This year I revised my reading goals downwards, quite radically, from 200 books to 120. As of this writing, I’ve read 185 books in 2019, which is pretty gratifying. It does present something of a problem, which is that narrowing down the top ten (or whatever) books of the year gets exponentially harder. I’ve done my best anyway. There are more than ten, because it was a good year and I make the rules.
Selected Poems of Adrienne Rich. One of the very earliest reads of the year and still one of the best. At the time of reading, I wrote, “On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.” Unbeatable.
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt. Read in a day, on a sofa in a nice flat in Paris while wind howled outside. A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. Both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and it’s continued to haunt me.
The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan. Based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Not one to miss for lovers of historical fiction.
The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold. This group biography of the “canonical five” women presumed to have been killed by the same person–known to history as Jack the Ripper–in 1888 is long overdue. Rubenhold gives each woman her own section, exploding sensationalist myths and prejudices with every word. Only one of the five, for instance, was employed as a sex worker; only one (the same one) was under twenty-five. More significant are the facts that the majority were alcoholics, and separated from a husband. Compassionate and unsentimental, Rubenhold’s description of the trajectories of their lives makes the similarities between these women and the homeless population of modern London painfully clear.
Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A magnificent novel about the rise and fall of a rock band in ’70s California, told through the transcripts of interviews for a documentary. Reid nails atmosphere: the drugs, the sex, but also the strangely untouchable, self-centered innocence that permeates this milieu. Daisy Jones could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with added smack problem), but her emotional vulnerability is leavened with grit; Camila Dunne, wife of the lead guitarist, could have been a caricature of a stay-at-home mother, but her integrity is the moral backbone of the book. Reid also has some beautiful, scary things to say about creative collaboration, the hard work of making music, and the ease with which we can fuck up our own hearts.
The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Some amusing soul on Goodreads has described this as “Pride and Prejudice for socialists”, which isn’t too far off base. The story of Margaret Hale, daughter of a Devonshire vicar whose crisis of faith makes him move his small family to Milton, a Northern manufacturing town, and John Thornton, one of the mill owners there, is all about misconceptions, preconceptions, and class snobbery. Unlike Austen’s novels, though–and understand that I love them, so this isn’t a dig at the divine Jane–Gaskell’s writing feels distinctly modern and political in its sensibilities, from the unusual directness of her characters’ dialogue to the frank acknowledgment of class struggle.
Things In Jars, by Jess Kidd. Kidd’s third book is set in a familiar Victorian Gothic London, but her elegant, witty prose invigorates the setting. (She is particularly good at the literally birds-eye view; several chapters open from the perspective of a raven, allowing some lovely atmospheric scene-setting.) Our protagonist, red-haired Irish investigator Bridie Devine, is a magnificent addition to the ranks of spiky Victorian ladies in fiction, and her tentative love affair with the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer is conveyed delicately. The is-it-or-isn’t-it supernatural flavour of the central mystery makes this book perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent–and, as a bonus, Things in Jars has an excellently dry sense of humour.
Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. Reading this after the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement, my frustration at the composition of that list was refreshed. Luiselli takes a Sebaldian approach to her two-pronged story. One strand follows the journey of a group of migrant children from Mexico as they ride the border freight trains, sleep rough, and–sometimes–die, trying to get to a better life. The second follows the road trip of a married couple who are both audio journalists, and their two children, ostensibly traveling towards the American Southwest in order to produce a story about the migrant children. Luiselli’s philosophical, detailed style occasionally outstays its welcome, but mostly Lost Children Archive is a heartbreaking, fiercely intelligent wonder.
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo. Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.
The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon. This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. It’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.
Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor. Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe Mistress, The Phantom of the Opera, and indeed Things In Jars.
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: An outstanding short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.
Corregidora, by Gayl Jones. I read this twice in three months and it revealed more each time. The story of a blues singer and her maternal line’s traumatic intergenerational relationship with the Portuguese slaveholder who owned her ancestors, it’s also about sexuality, femininity, how to make good art, and whether it’s even possible to redeem pain in that way. If you like Toni Morrison, if you aspire to produce any kind of art (but particularly music), if you want to know how other times and places have navigated the path between desire and trauma, read it.
Ohio, by Stephen Markley. The best post-9/11 novel I’ve ever read: detailed, lyrical, raw, all those book review words. Four high school friends reconverge in their hometown, one night in the early 2010s. They don’t all meet, but that night illuminates the history they share and the path their country has taken since. The Iraq war, Alanis Morrisette, OxyContin, summers at the lake, your boyfriend’s truck, baby lesbians, post-industrial hellscapes, Obama’s election, white supremacists, memorial tattoos, homecoming dances, football games, small-town rumors, the mystery at the centre of existence – Ohio has them all, and all wrapped up in beautiful, headstrong, confident prose. Maybe a little too headstrong at times, but if I have a weakness it’s for stylistic overkill. It worked for me.
To Calais, In Ordinary Time, by James Meek. A conceptually brilliant novel set in the 1400s, as a company of bowmen head towards the southern coast of England to join the war against France, and the Black Plague comes up the country in the opposite direction. Told in three different registers that evoke the distinctions in speech between noble, peasant, and clerical characters, it’s never a particularly easy read but never a dull one either, and it deals with sexual and gender expression in a way that feels both extremely contemporary and remarkably sensitive to the time.
The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty. Hegarty’s second novel centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. When it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland.
Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career, but mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. She uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t.
This is also the place to mention two authors of whose work I’ve read three instances each this year, and been totally seduced and bowled over by both.
Siri Hustvedt. I read the aforementioned What I Loved (probably her most famous), Memories of the Future (her most recent), and A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind (self-explanatory, I should think). All are excellent, if tough and rigorous. Encountering her mind is bracing to one’s own.
Willa Cather. Astonishingly modern in her lack of sentimentality, yet with the courtly lucidity of a much older era, Cather is long overdue serious attention in the UK, although American readers still know her pretty well. I read three of her novels this year that were new to me: A Lost Lady, Death Comes For the Archbishop, and The Song of the Lark. I still have a copy of My Ántonia, which I first read in middle school and intend to revisit in 2020. All of these copies were old green Virago paperbacks and came from The Second Shelf, which sells rare books and first editions exclusively by women (including, you’ll be pleased but hopefully not surprised to hear, trans women), and which has a shelf full of more affordable things specifically for those who, like me, are slender of purse.
Highly honourable mentions: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, The Snakes by Sadie Jones, Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, The Terror by Dan Simmons, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Arabs by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton, Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, The Body Lies by Jo Baker, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, The Horseman by Tim Pears, Collected Ghost Stories by MR James, The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
Forthcoming (I hope): best children’s books I read in 2019, and January 2020’s most exciting new releases!