1. There, There by Tommy Orange (2018)
This novel opens with a powerful essay on the history and depiction of Native Americans; urgent and moving, it sets up from the start why it is so important that the story that follows is told. The novel itself follows a large cast of Native American characters in Oakland, California. The connections between them are sometimes obvious, sometimes slowly revealed as the novel builds to its climax at a powwow. At its core, the story deals with what it means to be an ‘Indian’ in modern day America, and the struggles of keeping in touch with a culture that has been so brutally marginalised.
The characters wrestle with themes all too commonly associated with modern, urban Native Americans, such as addiction, violence and poverty, but the joy of this novel comes from the heart and humanity that shines through in characters such as the overweight man-child, Edwin, the earnest documentary-maker, Dene, and the boy Orvil, who secretly forges his own connection with his heritage. Despite the violent climax, which drives the narrative forward with the chugging inevitability of a freight train, there is a sense of optimism amid the struggle. I found this book satisfying, illuminating, entertaining and above all, real – upon finishing it, I was sad to say goodbye to my favourite characters.
2. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018)
Published posthumously, this book of five not-so-short stories is quieter and more reflective than their subject matter (addiction, prison life, etc – themes familiar from Johnson’s most famous collection, Jesus’ Son) might suggest. The stories also contain ruminations on mortality, perhaps not surprisingly considering the author was dying of liver cancer when he wrote them. The prose is full of sentence-level beauty, and a careful, clear-eyed intelligence hovers behind the words. In ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’, about a poet’s obsession with a far-fetched conspiracy theory concerning the death of Elvis Presley, scepticism is balanced with a gentler suggestion of permission to let the imagination run where it may. For me, it is this mix of ‘sense and sensibility’, this admission that though we must interrogate and explore, in the end we can only guess at life’s mysteries, that makes Johnson such a master of the short story form.
3. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)
In post-war London, the narrator of the novel, Nathaniel, is left as a teenager, with his sister, in the care of a mysterious man called The Moth. Abandoned by their parents, whose ‘work’ is soon revealed to have connections to some kind of espionage, they enter a shadowy, semi-legal world, full of doubts, nicknames, and events not quite understood. Ondaatje’s preoccupation with memory is at the forefront here, and the struggle we all face to understand our own lives through its faulty lens is exaggerated by the murky circumstances of Nathaniel’s upbringing. When his mother eventually returns, his attempts to recreate her history further this idea of memory as a kind of fiction itself, one that we can even impose on others. I have to admit, the deliberately slippery nature of the characters and plot of this novel created too much emotional distance for me to become fully engaged, and I found the gloom and mystery surrounding them too oppressive to penetrate in any meaningful way.
4. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (2018)
A much more ‘me’ book, this novel, which begins in the 1900s, takes you straight into the kind of magical realm that fiction is for, the gloriously detailed, wonderfully imagined world of the Emporium, a London toyshop filled with such exquisitely described toys that I actually got upset that such things don’t exist. Papa Jack and his sons are not magicians, but the toys they craft teeter on the edge of magic in a way which had my inner child clapping her hands and jumping up and down with glee. We follow the story of Cathy, a pregnant teenager who runs away from home and finds refuge in the Emporium, developing close but different relationships with the brothers Kaspar and Emil. Cathy’s point of view allows us to experience the wonders of the Emporium alongside her, as well as offering an outsider’s perspective on the complicated fraternal relationship she finds herself stuck in the middle of.
The considerable delights of the Emporium in its heyday gradually give way to the looming outbreak of the First World War, and without spoiling too much, the war’s effects on Kaspar in particular are movingly and tragically explored. In the post-war era the decline of the Emporium takes on touches of horror, but Dinsdale’s skill is in making this shift in tone feel natural and never overdone. All of the main characters are complex and intriguing, with even the petulant, occasionally sinister Emil eliciting some sympathy. The ending was a total surprise, worthy of such a magical book. I’m looking forward to reading more of Dinsdale’s work.
5. Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)
In another touch of ‘Kindle-blindness’, and evidently not paying enough attention to the opening of this retelling of the Peter Pan story, I didn’t actually realise until quite near the end that the protagonist, Jamie, is in fact a young Captain Hook (this is not a spoiler – the novel is subtitled ‘The True Story of Captain Hook’ – I am just a fool). The bonus of my stupidity is that I got a lovely little frisson when I realised, which readers who actually pay attention to things like titles and opening paragraphs will miss out on. So I (sort of) win.
