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10 books I enjoyed most in 2016

This week’s Top Ten topic,  hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.

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  1. Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
  2. The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
  3. The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
  4. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
  5. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
  6. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
  7. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
  8. The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
  10. My Name is Lucy Barton  by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.

The Gathering by Anne Enright [2007 Booker Prize]

The gathering

Veronica Hegarty is a woman whose life implodes when her favourite brother Liam stuffs his pockets with pebbles and walks into the sea at the age of 40. It falls to Veronica to travel to England to recover his body and take it home to Ireland for the funeral.   As the sibling who best understood Liam, and was closest to him through their childhood, she accepts this task falls on her shoulders yet she also resents the fact all her other brothers and sisters take it for granted this is her responsibility.

She resents many things in her life does Veronica not least the fact that her mother keeps forgetting her name.

‘Oh hello’, she said as she opened the hall door, the day I heard about Liam.

‘Hello Darling’. She might say the same to the cat.

‘Come in. Come in’, as she stands in the doorway, and does not move to let me pass.

Of course she knows who I am, it is just my name that escapes her. Her eyes flick from side to side as she wipes one after another off her list.

‘Veronica!’ I feel like shouting it at her. ‘You called me Veronica!’

I could empathise with her frustration here having constantly been mixed up with my sister. But there were only two of us where Veronica it transpires, is the result of 17 pregnancies of which 12 children survived and 5 were miscarried. Little wonder the poor woman couldn’t remember which daughter was which. But the frustration with her mother’s forgetfulness is really a symptom of  the far bigger problem in Veronica’s life: her lack of connection to any of her siblings except Liam and her dissatisfaction with her marriage. After Liam’s death her life begins to unravel and all the pent up emotions come to the surface:

 I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.

Her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. While her husband retreats to bed at the end of each night she stays up drinking wine,  sometimes sitting outside the house in her car, sometimes just driving through the countryside until morning. In the midst of her grief she relives her memories of Liam and an incident which she has kept secret all these years.

How much can we trust her memory? She has only a hazy recollection of the incident that happened in her childhood. Nor can she be entirely sure that this was the cause of Liam’s ultimate alcoholism and death.  Her  recollections of other aspects of her past are similarly hazy with some events she believes she recalls didn’t even happen to her but to her sister. Early on, she tells the story of her grandmother Ada’s first meeting with Lambert Nugent, a man who in subsequent decades is ever present in the Hegarty household. Veronica teases us with hints that there was more to Ada and Lambert’s relationship than was strictly upright. But then goes and pulls the plug with an admission that she had imagined it all.

Enright’s exploration of memory is what captured my interest in The Gathering. Other authors of course have trodden this path but few have tackled it in such an inventive way. The narrative meanders, jumps forwards in time, and then loops back around to the  start, giving the feeling you’re reading this while standing on one of those wobble boards that constantly shift the ground under your feet.

It’s a sad, almost grim book that deals with (possible) sexual abuse and the disintegration of a marriage. But Enright delivers this with aplomb.

The Green Road by Anne Enright [2015 Man Booker Longlist]

The Green RoadBy the end of the first chapter of Anne Enright’s story of strife within an the Madigan family, I had the sense it wasn’t the Green Road I was following, but an all too familiar path. Some of the tropes of Irish fiction had already made their appearance:

Child destined for the convent (or in this case the priesthood). The romance of the land. Churchgoing. Conflict between branches of the same family (they ‘don’t get on with each other’ for reasons that may or may not be revealed); Small community setting with old fashioned shops. More churchgoing.

I steeled myself for more. But then thought maybe I was being unfair. It’s not possible to write a serious novel set in west coast Eire and not mention the church is it? And while the Celtic Tiger did transform the Irish economy for a few years, in 1980 which is when the novel begins, much of Southern Ireland  was (actually still is) comprised of small, very tightly knit villages and towns that look pretty much as they did in the 1950s.

And then, with Chapter 2, Anne Enright sprung a surprise. Her narrative leapt 11 years, out of conservative Irish town where birth control is not easily obtained, and into the free-wheeling world of New York with its gay sub culture.  This was the first, and by the far the most rivetting, of four sections each devoted to the five living members of the Madigan clan: the demanding, infuriating matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna.

Dan Madigan never got ordained (for reasons which are never explained in the novel) but has morphed into Irish Dan. He cuts a handsome figure as he manoeuvres deftly, though cruelly, through the charged atmosphere of the Aids epidemic.  Forward another six years and we catch up with his sister Constance, driving along the green road to a secret hospital appointment, hoping her mammogram will prove all-clear. She’s the only child to remain in her home town, growing fat and resentful when her mother dismisses her gestures of kindness. Youngest son Emmet has put the greatest distance possible between him and Ireland, drifting through Africa on a mission to help starving children in Africa but struggling to reconcile this with his personal relationships. And then there is Hanna, the lively 12 year old child from Chapter 1 whose life disintegrates as her ambitions of an acting career collapses and she takes refuge in booze.

These sections, which take us up to 2005, are in essence a series of loosely connected short stories, each having a distinctly different atmosphere and voice. The parts dealing with Dan in New York are the most powerful, superbly conjuring up the way different groups responded to Aids; some distancing themselves immediately they saw anyone on the subway with tell-tale purple bruises; others reaching out to those they knew were dying. But the victims themselves had different needs, as the narrator explains:

We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

Enright brings the family back together with a device which has parallels with King Lear’s division of his kingdom (and we all know how that went). Rosalyn summons the children for Christmas, telling them it will be the last in their family home since she intends selling and moving in with Constance (much to her daughter’s surprise and alarm). The declaration has the family members embark on mega supermarket shopping expeditions (Constance), a long flight (Dan) or a lot minute attempt at packing by throwing stuff into bags (Emmet) before settling around the dinner table, each in the same place they had occupied as children. Though they have changed, one thing remains the same; Rosalyn’s ability to cause an upset. Tears arrive well before bedtime. Enright brings the reunion to a climax with an action which forces the children to reconsider their attitudes towards their mother.  By the end they are a little wiser, but it didn’t feel they were substantially different people or that their lives had altered in any material way.

Were my fears about this book realised? To some extent yes. The  family scenes in Ireland were never as interesting as those where each child, battered by life and directionless, is allowed to tell their own story. And I do wish Enright hadn’t tried to bring the novel to resolution by the unnecessary device of making one character disappear. But I did enjoy her characterisation of Rosaleen, a woman much given to bewailing her fate, succumbing to imaginary illnesses and seeing the world ranged against her. Enright  enables us to laugh at this woman who takes zero interest in world affairs but loves  good local gossip. “Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road.” She’s manipulative and waspish but she loves her children. She just doesn’t know how to show it.

A reasonably good read in short but nothing remarkable. I had  very similar feeling by the end that Rosaleen expresses about her life:

Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.

The Green Road wouldn’t make it to the Booker shortlist if I were one of the judges.

Reading overload

breatheI blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany.  It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.

Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.

So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.

All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.

Man Booker Prize longlist 2015

I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.

My reactions to the list are rather mixed.

On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.

On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.

  • Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
  • The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
  • The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
  • Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
  • The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
  • The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
  • Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
  • Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
  • The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
  • The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author

Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13.  My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen. 

For other views on the list take a look at:

PJE’s Booker Blog

Clare at Word by Word

 

 

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