book of the year was since May. And then I read Milkman. An eighteen-year-old woman walks the streets of what appears to be Belfast, although the setting is never named, reading classic literature. An encounter with a paramilitary man called Milkman sets off rumours about her and him, leading to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in which the community, and her own family, draw conclusions from hearsay. Since Milkman won this year’s Booker Prize, much has been made of its apparently challenging nature. To me, it read like someone telling an anecdote in the pub, the story both moving forwards and circling back, characters known by nicknames and monikers. It’s a superb read: often funny, resolutely feminist, and possibly the best book about the Troubles I’ve read.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

This is the book that was knocked off the number one spot at the last minute. Ghost Wall is the story of teenager, Silvie, as she takes part in an Iron Age reconstruction with her family. Her father is particularly keen that things should be as authentic as possible and it soon becomes clear that his views on women are severely outdated. The tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss’ writing is taut, sharp and will keep you on edge. My mini-review is here.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

When I read Everything Under earlier in the year, I described it on Twitter as spellbinding, the first time I’ve ever described a novel as such; the prose is mesmerising though. Gretal works as a lexicographer and is attempting to get Sarah, her estranged mother, to tell her story, allowing Gretal to fill in the gaps in her adolescence. Johnson reworks the Oedipus myth as an exploration of gender and mother/daughter relationships. Absolutely worthy of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo

Hero is an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a former prisoner of war. She leaves the Philippines to live with her uncle’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years. In San Fransisco, she begins to rebuild her life and makes friends who’ll become her new family. Castillo explores ideas of home through language, food, family, friendship and love. Big, bold and absorbing. My full review and interview with Elaine is here.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I wouldn’t have read Three Poems if Hannah Sullivan hadn’t been booked for Manchester Literature Festival and I’m so glad she was. Poem one tells of the narrator’s time in New York, living and dating; two of moving to California and repetition, and three of the birth of her son and the death of her father. As a whole, it’s an impressive piece of work, while individual lines have stayed with me for months.

Whiskey & Ribbons – Leesa Cross-Smith

Eamon is killed when his wife, Evi, is nine-months pregnant. In the grief that follows, Dalton, Eamon’s adopted brother moves in to support Evi in raising Noah. As Evi and Dalton try to come to terms with their loss, they begin to grow closer. A beautifully written story of love, loss and longing. The story’s expanded from some pieces in Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection Every Kiss a War which I reviewed here.

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui

Triggered by the birth of her first child, Thi Bui tells the story of her parents emigrating to the USA, intertwined with the history of Vietnam. Through it she begins to understand the experiences which shaped her parents and herself. Compelling and beautifully illustrated.

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Christine Pizan is in her final year on CIEL and she’s planning to go out in spectacular style. She’s creating a skin graft telling the true story of Joan of Dirt, a story which has been outlawed by CEIL’s ruler, Jean de Men. Fierce, feminist and concerned with climate change, I’m still reeling from The Book of Joan ten months later. My full review is here.

To Throw Away Unopened – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine’s second memoir is more personal than her first and all the better for it. Alongside the end of her marriage and her foray into dating again, she reconsiders her upbringing after the death of her father and the discovery of a bag of documents previously unseen. This is also considered alongside the death of her mother, which is detailed gradually as the book progresses and also her relationship with her sister which culminates in an unforgettable scene at their mother’s hospital bed. A powerful look at family stories and relationships and the impact they have on women.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Another discovery thanks to Manchester Literature Festival. Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad focuses on Briseis, largely telling the tale from her perspective. It’s brutal and brash, showing the men for spoilt, squabbling brats while giving women a voice in one of the oldest stories in literature. My full review is here.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

Melmoth is condemned to wander the world, watching and collecting those of us who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. While Helen Franklin discovers the various accounts of Melmoth, Perry uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to atrocities from the Holocaust to the violent deportation of immigrants, forcing the reader to question their complicity. Compelling and uncomfortable reading. My mini-review is here.

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

There was a spate of books considering motherhood this year, Sight was one of the best. The narrator documents her thinking about whether or not she should become a parent alongside her memories of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst; the death of her mother, and medical developments including the creation of the X-ray. Clever and exquisitely written.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin, a student at an elite NY university, is drawn into a cult intent on committing a terrorist act. Outsider, Will Kendall becomes close to Phoebe and, following her disappearance, tells the story of their relationship and what he knows about cult leader, John Leal. Compelling.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee

Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time and Places I Stopped on the Way Home was one of them. Fee writes about her time in NYC, dating, living in shared houses, managing her recovery from an eating disorder, and what she learned about how to live. I underlined a lot. My review is here.

