Last year was a bumper year for me regarding reading. All my life I have been a slow reader, something that didn’t help me when I studied English Literature (yes, there was such a category back then). In 2019 I read 68 books, a record number for me. I put this down to two things: I no longer work part time and only now do occasionally editing, as well as appraisals and my own writing, leaving me more time for reading. Also, I have become a devotee of audiobooks, going through most of the ones I wanted from the local library and then having to bite the bullet and subscribe to Audible, which opened up a cornucopia of titles. I had the sort of thrill over this I used to get going into a gorgeous big, well-stocked bookstore such as the old Collins at Broadway, Borders in Pitt St (also gone long ago) and Dymocks in George St. (I still get it at the overwhelming but wonderful Kinokunya near Town Hall).
When my credit comes up in Audible, I’m almost frozen with the choice available. I will say, though, that there is an added level of decision-making with audiobooks because even my most anticipated or desired title can be ruined by the narrator. Conversely, a wonderful narrator can take a book to another level of enjoyment and appreciation – I think this was the case with the incredibly good narrators for Anna Burns’ Milkman (Brid Brennan), the Elena Ferrante books (Hillary Hubert) and The Goldfinch (David Pittu). As a rule of thumb, I would caution authors against reading their own works (yes, I’m talking about you Philip Pullman). There are, of course, exceptions: who can go past Christopher Hitchens reading Hitch 22 or Helen Garner reading Everywhere I look?
It is interesting that listening to audiobooks, rather than substituting for reading, have added to it. I can listen to an audiobook doing housework, or gardening or going on walks. When I’m tired, or my eyes are sore, I can lie back and be taken away into a wonderful parallel world. One other cautionary note, I can’t listen to difficult (i.e. violent, or frightening, overly complicated) audiobooks before going to bed or I won’t get to sleep. The same can be said for a page-turning thriller – I have to keep listening until I get to a pause in the action. This is the same with the physical act of reading a paper book or ebook, but because I’m sitting up, having to hold an object and turn pages, somehow it’s easier to put the book aside and turn the light off.
Favourite Book Literary: Milkman by Anna Burns. Honourable mentions, Overstory Richards Powers, The Goldfinch Donna Tartt, Machines Like Me Ian McEwen and Ghost Wall Sarah Moss.
Favourite book fantasy/SF: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman. Honourable mention, Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie.
Favourite NF: Not a great year for this, but I enjoyed Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs and Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi – both insightful and enthralling family biographies.
Favourite audiobook: There have been some wonderful ones. Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, The Goldfinch and Ancillary Justice are stand-outs.
Most disappointing book: The Carer Deborah Moggach. I had high hopes for this novel and it let me down badly.
Book that didn’t live up to its hype: The Wall John Lanchester and My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite. How either of these two were long-listed for the Booker prize, I don’t know. The Wall is a fairly lightweight dystopian novel that might have been favoured because its subject matter of refugees being held at bay by a wall surrounding Britain was topical. It started out well, but the storyline became more and more unconvincing. There is nothing wrong with My Sister, the Serial Killer but, again, it is very lightweight. Braithwaite had a fun idea of a woman covering for her sister who seems to have a penchant for disposing of boyfriends, but she didn’t really take this premise anywhere particularly interesting. There are amusing, short chapters and it’s a quick read; and that’s the most I can say for it.
Best comfort read: Their Fractured Light Amie Kaufman, the last in the Starbound Trilogy – the couples at the centre of the previous novels join together to take on the very nasty LaRoux Industries who think nothing of a bit of genocide when any of their terraformed planets go wrong. It sounds tough going but it’s really a lot of hijinks, action and URST.
Best Australian: Joan London’s beautiful and sad Gilgamesh
Book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading: In the Garden of Beasts Erik Larson. Long and tedious. Larson pulls off the extraordinary – making Berlin in the 30s boring.
Apparently, Rebecca has not been out of print since it was first published in 1938. It was boosted, no doubt, by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and with many adaptations since (Netflix has one in the pipeline). I first read Rebecca many years ago in my twenties and loved it. First and foremost, it is a very well written mystery. Du Maurier is excellent at misdirection, withholding and building a tense, slightly Gothic atmosphere. It’s not for nothing that the opening line ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’ has gone into the popular imagination.
