My Best Books of 2022

2022 turned out to be a superb year of reading. Purely because I wanted another reason to showcase my reading highlights, just like last year, I decided to strike a balance between sticking to a specific number and yet not being too rigid about it. So, 21 books it is!

I didn’t read as much translated literature as I would I have liked, something I hope to remedy in 2023, but in the meanwhile from the ones I did read, 6 translated works made the cut covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Danish, Russian and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 18:3).

2022 was also the year when I committed myself to a long reading project – the 13 volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – thanks to the #PilgrimageTogether reading group on Twitter led by Kim McNeill and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books. It was both a challenging and rewarding project (I plan to read the last three novels this month) and I’ve written about the first ten throughout my monthly posts this year but I want to highlight that the fourth novel The Tunnel was to me the best so far.

Coming back to this list though, it is a mix of 20th century literature, contemporary fiction, translated literature, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2022, in the order in which they appear in the picture below (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE GREENGAGE SUMMER by Rumer Godden

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky). Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are. But all their best laid plans go awry when the mother falls ill. Thus, once at the hotel, the children are largely left to their own devices and latch on to the mysterious Elliott who takes them under his wing much to the chagrin of his lover and the owner of the hotel, Mademoiselle Zizi. This is a beautiful book with evocative descriptions of a languid French summer. Despite the joys of new experiences, there are darker currents with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings.

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to leave for the seaside town of Bognor, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between the two women, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let the ways of society dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is an immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. 

THE ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. from Spanish by Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to the book. Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

GENTLEMAN OVERBOARD by Herbert Clyde Lewis

The first of the Boiler House Press titles (from the Recovered Books imprint) that made this list Gentleman Overboard is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. But when the hours slip by and the Arabella disappears from the horizon, Standish is forced to confront the possibility that he is likely to die. It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic.

FOSTER by Claire Keegan

Foster is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change, she becomes absorbed in the Kinsella household’s daily routine and begins to blossom under their care. This book is a mini marvel and one of its greatest strengths is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, where Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Another excellent Recovered Books title, Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable. Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (tr. from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop. The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly signaling she’s in labour. Takiko is hell bent on going to the hospital by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time dealing with her dismal family circumstances.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town. The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

Taylor is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved. This is one of her finest books, simply top-tier Taylor.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing. Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. We then meet Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village, about the same age as Evelyn. To Imogen, Blanche is an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude. Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. from Danish by Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness is a biting, scalpel-sharp collection of stories with its devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style.

Some examples – In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. In the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. from Russian by Robert Chandler)

A wonderful, wonderful book, big on ideas, set at the heart of World War Two during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

But the throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two. There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues, shifting points of view and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings. The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is meticulously researched, painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness. It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2023 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

My Best Books of 2021

2021 turned out to be another excellent year of reading. Just like last year, I decided not to restrict the list to any specific number given that I had read 75 plus books.

Of the 21 books that made the cut, seven are translated works covering 6 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 19:2). This list is a mix of fiction by 20th century women writers, new books published this year, translated literature, novellas, a short story collection, a memoir and an essay collection. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2021, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

A WREATH OF ROSES by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality. A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

SATURDAY LUNCH WITH THE BROWNINGS by Penelope Mortimer

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly penned tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life. A woman and her five year-old son are locked out of a farmhouse in a remote French countryside, a seemingly innocuous family lunch swiftly culminates in a dramatic confrontation, a young woman on the brink of a miscarriage gradually reveals her true intentions. This is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.

MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it. The book charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion. Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and without mincing on details.

I IS ANOTHER by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship and picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique. The book is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

FUNNY WEATHER: ART IN AN EMERGENCY by Olivia Laing

A wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.

OLD NEW YORK by Edith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known.  All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience. These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories.

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else. Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

THE LIGHT YEARS & THE REST OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

‘The Cazalet Chronicles’, comprising five books (represented in the picture above by the first book The Light Years), is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.

Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature. 

REAL ESTATE by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality. When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own. The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths. Intelligent and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy. These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other. The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. 

CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

It crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.

MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant and through her eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche. The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if she is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

THE PROMISE by Damon Galgut

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes – racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era – explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I am happy this book won the Booker Prize.

ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body. Elena, a woman in her sixties, suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements. However, the real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita who was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide, but Elena is convinced it is murder.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

JANE AND PRUDENCE by Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London.

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2022 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

My Best Books of 2020

2020 was so terrible, the less said about it the better. The best thing though was all the reading I did. Books kept me sane. With more time on my hands, I read much more than what I had done in previous years, and as a result discovered some really terrific books.

This also means that I have expanded my ‘Best of’ list to include 18 books. Of these, eight are translated works covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, German and Korean). I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 15:3).

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2020, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

In The Birds, our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Since Mattis is not able to hold on to any job, the responsibility of providing falls on Hege’s shoulders, and she is now tired and lonely. Until one day a lumberjack called Jorgen enters their lives and uproots their daily existence. This is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

There’s a reason why To the Lighthouse is a classic, it is Woolf at her sublime best. An impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives – all in Woolf’s trademark stunning prose.

EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN by Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham is a Canadian author I had never heard of before, but thanks to Persephone Books I do now. This is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice. Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues and discussions between the characters.

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

A book longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize that should also have been shortlisted. The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

The Witch, a highly reviled figure in the rural Mexican village of La Matosa, is murdered and her corpse is dumped in a canal. Told through four perspectives, Hurricane Season is a tour de force, hurtling at the reader at a furious pace despite the long, winding sentences, and drips with violence, foul language, poverty and an overall feeling of dereliction. It was my favourite to win the International Booker Prize.

PASSING by Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries. The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

WINTER IN SOKCHO by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.

It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place.

DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

Almada is one of Latin America’s most exciting contemporary writers introduced to us by the wonderful Charco Press. Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved.

THE WEATHER IN THE STREETS by Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after The Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

THE SOUL OF KINDNESS by Elizabeth Taylor

I somehow missed writing a detailed review on this book (the only one on this list). In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

LOOK AT ME by Anita Brookner

In Look At Me, our narrator is Frances Hinton, who works in a medical library during the day and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly mesmerized.

This novel is a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider. Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTHS by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh. Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough, and despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of her storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

THE ARTIFICAL SILK GIRL by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to. After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin. While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company. In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer (tr. Shaun Whiteside)

This is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

Such a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever fabulous, elegant and incisive.

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J. L. Carr

Tom Birkin, a soldier in First World War and having suffered shell shock, arrives in Oxgodby in the summer of 1920 to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church. This is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art. It has everything – nostalgia, an art mystery, romance, and atmospheric descriptions of an idyllic village life.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and here’s wishing for a better 2021 in simply everything. Merry Christmas!

Cheers,

Radhika

My Best Books of 2019

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.

On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.

Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.

All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.

Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:

One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).

So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…

(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).

The Best of 2019: The Winners

2019: Books of the Year

The Neapolitan NovelsElena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

Childhood, Youth, DependencyTove Ditlevsen

It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.

One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant TrilogyOlivia Manning

Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.

The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. 

While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

The Driver’s Seat Muriel Spark

2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).

Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.

This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!

Good BehaviourMolly Keane

Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. 

At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.

This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.

Vertigo & GhostFiona Benson

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!

The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.

Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!

Slow Days, Fast CompanyEve Babitz

When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.

I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.

I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.

The Juniper TreeBarbara Comyns

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.

Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.

Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.

The German Room Carla Maliandi

In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.

Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.

Fish SoupMargarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontElizabeth Taylor

There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.

The Man Who Saw EverythingDeborah Levy

I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.

I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.

In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.

Conversations with FriendsSally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!

The Ten Loves of Mr NishinoHiromi Kawakami

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…

That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.

Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2011 (Part 1)

I am greatly enjoying writing these ‘Blast of the Past’ posts. At the start of June, I showcased my Best Books of 2010.

Now it’s time to focus on the next year. As I was perusing the novels I read in 2011, I realized what a super bumper year it was in terms of the number of amazing novels I read. Quite a few have already become firm all-time favourites.

I was introduced to many superb writers for the first time. I discovered the wonders of NYRB Classics. And I also read quite a few novels set in the boarding house.

