It’s December, so time for the 2014 lists to appear. My heading is misleading as the novels listed below were not published in 2014. They’re on this list because I read them in 2014, loved them and recommend them as great reads. When I choose something to read, I tend to go on word of mouth, or I plump for an author I’ve heard about through reviews or awards. Sometimes, it takes me a while to work through my TBR (To Be Read) list, and so, some of my picks were published quite a few years ago. I think I’d feel restricted if my reading was dictated by whatever is in the literary news or shortlisted for the latest high-profile prize.
I’ve written as brief as possible descriptions and incorporated my personal reaction to the read, and since I found it hard to rank these books as I enjoyed them all equally, they are arranged in alphabetical order by the author’s surname. Where available, I’ve provided links to author websites. If you’ve read any of these or would like to recommend something for my TBR list, then please leave a comment below.
1. Teju Cole: Open City (2011)
This is an impressive debut novel written from the viewpoint of an immigrant flaneur in the streets of Manhattan, relating his interactions and relationships with an array of characters from diverse backgrounds. Each contributes to the narrator’s understanding, not only of New York, but life in general as well as enriching the reading experience. There isn’t much of a storyline, but I was drawn in by the easy rhythm of the writing, the author’s eagle-eyed observations of modern city living, and his very philosophical approach to dealing with human diversity.
2. Nathan Filer: The Shock of the Fall (2013)
Another debut quite deserving of recent plaudits, being narrated by a young schizophrenic man, Matt, whose family life is torn asunder by the death of his older brother in a childhood accident, for which Matt blames himself. The voice is everything in this novel, and the author (a mental health nurse) creates suspense by gradually unfolding the details of what happened on the night Matt’s brother died, whilst at the same time, offering poignant insights into the world of the mentally ill and the institutions in which they spend time.
3. Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013)
This novel jumps about in time as Rosemary, a mature woman, with an overriding sense of loss in her life, tries to piece together events like a jigsaw, in order to discover what her parents have hidden from her and her brother with regard to their sister Fern’s disappearance when Rosemary was 5. The author, who significantly withholds a key fact from the reader for 70+ pages, writes with great wit and humour, giving her narrator a quirky outlook on family, friendship, love, and intimacy (all of which she struggles with). But the book also delivers a powerful critique on humankind’s tendency to rate scientific research so highly, that we lose sight of our humane duties with regard to the natural world, often forgetting how to simply care for each other and every living thing. There’s an excellent review of this over at Anne Goodwin’s blog and an interesting discussion of spoilers in reviews.
4. Kate Grenville: The Secret River (2005)
Set in Australia in the early nineteenth century, this is a tale of epic proportions tracing the challenges faced by William Thornhill, a thief from London, transported to a penal colony for life, as he strives to give his family a new start and leave the stigma of his shameful past behind. The descriptions of settler life against the breathtaking landscapes of New South Wales are amazing, but at the heart of the novel, is greed, leading to a brutal attack on a group of native Australians. The incident, which Thornhill never speaks about, shapes his future, but at the same time, casts a dark shadow over his family and their financial success and achievements.
5. Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
In a coffee shop in Lahore, Changez, a Princeton-educated native Pakistani man, who has spent years in the USA, where a love affair with an American woman ended in disaster, directly addresses an American man he suspects is spying on him. Changez holds him in the café, not with physical violence, but with his dramatic monologue, and his voice is menacing, tracing the problems, set-backs, bigotry, and sheer unfairness he encountered in the USA post-September 11. When he offers to walk the American back to his hotel, the reader is left in two minds about the narrator. He is after all, the reluctant fundamentalist of the title, so will he kill the American, or is the American in fact Changez’s assassin, waiting for the right opportunity?
6. Hisham Matar: In The Country of Men (2006)
Sulaiman recalls his childhood in Tripoli, Libya, and focusses on his father’s arrest for treason and later disappearance. Sulaiman struggles with the shame and not knowing, but perhaps not so much as his mother, a secret drinker, who confides in 9 year-old Sulaiman, telling him more than is age appropriate. A beautifully written and evocative novel examining how the narrator struggles to forge his own way in life as a result of his absent father, his unstable mother, and the pressures of living under a repressive regime which forces everyone in the neighbourhood to govern their tongues.
On Twitter: @hishamjmatar
7. Per Pettersen: Out Stealing Horses (2007 Translated from Norwegian by Anne Born)
Pettersen’s narrator is the elderly, semi-reclusive and recently widowed Trond, who has abandoned city life and moved to an area in rural Norway where he spent his childhood summers. Trond shuns company but when someone he once knew re-enters his life, he is reminded of a tragic event when he was 15. The reader is taken back to post WWII Norway when Trond went out ‘stealing’ or more correctly borrowing, horses to ride with his friend Jon. Pettersen’s sparse prose is addictive and as mesmerising as a Nordic winter landscape – nothing is overstated, but the novel is full of hidden depths and touching observations on human nature.
www.perpettersen.com/ (this is a fan website and I just can’t get the link to work, but copying and pasting into the browser works fine)
8. Anuradhu Roy: An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2011)
Roy’s novel is set in her native India and spans three generations of the same family starting in the 1920s. The matriarchal figure witnesses a murder, but protects the murderer through her silence, and it is as if this event sends the family into a downward spiral of broken dreams, loss and eventually self-destruction. At the heart of the story is the love and deep bond between Bakul, whose mother died giving birth to her, and Mukunda, the caste-less orphan her grandfather supported, and who was reared in the family home after the old man’s death. The young couple are split up in adolescence as Bakul’s father and uncle fear the development of their relationship – it is Mukunda’s palm reading which gives the novel its title. A rich, often poetic read, full of larger than life characters, an interesting treatment of time, and multiple viewpoints.
9. Lionel Shriver: The Post-Birthday World (2007)
I’d been meaning to read something else by Shriver since ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ and this was a surprise in that it is nothing like the earlier novel. This book is really two in one – Shriver starts with an introduction to two couples who meet to celebrate one of the men’s birthdays. After this, each chapter occurs twice to accommodate two different plots – in one, the protagonist, Irina is unfaithful to her partner with Ramsey (the birthday boy), and in the other she resists the temptation to kiss Ramsey and her life takes the other path. It’s clever writing as the author is meticulous with regard to details and it becomes page turning reading – what will the faithful and/or unfaithful Irina do next and how will it affect the lives of those around her? In both scenarios however, there is grief as well as joy, which will strike a chord with anyone who has often wondered what might have been if different life choices had been taken.
10. Rose Tremain: Music and Silence (1999)
It is 1629 when a young English lutenist travels to Denmark to join King Christian’s royal orchestra. The king takes to Peter Claire because his angelic looks remind him of a childhood friend, whose death has wracked the King with guilt for years. Tremain combines first person narrative – all characters get their say, with extracts from the King’s wife’s (Kirsten) private papers. The characters are expertly drawn and as a reader, I grew to love all of them, even the most unlikeable. As the scheming, unfaithful Kirsten manipulates those around her, and the King desperately seeks ways to restore Denmark’s failing economy, Peter Claire falls in love with Kirsten’s waiting lady, Emilia, but the relationship seems doomed as Kirsten’s adultery is revealed to the King. Even if historical fiction is not your bag, the lyrical prose, intricate plot, and stunning evocation of time and place will draw you into this book and leave you thinking of the Court of King Christian long after you’ve moved on.
So those are my picks this year, what about yours?