I have to admit that my second ‘reading’ was really listening to the audiobook narrated by the well-known actress, Anna Massey. Her voice is, I think, too old for the young narrator (in her early twenties) but, in defence of Massey, the novel is narrated in retrospect by the older ‘never mind how many years’ unnamed narrator. I will call her J, for Jane, as the parallels to Jane Eyre are obvious, and we can’t keep mixing her up with the first Mrs De W. Massey adopts a posh, upper class intonation that, initially, is very annoying. However, it is also appropriate – Maxim de Winter is stinking rich. Manderley is a huge stately home with a large number of servants, including the butler, Frith and, of course, Mrs Danvers the housekeeper. She is no char, she runs the large staff, providing Mrs de Winter with a menu in the morning for the day’s meals. It is one of the first instances of her distain for the new Mrs de Winter, that she has no opinion on this. ‘Whatever you think, Mrs Danvers’ is her perpetual reply. Maxim has an estate manager, Frank Crawley, and so doesn’t have to do any very much by the way of oversight. We first meet Maxim, as does J, in a fancy hotel in Monte Carlo where J is suffering the petty humiliations of being a companion to the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper.
Coming to this book the second time around, there were things that irritated me quite a lot. One aspect was the leisured lifestyle of de Winter. Somehow, because Manderley is so beloved by Maxim, that makes the idea of his immense wealth acceptable. Because of J’s meekness and mildness, there is no suggestion she is desirous of this wealth. In fact, her main concern is not being up to the job of lady of the house. Her, tastes, we are led to believe, are modest and simple: she has shabby clothes that she doesn’t appear to update when she arrives at Manderley, ‘I can see myself now … with straight, bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation.’ No wonder Mrs Danvers looks on with cold disapproval. Du Maurier cleverly deflects any criticism of J and Maxim by presenting them first to the reader in their exile in Europe: for reasons unknown to us until late in the narrative, they can’t return to their beloved Manderley and are instead made to live a quiet life in small hotels awaiting their the English papers and their tea (No, don’t be silly, they can’t find something useful to do. Poor old Maxim is born into the idle rich. No, they can’t take an interest in the countries they are in. It’s not England. The light is too bright and hurts J’s eyes!) Their exile is obviously painful, (and we want to find out why) so we forgive them their xenophobia.
Then, of course, J is a nobody. She is well-bred and middle class, and has finer feelings, because she cringes at the overbearing antics of Mrs van Hopper. We first meet Maxim when he lunches at the next table in the hotel. Old Hopper pounces on him and, of course, he has to put up with her because she’s wealthy and upper-class New York. Luckily, the old termagant gets a cold and Maxim can whisk J around in his car. Here is the romance trope – wealthy, distant, confident man falls for poor (usually beautiful) but good and sensitive girl. The ordinary woman reader puts herself in place of the girl (if only, she fantasises). Like Jane Eyre, J is not beautiful but ‘plain’, although we suspect the plainness is really a lack of confidence (it is interesting in film/TV adaptations the actresses are not ‘plain’). Of course, thinks the heroine, this rich, confident man couldn’t love me, and from this comes the trials and the tribulations of our Janes.
This brings me to my next gripe. I couldn’t stand J’s diffidence in the face of Mrs Danvers and the county types she has to deal with at Manderley. J is forever hiding behind doors so as not to be seen, breaking expensive ornaments and hiding them, scuttling upstairs when visitors come … Perhaps as a younger reader I could relate to this but now I wanted to scream at J. When Danvers catches J in Rebecca’s old room, J acts like she’s a child caught out, she’s terrified and rooted to the spot while Danvers goes around showing her all Rebecca’s beautiful things – even the nightdress she wore before she died still crinkled with use (icky, but nice touch Daphne!). Yes, I know, du Maurier has to work it so that J is intimidated and jealous of Rebecca so that she can set up the betrayal scene at the ball, but does J have to be that wet?
