Books of the Year 2020

I’ve read more books this year than I’ve ever read in a year before. It’s been a very strange time, but these are the books published this year that have resonated with me.

This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)

Tambudzai’s life is not going how she expected. In her 30s, living in a hostel, unemployed, in a country that’s hostile, there are multiple structural barriers preventing her progress. An examination of a woman and a country. A masterpiece. Longer review here.

Love After Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber)

A woman widowed from her abusive husband; her young son, and a gay man hiding his sexuality. Their bond asks the question what really makes a family? Betty, Solo and Mr Chetan have lived in my head since I read this in the first half of the year. Gorgeous. Longer review here.

So We Can Glow – Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand Central)

Cross-Smith’s latest short story collection celebrates women and girls. Their triumphs, their tribulations, their crushes, their loves, the way they support each other to rebuild themselves and their lives. The language and the characters fizz. Longer review here.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Macmillan)

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Carey’s memoir isn’t your average celebrity memoir. Open, honest and reflective, Carey looks at her traumatic childhood, her marriage to Tommy Mottola and her career. A fascinating insight into who she is and how she became one of the most successful singers in the world.

The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld (Jonathan Cape)

The story of three women, in three different time periods, lived in the shadow of the Bass Rock. They’re linked by what one of Wyld’s minor characters – the brilliant Maggie – describes as a serial killer: toxic masculinity. Maggie’s idea of a map showing places where women have been killed by men has haunted me all year, as has the final page of the novel. Longer review here.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Named for Shakespeare’s son who died – probably of plague – and the play that was probably written about Shakespeare’s grief: Hamlet. Really though, this is the story of Agnes (Anne), Shakespeare’s wife. Beautiful and vividly told. O’Farrell’s well-deserved acclaim was long overdue. Longer review here.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) (Picador)

A novel in two-parts exploring Natsuko’s sister’s desire for breast implants and then Natsuko’s questions around whether or not she wants a child. An examination of the expectations placed on women from a working class Japanese perspective with a bonus send-up of the literary industry. Longer review here.

In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado (Serpent’s Tail)

A ground-breaking memoir of an emotionally abusive, same-gender relationship. It questions notions of the canon through a range of devices and genres while delivering a devastating portrait of domestic abuse. Longer review here.

Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz (Faber)

An investigation of the body as a site of trauma and of desire. Diaz connects the body to the land, the water (particularly rivers) and the air, showing how violation of the elements by white Americans has led to irreparable damage. This is also a celebration of queer love and language that elevates and transcends. Longer review here.

Bad Love – Maame Blue (Jacaranda Books)

19yo Ekuah has an on / off affair with up-and-coming musician Dee. Later she meets English teacher and spoken word night organiser Jay Stanley. The two men exert different pulls on her life, but Ekuah has to work out how she wants to live. I was rooting for her all the way. Longer review here.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King (Picador)

Casey’s in her 30s. Single, a waitress trying to write a novel, living in her brother’s friend’s shed, she meets two men: Silas is a teacher and a writer, but unreliable; Oscar is slightly older, an established writer, widowed with two young boys. Casey has to decide whether to accept or reject a conventional life. I wrote about her choices for the Pan Macmillan blog.

Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

Okojie is the queen of stories that take you to unexpected places. Her latest collection is a wild ride of time-travelling silent monks; some unexpected zombies; a heart-eating goddess; mechanical boys, and an albino man who brings fountains to a small town in Mozambique. The incredible ‘Grace Jones’, about an impersonator and her past, deservedly won the 2020 AKO Cane Prize. Slightly longer review here.

Thanks to the publishers (as listed) for This Mournable Body, The Bass Rock, Hamnet, Breasts and Eggs, and Writers & Lovers. All other books are my own purchases.

Reading Diary #1

Hello! It’s been a while. I wasn’t planning on posting here ever again really, and, no doubt, some of you have forgotten you ever subscribed to this blog, so this will be a surprise. A pleasant one I hope, but if not there should be an unsubscribe button around here somewhere.

