As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.
I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.
Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.
Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…
A True Novel – Minae Mizumura
This novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.
But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own.
At 834 pages, A True Novel is a biggie. But don’t let the length put you off because this is a corker of a novel! So engrossing and enthralling was the story that I finished it in less than a week (Normally a book of this length would have taken me around a month!).
The novel opens with young Minae recalling her youth in New York where she led a privileged life with her parents and sister. Her father was a successful Japanese businessman posted in the States. One day he brings home the young Taro Azuma, the Heathcliff, if you will, of the novel. Taro Azuma is shown to be a brooding man with mysterious origins. At the time, he is a chauffeur to a wealthy American couple, but Minae’s father takes an interest in him and befriends him.
He also takes an interest in educating Azuma, and the latter very willingly absorbs whatever knowledge he can lay his hands on like a sponge.
The first section of the novel then goes on to chart his successful ascent up the corporate ladder and his meteoric rise to wealth. So much so that he becomes a talking point of the Japanese expatriate community in New York.
Many years later when Minae has written a few novels and is visiting universities to talk about writing, she meets a young man called Yusuke. Yusuke is greatly interested in learning more about Taro Azumo and knows that Minae knew him in her younger days.
But he has a story to tell of his own. And that is where the action now shifts to Japan. Yusuke narrates how he was lost in the woods of a Japanese summer resort, and encounters Fumiko (the Nelly Dean of the novel), whose own life has been entwined with Taro’s.
Fumiko tells of Taro’s abusive childhood and his obsession with Yoko, the novel’s Catherine, who cannot overcome their class differences despite her passionate love for him.
But as much as this is a story about Taro Azuma and Yoko’s doomed relationship, it is also about the narrator of their story Fumiko. By telling Yusuke about Taro and Yoko’s history, we learn a lot about Fumiko herself, by what she chooses to dwell on and what she does not reveal. In other words, Fumiko is a rich, layered character herself.
The country of Japan is also a character in its own right. This tale is played out against a backdrop of Japan recovering from the devastation of World War II and hurtling towards its economic miracle, only to suffer from its excesses and plunge into a long lasting recession; now called Japan’s ‘lost decade.’
It is also a story about class differences, trying to bridge that gap, and how at the time, money didn’t necessarily mean you could do that.
The story is also peppered with other well drawn out characters, which further give a taste of Japan’s economic transition post the war – the aristocratic Shigemitsus, on the decline, and the up-and-coming Saegusas, who profit from Japan’s march to wealth. The Saegusa sisters — Yoko’s mother and aunts — hold the stage as much as the young pair Taro and Yoko. They are attractive, vivacious and elegant, but also prone to jealousy and bitterness.
All in all, Mizumura has penned a rich, multi-layered tale – it is not only a riveting love story but is also an examination of Japan’s transformation, how the Japanese were influenced greatly by the West, but also struggled to retain a Japanese identity.
This one is wonderfully translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Bye Bye Blondie – Virginie Despentes
Another translated novel, this time from the French by Sian Reynolds, that had me captivated throughout.
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. She is now homeless, after a very nasty fight with her latest ex where she had smashed her phone against the wall, nearly injuring him. All her previous relationships have pretty much ended in the same way; nobody willing to put up with her violent behavior anymore.
Gloria makes her way to the bar hoping to latch on to a friend who will be ready to put her up for a few days. Trouble is she does not have too many friends either.
Gloria then starts wandering about the rain-soaked town, generally angry with everything around her, wanting to pick up a fight with somebody.
Suddenly, she meets Eric, who is now a well-known TV host, but who at one point was Gloria’s lover. This is a crucial encounter and propels the rest of the novel forward. Eric wants to see her, and rekindle their relationship. Gloria is pissed with him and everything he currently stands for and is really not in the mood.
We are then told of how Eric and Gloria first met in their youth – in a psychiatric ward. They hit off and start an affair wandering through France as teenage punks in the 80s. But then something happens, and they are torn apart, never to see each other for a while.