I also took objection to J’s continual deference to Maxim – yes dear, no dear, of course dear. Somehow in this romance trope, it doesn’t matter what the man is like – that his character, at least on the surface is obnoxious – he has to be distant, brusque, self-confident so that the ‘winning’ of him is all the sweeter. Maxim is pretty much a self-centred arrogant toff. He doesn’t really share things with J, but plonks her down in Manderley and expects her to work things out for herself. He infantilises her but at least she is aware of this and it begins to grate on her. Why he should choose her for his attentions in Monte Carlo is not made clear. The reader hopes it is because he sees that J is fundamentally decent and kind and is in need of rescue from the horrible Hopper. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre his feeling have to necessarily be opaque (they are both hiding secrets) so that the heroine can misconstrue them. However, as the story progresses, we can see that he needed someone compliant, who would love him without making demands of her own, she would lack her own agency, so much so that she would forgive him his transgression. As in Jane Eyre this power relationship is reversed somewhat in the end – Rochester is blinded and disfigured in the fire at Thornfield Hall and needs Jane’s assistance – only after this can she say, ‘Reader, I married him’ at the end – another iconic line. Maxim is emotionally scarred after Manderley’s fire and needs our Jane to aid him in his ‘exile’ and she will keep his secret forever.
[SPOILER – BELOW I DISCUSS THE ENDING]
It is telling, that when J finds out about Maxim killing Rebecca, she is not shocked, is not appalled, only says over and over again ‘he did not love Rebecca’ – there is no moral issue in this murder, only an emotional one. Du Maurier has painted Rebecca so blackly that we want Maxim to get away with it, so J can get her reward i.e. to be with him and to have him confess his love for her.
Which brings me to my next gripe – the portrayal of Rebecca. Rebecca has to be beautiful and glamorous so the more ordinary J is jealous of her and her feelings of inadequacy heightened. Mrs Danvers taunts J with all the lovely things in Rebecca’s room that she keeps as a shrine to her. Rebecca keeps herself well-groomed, wears expensive clothes, goes up to London to shop. So? She’s an upper-class woman married to an extremely wealthy man. Maxim would have known this about her, as well as her love of the good life before he married her. We are supposed to believe she can make herself charming to everybody and she hoodwinked him. On her honeymoon on the French Riviera she tells him the truth (at the very spot he takes J on their first outing – on a cliff overlooking the sea). Maxim is so incensed that he contemplates throwing Rebecca off – nice! Never heard of divorce, Maxim? Rebecca’s ‘sin’ and what makes the shooting of her understandable, and forgivable to our heroine, is that she has some unspecified unsavoury tastes. As far as we can tell, these are parties, drink and promiscuity – the same ‘sins’ that if a man showed them, the wife would be expected to put up with them. Maxim has to kill her because she’s taken to inviting her not-very-nice friends down to his beloved Manderley. By the way, no one else has an inkling Rebecca is anything other than wonderful but to rub it in Du Maurier has her hit on Maxim’s sister’s portly, old fuddy-duddy husband, Giles, possibly for a laugh, possibly because she’s insatiable – she also has an affair with her smarmy cousin, Favell, again, for no understandable reason. In fact, Rebecca is even at fault in her own death, smiling as Maxim shoots her in a sort of suicide-by-husband, we are supposed to believe. The one thing that does make her plainly reprehensible is the threat to put Ben, an intellectually disabled man, ‘in the asylum’ if he breathes a word of her goings on in the cottage on the bay. She should have been able to charm him the way she did everyone else but Du Maurier needs this threat to build tension in the inquest section near the end. I’m sure Du Maurier does not intend it, but Rebecca’s venality here is offset somewhat, by our heroine (and Maxim) referring to Ben as the ‘idiot’ and imputing him with a ‘sly smile’.
This is not to say Rebecca is not a good book in many ways. I admire the control du Maurier has over the story – the structure is masterly, the reader is led down several garden paths, and the atmosphere is beautifully evoked. Many novels (and novelists) go out of favour because of the values they inhere but some, such as Rebecca, manage to dodge this. Perhaps the novel is not seen as literature, and so it gets a leave pass, or we convince ourselves that a life of comfortable idleness abroad is sufficient penance for a murderer and his wife (an ‘accessory after the fact’). But, who cares? She gets her man and that’s the main thing.
Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.
Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.