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So what’s going on and why am I here? The short answer is that I read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock over the Easter weekend and want somewhere to shout about how brilliant it is. The longer answer involves an existential crisis prompted by the UK lockdown. If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll know that I can talk for England. Being locked down on my own means that, other than creating a rota of my long-suffering friends and forcing them to talk to me on a daily basis, I’ve mostly got no one to babble on to other than myself and I’ve had enough of the monologue in my own brain. Consider it a treat that I’m foisting it upon you instead; it has lots of thoughts about books and politics and misogyny.

One of the reasons I stopped reviewing books here was because I was no longer enjoying it. I never wanted reviewing to be a chore and when you’ve fallen out of love with it, it shows in your writing. I want to create something different instead. The basic plan is a diary with thoughts around some of the books I’ve been reading, along with links to other things – essays, stories, poems. Apparently, I think I’m Alan Bennett (well, we are both from Yorkshire) or Deborah Levy (I wish), whose Lockdown Diary is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic so far.

My reading habits have changed this year; at the start of 2020, I set myself a challenge to read 100 books from my own shelves (about 70% of my total reading in a good year). The reasons behind this were that I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the number of unread books on my shelves, some of which have been sitting there for 20+ years, and I thought I’d limited my own reading through running this blog. The feeling that I should review everything I read and that I should stay up to date with new releases was a box of my own making. I hit 50 books/50% of my target on Maundy Thursday. This was unexpected. I’d assumed that come October, I’d be creating piles of novellas round my flat and powering through them. What I’m expecting to post here in future then is a mix of old and new.

When I make it to 50, I give myself a break and an opportunity to read the books that have recently been or are soon going to be published by writers I love. Evie Wyld’s previous novel, All the Birds, Singing, is one of my favourite books, so I’m both keen to read The Bass Rock and a little trepidatious. By the start of the second chapter I know I’m going to love it. Vivianne, one of three female protagonists, answers the door to a delivery guy in the middle of the day in her dressing gown. Her waste bin and recycling are overflowing. She’s 40. I don’t need protagonists to be relatable but it’s unusual to read about a character who’s over 35, lives alone, is neither a complete mess nor super competent. I like her. I feel seen. Vivianne lives in London but, throughout the novel, travels back and forth to North Berwick to sort out the personal items in her grandmother’s house, which is up for sale following her grandmother’s death.

The second protagonist is Ruth, recently married to Peter who has two boys from his first marriage. It’s post-World War II and Ruth’s negotiating how to be a wife to a man she doesn’t know very well, in a place far from her London roots, while also attempting to be a mum to two boys whose mother has died. The third woman is Sarah. It’s the 1700s and she’s on the run, having been accused of witchcraft. She’s sheltered by a family whose son narrates the story. All three women are linked by their proximity to Bass Rock, an island off the coastline, but also by the violence – physical and psychological – that is inflicted upon them by men. Wyld draws the links between these women through the structure of the chapters which move from Vivienne to Ruth to Sarah to Ruth and back to Vivienne. She also provides echoes between the years, both through actions and incidents that reoccur and through items passed between the generations.

Wyld’s purpose is to bear witness to the incidents of violence against women that have taken place for centuries. She makes this clear through the character of Maggie, a woman Vivienne meets in a supermarket in the opening chapter. It’s late at night and Maggie warns Vivienne there is a man creeping around by her car. They meet again in a later chapter where we discover that Maggie is homeless, considers herself a witch and sometimes undertakes sex work. Vivienne is wary of Maggie and, initially, so am I, until I realise that Wyld’s making me consider how we think about women who warn us about the behaviour of men. Of course they’re wild and weird and unpredictable, according to patriarchal societal conventions. Maggie’s the friend who, when you’re dismissing male behaviour that’s made you feel uncomfortable, reminds you yes, all men.