I eventually wound up with a list of 22 books that I wanted to highlight. Not wanting to tone this down any further, I was not keen on dedicating one post to all of them either.

So I have broken the Best of 2011 list in two parts. This is Part One where I will focus on 11 books.

Best of 2011 (Part 1)

Amongst Women – John McGahern

Ireland is never short of incredible writers. And John McGahern that year was an absolute find. I started off with his most well-known and acclaimed novel, Amongst Women.

Amongst Women is a drama centred on patriarch and IRA veteran Moran and his dominance over his family. Here’s how it begins:

As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters.

When the novel begins, Moran’s family has gathered together to bolster his spirit in his twilight years. His family consists of his saintly wife, and three daughters, plus a son who is estranged. Steadily but surely, the novel rewinds to the past fleshing out the characters and events leading upto this moment. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Moran is a moody, unpredictable man, a tyrant in other words. But his relationship with his family is increasingly complex. On one hand, his oppressive actions take an emotional toll on them, and yet, they share a bond that is hard to dismiss.

Amongst Women is a quiet masterpiece. McGahern’s writing is eloquent and understated and yet the tension simmers in the dynamics between the cast.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore

Brian Moore is remarkable in his portrayal of women at moments of a crisis. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a prime example of this.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. With barely enough income, she is compelled to stay in a boarding house, stuck in a rut with people who are judgmental. The one outing she looks forward to every week is a tea invitation to the O’ Neills’ house every Sunday, in order to break the tedium of the other days. But while she enjoys the cakes and sherry, she is silently the object of ridicule in that home painted in scenes that are truly heartbreaking. To add to it all, Judith has a dark secret which will prove to be her undoing.

Judith Hearne is a marvelous book. It is a compelling depiction of the plight of women in their middle age who had neither the financials means nor the skills required to live a healthy, independent life. Moore’s writing is incredibly sensitive and astute, which ensures that the book is not a bleak, miserable read despite Judith’s heartbreaking plight.

Fifth Business – Robertson Davies

Fifth Business is the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, and it is a wonderfully absorbing read making me wonder why I never got around to reading the next two books in the trilogy. I need to correct that.

The story begins when Dunstan Ramsay is ten years old and living in Deptford. He and his best friend (and worst enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton have been sledding and have quarreled. On the way back to town Percy throws a snowball at Dunstan, who jumps aside. The snowball strikes passerby Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the town’s Baptist minister. The shock of the snowball hitting her head causes her to go into labour and deliver prematurely: the baby boy is Paul Dempster. It also means that the incident affects Mary Dempster’s mental faculties.

It is an accident that affects Ramsay greatly and he is tortured with feelings of guilt in subsequent years that refuse to go away. More importantly, it develops into an obsession prompting Ramsay to become an expert hagiologist (study of saints), take an interest in psychology and become enamoured by Mrs Dempster.

And I have barely scratched the surface of the novel here.

This is a rich novel boasting of an incredibly layered narrative and multiple plot points well executed. We are given a glimpse of rural Deptford, the high society life of Percy Boyd Staunton, the world of illusion and conjuring tricks (a theme that will continue in the subsequent books), and sprinklings of Jung and Freud. There is a lot of depth in character development making Fifth Business an absorbing and immersive read.

Light Years – James Salter

Light Years made me fall in love with James Salter’s writing. I have devoured most of his work since then barring his last novel All That Is.

From the blurb – “Nedra and Viri are a couple whose enviable life is centred on civilized pleasures, their children, a variety of friends, and days lived to the utmost, be it skating on a frozen river or summers by the sea. It is a world solidly built on matrimony, and its details – the one moment, one hour, one day – recapture everything. But fine cracks are beginning to spread through the shimmering surface…”

A marriage disintegrating is a theme that has been covered endlessly in literature. But Salter’s prose takes it to a whole new level. His writing is unique, lush and poetic. He crafts exquisite phrases that are second to none. It’s his ability to conjure up the essence of his characters and their situations in just a few sentences that really stand out.

The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl comprises a short story and a novella. The short story also called ‘The Shawl’ is barely eight pages. The rest of the book is the novella called ‘Rosa’.