Snap – Belinda Bauer

In the first chapter of Snap, Jack and his sisters are left in the family car, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as their mum goes to telephone for help. She never returns. It seems as though this is going to be a straight psychological thriller until chapter two jumps three years. Now Jack and his siblings live alone, the police are investigating a cat burglar they’ve called Goldilocks and pregnant Catherine has found a knife and a threatening note next to her bed. This is crime if it was written by Kate Atkinson and Lissa Evans; it’s about people not being who you think they are and what family will do to protect each other. It’s also very funny. I stayed up late to finish it in one sitting.

Working out how to live: Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee and Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl – Claire Dederer

After finishing the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I wanted something different to read. I picked up two essay collections by Americans, one written by a woman in her early thirties, the other in her mid-forties. What they both have in common is they’re working out how to live, how to be, by looking back at their younger selves.

They were timely for me. It’s a year today since my marriage ended. While I try not to attach too much significance to dates, it’s interesting to compare the ideas Fee and Dederer discuss to my own thoughts on what I’ve learned in the past year and what I want my life to look like now.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home is about the years Fee lived in NYC. In the first essay she mentions the man she’s dating at 18, the man she moves to NYC for. He’s six years older than her and surer of himself. One night he plays Ella Fitzgerald and asks Fee, Who is your Ella?

Which is to say, what do you love? What has meaning for you? What fills you with joy?
[…]
I found Ella as I sat on too-long subway rides furiously scribbling notes in the margins of books. “Ella” became not a question of who, but what. And the answer, fundamentally, was language – words written and spoken and sung. Language, endlessly malleable, and frighteningly insufficient and still human.

Through language, Fee makes sense of her time in NYC. In a non-chronological order, she writes about her relationships, her friendships, the eating disorder she develops, how she feels about the city, and what she learns from it all. Although Fee’s almost a decade younger than me, I found myself frequently marking lines and wondering how Fee had sussed so many of these things long before I did.

I am human, flawed and imperfect, which is, of course, all I ever was and all I was ever going to be. It is unbearable.

The truth is, we are all damaged at best, and we are all still worthy.

But for so long I confuse his not good enough with my not good enough and that becomes the story I tell myself. That I am not good enough.

It’s an engaging account of a young woman shaping a life that shows her what she does and doesn’t want, ultimately allowing her to become the person she wants to be.

At 18, I wouldn’t have had Fee’s problem, I knew who or what my Ella was. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted: I feel more and more like the person I was at 20. As if everything I’ve experienced and learned has sent me back there because I already knew who I was, I just didn’t know how to be her.

In Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl, Claire Dederer turns 44, realises she’s done everything right – friends, job, marriage, house, kids – but:

As you sit there, you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.

The thing is, you don’t really remember her that well, because you’ve spent so long trying to block her out […] It’s as though you’ve hidden yourself from yourself.

Dederer goes looking for her diaries which she then uses to write about the girl she was and the woman she’s become.

Playing with the form, Dederer writes ‘How to Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years’ in second person, creates a list of all the things she doesn’t want to think about: ‘The, You Know, Encroaching Darkness’, and uses the structure of Dante’s Inferno to write about her trips to L.A. with her best friend, Vic: ‘Dante and Virgil in L.A.’ These are interspersed with pieces about her youth: attending and dropping out of college twice, moving to Sydney on a whim.

Where she excels is in writing about sex, both from the perspective of a married woman in her 40s and that of a teenage girl/young woman, as she tries to understand why her sex drive has undergone a sudden resurgence.

In the middle of the collection is a piece titled ‘Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female’. Written in the style of an academic case study, Dederer examines ‘the near-rabbit levels of sexual activity’ she engaged in between 1980 and 1985. She doesn’t draw any simple conclusions but does relate her experiences to a time of sexual freedoms and the male gaze focusing on young girls: Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. Two of the other essays are addressed directly to Polanski at a time when Dederer’s daughter is the same age as Samantha Gailey. Dederer herself was also 13 when Jack Wolf, a friend of her father’s, climbed into her sleeping bag and pushed his erection against her thigh. What Dederer is really examining is society’s views on women’s sexuality and how her view of herself has been shaped by them. It’s a timely assessment in the #MeToo era.

Both collections made me consider the way society views women and the way we view ourselves. They’re interesting explorations of ways of being a woman. It is Fee’s words that have stayed with me, although ultimately they could be used to summarise the key idea of both books:

It turns out that so much of growing up is about walking away from That Which is Not Right in pursuit of something better.

Thanks to Icon Books and Tinder Press for the review copies.