Monthly Archives: December 2018

My books of the year, 2018 – favourites from a year of reading

Regular readers of this blog will probably experience a strong sense of déjà vu when they scan through my list of favourites from 2018, such is the familiar nature of the selection. Several of the authors listed here have already appeared in some of my other best-of-the-year posts, writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Dorothy B. Hughes – it’s getting to the point where they’re virtually guaranteed their own dedicated slots! In other words when it comes to reading, I know what I like, and I like what I know.

Still, there are a few *new* names in this year’s line-up, writers like William Trevor, Dorothy Whipple and Brian Moore, all of whom I’d like to revisit in the future.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2018 in order of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

What better way to kick off the year than with this early novel by Elizabeth Taylor, a beautifully crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town a year or so after the end of WW2. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, packed full of flawed and damaged characters who live in the kind of watchful environment where virtually everyone knows everyone else’s business. Probably my favourite book of the year – fans of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop will likely enjoy this.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. Another excellent ensemble piece, this one focusing on the lives and concerns of a disparate group of lost souls, each with their own individual characteristics and personality traits. A wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, this claims the spot for my boarding-house novel of the year. (That said, I must mention Patrick Hamilton’s Craven House in this context – not a perfect novel by any means but a hugely enjoyable one nonetheless.)

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

A young doctor picks up a dishevelled teenage girl on a deserted highway while driving to a family wedding. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as it turns out in Hughes’ seriously gripping novel set in 1960s America. There’s a crucial ‘reveal’ at certain point in the story, something that may well cause you to question some of your assumptions and maybe expose a few subconscious prejudices too. A truly excellent book, beautifully written, this proved a big hit with my book group.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year Shirley Jackson made my ‘best-of’ list with her gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Now she’s back again, this time with The Haunting of Hill House a brilliantly unsettling book that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence. Hill House itself, with its curious, labyrinthine design and off-kilter angles, is an imposing presence in the novel, a place marked by its complex and ill-fated history. Also central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. An unnerving exploration of a character’s psyche.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A wonderful collection of stories featuring ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front during WW2. We see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources. Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity. Probably my favourite collection of short stories this year, although Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection comes a very close second.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

A book powered by Highsmith’s trademark interest in decency and morality, The Cry of the Owl appears to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. The story centres on Robert, a deeply lonely man who finds some comfort from naively observing a girl through her kitchen window as she goes about her domestic routine. What really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off. We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the supposedly upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes. Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the plot may appear somewhat confusing at first, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing their perseverance will be rewarded in the end. The tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed, perfectly capturing the political distrust and uncertainty that prevailed during the Cold War of the early ‘60s. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My first experience of Whipple’s work but hopefully not my last. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage, brought about by a venomous serpent in the Garden of Eden. Whipple captures everything with such skill and attention to detail that it feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. In writing Someone at a Distance, she has created a really excellent novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. Possibly one for fans of Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

After Midnight by Imrgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, After Midnight is in fact a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. A little like The Artificial Silk Girl (also by Keun), the novel is narrated by a seemingly naïve and engaging young woman, Sanna, who turns out to be somewhat sharper than she appears at first sight. A fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. My favourite read in translation this year, although The Burning of The World, a remarkable WW1 memoir by the Hungarian writer Béla Zombory-Moldován, also deserves a mention.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

This is a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical that it’s hard to do it any kind of justice in a few sentences. The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her family in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. It’s a novel shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of familial love and familial tensions. The forthcoming film adaptation by Barry Jenkins is pretty wonderful too.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

This is an achingly sad novel, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a tawdry boarding house in 1950s Belfast. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live. When Judith’s dreams of a hopeful future start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed, characterised as it is by a shameful secret. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, but to say any more would spoil the story. This is an outstanding novel, easily in my top three for the year. It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to a solitary life without love.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

This jewel-like novel, my third by Hayes, focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in Rome in 1944. Robert is hoping to make a simple arrangement with a local girl, Lisa – namely some warmth and company at night in exchange for a few sought-after provisions. But nothing in wartime is ever easy, and in times of unrest and uncertainty even the most straightforward of arrangements can run into complications. Another brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness.

So there we are, another pretty satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2018.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

After serving in the US army in the Second World War, the British-born writer Alfred Hayes stayed on in Rome at the end of the conflict where he worked with some of the leading lights in the Italian neo-realist film movement, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This talent for scriptwriting shows in Hayes’ 1949 novel, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a slim work which zooms in on a microcosm of a society irreparably damaged by the ravages of war. It’s a brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness. Here’s how it opens:

The wind blew through Europe. It was a cold wind, and there were no lights in the city. (p.3)

Set in Rome in 1944, the novel focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in the capital following the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

Having grown tired of boarding at the barracks with the rest of his unit, Robert longs for the company of a woman on a regular basis – not one of the prostitutes who ply their trade by the River Tiber, but someone more modest and above board. So, he makes an arrangement to share a private room with Lisa, a local Italian girl, at a house in the city. The lodgings are owned by Adele, a middle-aged Italian woman who has converted her dining room into a simple bar and eating place for the soldiers stationed in the vicinity. Also living in the house are Ugo, Adele’s mournful husband, and Antonio, their grown-up son, a bitter ex-soldier who resents the presence of the Allied forces in his country.

