Happy New Year everybody! Reading-wise, 2019 was a fantastic year of discovery for me. I came across new authors that I absolutely fell in love with, and read some books I’d been meaning to read for far too long. I made a concerted effort to read a more diverse body of literature from outside of the Western canon, and outside of the English language. I read more non-fiction than usual, and enjoyed reading clusters of connected books to research new interests. I feel that my reading educated me and expanded my horizons more than it has in previous years, and that was largely down to me being intentional about reading outside of my usual preferences. I don’t want to become that person who only ever reads about what they know!
Choosing ten favourites of the year has been a very difficult decision, as I have thoroughly enjoyed so much of what I read over the course of 2019, but I have just about managed to whittle it down. So here they are:
10. Milton Place by Elizabeth de Waal
I absolutely loved this, one of Persephone’s new offerings in 2019. The story of a young Austrian woman coming to stay with an elderly old flame of her mother’s in the English countryside in order to escape her unhappiness is everything the best Persephones do so well. The main characters are an unlikely pairing, but their sensitive, cultured souls connect with another in a way that brings them a peace and joy that neither have had the chance to experience before. Within the walls of the large, faded Victorian house that is falling down around them, they create a haven of pleasurable domestic routines, but beneath the surface is the constant knowledge that this idyll cannot last. It is a remarkably moving book that is rare in the Persephone canon in being written from the perspective of an elderly man. I found it tender and beautiful and truly profound in its depiction of human relationships, and I know it is a book I will return to again and again.
9. Lanny by Max Porter
I am usually sniffy about experimental fiction, but Porter’s unusual and inventive prose style, with its misshapen lines and disrupted narratives featuring allegorical figures alongside human characters, as also seen in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, absolutely mesmerised me. This tale of an unusual boy, the man who befriends him, and the Green Man who lives beneath the surface of his rapidly urbanising village, is moving and thought-provoking and offers a fantastic reading experience in the way that it challenges our expectations of what a novel should look like. I loved it!
8. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
I’d been meaning to try Margery Sharp for years, after other book bloggers had waxed so lyrically about her, but somehow didn’t get round to it until I spotted a lovely old edition of this in a bookshop in Winchester over the summer. I got stuck in immediately, and found myself laughing out loud at the enchanting antics of Cluny Brown, a mischievous working class Londoner with ideas above her station who gets packed off by her uncle to deepest Devonshire to work as a servant. However, far from teaching Cluny her place, her new employment offers her plenty of opportunities to become involved with the life of the family of the house, and before long, she’s causing havoc wherever she goes. This is a pure delight from start to finish, and a perfect read for when you just need to forget the world and its troubles. I loved every minute!
7. Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate
I taught a collection of Ted Hughes poetry for the first time this year, and wanted to find out more about him in order to aid my teaching. I was expecting to find the reading of his biography a bit of a chore, but instead, I soon lost myself within the fascinating, often unbelievable events of his life. Bate is an excellent writer, with a keen sense of irony and a clear eye for detail, and his unusual thematic, non-chronological structure enables a more holistic understanding of Hughes’ evolving interests over time and how these influenced his writing. So much of Hughes’ often tragic life was stranger than fiction, and having been rather influenced by the Plath camp of Hughes-haters while at university, I came away from reading this with a far more nuanced and sympathetic view. I think this should be essential reading for anyone interested in Hughes’ work.
6. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
I’ve had this doorstop of a book sitting on my shelf for years, and after having read it, I couldn’t believe I’d let its length put me off for so long. The story of nineteenth century prostitute Sugar and her rise to being the kept woman of a wealthy manufacturer is a brilliant and inventive exploration of the contrasting worlds of nineteenth century London society as well as a fantastic portrait of an unconventional woman whose true self is always kept just tantalisingly out of the reader’s reach. Yes it’s long, but the world Faber builds is so rich and multi-faceted that you’ll want to stay immersed in it forever!
5. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
My dear New York-based friend Katherine recommended this to me when she came over to stay with me in May and she was so passionate about it that I ordered it straight away. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who became incensed at the racial injustices inherent in the US Justice system, and the hugely disproportionate number of young black men and women sentenced to life imprisonment based on scanty evidence, largely due to racist attitudes of police, judges and jury members. He started an organisation dedicated to helping these people challenge their convictions, and several years on, he and his incredible team of lawyers, many of them volunteers, have been able to help hundreds of innocent people achieve justice and freedom. I was heartbroken by so many of the stories of lives wasted, and shocked at the true extent of indentured racism within society. It moved me so powerfully that I recommended it to everyone, and its triggered a lot of interesting and challenging conversations. It’s not an easy read, but an essential one.
4. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
This is the first Polish novel I’ve ever read, and I found it a wonderful, and rather unique, reading experience. Janina is an eccentric woman in late-middle age, passionate about animal rights, astrology and William Blake. She has a very part-time job as an English teacher, and also acts as a winter caretaker of the cottages in her small rural hamlet, most of which are summer homes for city dwellers. When her neighbour is discovered dead in the middle of the night, followed by a local police chief, Janina finds herself obsessed by the details of their deaths, and convinced that animals had something to do it. Before long, more men, all of whom have had some sort of connection with harming animals, are killed in strange circumstances, and Janina grows increasingly frustrated that no-one will listen to her when she claims that their murderers are animals, taking revenge against their cruel treatment. Janina tries to convince those around her that she is right, but this is no fantasy story, and a human hand ultimately has to be responsible – but whose? This a fantastically quirky, beautifully written and well plotted novel, with a twist I didn’t see coming – I enjoyed every moment and can’t wait to read more of this Nobel Prize winning author in 2020.
3. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
This is a sequel to the hugely popular Olive Kitteridge, and Strout is once again on top form in her chronicling of everyday life in small town Maine. There are so many beautifully, sensitively realised character studies within this sequence of short stories to laugh and weep over, and I read it in one sitting, genuinely unable to put it down. Strout manages to weave magic with her words, and reach deep within the depths of the human soul in her observations about life. I’ve loved everything she’s written, and this is a book I know I’ll come back to again and again.
2. Any Human Heart by William Boyd
This doorstopper is one I’d been meaning to read for years, and I’m so glad I did. The story of Logan Mountstuart from child to old age across the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, it’s a moving, entertaining, thought-provoking and utterly wonderful piece of storytelling that kept me hooked right from the first page. Logan is such a marvellous character, and Boyd brings him to such vivid life. I couldn’t bear to finish, and hated being wrenched away from his world when I had to close its pages. It’s a magnificent book; if you haven’t read it, you must!
1.Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson was my great discovery of 2019; I’ve now read five of her books and have loved them all. Life After Life was one of the first books I read in the new year, and none other I picked up in 2019 held a candle to it. It is the story of Ursula Todd, whose life can restart and take a different course whenever she finds herself in danger of death, allowing her to live several alternate lives over the five hundred or so pages of the novel. While it may seem like a whimsical premise, it completely works, and is a fascinating exploration of how the trajectories of our lives rest on what may initially seem to be minor decisions. Ursula and her family members are all brilliantly drawn against a compelling backdrop of early twentieth century Britain, and Atkinson writes with such refreshing, sophisticated clarity that her prose is a delight to read. If you’ve not tried Kate Atkinson, don’t delay another day!