New Writing North – Books of the Year 2018
I couldn’t choose just one book this year, so am going to mention the first and last books I read in 2018 – both of which explore the American psyche. In January I read Ann Patchett’s engrossing novel, Commonwealth. I was in Washington DC in January, experiencing record-breaking freezing conditions, so while browsing in Kramerbooks I was drawn towards the warmth of the orange-festooned cover of Commonwealth and it’s promise of a Southern Californian setting. Commonwealth follows the lives of two connected families growing up across five decades between Los Angeles and Virgina; it’s about siblings and parents and love but also about America. This novel transcends its domestic setting and stayed with me for a long time after reading it.
I’ve finished the year by reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. This compelling book moves between the lives of the Knox family, who are trying to navigate life in Trump’s America and the lives of Thatcher Greenwood and his neighbour the real-life naturalist, Mary Treat, who are the 19th century residents of the Knox’s community in Vineland, New Jersey. The characters in this book frequently veer between despair and hope, as Kingsolver deftly moves between centuries, drawing parallels between the characters’ lives and their political and social landscapes.
I am slightly cheating as this book is not out until 2019, but I was lucky enough to receive an early copy from the publisher and immediately devoured it. Tana French’s The Wych Elm follows Toby, a man who returns to the ancestral family home where he spent all of his childhood summers. Not long after his return, a skull is found in the old Wych Elm in the garden.
I am a huge fan of this author – her Dublin Murder Squad series is some of the most intelligent and atmospheric crime that I’ve read – and her first standalone did not disappoint. I’ve always been gripped by French’s mysteries, but this book was fresh and surprising in so many ways. It’s a pretty chunky book but that actually enhanced my reading experience. Tana French is so good at immersing you in an intimate domestic space, and it’s the way she slowly untangles the relationships within these spaces that make the book so enjoyable. NB: ‘enjoyable’ might not be the right word for the ending.
A book that riveted me this year was Tommy Orange’s There There (Harvill Secker), a moving debut novel that centres on the complex and interconnected lives of a group of Native Americans in Oakland, California. Beginning with a prologue that condenses several centuries of colonial oppression in a few wry but devastating pages, the book charts the fractured, intense, and often toxic relationships the cast of characters have with each other and their own identity. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, and the characters he gives voice to are convincing and compelling. I was most struck by Tony Loneman, the 21-year old drifter affected by foetal alcohol syndrome who plans to rob the Big Oakland Powwow that forms the centre of the narrative. His perspective speaks to the nature of the ‘Urban Indian’ and the tension between Native tradition and the modern landscape, and his delivery balances dark wit with equal parts vulnerability and bravado; he’s definitely stayed with me. What I loved most about this book, however, was its exploration of the relationship between storytelling and power, which is as vital to Native history and culture as it is to today’s socio-political moment. An absorbing, surprising, powerful book.
My Book(s) of the Year is the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn. I had been meaning to read them for a while but when the Sky Atlantic series came out I decided to read the first one before watching it, I devoured it and the other 4 books in the series. Edward St Aubyn’s psychologically acute series of novels is about a man from an extremely privileged yet abusive and neglectful background. The first novel tells the harrowing story of his childhood and we follow him into a drug and alcohol addicted adulthood at the heart of the British establishment. (The hideous dinner party at which Princess Margaret cruelly humiliates the French ambassador also featured in another of my favourite books this year – Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown, a sort-of biography of the Princess). The Patrick Melrose series rises above cliché with emotional intelligence, super smart dialogue, and some dark humour to convey a life traumatised by childhood abuse and an absence of parental stability – they’re brilliant.
My best read of 2018 has been I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, bought on recommendations from friends. I ended up purchasing it from a lovely bookseller at Mainstreet Trading Books in the Scottish Borders, a landscape peppered with crumbling castles and fortresses, which formed the perfect backdrop for reading this novel. I Capture the Castle is narrated by the protagonist Cassandra, a young woman growing up in a bonkers bohemian family renting a delapidated castle in 1930s England.
It’s a super cosy and charming read, with elements of absolute hilarity that had me snorting into its pages. I particularly enjoyed Cassandra’s step-mother Topaz’s interest in naturism (‘communing with nature’ as she refers to it…) and found the whole thing to be oddly liberal for a period coming-of-age piece.
I stumbled upon Winifred Holtby’s South Riding when listlessly nosing through my never-ending pile of book recommendations from friends and family. It’s not something I would usually pick up, but I (thankfully) decided to take the plunge. Set in Yorkshire during the uneasy interwar period, the setting and troubles of the time are vividly imagined. The real struggles of money, politics and relationships take the forefront – this is definitely a novel made by the uncomfortably human flaws that all the players in this novel possess.
Usually I struggle with plots that involve the viewpoints of more than a few characters, but I found myself invested in everyone who populated the lively and dysfunctional South Riding district. I ended up flying through the book, and felt quite bereft when it was over! I’d not heard of Holtby’s work before, but South Riding has ensured I’ll be going back to her earlier works for more.
The book that I have most enjoyed reading this year is The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell. I am reading it with my son after a run of so-so books that seemed cynically designed for a specific market. This one stands out a mile and we look forward to every bedtime to catch up on the adventures of Wish – a girl from the warrior tribe – and Xar – a boy from the wizard tribe – sworn enemies who live in the dark, dangerous woods of ancient Britain.
Cowell is such a clever writer that she performs magic with her writing: we think the story is taking us in one direction, but it turns out to be quite another; we think she is writing a wild adventure story, but is also turns out to be about the big fundamental things like identity, loyalty, courage, imagination and pretty much everything else that makes us human. There’s never a dull moment, nor a wasted word. Here is a real master at work.
If anyone’s still searching for a gift for a 7-12 year old, I can highly recommend it. And I’m not sure who will be more excited about my son receiving its sequel, The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic, on Christmas morning.