It’s an image that Maggie conjures that stays with me after I finish reading the book. She asks:

What if all the women that have been killed by men through history were visible to us, all at once? If we could see them lying there. What if you could project a hologram of the bodies in the places they were killed? […] We’re just breezing in and out of the death zone. Wading through the dead.

I think about all the places I’ve lived and wonder whether there’s a dead woman in each one. I think about the route I take from my flat into Sheffield city centre and wonder how many dead women lie along it. It’s been days and I’m still haunted by it.

Irina, the protagonist of Eliza Clark’s debut Boy Parts has a response to male violence. She photographs men through the lens of the female gaze, creating portraits of them as sexual objects which she sells via her website and to a private collector known as B. Initially, Irina appears in control. She’s confident and brash, with a fuck you attitude to life. It soon becomes apparent though that she’s an Ottessa Moshfegh character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, albeit set in Newcastle, and therefore not entirely reliable or stable. She torments her friends and the men she photographs, but the cracks are there and, as the story descends into violence, it’s Irina that is tortured. I love an unlikeable female protagonist and Irina’s a delicious one; you wouldn’t want to be friends with her irl but she’s fun to spend time with from the safe distance of the page.

Talking of safe distances…when the lockdown begins in the UK, I find the only genres I can concentrate on are crime and historical fiction. The latter of which I would usually tell you is one of my least favourite genres (along with men’s fiction, obviously), but there’s something comforting about escaping into a past where things have already happened and the outcomes are certain. It’s perfect timing then for me to read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel Hamnet, named for Shakespeare’s son who died when he was 11 and was possibly the inspiration for the play Hamlet, the two names being interchangeable. It’s Agnes (better known as Anne) Hathaway who takes centre stage here though. I take great delight in noticing that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name but as the tutor or the father or her husband, in the same way that women are often reduced to being someone’s wife or mother.

The first two thirds of the novel move between Judith, Hamnet’s twin, falling ill and Agnes and Will’s courtship and marriage. Agnes is viewed with suspicion by a town who don’t understand her ways. She keeps a kestrel, makes herbal remedies, and can read someone’s soul and future by touching the spot between their thumb and first finger. Shakespeare’s enchanted by her; in him, she encounters a boundless soul she can’t fathom. O’Farrell’s always been skilled at handling different timelines, but here her movement across time and perspective is fluid and flawless. It reminds me of Deborah Levy’s comments about how we don’t experience time chronologically and O’Farrell shows this specifically through Agnes’ ability, mirroring it for the reader as we move between the stages of her life.

Around the mid-point of the book, O’Farrell includes a chapter showing how the bubonic plague might have reached Stratford-upon-Avon and Judith Shakespeare by way of a cabin boy who encounters a monkey in Alexandria and then goes on to collect some glass beads from Murano, which are eventually delivered to the Shakespeare’s next-door-neighbour. At this point, I realise I had no idea how Hamnet died and my comfort read has been invaded by thoughts of passengers on cruise ships and airplanes and ideas about contact tracing and testing. Too late by now though as I’m well invested in the world O’Farrell has created.

The final 100 pages are a single chapter that runs from the death of Hamnet to the staging of the play named for him. It’s a superb study of grief and the different ways in which we deal with it. When I finish the final pages, it’s difficult to believe that I’m not standing in The Globe after the audience has mostly emptied out.

O’Farrell has long been pigeonholed as a writer of ‘women’s fiction’ (oh how I hate that term) and largely ignored by the big prizes. Hamnet is longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and I sincerely hope it makes an appearance on the Booker Prize list too. It is O’Farrell’s masterpiece.

Between the novels, I’m reading lots of short things. While I’ve had too much time to think, I’ve realised that all my favourite writing is political. By which I mean overtly political. (In one sense, all writing by women is political by nature of its existence.) It’s why I love Sinéad Gleeson’s story ‘The Lexicon of Babies’, an allegorical tale of motherhood and society, and Salena Godden’s poem ‘I saw Goody Procter jogging without a face mask‘ which combines The Crucible and people’s policing of each other under social distancing. The final lines, which highlight the hypocrisy of racists and the Tories as they clap and cheer for health care professionals they’ve undervalued and underfunded for years, are pointed and pertinent.

