Last year, I didn’t read anywhere near as many books as I usually do. I was off reading in a way I’ve never experienced before. To keep me reading, a book had to really knock my socks off. Here are the ones that did that:
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the story of three generations of one Chinese family during Mao’s regime. They are poets and musicians, but they are also husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and their lives are devastated by the brutalities of the many ‘purges’, in particular the so-called cultural revolution. There were times when this book was almost unbearable to read but Madeleine Thien somehow coaxes the reader through the many heartbreaking moments.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne is a shape-shifting biotech creature, raised by Rachel, who finds him on one of her scavenging trips through the wasteland that remains after a biotech experiment gone wrong leaves a city destroyed by a gargantuan flying bear! How do you parent a creature that is neither human nor even animal? What do you teach it? And what do you do when it grows up and ignores your lessons? A post-apocalyptic adventure, Borne is also an exploration of personhood, connection and the need for belonging.
There aren’t many books which contain both historical and speculative elements but three of my favourite books of last year were exactly like that. Underground Railroad is the story of one slave’s escape from a life of poverty and cruelty via the secret network of slavery abolitionists and safe houses which existed before slavery was abolished. But in Colson Whitehead‘s reimagining, the railroad is literal, an underground network of secret tunnels and platforms which lead to freedom. The story is a heart in the mouth thrill-ride set against the brutal backdrop of a dark era in human history.
Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck is a retelling of the true story of the shipwreck of the SS Admella in 1859 off the coast of South Australia. George Hills, survives the wreck but is haunted by his experience and plagued by his connection to a nameless shape-shifting creature that returned with him from the wreck. It sounds super weird, right? But it is nowhere near as weird as it sounds. it is beautifully written and a very human story.
George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Booker Prize, is possibly the whackiest book I’ve ever read. Based on historic accounts of Lincoln’s grief over the death of his ten-year-old son, the story is told by three hilarious/neurotic undead characters who hang out in the same crypt as Lincoln’s son. They’re in limbo, known in Tibetan mythology as ‘the bardo’, but can’t even admit to themselves that they’re dead. It’s experimental in a way that totally works; it’s also linguistically playful and deeply touching.
I hardly read any crime but I devoured Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, in which our hero nearly gets himself knocked off about 50 times while trying to find out who killed his best friend, and what exactly his best friend was mixed up with (clue: dirty criminals!). While it has many of the familiar tropes of crime fiction, Resurrection Bay is a really fresh take on the genre, with a hearing-impaired hero, a cast which includes Koori characters, and more twists than a perilous mountain track!
An Australian Novella
Last year Nick Earls released a series of 5 novellas, each set in a different city, under the title Wisdom Tree. My favourite was Gotham, the first, in which an Australian journalist has a long night interviewing an egotistical hip-hop wunderkind in NYC. It is such a smart story about pop culture and celebrity, as well as a comment on what writers do to pay the bills, but it doesn’t rely on shallow cliches – it’s a very human story with some beautiful moments of human connection and a killer ending.
Contemporary US Fiction
On one seemingly ordinary day, an ordinary mother commits an unspeakable act which destroys her family. Emily Ruskovich‘s Idaho is less an attempt to explain her actions, than to examine its repercussions for her and the rest of her family. Though the centre of the story is an act of great violence, it is a very quiet book, in which the complexities of human behaviour are explored in beautiful, restrained prose.
Nathan Hill’s The Nix is a brilliantly witty satire of American society and politics which follows a depressed video-game addicted loner trying to understand the history of the mother who abandoned him as a child, and especially the part she played in the student protests of the 1960s. It’s a gigantic chunk of a thing, one of those books that goes into DeLillo-esque detail about everything, and I was riveted by every single word.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark introduces us to iconic, mercurial film-maker Sophie Stark, as seen by the six people closest to her. Anna North‘s portrait of this mercurial, troubled young woman is wonderfully perceptive about human behaviour and relationships, and full of satisfying shocks, revelations and side plots.
What were the best books you read last year? Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.