Of the 53 books I read in 2018, 14 were by male authors and 39 by women (27% to 73%) The year before it was was even fewer by men (22%). A fifth of the books I read were non-fiction and the rest fiction. The year before I lamented the amount of ‘shlock’ I read (the guilty pleasures) with only eleven books being classified as ‘literary’. Unfortunately last year I fared no better – I managed just twelve literary fiction works. In my defense I did read a lot of ‘serious’ non-fiction. A new thing is the number of audiobooks listened to. These are turning out to be supplementary to my reading of physical and ebooks so I’m fitting more books into my life which suits me. Here are my highs and lows for 2018.
Best book of the year: Educated. ‘Wild Swans’ blew my mind in 2017 and ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover blew my mind last year. It is a searingly honest account of growing up in a survivalist family, revealing her complicity in it. Education is her eventual way out but she, and we, are educated in another way by reliving the violence, trauma, beauty and belonging of the narrative. As with the most successful of these real-life stories – ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed is another example – ‘Educated’ is cleverly and beautifully structured. It deserves the acclaim that has been heaped on it.
Book that opened my eyes: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. One of the things about borrowing audiobooks through the local library is having to trawl through the limited range to find something I might like. For some reason I thought I might try ‘Marie Antoinette’ by Antonia Fraser. I don’t know why as I had no particular interest in this period of history. Historians who take on well-trodden material have to have a new angle and Fraser’s is to write sympathetically about a woman who has been traduced in the popular imagination. As with most things, the story is more complex and less black and white, and as with much of history, women are viewed through the misogyny of male record keepers. Fraser presents a woman who is of her class but who tries to do her best in the circumstances meted out to her (Marie Antoinette was an outsider, a German, so held in suspicion by the court). She is circumscribed by dress codes and the minutiae of court traditions. She appears to have cared for the king and been a loving mother to her children at a time when they were often left to be brought up by nannies and tutors. When the revolution began she was vilified brutally in pamphlets, even accused of incest with her eight-year-old son. It did remind me of the ‘lock her up’ hatred thrown at Hillary Clinton.
Most absorbing page turner – The Living and the Dead in Winsford: Isn’t this the sort of book we yearn for? Something that draws us in as gives us a deep satisfaction? There were a couple of contenders for this. ‘Lorna Doone’ was a rollicking read and I really enjoyed ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, but two psychological thrillers really gripped me: ‘Fear’ by German writer Dirk Kurbjuweit and ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ by Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. I chose the latter as it is one of those stripped down, taught novels that use a small canvas to build up tension and apprehension. The narrator is a woman living under the radar in a rented cottage in remote Exmoor with her dog (coincidentally she reads Loorna Doone also set in Exmoor to while away the time). The reader slowly finds out why she is on the run and what she has done but by that time we are totally on her side hoping she can remain undiscovered. It has one of the great first lines: ‘The day before yesterday I decided that I would outlive my dog. I owe him that.’
New author discovery – Amie Kaufman: I had heard of Amie Kaufman and the phenomenon of the Illuminae files but had never read any of her books. In 2018 I read her children’s book ‘Ice Wolves’ an enjoyable fantasy where selected children have special powers. Our hero, Anders, finds out he is an ice wolf, a regimented life he is not looking forward to. His eyes are opened to the problems of his society when he finds out his twin sister is a scorch dragon, a sworn enemy, thus making her an outcast. I was interested enough to seek out more Kaufman such as her YA fantasy, ‘Unearthed’ (with Meagan Spooner). An immensely fun adventure set on a seemingly dead planet where archaeologist, Jules, is marooned with artefact scavenger, Mia. Mistrust and misunderstandings abound but they have to work together to solve the clues left by the Undying in their labyrinthine temple. I usually eschew double author narratives but as the story alternates between two voices (Jules and Mia) it works well in this instance.
Best audiobook: Lorna Doone. I was spoiled for choice here. I listened to many fantastic audiobooks. Tim Curry narrating Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series was a delight. I loved his characterisations (dear Mogget and lovely Disreputable Dog). ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ and the Elena Ferrante books were also beautifully narrated. However, my overall favourite was ‘Lorna Doone’ narrated by Jonathan Keeble. What a fantastic narrator he is bringing this wonderfully funny, poignant and wise picaresque narrative to life. That many people dismiss this book as a mere romance is so unfair. You may as well say that ‘David Copperfield’ or ‘Great Expectation’ are romances. I adored Lorna Doone.