When the news that we were going into lockdown broke, I was a third of the way into Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate. I finished it as schools closed and the majority of the population shifted to working from home or not working because their jobs had suddenly disappeared.

Carraway writes about trying to secure housing for herself and her daughter, showing how difficult it is even when she manages to save enough for a deposit and several month’s rent. Her income is unstable, whether she’s making it through sex work or writing; landlords don’t want to take tenants whose income is supplemented by universal credit, and Carraway has no guarantor. If she applies for council housing, she knows she will be moved out of London, away from any support networks she has, and indeed, towards the end of the book, she is. Carraway’s book becomes a channel for my anger during a time when there’s a sense it should go unspoken. I walk around my flat saying universal basic income to myself like they’re the words of a lullaby.

One morning earlier this week, I wonder how Ali Smith is doing and whether she’s rewriting sections of Summer, the final volume of her seasons quartet. I check the publication date and find it’s been pushed back a month to August. This might be because many books are being delayed at the moment, but I hope it’s because she has something to say about the UK government’s reaction to coronavirus. There’s no one whose views I want to hear more right now than Ali Smith’s.

[Review copy of The Bass Rock provided by Vintage; review copy of Boy Parts provided by Influx Books; review copy of Hamnet provided by Tinder Press; Skint Estate bought and paid for by me.]

In the Media, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell

This Must Be the Place is Maggie O’Farrell’s most ambitious novel to date, moving around the world and through a cast of characters. At its centre though is the marriage of Claudette and Daniel.

The novel begins in 2010 with a man standing at the perimeter of the garden. As Daniel spots him and considers how quickly he can get to Claudette and their children, if necessary, Claudette comes around the side of the house, baby on her back, brandishing a shotgun. She fires two shots and the man leaves. It’s revealed in the first section of the novel that this isn’t as crazy as it seems: Claudette was a famous film star who faked her death and the death of her son and bought a house in rural Donegal which isn’t on the map, can’t be seen from the road and requires you to pass through twelve gates to get to it. In the circumstances, the idea that someone might have found her when she doesn’t want them to seems fairly plausible.

To apply the word ‘famous’ to her wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Fame is what she’d had before she’d done what she did; what came afterwards went beyond into a kind of gilded, deified sphere of notoriety. These days, she was known less for her films than for having vanished right at the height of her career. Poof. Ta-da. Just like that. Thereby making herself into one of the most speculated-about enigmas of our time.

Daniel is a linguist, currently teaching at the university in Belfast. He’s about to go to work to deliver a lecture and then travel on a flight to New York City, to his father’s 90th birthday party in Brooklyn. In the car on the way through the gates from the house to the road, Daniel hears a section of a BBC radio programme on gender and the workplace. An interview plays and he recognises the voice: Nicola Janks, a woman he knew back in the 1980s. When the clip ends, the presenter ‘intones’ that Janks died not long after the interview, a piece of news that is new to Daniel. The significance of this and the impact it will have on his marriage to Claudette is slowly revealed throughout the novel. It also leads Daniel to this revelation before he leaves Belfast:

…my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.


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The novel contains themes that will be familiar to O’Farrell’s regular readers – loss; the big secret that returns to haunt; relationships, both romantic and familial – but what is different is the way the novel is structured.

