Monthly Archives: December 2019

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. 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.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

Trick by Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Published in the UK by Europa Editions, Trick is the most recent novel by Domenico Starnone, an Italian writer, screenwriter and journalist of some repute. (One of his earlier books, Via Gemito, won the Premio Strega, Italy’s foremost literary prize, back in 2001.) Trick is an excellent book – a rather touching story of the fractious relationship between a grandfather and his young grandson, all played out within the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city apartment over the course of a few days.

On the face of it, the premise of Trick is a deceptively simple one. However, as is the case with much of the best fiction in translation, there is a great deal going on under the surface here, giving rise to a narrative that can be read on more than one level.

The story is narrated by Daniele, a moderately famous illustrator in his mid-seventies, currently in recovery following a recent surgical procedure. As the novel opens, Daniele has reluctantly agreed to travel from his home in Milan to his daughter’s apartment in Naples to take care of his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for a few days. Daniele’s daughter, Betta, and her husband, Saverio – both academics – are planning to attend a conference, hence their need for Daniele to look after Mario in their absence.

Daniele is reluctant to come to Naples for a number of different reasons. Firstly, he is struggling for inspiration on his current project – a commission to illustrate a new edition of the Henry James ghost story, The Jolly Corner. Secondly, having lived a relatively solitary life since the death of his wife, Daniele doesn’t really know Mario very well, and the prospect of taking care of an energetic toddler is somewhat irritating to say the least. Finally, there are other, more subtle factors at play, but these only become fully apparent to Daniele once he returns to Naples and his old childhood home.

Right from the start, the sense of tension in the family’s apartment is patently apparent. Relations between Betta and Saverio have deteriorated and are presently rather strained. In short, while Saverio believes his wife is having an affair with another, more senior member of their department, Betta fervently denies there is anything untoward going on. As a consequence, both parents are somewhat distracted, giving them little time for a handover or consideration for Daniele’s wellbeing.

The characterisation here is superb, particularly in relation to the two main players in the drama, Daniele and Mario. For a four-year-old-boy, Mario is a fully-realised creation – precocious, inquisitive, playful, and delightful. Perhaps most importantly, he is also unintentionally annoying, especially as far as his poor grandfather is concerned.

To demonstrate his knowledge of the household, Mario proceeds to show Daniele how to make breakfast for everyone in the apartment, complete with their personal preferences for different coffees and teas. Much to Daniele’s surprise, the toddler’s visual memory and ability to carry out certain familiar tasks are very well developed indeed.

He [Mario] proceeded to show me where the oranges were, where the juicer was, how to toast the bread so that it wouldn’t burn and emanate a foul odor that disgusted his father, which shelf held the bags of black tea and green, which cupboard contained of the coffeepots, where the teapot was since the saucepan I’d chosen was inadequate, where the placemats were for the setting the table. Oh, the quantity of things he said that morning, and with such command. (pp. 41-42)

Once Betta and Saverio depart for the conference, the action – such as it is – gets going in earnest. While Daniele tries to concentrate on his work, Mario wishes for nothing more than to play with his grandfather, urging the latter to join him in his games. There are strained exchanges between the two as Daniele tries – rather unsuccessfully – to convince his grandson that Grandpa must work. Naturally, Mario is too young to understand the importance of this, and his actions result in frustration for Daniele at an already stressful time. As such, a sort of battle of wits plays out between the two individuals as Daniele constantly tries to outmanoeuvre the youngster, albeit with limited success.

I whipped around, I burst out:

– Who said you could take over the remote, who said you could change the channel?

Mario was scared. He replied:

– I asked you, Grandpa, and you said yes.

I extended an angry arm and he immediately handed back the remote control. I tried to go back to my friend, muttering, disgruntled, all the while, but I couldn’t remember the channel.

– You have to put in the number, the child said, agitated.

– Quiet.

I skipped from one channel to the next, I found the right one, but my friend wasn’t on anymore. I threw the remote onto the sofa and said, with fake calm:

– Go to bed right now, right away.

But I did nothing to see this command through. Instead I left the room, I roamed through the house, I turned on lights, I heard myself muttering disjointed sentences in dialect. I was now not only spent to the point of instability, but unhappy, as if every unhappy moment in my life had decided to gather together in that house, in that moment. (pp.101-2)

As Daniele struggles with his drawings for The Jolly Corner, there are other ghosts for him to contend with too – those from his own childhood in Naples many years ago. The return to his old family home – the apartment once belonged to Daniele’s parents – forces Daniele to reflect on his youth and the relatively humble nature of his upbringing. The local neighbourhood was a frightening place back then; gambling and corruption were rife, as were looting, theft and violence. Daniele has always considered himself lucky to have escaped the poverty of his childhood, securing a release from an impoverished life by way of his artistic talents and ambitions. Now the city is alive with ghosts for Daniele, powerful reminders of the path he may well have taken had he not been so keen to break away.

In essence, Mario’s boundless energy and intelligence come together to act as a catalyst, forcing Daniele to confront his own inadequacies and limitations. He feels old, jaded and somewhat obsolete, superseded by younger, more proactive artists who are eagerly snapping at his heels. A phone call from his disgruntled publisher – unhappy with Daniele’s initial drafts for the book – exacerbates the situation, leaving Daniele with a need to feel respected and valued at a vulnerable time.

Here though – I said to myself – are signs of decline I can’t ignore any more, as violent as dreams that crack glass: the offensive call from my publisher; the worn-out imagination I couldn’t manage to revive; and my daughter, my only daughter, who’d ensnared me, unawares, in the role of the elderly grandfather. (p. 72)

A pivotal scene brings everything to a head, prompting Daniele to use all his ingenuity and skill in an attempt to get Mario on side, particularly in this moment of crisis. To reveal too much about this aspect of the book would spoil things; suffice it to say that the sequence in question is tense, compelling and ultimately satisfying.

I loved this thoughtful, thoroughly engaging novel, and would highly recommend it to book groups and individual readers alike. There are some striking insights into the human condition here, particularly around our fears of ageing, the ways our lives are shaped by the choices of our youth, and our need to feel worthwhile and appreciated, irrespective of our age or personal circumstances.

My thanks to the lovely Marina Sofia, who gave me a copy of this book as a present; I definitely owe her something special in return.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.

As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.

Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.

She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)

Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.

She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)

Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.

More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.

Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case. (p. 27)

I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.

Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.

The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.

(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)

The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.