Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2)

As promised yesterday when I posted my Books of the Year (Part One) – those published pre-2014, here’s part two with those published this year.

There are two things I dislike about doing this sort of post; the first is I’m very aware of the books that people I trust rate highly and I haven’t got to yet – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation; Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; Ali Smith’s How to be both, and Suri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World are all high on my TBR. And then there are the books I really enjoyed but didn’t quite make the cut because I want to highlight those books that didn’t garner as much attention as I think they should have. Honourable mentions therefore to The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh; The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here they are then, the books published this year that entertained me the most, made me laugh (to the point of tears sometimes), cry, gasp and look on in wonder and admiration at the writer’s skill. The books I want to thrust into your hands and say ‘Read this!’. (Click on the titles for the original reviews.)

 

House of Ashes – Monique Roffey

A coup d’état on a island that might be Trinidad and Tobago. A bookish man named Ashes who gets caught up in the idea of revolution; a teenager called Breeze who thinks it will lead to a better life for him, and Aspasia Garland, Minster for the Environment and a hostage. A powerful book about power, poverty and leadership. My book of the year.

 

 

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

An unnamed prisoner on death row; an attorney investigating whether a prisoner can be saved on appeal; the fallen priest; the prison warden; a guard; a white haired boy. Abuse, control, freedom. Who’s good and who’s bad. Breathtaking prose. I have no idea why this book isn’t being raved about everywhere.

 

 

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

A book that is being raved about everywhere and deservedly so. Macdonald’s memoir of training a goshawk, Mabel, following her father’s sudden death, using her own experience to reflect upon that of T. H. White. Beautiful prose and an absorbing story.

 

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Someone’s leaving letters in Wang Jun’s taxi. Letters that say they’re from a soulmate he’s had for over a thousand years, a soulmate who will take us on a journey through China’s history and lead Wang Jun to question his family and his friendship. A bizarre omission from the Booker Prize list, I have high hopes of this being on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

Interesting voice, interesting structure, interesting themes, heartbreaking story. How Jacob Little goes in search of Solace (a woman he lived with and loved at university but he’s also searching for inner peace). It’s clever and thoughtful but also a good story. Longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize but I’ve seen very little about it elsewhere, another one I’m hoping to see on the Bailey’s Prize list.

 

 

Academy Street – Mary Costello

The story of Tess, from being a young girl in a big house in Ireland when her mother dies, through the rest of her life in New York as a nurse. A small life, quietly told in beautiful, considered prose. Heartbreaking.

 

 

 

 

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Laura and Tyler are best friends, flatmates and drinking buddies, but Laura’s getting married to Jim who’s just gone teetotal and Tyler’s not happy about the changes afoot. There’s always time for one last bender though, isn’t there? Absolutely hilarious but with many thought-provoking moments about what it’s like to be a woman in your late 20’s/early 30s railing against society’s expectations.

 

 

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

An unlikely love story between Dave, a Bond Street shop security guard and Alena, a Siberian woman, trafficked to the UK and caught stealing shoes. Dave and Alena’s stories are heartbreaking enough but their attempts to forge a relationship through the walls they’ve built up and the cultural differences has moments I found completely devastating.

 

 

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

John Cole, lost in a heatwave, arrives at a house in which the inhabitants are expecting him. He soon realises he’s not their John Cole but stays anyway. There he begins to discover what both he and those around him are capable of. Eerie, disconcerting and unusual.

 

 

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

The story of the Bradley family, a family of Mormons, coming to terms with the death of their youngest member, Issy, from meningitis. We move between the family members – two teenagers, Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob, and parents Ian and Claire as they question their faith and work out how life can go on. Unexpectedly full of humour with great characters.

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Stella Sweeney’s back in Ireland trying to write a follow-up to the best-selling novel that saw her move to New York. Her yoga loving son who hates her is in tow; her artist ex-husband, Ryan, is giving everything he owns away in the name of art, and whose phone calls is she avoiding? Funny, smart and a cracking love interest.

 

 

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans

When Mattie starts forgetting things and then disappears, her godson, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans and Vee Sedge. Vee and her son, Donald, are both taking advantage of the outbreak of war in their own ways. Noel ends up drawn into both. A novel about survival with crooked characters you can’t help but fall for. Funny, acutely observed and heartwarming.

