It is much too difficult to narrow down to ten the 192 books I have so far read this year (two over my Goodreads goal of 190, but I still have ten days to hit my actual, crazy-person target of 200). Also, this must be the most diverse year of reading yet, in terms of genre as much as of reading literature by people of colour, women, and LBTQ folks. To make life easier for myself, this is the first of three Books of the Year lists, focusing on hardback fiction. The second will be a round-up of the best paperback fiction I read this year (e.g. older stuff, not published in 2018), and the third will be my nonfiction Books of the Year picks, both hardback and paperback.
The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. In an ecologically ravaged future, what remains of humanity is a race of alabaster-skinned elites floating above the Earth on a platform ship called CIEL, run by the charismatic cult leader Jean de Men. Yuknavitch’s novel centers bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body: how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history, and be sites of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face. I was surprised and saddened not to see it on the Women’s Prize or Man Booker Prize lists.
The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. I send this to everyone who loved A Little Life: it has the same feeling of youth, friendship, sexuality and the vivid mania of New York City. Based on the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first exclusively Latinx drag house in NYC, the novel takes in both the beauty of the 1980s ball scene – the community, love, sisterhood and sass – and its dark flipside: the constant danger of physical and sexual violence, and the opening skirmishes of the community’s fight against HIV/AIDS. It’s beautifully written, and should have been on the Polari Prize list at the very least.
The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, following Leo Sercombe’s peregrinations after being cast out from his family’s cottage on the Prideaux estate, and Lottie Prideaux, his childhood playmate, as she fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique. A truly under-sung writer.
The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy. She is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, and in theatre, with ambitions to become a female playwright. Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and she’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenage eye makes her a very enjoyable narrator. Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, this book is delightful.
The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? Does genius excuse monstrosity? The Italian Teacher centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known as Pinch. Most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Art and art criticism, the terrible knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only between artists, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all in this deeply engrossing and moving novel.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. There have been rumblings of critical dissent over this book – some people find it overly preachy stodge, while others think it brilliant. I’m in the latter camp. I don’t mind preaching in fiction if the prose moves me, and Powers’s does. There is also something intensely admirable about the ambition of a writer whose novel contains nine point-of-view characters, all of whom we are meant to care about but all of whom are also presented as being the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time. As a fictional project, it’s one of the most deeply sophisticated and exciting things I’ve read for years, even if some of his characters don’t seem strictly necessary.
Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on the life and work of Diego Velazquez, King Felipe’s court painter for nearly forty years. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to see the world as a painter does. Her prose style is gorgeously tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, heat and coolness, sky and earth. It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.
Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans. Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage, but now women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.
Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. A deceptively short book, almost a novella, Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students—are less devoted to historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen, but Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere. It is also very tightly written: everything is thematically connected, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.
The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. The book starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: marriage, children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. The novel feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, and her responses to life are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.
Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin. Berlin is the writer who converted me to short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. This is her second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best. She explores sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant.
Extremely honourable mentions go to: The Devil’s Highway, by Gregory Norminton; All the Perverse Angels, by Sarah K Marr; Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton; The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley; All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison; Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller; Varina, by Charles Frazier; Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson; The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley; House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher; The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell.