Rather late, I’m afraid, but January seems to have passed in a blur and now it’s mid February and I still haven’t recommended the best books I read in the last quarter of 2016. I’m pleased to say that, after a disappointing Quarter 3, I got my reading mojo back in the lead up to Christmas and ended the year on a real high with probably my favourite book of 2016 (a close call with Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which I blogged about last quarter).
So, almost two months late, here’s my final book blog of 2016…
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Much hyped and lauded as Waterstones’ Book of the Year, Perry’s The Essex Serpent had a lot to live up to. But it was the last book I read this year and probably the best. It is glorious. It summons London and Essex in 1893 with none of the cliches that can often be found in historical fiction but with passion and colour, with characters that appear four-dimensional and entirely relatable to the modern reader.
Cora Seabourne is newly widowed, and not too upset about it. Unexpectedly freed from a marriage that was at best unhappy, she moves with her autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha, to Colchester, where she hopes to nurture her interest in the popular studies of the time: geology and palaeontology. While visiting the nearby parish of Aldwinter, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a menacing creature of local folklore that villagers fear has returned to punish them for some unknown sin. She also meets the local vicar, William Ransome, for whom the growing hysteria is a source of irritation and evidence of a lack of faith. Cora and William quickly develop a friendship that crackles with attraction and conflict and its this relationship that threatens to do far more harm to their family and friends than a mythical serpent ever could.
Something in the second of the hymns – the melody perhaps, or a line or two half-remembered from childhood – touched a place she thought had scarred over, and she began to cry. She had no handkerchief, because she never did; a child saw her tears in astonishment and nudged its mother, who turned, saw nothing, and turned away again. The tears would not stop, and Cora had nothing but her hair to wipe her eyes; only the preacher from his white stone vantage point saw her; saw the deep breaths with which she tried to suppress a sob, and how she tried to hide her face. He caught her eye and held it, and his look was one she could not remember having ever received from a man. It was not amused, or acquisitive, or appalled; had in it no hauteur or cruelty. She imagined it was how he might look at [his children], if he saw them in distress; yet could not have been because it was a look divided between equals. It was brief, and his gaze moved on, out of delicacy and because the music had ended, and since it was too late to conceal her disgrace Cora let the tears fall.
In The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry tackles some big ideas – everything from science versus religion; to feminism and sexuality; socialism, poverty and housing reform – but does so without losing the narrative drive of the novel. It’s beautiful to read, deliciously gothic with stunning writing, a compelling plot and engaging characters. Not only that, but it’s the most beautiful book I bought last year – look at that cover! I will be buying copies for friends and family in 2017.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh’s protagonist, Eileen, is a young woman trapped in her 1960s New England life, living in squalor with her alcoholic father and working as a clerk in an institution for young offenders. Until, that is, the prospect of escape arrives in the shape of Rebecca Saint John, the prison’s new attractive, redheaded counsellor who appears suddenly, so stereotypical in her appearance that she is like an idea, not fully formed. The pair strike up what Eileen believes to be a friendship but it’s an unlikely one and it’s apparent to the reader that it’s founded on Rebecca’s manipulation of Eileen and her situation. The gathering dread at what she might be manipulating Eileen for is truly uncomfortable.
The brilliance of Eileen is less its plot – which is tightly crafted, if unsurprising – than its vividly imagined central character. She is gross, perverse, revolting. She fantasises about murdering her father and stalks a prison guard colleague with whom she is infatuated. Several passages are devoted to deeply unpleasant descriptions of her efforts to overcome her constipation – largely brought on herself by her dangerously minimal and unvaried diet – through an addiction to laxatives. Moshfegh only just keeps the reader feeling any sympathy for Eileen.
If that brief description isn’t something you’re comfortable reading, it might be better to steer clear of Eileen. Its grubbiness is fairly relentless but I found myself enjoying what is a really unusual protagonist and well told story.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
This book was recommended to me by a bookseller in the Gloucester branch of Waterstones and to him I am eternally grateful because I don’t know that I’d have picked up a Strout novel without direct recommendation. I’ve seen a bit of hype about My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout’s Booker longlisted novel, this year but, judging the book entirely on its cover and name, I always assumed it was a bit twee for my tastes.
Actually, Olive Kitteridge is a dignified novel that I found quietly devastating. It tells the story (unsurprisingly) of Olive Kitteridge – a retired teacher: ageing, proud, stubborn, overbearing, not entirely likeable – but does it through a series of short stories about the other people that live in the same town; some close to Olive, others barely acquaintances. In some chapters, Olive features only as a bystander, in others the protagonist. It’s an interesting device but it never feels like one.
There are great tragedies – including a traumatic, violent crime that Olive and her husband find themselves caught up in – but it’s the smaller tragedies that I found moved me like few books have managed to. When Olive hides in a bedroom to rest during her son’s wedding and overhears her new daughter-in-law talking to a friend, her humiliation is palpable.
Olive stands up and very slowly moves along the wall closer to the open window. A shaft of the late-afternoon sun falls over the side of her face as she strains her head forward to make out words in the sounds of the women’s murmuring.
“Oh, God, yes,” says Suzanne, her quiet words suddenly distinct, “I couldn’t believe it. I mean that she would really wear it.”
The dress, Olive thinks. She pulls herself back against the wall.
“Well, people dress differently up here.”
By God, we do, Olive thinks. But she is stunned in her underwater way[…]
[…]And there is the sting of deep embarrassment, because she loves this dress. Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room. Becoming this dress that she took comfort in all day.
I called this book quiet but it is deceptively so.
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
I know I normally only pick three books but, to finish off 2016, you’re getting a *bonus recommendation*. Exciting.
Inspired by a comment on a Guardian article (so it is worth reading the comments sometimes…), Nikesh Shukla set about curating a series of essays about what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. The result is The Good Immigrant: a book that is in turn challenging, inspiring, witty, infuriating and devastating. It made me check my white privilege again and again and again.
I initially contributed to the crowdfunding efforts to publish the book because there were some great names lined up – Riz Ahmed, Bim Adewumni, Himesh Patel, Salena Godden, Shukla himself – and I was interested to read what they had to say. But few could have predicted how even more depressingly relevant the book would become by the time it was published in September 2016 and since. This extract from Shukla’s Editor’s Note, explaining the book’s title has extra resonance now:
Before you enjoy these beautiful, powerful, unapologetic essays, a quick note on the title of the book: Musa Okwonga, the poet, journalist and essayist whose powerful ‘The Ungrateful Country’ closes the book, once said to me that the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefits-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.
And we are so tired of that burden.
This quarter, I also read:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran
(both of which could have easily made it onto this ‘best of’ list. What a quarter!)