This Must Be the Place moves through time, place and character in a non-liner structure. This means we get a chapter told from Daniel’s first person point-of-view in Donegal in 2010, followed by one from Claudette’s point-of-view told in first person plural and second person in London in 1989, followed by third person subjective with Niall, Daniel’s son from his first marriage, in San Francisco in 1999 and so on. Most of the characters get a chapter, only a few have their perspective returned to. This type of structure can be done well, Trumpet by Jackie Kay or Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, for instance. However, the problem with structuring a novel in this way is that you risk alienating the reader. There was a point when I grew weary of being jolted to yet another alien point-of-view, disorientated and trying to grasp on to something that would tell me who this person was (I read it in under 24 hours and I still couldn’t keep the cast of characters in my head). Having said that, some unexpectedly beautiful pieces come out of this structure: the chapter from Teresa, Daniel’s mother’s perspective is heart-breaking but done with subtlety and quiet restraint; Rosalind, a stranger Daniel meets on safari, has an interesting story with parallels to Daniel’s own, and there’s a sharp and funny encounter between Claudette’s son, Ari, and a school counsellor.

What makes the novel work is the various aspects of Claudette and Daniel we become privy to, whether through their own actions or the perspectives of others. Both have fascinating back-stories which offer a complex picture of who they are and who they might be together.

This Must Be the Place is an interesting novel. There are moments where it sings and moments of disorientation. I admire O’Farrell’s ambition and her characterisation is superb. I suspect whether you love the book or not will depend on your reaction to its structure.

 

Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

I should probably preface this post by mentioning that I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing – not unequivocally – I thought The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox had some serious flaws but still that didn’t invalidate the quality of the writing. Like too many of the books I own, her debut After You’d Gone sat on my shelf for a long time before I read it. In fact, I think it had been joined by My Lover’s Lover and The Distance Between Us before a colleague mentioned that After You’d Gone was one of her favourite books and I should read it. I did. And then I read the other two in close succession. O’Farrell is now one of the few writers with a substantial output whose entire body of work I’ve read. And so, to her latest.

 

Instructions for a Heatwave is set during the heatwave of 1976 and concerns the Riordan family. Gretta and Robert live in Highbury where they have raised three children – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife. Robert’s retired and spends his days pottering around the house unless Gretta organises outings for them.

As the novel opens, Robert tells Gretta, ‘I’ll just go round the corner and get the paper’. While he’s gone we’re given an insight into Robert and Gretta’s relationship:

Gretta sits herself down at the table. Robert has arranged everything she needs: a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of marmalade. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved. Which is, she reflects as she moves the sugar bowl to one side, surprisingly rare at their age. So many friends of hers feel overlooked or outgrown or unseen by their husbands, like furniture kept too long. But not her. Robert likes to know where she is at all times, he frets if she leaves the house without telling him, gets edgy if she slips away without him seeing and starts ringing the children to question them on her whereabouts.

It is all the more shocking therefore, when Robert fails to return.

Gretta calls her children for help. They rally round but they’ve all got issues of their own: Michael Francis doesn’t recognise his wife anymore. His children are left to play by themselves while she sits in the attic working on her Open University degree. Monica is struggling with her step-daughters, who don’t seem to like her, and a husband who is unsupportive of her attempts to bond with them. Aoife has escaped to New York after a major disagreement with Monica and is hiding the fact that she can’t read (she’s dyslexic) from her employer and her lover.

The family come together at Gretta’s house. The heat exacerbates the tension that already exists between them and as the search for their father continues, secrets spill out.

This is a skillfully written novel. O’Farrell’s prose has a rare quality, one that pulls you into the world that she’s created and envelops you in the drama. Rather than sympathising with a character, you feel like an onlooker in the same room or street. In Instructions for a Heatwave, you can feel the heat – both the literal heat of the sun and the metaphorical heat of simmering family tensions. This is her best novel yet.

And, you lucky people, I have two copies to give away – one paperback proof and one finished hardback. If you’d like one leave a comment below before midnight on Saturday 16th March and I’ll draw the winners at random the following day. I’m happy to post books internationally. Good luck!

Update: The Winners!

The random number generator says:

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Congratulations liveotherwise and liz mckay, emails have been sent to you both.

Thanks to everyone else who entered and sorry I didn’t have more copies.