With the festive season in full swing and 2020 nearly upon us, here at New Writing North we’ve been getting nostalgic and looking back through our book shelves to pick out some of our favourite reads of this year. Get cosy whilst you scroll through this Winter edition of What We’re Reading.
Charlotte Ramshaw – A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
I have not stopped thinking about the characters in Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life ever since I finished the book. Although published in 2015 and being somewhat late to the party, this book is the one I’ve thought most about since reading and has to be my book of the year. Other books I have loved this year include André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game, and Benjamin Myers’ The Offing – which was an absolute pleasure.
A little life it is indeed not, as Yanagihara illustrates over the 720 pages of this sprawling novel. At first one is tricked into thinking it’s a predominantly comforting coming of age story; set in the narratively well-trodden New York and following a group of best friends as they turn into men. Though it is that, it’s also a whole lot more – detailing tragedy, abuse, love and most importantly, friendship.
To say more would be giving it away, however as we learn more about the characters, A Little Life turns from the bonhomie of male friendships into a much darker character study of the lasting effects of abuse and the support systems that are critical to overcoming it. We are also invited into the complex relationships the men have with each other, and again, with no spoilers, a particularly beautiful relationship that anchors the plot and provides us with hope amidst all of the bleakness.
Critics have argued that you either love or hate this book, with the violence and trauma being almost over-the-top in the sheer visceral relentlessness of it all. I would argue that it is not for the faint hearted, but it is certainly worth it. I am obviously a fan (as is our fave Queer Eye chef and avocado connoisseur, Antoni Porowski) and I have recommended this book to as many people as possible. It would definitely be a great, though somewhat massive, stocking filler for a book-loving friend.
Ruth Dewhirst – The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust series), Philip Pullman
The book I most looked forward to reading this year was Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in The Book of Dust trilogy and a follow-up to the acclaimed His Dark Materials. Despite being almost thirty years old, I am still very much that child who eagerly awaits their favourite book publication date, so while I
resisted the midnight launch, I did buy the book immediately and absorbed it within the space of a few days (a well-timed holiday meant the 700+ pages weren’t a barrier!).
It’s sometimes difficult to return to the childhood stories you love, and at times I struggled with La Belle Sauvage (volume one in The Book of Dust), but The Secret Commonwealth rose to the occasion. It was a welcome return to the beloved landscapes of His Dark Materials, including Jordan College, but the world has grown up with the character of Lyra and some dark themes are addressed, including topical portrayals of the refugee crisis and the nature of truth. The subject of daemons, Pullman’s fascinating creation of animal manifestations of the soul, receives deeper scrutiny too, introducing more psychological discussions than seen in the previous trilogy. The book’s somewhat abrupt ending left me longing for the final instalment, so here’s hoping they announce the publication date soon.
The Secret Commonwealth is a comforting delve back into childhood for the Christmas period, and the perfect accompaniment to the brilliant His Dark Materials adaptation currently airing on BBC One.
Rebecca Wilkie – Lanny, Max Porter and The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Just like the Booker judges, I found it impossible to choose just one book this year (even narrowing it down to two was tricky!). However, two of my favourite books of 2019 were Max Porter’s Lanny and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.
Lanny is the lyrical second book from the acclaimed author of Grief is the thing with Feathers. It blends English myth and folklore with the realities of contemporary life in a small village and the reaction of the villagers when a young boy, Lanny, goes missing. It felt completely different to anything else I read this year and I was completely absorbed by Porter’s inventive storytelling.
Ann Patchett has long been one of my favourite contemporary novelists and I was delighted to get my hands on The Dutch House, her new book. Danny and Maeve are mother-less siblings growing up in post-war Pennsylvania; the novel tracks their relationship and their dysfunctional family over the course of their lives. The spectacular glass Dutch House in which Danny and Maeve grow up, is a constant throughout the book: a source of fascination and pain all at once. I raced through this vivid and engrossing book in a few days and know I’ll return to it again in years to come.
Grace Keane – The Snakes, Sadie Jones
I read so many brilliant books this year I found it very hard to choose one. After much deliberation, I decided just to cheat. I absolutely loved The Snakes by Sadie Jones. It follows a young married couple, Dan and Bea, who quit their jobs to travel Europe. They begin by visiting Bea’s eccentric brother in the French hotel that he manages, and so it begins… The book is in essence a family drama; it’s an exploration of relationships and how they intersect with each other and how they intersect with class and power and race. The way the novel builds tension is so effective: I loved the claustrophobic settings, the heat, the way it uses the language barrier. The whole book was powerful but the ending was an incredible gut punch. I’m really keen to read Sadie Jones’s other novels (hint hint Mum) and am hopeful they will be as impressive as this.
I also have to give an honourable mention to In Cold Blood, which I read for the first time this year and is (breaking news) brilliant. In a similar vein of writing fact as fiction, I adored Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds, which re-imagines the Lord Lucan mystery. Final shout out to Adele by Leila Slimani because her writing is my favourite and I found this novel as beautiful and haunting as the widely revered Lullaby.