I have to admit, I have never liked Peter Pan as a character. It may be that as a woman, the idea of a boy who never grows up lacks a certain appeal (possibly due to encounters with Pan’s non-fictional relations) – for whatever reason, I’ve never been a fan. I therefore felt slightly vindicated by this novel’s portrayal of Peter as a monstrous sociopath, utterly incapable of unselfish actions. His hateful behaviour also makes sense for someone who has never grown up or had to face consequences, and Henry does a very good job of pushing a fairy tale conceit to its logical, horrifying conclusion. Jamie, the first of Peter’s Lost Boys, is a fantastic character, and I was with him all the way as he gradually saw through Peter’s boyish charm to the sinister reality of his treatment of his ‘friends’. Jamie’s relationships with the other boys are touching and realistic, and I grew genuinely fond of him as the novel progressed. He is flawed, certainly, but as his backstory becomes clear, my sympathy for him only grew. The novel is violent and gory, Lord of the Flies times ten, but the violence seems realistic given the anarchic, adultless world the Lost Boys inhabit (pirates notwithstanding).
This book is not perfect – for me, the ending was too rushed, and I felt that some of the revelations about Peter could have been dripped in throughout rather than coming out in one long expository info-dump. However, I was deeply engrossed both in Jamie’s story and in the world of the island, so fantastically detailed that it becomes a character in its own right.
6. A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman (English translation 2013)
First off, a shout-out to the translator, Henning Koch, who renders Backman’s novel so convincingly into English that if it wasn’t for the protagonist’s name and the mention of paying in ‘crowns’, the early chapters would have convinced me that Ove was British rather than Swedish. (Of course, this is also due to the fact that curmudgeonly old men are something we Brits do very well – I can neither confirm nor deny that I was reminded of my dear father at some points during the reading of this novel). Humorous books are hard to translate, and Koch does a brilliant job.
Ove ought to be immensely dislikeable – he is grumpy, old-fashioned, suspicious of new technology and of any kind of change, and his early interactions with other characters are almost entirely antagonistic. As the book progresses, however, you can’t help but develop sympathy with him, and even come to admire his strong moral code, which encompasses everything from remaining fiercely loyal to the car manufacturer Saab, to being unable to refuse help to his neighbours, despite their annoying habit of interrupting his various suicide attempts. The tragedies of his past (distant and recent), gradually revealed, serve to increase the reader’s emotional attachment to Ove. In the end, of course, it is the connections he reluctantly forges with members of his community, especially with the brilliant character of Parvaneh, his fierce, heavily pregnant new neighbour, that save Ove – which leads me neatly onto my last March read.
7. Eleanor Olifant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
Another novel with an unconventional, eponymous protagonist, whose way of looking at the world seems at odds with everyone else around her. This book has a lot in common with A Man Called Ove, but it is even funnier and simultaneously more profound. I felt a gentle affection for Ove as a character; I loved Eleanor fiercely. Ove is a take on a character we are all familiar with, albeit an idiosyncratic version, whereas Eleanor seems to me to be quite unique. I can’t remember reading a novel about a young woman with quite so many quirks, with such a specific take on the world. The first person narration, which emphasises her impressive, rather formal vocabulary, allows the reader to enter the character’s head more fully than in Backman’s novel, and I found it fascinating to be immersed in Eleanor’s world.
Eleanor offers an alternative viewpoint on everyday life – she is confused by social interactions, hyper-sensitive to the nuances that we might take for granted, but it is her take on what it involves to be considered an attractive woman which provides the most humour. Having developed an unrequited crush on a local singer, Eleanor decides to explore the world of beautifying; the scene in which she gets her first bikini wax shines a delightfully absurd light on the ridiculous lengths women are expected to go to in order to fit into society’s expectations.
Although there are plenty of laughs in this novel, the narrative is underlaid with hints about Eleanor’s past. What I particularly liked about the story was that we only get to explore the tragedy of her childhood when Eleanor herself decides that she is ready to speak about it with the therapist that she starts seeing in the second half of the novel – she hasn’t been hiding details in her narration, rather repressing them, and it is as much a revelation to her as to the reader when the full truth comes out. The fact that she has undergone this process makes the optimism of the ending more believable – I feel like it is quite rare to see successful therapy depicted in fiction.
Like Ove, Eleanor’s redemption comes about through connections with other people. Her loneliness at the start of the novel, her fixed routines, the pizza, wine and vodka rituals that see her through weekends when she doesn’t talk to another soul, are slowly replaced with tentative friendships, most notably with Raymond, the chubby IT guy from her office, who is a brilliant character. I liked that while there were subtle hints that their relationship might be more than platonic, Honeyman resists the urge to turn Eleanor’s story into a love story – Raymond helps her on her journey to self-acceptance, but she is the one who saves herself. I found this book poignant, hilarious and insightful – being such a success, I am sure most of you have already read it, but if not, I highly recommend it. I am also always pleased to find a debut author who isn’t ten years younger than me (Honeyman was 45 when the book came out) – there is hope!
As always, I’m eager for recommendations – what are your best reads of 2019 so far?