A Month of Reading – September 2020

September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.

Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.

Passing– 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. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.

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.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – 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 when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s 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.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

The Birds 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. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.

The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)

Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots.  The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.

The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.

At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.

This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.

In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.

In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.

The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.

That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.

Two NYRB Classics – Natsume Soseki & Barbara Comyns

I read some wonderful books from NYRB Classics in September and because I am rather behind in my reviews, I decided to write about two of them – The Gate and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – in this post. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but excellent in their own way.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple and frugal life on the outskirts of Tokyo. Sosuke works as a clerk in a company and almost never takes a day off. Oyone manages the house. It’s a routine they have been following for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining.

But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku. Koroku is almost ten years younger than Sosuke. In stark contrast to his older brother, Koroku is a selfish and brash man, who has had it easy for much of his life and cannot come to terms with his recently reduced circumstances. Koroku wants Sosuke to approach their aunt and come to an arrangement regards his education, but becomes increasingly impatient with Sosuke’s laidback attitude. Sosuke is in no hurry to move things along.

Koroku reminds Sosuke of his own youth, of how confident he once was with dreams of completing university…only it all fizzles away. Subsequently a series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of Sosuke and Oyone’s background, how they marry and become estranged from their respective families and how they lead an existence of isolation with not many ties.

And yet, Sosuke and Oyone are content in their closed world, happy in their marriage in their own way.

Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.  

The one blemish is their inability to have children. On this front, the book is laced with some heartbreaking passages, which elucidates this tragic development in some detail and how it affects both of them.

While Koroku’s predicament is the driving force of the tale, there are also some other smaller moments of tension that propel the narrative along such as Oyone’s illness and the sale of a Meiji period screen the couple possess.

As the novel progresses, while on the one hand Sosuke forges a new friendship with favourable consequences, on the other, the possibility of a chance encounter looms large, which has the danger of raking up a past he is keen to forget.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I was first entranced by the completely off-kilter The Vet’s Daughter and then followed it up with the brilliant The Juniper Tree which found a place on my Best Books of 2019 list.

In both those books, there was something fascinating about her female characters and their unique narrative voices and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is no different, although this story is more straightforward compared to the other two.

The narrator in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy place, although this happiness has come at a considerable price. Here’s the opening passage…

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

This paragraph is important because we are immediately taken back to Sophia’s grim past filled with poverty and harrowing ordeals that she has to endure, and it’s those opening lines that make some of the difficult moments in the novel bearable.

The story begins when Sophia meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. Sophia at the time is working at an artist studio with a regular pay, while Charles has not been too successful in selling his paintings yet.

Charles’ parents are separated and both oppose the marriage at first – his mother strongly opines that marriage will greatly hamper Charles’ artistic career. But eventually they come around.

The couple move into their new flat – small but within their budget. Things are hunky dory at first but quickly, it becomes clear that Charles is a selfish man, not capable of taking on responsibilities. The only thing that interests him is his painting. Meanwhile, Sophia is struggling as she juggles her job with domestic duties. And then she finds out she is pregnant, a development which both delights and unnerves her, but greatly horrifies Charles.

What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent. Not surprisingly, their marriage begins to falter.

Charles and Sophia’s circumstances are not always bleak though. There are some periods in their life when money does come their way and they are able to enjoy the finer things in life – a better flat, a larger friend circle involving a lot of entertaining, and good food. But the ground beneath them is always shaky, and the prospect of money running out continuously hangs like a sword over their heads.

That’s the basic outline of the story, but suffice to say a lot more happens as the novel moves forward.

The most striking feature about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia’s voice – frank, captivating and quite child-like. Sophia is naïve about a lot of things, especially birth control, thinking that “if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

Barbara Comyns’ writing 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.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. It blunts to a greater effect the sharp edges of her suffering and prevents the novel from being utterly tragic. There’s also solace in the knowledge that she makes it through that difficult period in her life, as clearly shown in the first chapter.

The book also highlights some of the problems that women had to grapple with in the early 20th century. For instance, when Sophia announces her pregnancy to her boss, she is fired – the protection of maternity leave was pretty much non-existent at the time. Also, treatment in public hospitals especially maternity wards left a lot to be desired. There are a couple of chapters focusing on the time when she is in labor – she is shunted from room to room despite being in immense pain made all the more horrifying by the nurses’ obvious lack of compassion.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Comyns’ earlier work – her second novel in fact – and there are a lot of autobiographical shades to it. Indeed, here’s one of the things displayed on the copyright page…

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

It’s another brilliant novel from Comyns and I plan to gradually make my way through all of her books as and when they become available (there are quite a few that are out of print and hard to obtain).

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. While the book was released in its original language (Japanese) in 1994, it was translated into English and published last year – a gap of nearly 25 years. And yet nothing feels outdated about this novel, its themes are quite relevant even today.

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

The narrator’s mother was one of those whose memories remained intact and was therefore captured by the police. In the opening pages our narrator harks back to her childhood and recalls a particular moment with her mother when the latter displays a chest of drawers containing objects that no longer exist on the island. These objects – perfume bottle, ribbon, bell, stamp – fill our narrator with a sense of wonder but she cannot conjure up any memories, even though her mother is nostalgic about them. The fate of the narrator’s mother after her refusal to conform is not surprising and very soon the father, an ornithologist, is also whisked away.

