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; hopeless, befuddled 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!
Absolutely wonderful choices there, Jacqui! Really like this s lot. And a few new to me too…
Oh, excellent. Hopefully it will give you a few ideas for next year. ;)
Merry Christmas to you, Marina. We’ll have to catch up soon!
What an excellent and varied group of books! Some are by authors (such as Brookner, Fitzgerald and Spark) I’ve read before but I’ve not read these particular titles. I’m especially keen to read The Driver’s Seat now to see how it might divide opinion. I read and loved the first in the Patrick Melrose series but not the others and I wonder if I should go back and reread it before reading all of them. I’ve always been somewhat intimidated to start reading A Dance to the Music of Time but you make it sound wonderfully immersive. And Tsushima’s book has been sitting on my shelf for ages but I’ve not got to it yet (which is silly since it’s so short.) I so agree with your perceptive thoughts on Ditlevsen and Strout. It’s wonderful discussing books with you and I always look forward to your posts. Very happy holidays to you, Jacqui!
Ah, thanks Eric. That’s very kind of you to say. It’s always a pleasure to discuss books with you too, particularly as your insights are always so thoughtful and interesting.
I would love to hear what you think of The Driver’s Seat! Oddly enough, I actually liked it a lot more than I had expected to. It’s very measured and controlled – almost clinical in certain respects, which has left it open to being criticised by some as feeling rather cold. Anyway, read it if you get a chance and we can have a chat about it!
The Patrick Melrose series is another interesting one. I had a bit of a false start with that as I read virtually the whole of the first book while waiting in A&E with my fractured pelvis! Not the most conducive of environments in which to read it given the subject matter, but it was the only book I had with me at the time. Anyway, I went back to the series during my recovery and blazed right through in about a week. The first two books are the most harrowing (particularly the first with its focus on conscious cruelty and parental abuse), so if you can get through those two you’re probably home free. Absolutely worth the investment in time and emotional energy as the writing is so good.
As for the Tsushima, I think you’ll love that one. It’s a book that really lingers in the mind, flitting in and out of your consciousness every now and again when you least expect it.
Very Happy Holidays to you as well, Eric. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what you’ll be reading in 2020! All the best, Jacqui
What a fabulous list. I’ve just ordered Territory of Light at work today, so was thrilled to see it on your list too.
I’ve put the first part of the Dance to the Music of Time on my latest CC spin, now instead of dreading the chunkster, you’ve got me excited.
And I just finished the Strout & couldn’t agree more – Olive, Again is simply wonderful from start to finish – loved the visit from the the Burgess boys and Amy & Isabelle too.
Oh, cool! I do hope you enjoy Territory of Light. It’s a very special book, rather haunting in certain respects but beautifully written. As for the Powell…you know, it’s funny. It never felt like a slog or a mammoth task, possibly because I read the series in twelve individual volumes with other books interspersed between the instalments. It sounds as if you might have one of the collected editions with three books collated together in each ‘season’. If so, I’ll be interested to see how you get on.
Olive, Again is just wonderful, isn’t it? What a fantastic achievement on the part of Strout to be able to develop Olive’s character is a way that seems so seamless and yet so insightful too. I really felt I had a better understanding of Olive — particularly her vulnerabilities — by the end of the second book.
Yes it was nice to see Olive finally gain some insight & restraint.
Yes, those ‘light-bulb’ moments for Olive were portrayed so well.
Such an interesting list, Jacqui. I’m not sure if I mentioned this when you were reviewing the Powell series – I have a friend who appeared on Mastermind with Dance to the Music of Time as his specialist subject. He didn’t win but did pretty well.
Thanks, Susan. No, I don’t think you did. I can imagine it being quite an interesting subject for a Mastermind challenge as there’s plenty of material to play with. All those different characters for starters, not to mention the multitude of details Powell employs when fleshing out their personalities!
What a fab list Jacqui! Good to know you had a great year of reading.
The Driver’s Seat and the Copenhagen Trilogy featured on my Best of 2019 list too. And I agree that the Patrick Melrose novels and Territory of Light are brilliant.
Of the ones I haven’t read from your list, I have Look at Me, More Was Lost, A Month in the Country, Love and Summer. Time to bump them up the pile.
Thanks, Radhika. You had a pretty spectacular year yourself judging by the selection of books on your end-of-year list! I think you will likely enjoy the Carr and the Trevor. As for the Brookner, it’s a very carefully crafted novel with some rather unlikable characters at its heart. I’ll be very interested to hear your reaction to it…
A very impressive list of books. It can be a rewarding thing to get through a series of quality books. I completed two series myself this year. I hope to delve into at least a couple more in 2020.
Happy reading in 2020!
Thank you. Yes, I definitely feel that I used my reading time very wisely this year. As you say, there’s something very satisfying about completing a high-quality series irrespective of the commitment in time and emotional energy. I can imagine you felt much the same after you’d worked you way through those sequences by Trollope a few years ago. (PS I still need to get to his Barsetshire Chronicle. One day, hopefully…)
Great list, Jacqui! Tsushima’s Territory of Light was also one of my best reads this year. And I am very curious about Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy… :)
Ah, wonderful to hear that you rated the Tsushima so highly too! That was pretty much a no-brainer for me when I came to compile this list; a book that really stood out from the crowd. Oh, and I think you would appreciate The Copenhagen Trilogy. It’s not an easy read in terms of emotional impact but a really fascinating one nonetheless.
