Not such a strange year as 2020 but far from back to normal either. There’ve been many more outings and much more socialising but reading and blogging continued to keep me going through the more difficult parts of 2021. Perhaps partly as a result of that, I’ve failed to get my books of the year list down to 20, let alone ten, so there’ll be four posts, roughly one for each quarter.
My reading year got off to a brilliant start with Bryan Washington’s Memorial to which I’d been looking forward very much having loved Lot, his short story collection. Mike and Benson’s relationship is already a little rocky when Mike announces his mother is due to arrive in Houston from Japan the very day he will be flying in the opposite direction. What ensues is a surprising companionship between Benson and Mitsuko who decides to teach him how to cook while her own son doggedly tracks down his father in Osaka. By the end of this empathetic novel all the messiness of relationships and family has been explored.
Messy families with knobs on feature in Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth which tells the stories of the inhabitants of an Edinburgh tenement over nine decades, beginning with the arrival of the devil’s daughter in 1910, fresh from murdering her father. No brief synopsis will do justice to this richly imagined novel which spins stories within stories, many laced with a dark dry humour. Fagan divides her novel into three parts, each telling the tale of three tenants over three decades, ranging from the flamboyantly gothic to gangland crime to William Burroughs’ visit to his lover in Luckenbooth Close. All this is played out against the backdrop of an Edinburgh so vividly evoked it’s almost a character in itself.
There’s more than a touch of the gothic about Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. It was the clever wordplay of that title that made me want to read this sharp funny novel all about the subject we try our best to avoid but can’t. Mrs Death is a tired black cleaner, eager to unburden herself, who follows a young, blocked writer home and finds him only too ready to listen. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls the loss of his mother in horrific circumstances and his own miraculous escape. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness. Godden’s playful yet sobering novel both made me laugh out loud and brought me up short. It went straight on my Women’s Prize for Fiction wishlist alongside Luckenbooth.
As did my first February favourite, Kiare Ladner’s Nightshift which seemed to get very little coverage, at least in the blogging world. Meggie becomes so obsessed with her new colleague Sabine that she transfers to the nightshift in order to continue working with her. As Meggie becomes increasingly nocturnal her behaviour becomes wilder until one night things take a dangerous turn and Sabine slips away. The madness of Meggie’s extreme obsession is uncomfortably well done as is Sabine’s shapeshifting personality, and the disorienting effects and camaraderie of the nightshift’s eccentric staff vividly conveyed. A riveting novel, neatly executed with a smartly fitting ending.
Another Women’s Prize wish, Annabel Lyon’s Consent, did make it onto the longlist, I’m pleased to say. It brings together two very different women: Sara watched her mother coping with the special needs of her sister, struggling after their father died suddenly, while Saskia grew up in the shadow of her beautiful, bipolar twin. When, Saskia discovers the provocative text which precipitated her twin’s accident, she begins to investigate who sent it leading her to Sara, both of them struggling with loss, grief and self-blame. Lyon’s novel is a sophisticated, thought provoking exploration of the meaning of consent wrapped up in a smart piece of suspenseful storytelling.
My next books of the year post begins with a novel I was delighted to see on the Women’s Prize judges’ shortlist but which – and I really can’t imagine why – I managed to leave off my own despite it being by one of my favourite writers.