Eric has moved on from his angry, young days and established himself in a career which has given him fame, money and a comfortable lifestyle. But Gloria has not really moved on. Her anger still seethes within her.
Despite Gloria’s initial reluctance, she and Eric start going around again. Gloria detests leading a banal life, the trappings of a material world and feels that is what Eric has settled in for.
As she wanders through Paris and gets a taste of Eric’s life – the fancy parties and false friends – we are not sure who of the two has opted for the better choice. Is it better to be original, a rebel like Gloria even if that means living on the edge and having to scrounge? Or is Eric’s well-settled life better even if it feels mundane?
And then a development takes place which challenges Gloria’s refusal to accept the material world. As events get out of control, Gloria’s anger issues once again come to the fore.
I loved this novel. Gloria is a fascinating character with a lot of verve, even if she is highly flawed.
And even if she is prone to bouts of violence, this isn’t a violent or even a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion.
Indeed, Despentes has spun an original, highly unusual yarn with a lot of spunk.
The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride
Ah, on to another love story then. This was my first read of 2017, a cracking one at that, and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the year. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
In a nutshell, this is a story of a passionate relationship between an 18-year old Irish drama student and an established actor, a little more than 20 years her senior.
The novel begins in the first person, that being of the 18 year old Eilis (but her name is revealed much later in the novel).
She meets the actor Stephen (again we learn of his name later) in a bar. Things move along and pretty quickly they embark on a passionate and tumultuous affair.
We learn that both Eilis and Stephen are damaged individuals, both victims of sexual abuse.
That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell.
But what makes this novel stand apart is the highly original way McBride chooses to tell their story.
For starters, Eilis’ section and pretty much the bulk of the novel is stream of consciousness style. But that’s not it. The language itself is original – not having the usual syntax and punctuations of the English language – as McBride really wants us to get inside Eilis’ head. And get a feel of all the emotions that run through her mind, this being her first, serious adult relationship.
This means that during the first few pages, you might struggle to get a grip on what’s happening. But as you settle into the rhythm of McBride’s innovative language, Eilis’ section becomes astonishing and mesmerizing.
About half through the novel, the narration switches to Stephen’s point of view, and here McBride chooses to tell his story (which is also in the first person, and being told by Stephen to Eilis) in straightforward prose. Which interestingly was a tad easier to read but then not as gripping as Eilis’ section.
This then is a novel, where McBride with an unflinching eye, examines their relationship in microscopic detail. And the prose despite being in a stream of consciousness style is ultimately accessible, rhythmic, sensual and remarkably intimate.
Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin
Fever Dream is a short, terrifying and suspenseful tale set in set in bleak, rural Argentina.
The novel opens in a hospital. Amanda is lying on a bed, unable to see and by her side is David, a precocious child, but he is not Amanda’s. Whose son is he? And why is he by Amanda’s side?
More of that later.
David, meanwhile, is urgently pushing Amanda to recollect events that led her to being hospitalized. He implies that Amanda is on the verge of dying.
As she tries to make sense of what has happened to her, more of her story is fleshed out. Amanda and her daughter Nina leave Buenos Aires and travel to a holiday home in the countryside. Amanda’s husband does not join her.
At the holiday home, Amanda meets Carla, and they get friendly. One day Carla tells Amanda a scary, supernatural story about her eight‑year-old son David, whose soul, Carla believes, has “transmigrated” into another body: “So this one is my new David. This monster.”
Amanda finds the story incredulous and thinks Carla has lost her mind.
There’s more. Early in the book, Amanda talks about “the rescue distance”, the variable safe distance between Amanda and Nina at any one time. As the perceived level of threat increases, the more taut the line grows and the closer together they must be.
As the novel progresses, the rural Argentinian landscape is as much a character in its own right as either Amanda or David.