Most disappointing book: The House at Bishopsgate. Why did I persevere with this long and boring book by Kate Hickman? It sounded so good. Set in the 17th century, a married couple – he a merchant, she weak from a devastating experience – return to England from Constantinople to the eponymous house. Seeking help for his wife, the merchant allows another woman to insinuate herself into their lives. How could people with such interesting backgrounds be so tedious? Does the wife, Celia, have to be so pathetic? What on earth does the subplot around the merchant’s brother and their father’s crumbling estate have to do with anything? Who cares?
Best non-fiction book: I Am, I Am, I Am. This collection of autobiographical essays by novelist Maggie O’Farrell was a delight. Each essay read like a beautifully executed short story and combined they had the interconnectedness and thematic depth of a novel. Absolutely revelatory and wonderful.
This novel could have been a lot better than it turned out to be. It has an interesting premise. A mother, Anne, takes her autistic daughter for a long bush walk, a moment’s inattention and the daughter runs off and cannot be found, despite searches for her. As times passes Anne comes under increasing suspicion and vilification. Lorenzo writes well and evocatively, and her portrayal of Anne is nuanced, drawing the reader in to her plight. However, the promise of tension and conflict isn’t really achieved. Perhaps we are given too much detail of Anne’s everyday life and Lorenzo is more focused on the dynamics of interpersonal and family relations, rather than on creating a sense of threat and confrontation (although she does do a great portrayal of an ordinary middle-class woman tainted by an accusation of harming her own child and having to face hostility and abuse). This is the strongest aspect of the novel and reminded me of that other great book on a similar theme, Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’.
I felt Lorenzo and her editor allowed too many extraneous threads to remain in the novel, for example a subplot around an Iraqi asylum-seeker that went nowhere. There was a sort of feel-good bagginess about some aspects of the novel that detracted from the central focus and made for a more pedestrian pace. The cover probably says it all – the publisher categorised it as a family relationships novel, rather than a thriller. Nevertheless, it is a nicely written and insightful account of a woman in extremis.
If you have read “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (see my review), the plot of Sally Vickers novel is surprisingly similar, so much so that I felt this book was a literary tribute to the former novel. Both are set in the ’50s, both have a youngish woman as a heroine who loves books (one starts a bookshop in a small English town, the other takes up a position of children’s librarian in a similar town). Things initially go well for both: the bookshop is set up and becomes a small success and, in the other story, the heroine (Sylvia Blackwell) makes changes to the library to bring the magic of books to the children of the town. Both women, by perhaps not understanding the narrow-mindedness of such towns, fall out of favour, and are cut down. Both books are peppered with nostalgic references to books loved, and books that might be recommended. I felt that Vickers’ heroine had the same rather distanced, naive, but also perceptive voice, of Fitzgerald’s heroine, Florence Green. However, while I found Fitzgerald’s book both annoying and frustrating, Vickers gives us more of a satisfying story, with Sylvia putting up more of a fight than Florence was able to muster. Fitzgerald packs Florence off into an uncertain future (all the more bleak because Florence is in her forties, not her twenties like Sylvia, and so we assume it would be harder for her to start over). While Sylvia, too, moves on, Vickers provides a coda in the last section of “The Librarian” where we move into the future and see the effect of Sylvia’s influence on some of the children she encouraged. Both books are more hard-edged and less sentimental than a you might expect from their titles and plot-lines.
Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.
In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).
In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.
Tara Westover was brought up in fundamentalist Mormon family in Bucks Peak, Idaho. Her memoir follows her childhood, her struggles with her domineering father and violent brother and the existential internal conflict she experiences in trying to break free of her background. From the outside, what happens to Tara appears a sort of brainwashing, from the inside, she feels she is in a loving family (she has a sister and five brothers) who follow the precepts of a loving God through the teachings of Joseph Smith. Westover does convincingly bring us into this family– they are isolated and close knit and live in a beautiful valley beneath the picturesque peak. When she was young her father joked and laughed, although he believed they were in the end of days, so he prepared stockpiles of food, fuel and guns. Her mother fulfilled the compliant role allotted to her, and made herbal remedies (for some reason the father felt that the medical establishment was evil).