Sophie Hall-Luke – A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
It seems appropriate that my book of 2019 is the one which took me half the year to read. Set in post-partition India, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth follows a series of interconnected families as they navigate love and politics. The novel is driven by the efforts of Mrs Rupa Mehra to find a suitable husband for her 19 year-old daughter, Lata. Meanwhile, in the nearby Kapoor family, Maan is turning heads due to a romantic obsession with local courtesan, Saeeda Bai. Their stories are peppered with a panoply of vivid, loveable characters which Seth infuses with genuinely funny social satire.
At a massive 1349 pages, A Suitable Boy is no small undertaking, but is well worth the ache in your wrist. And it’s the perfect time to give it a go, with a BBC adaptation currently in production and a sequel on the way. I fell in love with this irresistible, richly populated coming-of-age story. I can’t wait for more.
Will Mackie – Strike Your Heart, Amélie Nothomb
I’ve chosen Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb (Europa Editions, translated by
Alison Anderson), published in 2018 but the first book I read in early January of this year. Amélie Nothomb’s writing is so exact, her apparent straightforwardness a compelling guide through explorations of the most complex human behaviour. At the outset of her books I never know where she’ll take me, though suspect it will be in some way a discomforting journey. Strike Your Heart centres on Diane, whose childhood relationship with her jealous mother Marie casts shadows upon her adult life as she pursues her desire of becoming a cardiologist. When she becomes entangled with her mentor Olivia, a manipulative and cold assistant professor, Diane enters dark emotional and psychological territory.
Something about the way so many years pass in a novel of only 130 pages heightens the slowly shattering pain of the story. I wasn’t sure if this book was a short novel or a novella, but in the end came to see it as a very long short story in its construction and aesthetic. Equally, though, the impact it had on me was close to that of an especially poignant and affecting poem. A few hours to read, it’s lived with me all year.
Claire Malcolm – Love and Trouble, Claire Dederer
My book of the year is Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer which I found via Andy Miller’s recommendation on an episode of the glorious Backlisted podcast. It’s billed as a memoir of a former ‘wild child’ but actually it’s a stinging and at times moving tribute to the resilience of women and the complexity of our middle ages.
She’s funny, frank and very original on desire, ambition, family and the cost of a creative life. A balm to the soul for any women you know who are over the age of 40.
Anna Disley – All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison, The Offing, Benjamin Myers and Lolly Willows, Sylvia Townsend Warner
The novels I have loved most this year explore the folklore, superstitions and sometimes the cruelty of the countryside. Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley focuses on a relationship between a teenage girl and a charismatic, worldly older woman who has come into her village to write about lost rural traditions, the novel explores the perils of nostalgia and its association with the creeping fascism in the 1930s. Harrison is a really skilled nature writer and evokes 1930s farm life beautifully.
Benjamin Myers also writes so well about nature, his gentle novel The Offing set on the north Yorkshire coast quietly blew me away with its exploration of the small pleasures that make life worth living. In both of these novels the state of our contemporary nation was subtly never far from the surface. Rebecca has written about Max Porter’s Lanny which I also loved, and recently I’ve
read Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner (thanks to Backlisted). Written in the 1920s, it’s a defiant feminist novel about an ageing spinster, who makes a bid for freedom from her duties as auntie and sister by escaping to the countryside, embracing witchcraft and selling her soul to the Devil.
Sophie Koranteng – Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Americanah was an extremely important book for me this year. Having heard a great deal of praise about it, and having previously loved Half of a Yellow Sun, I had a feeling this book would have a lot to say. It tells the story of Ifemelu, a head-strong young woman who leaves her family and childhood sweetheart, Obinze, back in Nigeria to attend University in Philadelphia, America. The story spans her time in both countries, and is interwoven with Obinze’s separate experience of moving to the UK.
On arriving in America, Ifemelu soon finds that she has to navigate what being ‘Black’ means in this unfamiliar place in which she is an object of curiosity and foreignness. Adiche masterfully captures the complex social interactions and deeply ingrained racial biases that black people in Western society can encounter.
It is only after other people question Ifemelu’s identity, affixing their own labels or stereotypes onto her without her permission, that she begins to become aware of how she is viewed in America. We experience Ifemelu’s frustration, amusement, bewilderment and fury through her direct and wry observations of the racial politics in this unfamiliar society of the liberal elite. She details the pressures on Black women, particularly, to conform to white norms in order to be accepted in society; the notion that some part of their ‘Black-ness’ such as the kink in their hair, has to be compromised or diluted. Though Ifemelu and Obinze are now living apart in different countries, there are many similarities in the barriers they both face in trying to succeed in these western worlds they had once romanticised.
The narrative really dissects what it means to be American, what it means to be Black, and exposes the blurred lines between the two, drawing attention to the progress still to be made towards true racial equality. A deeply passionate, affecting book, that I would recommend everyone reads.
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