This is a bleak world, and as events get more terrifying and incomprehensible, Amanda starts increasingly obsessing about ‘the rescue distance.’
The author Schweblin tries to balance supernatural elements with more grounded realities of the lack of Argentina’s agricultural development. That’s one facet of the book.
The other angle chooses to examine the mother-child relationship. Can we ever be too protective of our children and in the process unwittingly become the cause of disaster?
Schweblin’s prose is taut, compelling, super addictive and keeps you wanting to turn the pages as the narrative hurtles to its tense conclusion. All credit also to Megan McDowell for a smooth, effortless translation.
Edith’s Diary – Patricia Highsmith
This was a gut wrenching read.
Patricia Highsmith is well known for her Tom Ripley novels, the first – The Talented Mr Ripley – has been the most popular, and was also adapted into a film by Anthony Minghella (starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow).
But many of Highsmith’s non-Ripley novels are even better; quite brilliant infact. Edith’s Diary is a classic example.
When the novel begins, Edith is married to Brett and they have a son called Cliffie. The family is planning to leave Manhattan in the mid-1950s and move to suburban life in Pennsylvania. Edith and Brett also decide to start a newspaper of their own. On the surface, all seems okay.
But really they are not. Their son Cliffie turns out to be a big disappointment as he increasingly becomes delinquent with no intention of turning over a new leaf. Then Brett’s aged uncle comes to stay with them, even when Edith is not really too happy with the arrangement. As the novel progresses, Brett gives up on his responsibilities, Cliffie shows no signs of improving himself and now all the burden of taking care of Brett’s uncle falls on Edith’s shoulders.
Edith is thoroughly frustrated but does not know how to get out of her predicament. She takes to writing a diary, and this turns out to be a solace in an otherwise dreary life.
In the beginning, Edith’s diary chronicles the accurate details of her life, but as things fall apart around her, her diary spookily becomes increasingly cheerful.
After all this is her diary, so who is going to read it other than Edith herself?
Does it really matter then if Edith conjures up a fake, imaginary world?
Highsmith is masterful at character development, and in Edith she has created a wonderful, psychologically complex character.
Will Edith find happiness in her alternate world? Will her real circumstances get better? Highsmith has written a gem.
And while on Highsmith, I also highly recommend another superb non-Ripley novel – Deep Water.
Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
This is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people.
We are in London in the 1950s. The main character is Mildred Lathbury, who is a spinster, virtuous but intelligent, with hardly any family members around her. She is independent and in a sense alone, but this is not something that bothers her. On the contrary she is quite content with the life she is leading.
And it’s quite an uneventful life if you really look at it: she has her job, she goes to church without fail and is engaged in charity work like many others in her set, the ‘excellent women’ of her time.
An earlier remark made by Mildred sets the tone for the novel: “An unmarried woman, just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business.”
Mildred is introduced to a new set of neighbours, the Napiers. Helena and Rockingham Napier are a glamorous and unconventional couple but they have a rocky marriage. As they fight and breakup, Mildred unwillingly finds herself pulled into their drama.
Then there are the Malorys – Julian, a pastor and single man, and his frazzled, sweet sister, Winifred—as her dearest friends.
There is Allegra Gray who has designs on the pastor and Everard Bone, an aloof man but one who shares Helena’s passion for anthropology. Possibly a romantic relationship develops between him and Mildred?
This is a romantic comedy but what makes the novel stand out is the liberal dose of wit throughout and Mildred’s sharp insights into the social mores of the time.
And while there are some developments which hint at Mildred getting into romantic entanglements herself, the author also subtly points to the possibility that Mildred might just be happy alone.
Who said ‘excellent women’ are always dull? Not in this novel certainly.
Climates – Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle.
Phillip Marcenat is an erudite man and an industrialist settled in rural France. He falls madly in love with the gorgeous Odile, and marries her against his family’s wishes.
The novel is divided into two sections.
The first is in the form of a letter Phillipe writes to Isabelle about his love for Odile and his obsession with her and how their volatile marriage tormented him.