 

 

Wake – Anna Hope

The return of the unknown soldier to Westminster. The story of three women whose lives have been affected by the war. Hettie, a dancer whose brother, Fred, has PTSD. Evelyn, who lost a fiancé and a finger in the war. She’s also losing her brother who’s returned a different person. Ada, whose son Michael died but who she continues to see on the street. Their stories are connected although they’ll never meet. Devastating.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of her family, quite an unusual family and the events that took place when she was sent to stay at her grandparents. Did it happen as she remembers or is she fooling herself? An unusual take on what it means to be a family.

 

 

 

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The one that converted me to Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a prequel to Gilead and tells the story of his second wife prior to and including their meeting and marrying. It’s about loneliness, not being able to see yourself clearly and fighting the urge to run away. The prose is beautiful and the story is heartbreaking.

 

 

2a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Marie-Helene Bertino

Christmas Eve Eve in Philadelphia. Nine-year-old Madeline’s mother is dead from cancer and her father can’t get out of bed. She’s desperate to sing – at school initially but, better still, at a jazz club. Madeline’s teacher, Sarina, has dinner with her ex-boyfriend to contend with after school ends and Jack Lorca, owner of the Cat’s Pajamas, jazz club, has a relationship with his son which is in need of repair and a police fine that he can’t pay. The day that awaits all three of them is skilfully interwoven in a story that’s equal amounts grit and heartwarming.

 

Academy Street – Mary Costello

At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. It turns the corner and the sun hits it. The sun flows all over the coffin, turning the wood yellow and red and orange like the window, lighting it up, making it beautiful. The gold handles are shining. It is so beautiful, her heart swells and floods with the light. She closes her eyes. She can feel her mother near. Her mother is reaching out a hand, smiling at her. She can feel the touch of her mother’s fingers on her face. Her mother is all hers – her face, her long hair, her mouth, they are all hers. Then someone coughs and she opens her eyes.

Tess is seven when her mother dies, too young to attend the funeral. She stays in the family home with her cousin while her older brother, Denis and two older sisters, Evelyn and Claire go. Her younger brother, Oliver, is only a baby and is taken to be looked after by their aunt until he is older.

Life inside the house becomes quiet, their father not allowing the wireless to be turned on. Tess becomes increasingly afraid of him.

When she encounters death for a second time that year, Tess loses the ability to speak.

At the tea they are all looking at her. ‘What’s wrong with you, why don’t you answer me?’ Evelyn asks her. ‘Why aren’t you eating? And you ate no dinner either. What’s wrong? Did you lose your tongue or something?’ I did answer you, she replies. I’m not hungry. But then, after a few more answers, she knows they have no heard her. Her words are not working, the sounds are not coming out of her mouth into air.

The doctor examines her and finds nothing wrong. Time passes and then one day, playing in the yard with Mike Connolly who works on her father’s estate and is kind and patient with her, her voice returns.

Costello then has the rest of Tess’ childhood pass quickly; her sister, Evelyn marries; Oliver returns to the family home; Tess goes away to boarding school; Evelyn has three children; Tess returns to Easterfield, the family home; Claire goes to live in America with their Aunt Molly; Tess becomes a nurse, and Oliver starts to become somewhat wild.

The rest of the novel is concerned with Tess’ life in America where she moves in 1962 to live and work in New York.

But never in her whole life had she had one iota of courage. She had sought, always, silent consent for everything she had done – as if she were without volition, as if a father or mother or God himself sat permanently on her right shoulder, holding sway over her thoughts and actions. And when consent was not gleaned, or was felt to be withheld, she resumed her position of quiet passivity.

Tess lives what would be considered a small life. There are two events which have significant impacts on that life, one is her mother’s death, the other I’ll leave for you to discover.

Academy Street is not a showy novel, it is quiet and understated like its protagonist’s life. However, it is one of those books which is greater than the sum of its parts. Costello writes beautifully, her sentences balanced and considered. There are some significant leaps forward in time but the book never feels disjointed or lacking the small details which make up a life.

My only concern when I began the novel was that it would be a stock representation of the Irish experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It did remind me of one of my favourite novels, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, due to the move from Ireland to New York and the quiet way in which the story’s told, however, the span of Academy Street – Costello covers almost sixty years of Tess’ life – and the creation of such a vivid character leaves me with a preference for Costello’s novel.

Academy Street is a wonderful book; if this is what Mary Costello is capable of with her debut then I’ll happily sign up to read everything else she writes.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.