As Tara grew up however, things became more extreme. Along with his suspicion of doctors, the father also thought schools were a thought control tool of the government, so the kids were home schooled, if they were schooled at all. The boys were supposed to work in the father’s scrapping, junkyard business. And when the father needed more labour, Tara, also was forced to work there. It was hard, dirty and dangerous and she was only eleven. The utter hypocrisy of the father doesn’t seem to dawn on Tara (the older sons are allowed to go away to earn their living trucking because they will have to support families, the role of women is to be mothers, yet the father forces Tara to labour in the junk yard).
A number of gruesome accidents provide the turning points in the narrative. Tara’s brother, Luke, is horrendously burned on the legs in a welding accident on the property and the father dumps him on eleven-year-old Tara to administer medical care, while he puts out the resulting brush fire. Every time someone is in extreme pain, the mother gives a tincture of skullcap and lobelia–Tara, herself, admits this provided no obvious relief. The next accident is to her older brother, Shawn, resulting in a head injury. This exacerbates an earlier injury caused when the father drove their van thought the night in a snowstorm and caused it to roll (the mother was also injured in this accident causing possible brain damage which might or might not explain her later belief that she had special powers from God to heal). The utter, helpless, compliance of the family is illustrated in the fact that a couple of years later, the father insists yet again they drive through the night in bad weather forcing his son Luke to do the driving, although he has worked all day and is tired – ‘the angels will fly with us’ the father says. Yep. Another accident, more injures to the family and Luke takes all the guilt on himself.
The immense pull of this book is the hard-to-accept fact that for all the father’s selfishness, unquestioning and unquestionable zealous faith in an Old Testament God, and his utter disregard for his children’s physical well-being – they all come back time and time again to live under their father’s tyrannical rule and, this is the unbelievable part, profess to love him. Because Tara herself makes excuse after excuse, turns blind eye after blind eye, the reader is left to feel the rage towards this repugnant, unhinged man that, really, she should have felt. However, it is not the father’s actions themselves that provide the final straw for Tara but, rather, her brother Shawn’s violent behaviour. Perhaps this too can be sheeted home to the father as Shawn was the victim of head injuries caused by the total lack of any safety procedures in the junkyard, and the father’s prohibition on seeking any medical help. Shawn’s sick violence and misogyny is directed at Tara once she reaches puberty. The mother pretends not to see these awful acts of harm to her own daughter.
I won’t spoil it by revealing how Tara gets out of it, but it is a long time coming, and by the time it arrives, for this reader, it was way too late. If you have ever wondered why women stay in violent relationships, this quite remarkable book takes you to that dark place. I was often frustrated at Tara (and her mother) but Westover brought me to the inside and made me see it from her point of view. Quite simply, you just cannot put this book down. It is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever read. I guess the reader is ‘educated’, as well.
I’m pretty much a fiction reader, although I have read non-fiction over the years, mostly biography and history. I remember reading a book on the early Christian saint, Columba. I was much taken with it but I have never been able to find that book again. I also read a biography of Isadora Duncan that started an infatuation of free-wheeling arty women of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, leading on to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.
Lately, however, I’ve found myself gravitating to more non-fiction and admiring it for its writerly qualities. A book that opened my eyes was Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild’. On the face of it this was a relatively simple story about a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in North America but Strayed made it into a riveting narrative that was tense, insightful, introspective and a wonderful invocation of place and exploration of embodiment. I couldn’t quite work out how she’d pulled it off.
After Strayed, I was dumbstruck by a book that I had dismissed because it was a bestseller (and Oprah and everyone loved it) – ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang. What a staggering book this is – beautifully written and structured covering an incredible period in history (late imperial China through to post-Mao) with the unique insight of the author’s parents who were early party members (not even their loyalty or rank could protect them from the ravages of Maoism).
After recovering from this, I stumbled on to Helen Garner’s collection of essays, ‘Everywhere I Look’. Taught, acutely observed, these essays made me realise that the pleasure of language, used with art and precision, could apply equally to non-fiction as fiction, and an essay can yield all the punch and meaning of a short story.
