It's that time of year again, when I look back over my reading and pick out my ten favourite books of the year. So without further ado, and in no particular order (because I couldn't rank them in any way that completely satisfied me):
I think St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an alchemical display. Each story in this debut collection is unique in its variety. Never read a story about a Minotaur migrating west with his human family? Or about two brothers who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab to find the ghost of their drowned sister? Or about fifteen adolescent girls raised by wolves being introduced to civilisation by nuns? No? Well, here is your chance.
Each piece transcends traditional genre boundaries, segueing from fantasy to horror to 'contemporary' (whatever that is) with perfect composure, and wreaking havoc with our expectations at every opportunity. Nobody reading the jocular title could anticipate the creepy ambience of the book’s opening story, ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’, in which a young girl rescues her sister from an insatiable spectral lover. Nor the bittersweet humour of ‘The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-time Crime’ in which a boy pretends to be a criminal mastermind when he is really a budding junior astronomer.
What the stories do share in common are their young protagonists, all of whom are discovering the harsh, peculiar and blackly funny realities of their worlds as they run or trip or wander unaware into adulthood. The title story, with its snarling snapping wolf-girls learning to speak and act like young ladies, is the perfect metaphor for shedding the easy instinctive skin of childhood for the contradictions and discomforts of womanhood. But, like all the stories here, it is also a joy beyond the metaphor, simply by virtue of being what it is: weird and deftly written.
Undoubtedly, for me, the Wolf Hall of 2010. It sounds an unlikely success - a book set in an alternate medieval Europe, in which the Royal houses are populated by a weakening line of human-mermaid hybrids. But Kit Whitfield's writing is powerful, and her vision of this alternate world is brilliant and uncompromising. The novel's protagonists - the Princess Anne, land-born, cultured and fragile; and the interloper Henry, tossed from the sea by his mother and barely human - are alive with a precious independence of character. I hope it is finding the wider audience that it deserves, and that it's just the first taste of great things to come from a new writer. I now have a copy of Whitfield's first novel, Bareback (Benighted in the US), about a world in which a small minority of humans live amongst werewolves. I'm savouring the thought of it, although I've been told that In Great Waters is a significant step up in form.
This is my third Golding novel. I read Rites of Passage when I was a student; and then Lord of the Flies, for which he is most famous. Both great novels, but The Spire confirms what I had suspected (and hoped): that Golding was a historical novelist at heart, and the best kind. His fiction is about both alienation and about recognition - the things that we cannot comprehend and the things that are common to us all. The story here is of Dean Jocelyn, a man obsessed with building the tallest spire there has ever been upon onto his cathedral, even unto the destruction of everything and everyone around him. It is a narrative driven by simple phallic symbolism, but far from straightforward both in its style and substance. The mix of sexual and spiritual energy is heady; and the book is worth reading for the final three pages of human desolation alone. Admittedly though, tis not a merry book...
This debut novel may not be the subtlest analysis of race-relations in 60s America, but I don't care. The liveliness of the three narrators is more than enough to sell it to me. No doubt I was helped in this by the excellent narration in my audiobook version; so much so that I can't imagine having read this novel without hearing the alternately honeyed, brazen and twangy tones of Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. The book is set in Mississippi and revolves around the experiences of black maids and the white families they care for at the very moment when the civil rights movement is gaining momentum. Miss Skeeter is a recent college graduate, who comes home to discover that her own black nanny has been summarily dismissed by her mother; her eyes subsequently opened to the degrading and depressing position of black women in her friends' houses and she determines to write a book about their experiences using first-hand testimonies. It is one of those rare books about which I would use the adjective 'heartwarming'. I even convinced my mum to take a break from her cosy mysteries to read it and she loved it too. If you haven't yet availed yourself of Audible's 3 months at £3.99 subscription off, I'd do it now, and download this first.
This was another major find of the Orange Prize 2010; a book and an author that had previously passed me by entirely. It is Roffey's second book, and is set in her native Trinidad, centred on an English couple who emigrate there in 1950s and subsequently stay to have a family. The island itself is a powerful character in the book, personified as a seductive woman who inspires devotion in George Harwood, and confusion, jealousy and passionate animosity in his wife Sabine. As Trinidad passes through the painful process of gaining its Independence, George chooses to remain when the rest of the British community return 'home' and Sabine becomes infatuated with the country's charismatic leader Eric Williams. It is a hot, damp and fecund type of book. I'm not surprised that Roffey's first book, Sun Dog (which is being reissued in 2011), was magical realist in bent; The White Woman on the Green Bicycle has the giddy hyperreality that is often on the other side of the genre.
This was one of those books that occasionally drops unsolicited through my letter box, and which usually goes straight onto the book shelf for a short sojourn before transfer to the charity shop. But it caught my eye; I'd heard of Short Books before but never read anything from them; and the first page was a winner. One weekend while Esther was away I read the whole thing. Yum, yum, yum.