‘The Shawl’ is a harrowing but powerful read based in a Nazi concentration camp. It begins with the mother Rosa walking with her baby Magda at her breast, and with her elder fourteen-year old daughter Stella. It is deathlessly cold. Rosa is using her shawl to cover Magda, a shawl which Stella longs for because she is freezing too. All are hungry and in great despair. And then a terrible incident occurs.

In ‘Rosa’, the mother of the same name, appears thirty years later, ‘a madwoman and a scavenger’ in a Miami hotel.

In both the stories, the shawl is a recurring motif that highlights the horror of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. Powerful stuff.

Asylum – Patrick McGrath

What a wonderful novel by Patrick McGrath this turned out to be.

The deliciously named Stella Raphael is elegant, headstrong, and intelligent. She is married to Max Raphael, a psychiatrist, but quite staid and unimaginative. But then Max takes up a position in a maximum security mental hospital in the English countryside. There Stella becomes dangerously attracted to Edgar Stark who has been confined for murdering his wife.

To what extent will this impact Stella’s sanity and how will this affect those around her?

Asylum is superb and has everything – intense and hypnotic storytelling, great characters and an unreliable narrator. It’s claustrophobic but gripping and very well-written.

Stoner – John Williams

The re-issue of Stoner has become a hit with the result that it is well reviewed novel now.

This is the story of an ordinary, quiet and private man born in a simple rural family. Harbouring a passion for literature and language, he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps choosing a life of professorship and study instead. This, then, is an account of both his personal and professional life.

Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either. Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.

I absolutely loved this novel and it remains one of my all-time favourites. John Williams’ writing is gorgeous and sensitive ultimately making the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary. Recently, different viewpoints have emerged related to elements of misogyny in Stoner. But this is not something I noticed when reading the novel, and in no way marred my enjoyment of it.

The True Deceiver – Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is reputed for her Moomin stories, but her novels are brilliant as well. The True Deceiver, in particular, won the Best Translated Book Award in 2011 and deservedly so.

As can be gauged from the title, deception – the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others – is the focal point of this novel. Things are not necessarily what they seem.

Katri Kling is an outcast, and her only love and ambition is for her simpleminded younger brother left in her care. She does not care much for the white lies that sometimes form the foundation of social interaction.

Anna Aemalin is a successful illustrator of children’s books and lives alone in a large house. Even if aloof, she is well respected in the village.

Prompted by her ambition to ensure her brother’s security, Katri fakes a robbery of Anna’s house in order to make her afraid to live alone. In the process, she pushes her way into Anna’s service and confidence. But Anna is not necessarily the pushover that she is projected to be.

This is a marvelous, dark novel with enough tension to make it unpredictable and riveting. Another strong offering from the NYRB stable and a reminder that I must read more Tove Janssen.

The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

This is another brilliant boarding house novel.

The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending.

Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.

Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.

Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is such a wonderful and assured writer. I have read just two – The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Both are great and an excellent entry point into her oeuvre.

Sexing the Cherry is a dazzling and inventive novel that brims with fairy tales and history, dancing princesses and singing toads, at the centre of which is the mother Dog Woman and her boy Jordan.

Here’s the snippet from Wikipedia – Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of “the present” and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat “grotesque”. She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.

I am not sure I can add more to this other than to urge you to read it.

Of Love and Hunger – Julian Maclaren-Ross

This is another one of my all-time favourites.

The central character is Richard Fanshawe who is struggling to lead a decent life. He has managed to secure a dreary job selling vaccum cleaners during the day. The nights he has to spend in a tedious boarding house under the watchful eyes of the landlady, Mrs Fellows.

Until one day, his friend Roper asks him to look after his wife Sukie when Roper has to go go away for three months to the sea. Fanshawe is unsure at first but as he interacts with her more, he finds himself falling in love with her.

In real life, Julian Maclaren Ross was considered to be quite the raconteur and even appeared as a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series. His story telling abilities are well in display in this novel; his writing is lyrical, slangy and crisp.

To quote from the blurb – Of Love and Hunger conjures up his world of smoky pubs, prying landladies, unpaid debts and seedy love-nests with brilliant wit and acuity.

That’s it as far as the first part is concerned. I will put up a Best of 2011 (Part 2) post in the coming days. Stay tuned!