October and early November were spent reading for my shadow judging stint for the Young Writer of the Year Award, a thoroughly enjoyable experience not least because it meant I met several bloggers who’ve I’ve exchanged views with over the years. The judges plumped for Adam Weymouth’s proper piece of travel writing, Kings of the Yukon but we shadow judges chose Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which, ironically, I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as I did, not being a fan of historical fiction. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.
Having proclaimed myself not a fan of historical fiction, I’m about to recommend another tale set round about the time of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. Perfect for curling up with on a winter evening.
Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, October’s last favourite, joins the many superb novellas I’ve read this year which comes as no surprise give the excellence of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter which I read way back in 2013. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion.
My first November book carries on the theme of war with Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living, which like her last novel, The Gun Room, explores its legacy. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence. Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Written with Harding’s characteristic quiet perceptiveness, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.
Sulaiman Addonia explores the fallout of war from the perspective of those who flee it in Silence is My Mother Tongue. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love. Saba is a bright young girl who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. As she grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, she attracts unwanted male attention but never loses sight of her ambition and her devotion to her mute brother. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful.
My last 2018 favourite is a book which I was far from convinced that I would like let alone love. Robbie Arnott’s Flames is quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Arnott’s novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing. It’s one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read this year, a very satisfying book to end on.
And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a toss-up between two or three titles but I can’t seem to narrow it down to that which is indicative of a very good reading year. I hope yours has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.
If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2018 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…