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.

 

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

One of most difficult parts of writing reviews is not succumbing to the use of clichés. But sometimes – sometimes – they’re completely valid and this is one of those times. To save me littering this review with them, I’ll start with a checklist of all those relevant to The Enchanted:

  • page turner;
  • I couldn’t put it down (not literally, obviously, but I didn’t want to and after I had put it down and slept, I woke up, started thinking about it and picked it up again);
  • powerful;
  • thought-provoking;
  • it stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page (it’s been four days, I’ve read two and a half books and seen four films since then and it’s still bothering me);
  • once you get to the end, you’ll want to turn back to the beginning and start reading again;
  • perfect for book groups;
  • you’ll want to buy copies for your friends so you can discuss it with them (yes, I do, why haven’t you all read it yet?).

The Enchanted is narrated by a prisoner on death row in the USA. We are not told who he is, what crime he’s committed or where he is beyond the descriptions of the prison in which he’s incarcerated.

At the far end of the hall, a narrow set of ancient stairs rises out of the gloom. We are buried here in the dungeon, deep under the cellblocks above. The cells here have never seen sunlight, and the lightbulbs in the stairwells are old and flickering.

The tight dungeonlike stairs are dark corners and spittle-drying places that a wise man avoids. The lady takes a deep breath and plunges up them…The stairs are so old, they slope at the middle. The stone is porous and absorbs blood. It is true, ancient lettings have left pink stains. The stains have soaked into the margins of the old stones, the lady thinks.

‘The lady’ is a death penalty investigator, sent by attorneys to investigate whether a prisoner close to the end of his time can be saved by appeal. In this instance, she’s investigating a prisoner called York, a man who is in the public consciousness after openly stating his desire to die. Our unnamed narrator tells both of these people’s stories along with several other members of the prison community – ‘the fallen priest’ who attends to the prisoners; the prison warden; Conroy, a guard; ‘the white-haired boy’, another of the prisoners; along with snippets of his own story.

All of these characters have things in common – they are the abused, the abuser, or often both. Their treatment and the way they behave towards others is plainly stated; it is often brutal but Denfeld writes about it in order to highlight the moral grey areas: what makes one victim become an abuser while another breaks the cycle? Or do they? Do they swap one type of control for another? Is it kinder to let someone die than let them live with the things they’ve done? This book will give you no answers, choosing instead to leave you with much to contemplate.

The over-riding theme of the novel is freedom:

The lady hasn’t lost it yet – the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all the things those of us in this dungeon can never feel.

But, like York, our narrator doesn’t want physical freedom (bar that which comes in the form of death):

The outside is too big and scary for me to think about anymore. The outside is one wild circus where people and ideas clash. I have been inside one locked room or another since I was nine. I am accustomed to it, buried inside rooms that are buried inside other rooms that are buried inside electric razor fences. The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs.

Instead, our narrator finds freedom in books. His desire for them and the comfort he finds in those he re-reads lead the warden to ensure he gets a book most weeks.

The books brought brilliance to my life, and they brought an understanding: Life is a story. Everything that has happened and will happen to me is all part of the story of this enchanted place – all the dreams and visions and understandings that come to me in my dungeon cell. The books helped me see that truth is not in the touch of the stone but in what the stone tells you.

However, these ideas raise more questions: is the lady really free? Is freedom a state of mind rather than a physical condition? Is the story the prisoner tells us ‘real’ or is it his creation?

The last question helps with a difficulty in the narration – if the narrator is imprisoned in his cell, how can he see and hear the things he relates that happen beyond his hearing and vision? This was an aspect that I thought would irritate me as I began the novel but the further I progressed the less important this became. Perhaps this is due to Denfeld’s suggestion that the prisoner’s, or the lady’s, or the warden’s story could be ours. Or that their back-stories are so common, creating them isn’t a real feat for anyone in the system.

The Enchanted has made such an impact on me for two reasons, firstly, the writing is superb, there are moments where the prose is stunning but it also flows so well it’s easy to read; secondly, although the prose is easy to read, the book isn’t, it examines a subject – abuse and control – without manipulating the reader. Who’s ‘bad’ and who’s ‘good’ in these situations? You’ll change your mind several times.

The best way to describe what Denfeld achieves with The Enchanted is in the words of her own narrator:

I loved the ways the precious stories took shape but always had room to be read again. How did they make a story feel so complete and yet so open-ended? It was like painting a picture that changed each time you looked at it.

 

Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the review copy.