Strange to remember writing my books of the year posts for 2019 last December, blissfully unaware of the surreal year that lay ahead for us all. I’ve been one of those fortunate people whose concentration didn’t take too much of a pandemic hit instead burying myself in reading and blogging, finding solace in books and virtual friends when doorstep chats were the only way to meet local ones. As ever, there’ll be four posts, roughly corresponding to the year’s quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog
Two titles stood out for me in January, one eagerly anticipated the other very nearly passed over. Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here tells the story of Lillian, still reeling from the betrayal by her best friend which wrecked her life, who nevertheless responds to that friend’s call for help. It’s also about two children who burst into flames when agitated. Wilson narrates his story in Lillian’s funny, often snarky voice as she tries to find ways to keep Bessie and Roland fire-free, offering them the love and security that, like her, they’ve sorely lacked. It’s an absolute treat – funny, heartrending and wholly original. If the prospect of spontaneously combusting children puts you off, I’d ignore it. You soon get used to the idea.
No such reservations with Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults which tells the story of Jenny, fast approaching middle-age, who’s in the grips of a social media addiction. The lone parent of a fifteen-year-old and the only sensible voice in Jenny’s life, Kelly’s patience finally snaps as her friend’s life unravels in an endless cycle of craving approbation, no matter how fleeting, from people she’ll never meet and who may not even exist. Unsworth’s novel manages to be both moving and cringe-makingly funny, nailing the chasm between how some of us present ourselves to the social media world and the chaos of reality. I thought this one would be a shoe-in for the Women’s Prize for Fiction but the judges thought otherwise…
They also failed to agree with me about the first of February’s favouites, Carol Anshaw’s Right After the Weather. Set in Anshaw’s home town of Chicago in the months before and after the 2016 election, it explores both the state of the nation and the nature of friendship through a forty-two-year-old theatrical set designer determined to anchor her precarious way of life in a more secure future. When Cate interrupts an appalling act of violence all the cards of her life are thrown into the air, affecting both herself and her relationships with others in surprising and deeply unsettling ways. A quietly brilliant novel
Jenny Offill’s long awaited follow-up to Dept. of Speculation, Weather, was the only one of my wishes to appear on the judges’ shortlist. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s America and the ever more urgent climate crisis, Offill’s novel follows Lizzie as she tries to take care of everyone while disappearing down an apocalyptic wormhole, responding to the emails of listeners to the podcast, Hell and High Water. Fragmented, non-linear and discursive, Weather really shouldn’t work yet it does so beautifully, approaching the crisis facing our planet with wit and panache, a constant ever darkening backdrop to Lizzie’s everyday dilemmas.
Just one title for March written by an author whose work has never failed me, although the setting for this one made me less eager than usual. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is a lengthy, richly imagined historical novel that takes us from the early years of the Thirty Years War to the convoluted negotiations which bring it to an end. A sharp, clever boy, the eponymous miller’s son takes off with a friend as soon as he’s old enough, becoming a travelling entertainer which eventually leads him to the highest court in the land. Kehlmann’s evocative novel takes us from Tyll’s hungry, squalid village to the peace negotiations in Osnabrück’s gorgeously appointed Town Hall. Throughout it all, Tyll is the fool who sees his masters’ folly, unafraid to speak truth to power if only they’d listen. I loved this novel with its contemporary resonance, gobbling it up.
By the end of March, we in the UK were in a lockdown nowhere near as severe as other countries were enduring in continental Europe. H’s and my last day out had been to see the recently restored Doom Painting in St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury, originally painted around 1480, about a century and a half before Tyll opens. It seemed oddly appropriate.
Part Two shortly which will include another title I wasn’t at all sure about and two comfort reads, one published quite some time before 2020.