Indeed, one of the first disappearances on the island the reader is introduced to is birds.

I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.

Meanwhile, in the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R also cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Enlisting the help of an old caretaker, who is like family, she builds a secret, functional room in her own house. R installs himself there and gradually adjusts to this new life.

The rest of the novel then revolves around the fate of all the three – the narrator, the caretaker and R – and whether they will be able to hold on to this secret.

Objects, meanwhile, continue to vanish at an alarming rate to the point where one of the disappearances impacts our narrator directly – novels (‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’)

At first, she has no issues losing her memory of things and adjusting to the new normal. But this becomes increasingly difficult in her subsequent interactions with R, who coaxes and encourages her to understand the significance of her memories and value them.

This specifically comes to the fore when one of the objects made to vanish is photographs, an occurrence which disturbs R greatly.

As I was gathering all the albums and photos in the house, R made a desperate effort to stop me.

“Photographs are precious…They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

“Yes, I know, and that’s why I’ve always been very careful with them. They brought back wonderful memories every time I looked at them, memories that made my heart ache. As I wander through my sparse forest of memories, photographs have been my most reliable compass. But it’s time to move on. It’s terrible to lose a compass, but I have no strength to resist the disappearances.”

Interspersed with this narrative is a glimpse into the novel, our narrator is writing. It’s about a young typist who has lost her voice, is in a relationship with her teacher and can only communicate by typing out the words.  But what begins as a simple love story morphs into something darker involving capture and submission. In terms of atmosphere and the theme of control there are similarities between our narrator’s novel and her real life. But other than that, I am not sure that this ‘novel within a novel’ really added much to the overall storytelling.

In stark contrast to the feral tone in Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. One way of looking at the novel is that it is a statement on totalitarian regimes and their impact on ordinary people – there are those who adapt, those who resist and go into hiding. These are themes and reactions universal even today.

But other than the one chapter where our narrator visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and experiences firsthand the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the place, the novel is more concerned with the significance of memory loss and what it means to people in everyday life.

Ultimately who stands to lose more – the people who easily forget and have nothing to hold on to, or those who remember and possibly carry a heavier burden because of it?

A Month of Reading: March 2020

March was easily the strangest month ever, one that felt like it would never end. Despite the coronavirus crisis only worsening, I took solace from the fact that the books I managed to read during the orders to mandatorily stay at home were all very good.

I read six books and could have read more had I not been incessantly checking my phone for the latest news. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in March…

Every Eye – Isobel English

Awkward Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Isobel English’s superb novella Every Eye. It focuses on two pivotal periods in Hatty’s life – the past when she is a young adult in a relationship with a considerably older man, and the present when she is on a honeymoon with her husband who is much younger to her.

Eventually both the past and the present will merge in an unexpected way. You can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Fate – Jorge Consiglio

Fate focuses on four individuals – or rather two couples – one pair who is gradually falling apart, while the other is seemingly coming close.

Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and begins a fling. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara.

By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, this was an interesting tale which showcased all the characters trying to control their lives or their destiny in some way or the other but not always succeeding in doing so.

A Quiet Place – Seicho Matsumoto

When on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai, a hardworking government bureaucrat, receives news of his wife’s death due to a cardiac arrest. This is not wholly unexpected given that she suffered from heart ailments. But yet, there are some aspects of her death that seem out of the ordinary to Asai.

As he delves deeper into the matter, he realizes that his wife – who he thought was shy and mostly by herself – had a kind of a secret life he was not aware of.

This was an absorbing tale where more than the death/ crime, the psychological depth of the characters – notably Asai – carried more weight. The last section particularly had shades of a typical Patricia Highsmith novel (I am a Highsmith fan).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

With the coronavirus raging all over the world, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The premise in ‘Station Eleven’ is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

It is a vividly imagined and unique novel with a focus on humanity at its heart. And you can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Actress – Anne Enright

In Actress, Norah FitzMaurice is narrating her mother’s story in the form of a book she addresses to her husband. Her mother is Katherine O’Dell and we learn of her ascent to stardom, her gradual decline, and her descent into madness further accentuated when she shoots a renowned producer in his leg.

That is the bare bones of the tale, one that explores the relationship between mother and daughter and the price each has to pay for being in the limelight. Enright’s prose shines on every page – intelligent, wise and sensitive and it was a pleasure to lose oneself into the book.

I have read two Enrights now, the other being The Forgotten Waltz, which examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald

Here’s what the blurb on the book states…

“Phoebe Wycherly was missing two months before her wealthy father hired Archer to find her. That was plenty of time for a young girl who wanted to disappear to do so thoroughly–or for someone to make her disappear. Before he can find the Wycherly girl, Archer has to deal with the Wycherly woman, Phoebe’s mother, an eerily unmaternal blonde who keeps too many residences, has too many secrets, and leaves too many corpses in her wake.”

This was another excellent Macdonald novel – the ninth in the Lew Archer series – with a tightly woven plot, surprising twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of California as well as the seedy world of blackmailers.

That’s it. I thought all the books were well worth reading but my favourites of the bunch were Station Eleven, A Quiet Place and The Wycherly Woman.

As April begins, I have embarked on my first Shirley Jackson novel – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – and I am already intrigued.

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!