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,