Benny and Shrimp is a fairytale-romance for grown-ups, with all the things a good fairytale should have: love, sex and death in spades. The story centres on ‘Shrimp’, a widowed librarian in her mid-30s who spends her lunchtimes at the cemetery staring at her husband’s grave, not out of hysterical grief but because of a bemused listlessness. There she meets Benny, a lonely farmer with several fingers missing from his left hand who stands in danger of becoming an Old Bachelor. They could not be more different: Shrimp is a culture junkie, who enjoys nothing more than a trip to the opera, while Benny is defiantly grounded in the realities of his dairy herd and yearns for a woman he can make a home with. But the attraction is undeniable, and despite everything – the arguments, the misunderstandings, the awkwardness – they embark on an affair that can’t possibly last. I’m not usually one for ‘relationship fiction’ but Katarina Mazetti expresses the impossibilities of love in modern times, and uses gender stereotypes with a self-conscious irony that endears her to me. She does it without being twee or resorting to cliché (except with the aforementioned irony), and she’s funny too.
When my friend Katy chose this book for her December book group choice I suppressed an inward moan. I'd heard some Chinese whispers about the book: another 'discovered' work of Holocaust fiction, moving, human tragedy ala Irene Nemirovsky, and wasn't very interested. I'd tarred it as one of those unfortunate books that become so critically ubiquitous they're passe. Well, thank goodness for Katy.
Hans Fallada was a convicted murderer, an alcoholic and a drug addict; a one-time writer of sentimental fiction sanctioned by the Third Reich, who wrote this masterpiece of a book in a 24 day fit of productivity at the end of his life and after a long stay in an asylum. He died shortly before it was first published in 1947. It is an extraordinary book, about entirely ordinary people; Fallada said he wanted to portray the banality of goodness and the banality of evil in one book. Check, and check. He tells the almost-true story of the Quangels, Otto and Anna, who have lost their only son in Hitler's war on the world and thereafter decide to take action against the state by writing and distributing postcards inscribed with anti-Fascist slogans. Through the eyes of the Quangels, their neighbours and the detectives investigating the case, Fallada tracks the fall-out from their simple campaign, right to its inevitable end. The prose is spiky and poetic by turns; the vision unsentimental and determinedly devoid of melodrama. What makes it extraordinary though for me, is Fallada's insight into the mechanisms of the Nazi state and the psychology of resistance which were formed without a historian's insight. It definitely deserves its recent translation and rediscovery.
First of all, this book is a beautiful physical object, with it's French flaps and muted grey cover and thick, deckle-edged paper. Thank you for that Portobello Books. Second, it is an exquisitely written, beguiling debut novel, almost too evocative in parts. It takes the form of parallel narratives, with two women waiting in the same house for their husbands to come home. In the present day Julia, great-great niece of the Artic explorer Edward Mackley, spends a listless day awaiting the return of her husband Simon from work; almost 100 years earlier, her great-great aunt Emily waits for Edward to return from an expedition to the North Pole. The empty, languid, despairing texture of this house-bound pair, is counterpointed by the narrative of Edward's own failing expedition. Undoubtedly, though, the strength of the book is in it biting, bitter, beautiful vision of the Artic.
It was first long-listed for the Orange Prize, and has since won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. This led to some rather vitriolic and unkind comment on the Guardian about Sackville's ancestry, education and literary apprenticeship. My tuppence-worth is this: forget any latent prejudice against the stint at Oxbridge and the MA in Creative Writing. It might have made it easier to get published - it never hurts to know the right people - but it didn't buy Sackville her success, her talent did that. Also, let's not pretend to ourselves that a writing career has ever been the preserve of poor talented people living in drafty garrets, scribbling in ink made out of crushed acorns. Privilege and independent means have always played their part in the ease of literary success.
Aha, finally, a book I've written about at Alexandria - you can read my thoughts here.
'The story belongs to Zuleika, the child of Sudanese immigrants living in Londinium in the early 3rd century. Married off to the fat, middle-aged and pathetic Lucius Aurelius Felix at the tender age of eleven, she has been kept caged in his villa for the last seven years: listless, childless and only allowed out on special occasions. Into this bland, flat landscape comes Emperor Septimus Severus, on his way to vanquish Hibernia and extend his Empire just that little bit further. The pair spot each other at the theatre: the eighteen year old ex-child bride and the aging warrior connect and, in Felix's absence, begin a short doomed love affair.'
I always feel slightly ridiculous when I put an honoured Classic with a captial C onto my 'Best Reads' list; it feels a bit redundent. I mean, of course, it's in my top 10 reads of the year: it's a timeless, critically lauded book by one of the most revered and admired novelists in the history of English Literature (with a captial E and L). But Villette isn't on my list because it was what I expected it to be; precisely the opposite. I'm putting it here because I'm in a state of marvelling at how surprising Classic novels can still be. To put it bluntly, Charlotte Bronte's last and (probably) most autobiographical novel is just plain weird. Brilliant, but weird. It's protagonist Lucy Snowe is apparently as cold as her name implies; dangerously passionate, but repressed and crushed almost beyond sanity and repair; a liar, whom the reader can hardly trust for an honest impression of a situation; and a woman who falls in love with a man who takes enormous pleasure in provoking, controlling and frustrating her. Not the stuff that mid-Victorian novels are usually made of. No wonder Bronte was considered coarse in her day! The strange but strangely perfect love affair between Lucy and the intractible, fractious Paul Emmanuel is impossible to predict, and so is the less-than-happy-but-probably-as-happy-as-it-can-be ending. I might not recommend it to a Bronte virgin, but whole-heartedly to everyone else.
Onward now, to 2011, and all the wonderful books still to read. I can't wait to hear about everyone else's reads of the year.