As far as Robert sees things, this is to be a simple arrangement, one that benefits both parties. Robert will have a little warmth and female company at night, while in return Lisa will receive some much sought-after supplies: coffee, sugar, chocolate, maybe even a little fruitcake on the side. It isn’t a question of just sex; Robert knows he could avail himself of one of the local prostitutes for that (not that he wants to – the prospect really doesn’t appeal). Rather, it’s more a case of desiring something decent and comfortable, albeit with no long-term strings attached.

On their first evening together in the room, Lisa is pretty antagonist towards Robert, whom she views as symbolic of American soldiers in general, a group characterised by their loudness, arrogance and stupidity. Robert, in his naivety, struggles to truly understand the anger and hostility being directed towards him, particularly from Lisa whom he believes he is helping through the provision of goods. Gradually, however, and with the help of a well-timed power cut, Lisa’s mood begins to soften, thereby enabling Robert to get a little closer to her – an experience exquisitely conveyed through Hayes’ beautiful prose.

Touching her, then, that first time, there had been no words at all to express the overwhelming sense of a woman being with him, in a clean place, in a clean bed, just being there, in a room, alone feeling the warmth even though it was not a given and voluntary and loving warmth, only the inevitable warmth of someone’s body. There were no words at all for the enormous charity that having a woman, in a room with a closed door, in a bed that was one’s own, meant. (p. 46)

Sadly, even the simplest of arrangements can run into complications, especially in a time of unrest and uncertainty. In order to rent the room from Adele, Robert has created the impression that he and Lisa are married. So, when their status is called into question, Lisa and Robert find themselves caught in a perilous situation, one that has long-term consequences for those involved.

I absolutely loved this slim yet stunning novel, my third by Hayes. (You can read my thoughts on In Love here, a book I probably need to read again as I couldn’t make up my mind about it at the time.)

Hayes is particularly good at conveying the nuances of human emotion in a nuanced and non-judgemental way, allowing us to see the situation from two very different perspectives: Robert’s and Lisa’s. The portrayal of complex and conflicting feelings – often in a state of fluidity – is beautifully done. Desire, longing, resentment and anger all come together to illustrate the difficulty of these characters’ situations. The haunting ending, with its air of uncertainty, feels very fitting, highlighting as it does the tragedy of the protagonists’ plight.

The novel also highlights the terrible effects of war, the damage and trauma inflicted not only on the soldiers and forces but also on the ordinary people left behind – women like Lisa who have few options open to them other than compromising their dignity to survive. By focusing on this relatively small group of individuals, Hayes paints a portrait of a country torn apart by the fallout from conflict, where victory and freedom are not what they were promised to be. Instead, the mood is characterised by feelings of frustration, anguish and suffocation.

On the walls of the small villages in the south, they had painted slogans during the other regime: to obey, to fight, to win. Obedience was done, fighting was over, there had been no victory. Agony was left, and a sense of suffocation. (p.74)

Bitterness and resentment are widespread, emotions typified by Antonio’s reactions to Robert and his compatriots as tensions escalate.

‘When we go into the street,’ he said, leaning forward, accusing them, because of the uniform, ‘what do we see? Your colonels, in their big cars, driving with women whose reputations were made in the bedrooms of fascist bureaucrats! With my country’s enemies! Or your soldiers, drunk in our gutters. Or your officers, pushing us off our own sidewalks! Oh, the magnificent promises the radio made us! Oh, the paradise we’d have! Wait, wait – there will be bread, peace, freedom when the allies come! But where is this paradise? Where is it, signori –?’ (pp. 76-77)

We also gain an insight into Antonio’s experiences of the war, the physical and emotional wounds he must deal with as a consequence of the bloodshed.

Finally, a few words about the writing: Hayes’ prose is spare, precise and evocative, qualities that help to convey the deep-rooted mood and atmosphere that underpin the story. As the cold wind sweeps through Rome, there is a sense of darkness and desolation in the city, feelings that mirror the mood of the country as a whole, trapped as it is in a seemingly never-ending war.

The city had no beauty now. The river had no history. When you stood on one of the bridges and looked at the city, you thought of home, and were depressed, and it seemed, because if the grayness over everything, that this war had been going on forever, and it would never end. (p.112)

The Girl on the Via Flaminia is published by Penguin; personal copy.