I found this also in Maggie O’Farrell’s book ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’. While some of these brushes with death are more serious and dramatic than others, each essay is a master class in constructing a narrative. O’Farrell brings all her fiction writing skill to bear on instilling meaning, reflection, emotion, horror and humour in these gems of stories. The first one in the collection, which deals with her encounter with a man on a lonely path by a lake who turns out to be a rapist and murderer is like a novel in miniature – what wonderful economy of style to achieve this. O’Farrell recalls all these events from the present time and so can move back and forward in time weaving around them threads of meaning. She also creates resonances between the pieces so, for example, we find out in a later essay why Maggie was sickly and bullied in school in an earlier piece. She is unsentimental about her younger self, and the reader is sometimes frustrated at her actions, but after ‘Cerebellum’ I had to reassess my reactions.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s ‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites’ (bizarrely also published as ‘Ammonites and Leaping Fish’). Now eighty years old, Lively writes wonderfully on the trials, indignities, frustrations but also freedoms of old age. Again, a fiction writer whose prose is muscular, studied and a joy to read. She reminded me of why I love George Orwell’s essays so much (‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, for example) – wry, humorous and just so beautifully written. Lively also touches on her childhood (she wrote a wonderful autobiography around this time in Eqypt in ‘Jacaranda, Oleander’) and the essay here conveys what it was like coming back to cold and grey post-war Britain). Other sections of the book deal with her reading and writing life, and an extended essay on memory where she over-philosophises somewhat (the least interesting section for me) but, still, a writer at the top of her powers.
Looking back over the books I read in 2017, I notice that I did read quite a bit of schlock. By shlock I generally mean genre books that are written to thrill, excite, divert, transport one to an exotic, unusual or just very different environment, all for entertainment. They are the sort of book you don’t like to admit to reading such as the romance thrillers of Mary Stewart (I read two of these – The Gabrielle Hounds set in Lebanon and the novella, Wind Off the Small Isles, set in the Canary Islands) or they are children’s/YA books like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries (I gobbled down The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag).
Nevertheless, I did read some more worthy tomes, and was glad to see that out of the 37 books I read, eleven were literary, and one a classic (Middlemarch). I was surprised that I read only two crime books, six fantasy/speculative and also only two kids/YA (Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and the Flavia de Luce).
What was not surprising is that I continue to overwhelmingly read female writers – 29 out of 37, and my top books for the year are all by women. Of the male writers, my favourite book was Hisham Matar’s gentle and atmospheric Anatomy of a Disappearance. In many ways this novel about an adolescent boy who has complex feelings towards his father’s new beautiful, young wife and the guilt he feels when his father goes missing, and he and his stepmother have to search for him, reminded me in tone of one of my favourite books of the year, Susanna Moore’s wonderful My Old Sweetheart. Here the adolescent is a girl, not a boy, trying to cope with an erratic, beautiful mother and distant father on their ravishingly-described estate in Hawaii (Matar’s beautifully-described setting is a 1950s Alexandria).
Top 3 books
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This book taught me so much about Maoist China. It was told from the inside because Jung’s parents were fairly high-up Communists having joined the movement during WWII. Her parents were idealists and their lives are told with insight and poignancy. How Jung managed to put together this huge book from interviews with her family, and make it so utterly compelling, is a marvel – it goes from her grandmother’s experience the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, through her parents’ time in the rise of Communism, and the true horror of Mao, onto Jung’s own experiences as a child and young woman, until she eventually gets a chance to escape to the West. It is an epic, it is beautifully written and constructed, and it is one of those rare books that takes you convincingly into an alien culture. Amazing.
My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore One of those books that you click with. The main character, Lily, is the sensitive, conflicted adolescent that I, rather nostalgically, relate to. Everything is felt deeply, the mother is idolised, yet fatally flawed, and we know that Lily is going to be hurt. It’s a life of beauty, ennui, longing. It’s like a Katherine Mansfield short story, or the delicious, sad, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn Better late than never to come to this wonderful fantasy novel set in a reimagined medieval Japan. The two main characters: Takeo and Kaede, both teenagers when it starts are wonderfully realised, and both constrained, one way or another, by the strictly codified society they live in. I fell in love with the world-weary but essentially good Lord Shigeru, as did Takeo when Shigeru rescued him from the warlord who had destroyed his village. Takeo has to learn to craft his powers, and control his impulses, while Kaede has to survive being a hostage in a rival clan’s castle. These books (Tales of Otori) are beautifully written, paced superbly, great plotting, exciting, sad, gory – just everything you want from fantasy/historical fiction.