Odile does not take an interest in Phillipe’s career nor is she keen on participating in intelligent conversations. She has many friends about her, she likes being with them, and many a time wants to have her own space.
But Phillipe cannot understand Odile. Nor does he approve of her social life. And yet his obsession with her does not fade. Infact, he begins to get more and more possessive and gradually drives Odile away.
The second section of the novel is from Isabelle’s point of view, in a letter to her husband. Phillipe finds his first wife Odile’s behaviour obnoxious towards him. But, ironically, this time, the roles reverse and now he is the one who is time and again insensitive towards his second wife Isabelle.
But there’s a difference. Phillipe could not handle Odile and that marriage fails. Isabelle, on the contrary, sincere and devoted that she is, fights to keep her marriage with Phillipe alive.
In a nutshell, Maurois has crafted an exquisite novel on love and marriage with profound psychological insights meant to be savoured like good wine. Translation credits go to Adriana Hunter.
Solar Bones – Mike McCormack
Solar Bones is a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
The novel opens with the sound of the Angelus bell. Marcus Conway hears this bell as he enters his home and realizes it is empty with none of his family members around.
Marcus Conway uses this moment to reflect on his entire life, the moments of happiness interspersed with many trials and tribulations.
We learn that Marcus is a civil engineer responsible in a small way for the building of roads, bridges, buildings during the boom time in Ireland, now all of it having gone bust.
Marcus also recalls his marriage, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and then her debilitating illness, which almost destroys her.
He also thinks back on his relationship with his son who is in Australia trying to figure what to do with his life next and who keeps in touch with Marcus through Skype. And with his daughter, who is a budding artist and holds her first solo exhibition with a painting medium that shocks him.
But more often than not Marcus ruminates on the pressures of his job, and the corruption of highly placed officials in his field.
The narrative style is unusual and innovative, quite poetic infact. This is no linear narrative though as Marcus reflects on many things, not necessarily in any particular order.
This then is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned.
The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
John Dowell, the narrator of this story, begins: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
Dowell and his wife Florence are leisured and wealthy Americans. They meet Edward Ashburnham (‘the good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora, who are English and of a certain class, in a German spa resort town. A nine-year friendship ensues. In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that his wife Florence and Edward Ashburnham are dead but we do not know why. Nor do we know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. What follows therefore is a tale of deception, intrigues and the dawning realization of how mismatched the couples are.
What’s interesting here is how John Dowell chooses to tell this story. Since he is looking back to the past and trying to make sense of what has happened, the narration is not linear in the way traditional novels are. It is a very rich and layered story and as the novel progresses, the explanations and motives of the characters become clearer. Or do they? After all, we only know one point of view and that is John Dowell’s.
The other strength of the novel is how psychologically complex the characters are. For one , they are well fleshed out. But because of the narrative style, we find our sympathies for the characters constantly shifting. And that makes the novel ripe for multiple interpretations.
This is a tremendous novel, brilliantly written, and highly endorsed by Ford himself who called it his favourite novel.
Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.
This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.
This novel is erudite yet accessible and abounds in cultural references as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Agatha Christie, Mahler, Don Quixote, Kafka, Beethoven, Layla & Majnun.
It is a paean to the Orient, an ode to Otherness, and Enard’s passion for the Middle East shines through in this brilliant novel. Translation credits go to Charlotte Mandell.
Sphinx is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer from America. But what makes it interesting is this – throughout the novel, the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.
A whirlwind relationship follows between the two, but a stereotypical society all too easily condemns them. Why are they even together in the first place, people wonder.
This is an amazing novel focusing on the un-importance of gender, and while credit obviously goes to the author, kudos also to the translator, Emma Ramadan, for ensuring that the essence of the novel – gender anonymity – is not lost.
The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is fantastical, and weird but in a good way.
Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. There is also an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era.
Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.
There you go. 12 great reads this year. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.