This year continued the move back towards normality for me. H and I finally managed to take both the holidays abroad we’d booked for 2020 and there was much more socialising and getting out and about. We’re going to the cinema again (easy to lose touch when you don’t see the trailers) but I’ve realised that the world music gigs we enjoyed so much have been scuppered by Brexit. Yet another unwelcome side effect. As for books, as ever, I’ve struggled to get this year’s favourites down to twenty so it will be four posts again, beginning with a long one for the first quarter of the year when we were still hiding from Omicron.
Early in January, I spotted Laird Hunt’s Zorrie on Twitter, its quietly lovely jacket catching my eye and I’m so glad I did. It’s a small gem: the story of a woman’s life, lived simply but well, putting me in mind of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. There are echoes of Elizabeth Strout in Hunt’s perceptive characterisation and, like Zorrie, herself, his writing is quietly understated. Hers is a life marked by small tragedies, not unlike the lives of those around her, but it has its rewards. Nature is celebrated in lovely, painterly descriptions as Zorrie observes her farm and its surroundings, marking the seasons. I’d read and very much enjoyed Hunt’s The Evening Road five years ago but Zorrie is a cut above.
It was its cover that attracted me to Sara Freeman’s Tides, January’s other favourite. Mara has fled after suffering a devastating bereavement, taking a job in a small affluent town’s wine shop. She’s drawn into a relationship with the owner who’s grieving his own loss. That synopsis may sound rather prosaic but it’s the telling of Mara’s story and the complexity of her character that makes this debut stand out, delivered in a series of short paragraphs, most of which barely fill half a page, details of her past emerging often obliquely with little spelled out. I found it extraordinary. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine.
Uncharacteristically for me, February’s reading kicked off with a sequel. Twenty years after her brilliant debut, The Cutting Room, Louise Welsh’s The Second Cut turned out to be just as gripping, starring the unforgettable Rilke, given to dicey sexual encounters in Glasgow parks by night, mixing with morally dubious individuals in his job as an antiquities auctioneer by day. This second outing sees him trying to get to the bottom of a friend’s murder while the Bowrey Auctions Rooms struggles to get back on its feet post-Covid. Just as snarky as I remember him, Rilke’s a pleasingly complex character, inhabiting the shadowy territory that both his risky predilections and his work thrust him into yet troubled by a conscience that won’t let up. I raced through this one.
Daphne Palasi Andreades’ Brown Girls, my second February favourite, is as impressive a debut as Welsh’s The Cutting Room was all those years ago. Opening in New York’s working-class Queens where Andreades grew up, it follows the many and varied experiences of brown girls born to parents who’ve arrived in the USA, hoping for a better future for their American kids. Writing in the first-person plural is a risky choice but Andreades carries it off beautifully, underlining both the universality and individuality of brown girls’ experience in poetic, rhythmic language. Not an easy style to describe but it’s extraordinarily effective, summoning up images in a few well-chosen words. I’ve not been so impressed by a debut in some time.
I read several enjoyable novels set in Berlin this year my favourite of which was Katja Oskamp’s Marzhan, Mon Amour, a tender, affectionate portrait of a community in the eponymous old East Berlin suburb told through a set of thumbnail sketches of her clients by an unnamed writer turned chiropodist. Every working day our narrator takes the S-Bahn, opens the salon and prepares to meet her clients, all with a story to tell. Once a year, she and her two colleagues enjoy each other’s company at a thermal spa. After four years, our narrator is writing again, fitting brief stints in between her days at the clinic. Oskamp’s novella is an absolute delight, telling the story of this suburb of which our narrator is so proud through the lives of her clients with an empathetic humanity.
With spring in sight, March’s first favourite is Wendy Erskine’s short story collection, Dance Move, one of several strikingly good books I’ve read by Irish and Northern Irish women this year. Often shot through with a humour that raises a wry smile, Erskine’s stories are snapshots of everyday lives in which characters are faced with a crisis or decision that jolts them, sometimes leaving them irrevocably changed. Quiet stories, unflashy in their brilliance, they make an impression that deepens as they sink in. I found myself thinking about several of them days after I’d read them. Erskine is a regular contributor to The Stinging Fly to which I finally took out a subscription this year, plumping for it as my birthday present from H.
Rather like both Tides and Zorrie, it was its beautiful cover that first drew me to Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping. It follows Owen, who’s working as groundskeeper in order to pay for his writing course. At a college party he meets Alma, the writer in residence, younger than him but with a short story collection already published. Owen’s days are spent pruning trees, his evenings writing or watching westerns with his grandfather until his colleague invites him to a bar where he sees Alma again and slips into a relationship with her that grows into love despite the many obstacles in their way. I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly accomplished novel which offers an outsider’s view of university life.
March’s third book is Heather Marshall’s Looking for Jane which begins with the chance discovery of a misdelivered letter setting the woman who stumbled upon it on a quest to find the addressee. Marshall uses this trigger to explore the underground networks that existed in both Canada and the USA providing safe but illegal abortions before it was decriminalised, following three women, each of whom is connected to the others without knowing it. After several twists and turns, all three women’s narratives are satisfyingly drawn together. Such an immersive, moving story, told so well and sadly relevant given the events in the US later in the year.
Spring’s favourites next which you’ll be relieved to hear is a much shorter post. It begins with another quiet gem with an eye-catching cover which fits it beautifully.