What a wonderful list of books. I have read just a few of them. I too loved Dance to the Music of Time, I am glad you got so much from it. The Driver’s Seat is unforgettable, Spark is brilliant. I thought Love and Summer was a lovely book, I should read more William Trevor soon. It is a while since I read Anita Brookner or Penelope Fitzgerald, I remember Look at Me as being an excellent early Brookner. I have another Penelope Fitzgerald I bought in London when I was with you and Karen, but I would love to read At Freddie’s thanks for the reminder. I really must move A Month in the Country up the tbr I’ve had it ages.
2019 really seems to have been a fabulous reading year for you. I 2020 is just as good. I always love your reviews, you so often read the kinds of things I like too.
Ah…thanks, Ali. I love your reviews too. We really do seem to have quite similar tastes, especially when it comes to women writers from the mid-20th century. And then again, there are some interesting differences in our reading preferences as well, enough to make the conversation lively with lots of opportunities for new discoveries. (Funnily enough, I just stumbled upon a proof of that Virago novel you reviewed the other day, the one by Ann Petry – we had a copy in the back office at the shop!)
I think you will adore A Month in the Country. It’s just perfect for a lazy summer’s day, a beautifully judged novel of great feeling and depth. I can’t recall which Penelope Fitzergald you bought when we were in London (Human Voices?); but whichever it is, it’s bound to be good. She’s so brilliant at capturing all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of these insular communities; the petty grudges and jealousies are very much her specialities!
What a great collection of books! Fingers crossed that the aftereffects of the hip fracture are now just a memory.
Thanks! Yes, I’m pretty much fully recovered (touch wood). There’s still a bit of ligament damage, which may well be permanent, but thankfully it’s not too troublesome. :)
Such an interesting and varied selection Jacqui! I’m really keen to read The Copenhagen Trilogy too and I’m hoping a copy may come my way sometime soon. A very happy Christmas to you too – have a wonderful and restful one, with lots of books! :D
The Copenhagen Trilogy is very striking, all the more so given the stark, pared-back nature of Ditlevsen’s style. I think you’ll appreciate it, but you might need to have something lighter or more cheerful lined up as a follow-on read, just for a chance of tone.
Merry Christmas to you too, Karen. I bet you’re looking forward to a bit of a break over the festive season!
Oh yes…… :D
I haven’t read any Olive Kitteridge yet but must put that right, At Freddie’s sounds great too, and Love and Summer. . .
Olive Kitteridge is great. Truly one of modern literature’s finest creations, a fully fleshed-out character complete with all her flaws and human failings. I do hope you get an chance to read Strout’s novel(s) in the future.
That’s quite a line up. I’ve yet to do my list and I’m reading one at the moment that may well be included.
I’ve read several on your list. Watched the Melrose miniseries and while I had great sympathy for Patrick, who could not?, I also wanted to smack him at several points. Hoping the books are better….
Isn’t it just! I really have had an amazing year on the reading front, bolstered by all that time away from work from Feb to April.
I think your reaction to the Melrose TV series is a natural one as Patrick is clearly his own worst enemy – something he’s acutely aware of and yet almost powerless (or unable to) control. To be fair, the miniseries is an excellent adaptation of the books, faithful to the source material in both content and tone, so they may not be for you? (I had to have two goes at the first book — episode 2 in the TV miniseries — as David’s abuse and conscious cruelty toward towards Patrick was so hard to bear…)
Well I have the books already so at some point I’ll get to them. Not easy to read about abuse as you want it to stop and that means sometimes putting the book down.
Yes, and you have to choose your moment to pick it up again. The first book is the most distressing, for sure. Nevertheless, I’m so glad I persevered with the series. It’s absolutely worth it for the insights and the writing, both of which are top notch.
What a wonderful reading year you’ve had Jacquie. I tried Patrick Melrose and just couldn’t cope, but I am inspired to try the Copenhagen trilogy and the Tsushima which are new to me.
Ah…thanks, Gert. It does feel like a stellar year in terms of reading, plenty of bookish highlights for sure. I think you would really appreciate both the Tsushima as it’s shot through with the most beautiful yet melancholy imagery. Plus, it’s very short, so it’s an easy one to fit around other things. Well worth checking out. :)
I’ll include it in my January read when I try to read a book a day.
Oh, I envy you having the time to read a book a day. How lovely! Let me know how you get on with the Tsushima; I’ll be very interested to hear…
I’ve been attempting this every January for the last three years. Gets me off to a good start for the year. Two years ago I managed about three weekend singing workshops as well. Amazing what one can do if determined.
I’m very impressed!
A great list Jacqui – nice to see Love and Summer on there, a real favourite of mine. I hope you are well recovered now and have a lovely Christmas x
Thanks, Cathy. I’m hoping to read more William Trevor next year. Maybe I could tie it in with your Reading Ireland month, if you’re thinking of running it again in March?. In the meantime, wishing you all the best for the festive season. I bet the twins are getting excited! x
I’m already making Reading Ireland Month plans Jacqui, so yes, it’s going ahead! The twins are mad with excitement, but sure that’s what it’s all about. Happy Christmas to you and yours x
That’s great. I shall make a mental note to pencil something in for March. Enjoy your Christmas, Cathy! x
And you Jacqui, Happy New year x
I’ve not read many of these. As you know, I love Marias and Spark, and Territory of Light was one of my favourites last year. I’ve read Childhood but now don’t know whether to wait for the combined volume apparently coming next year! Of the others, I’d quite like to read Brookner and A Dance to the Music of Time.
Ooh, I wasn’t aware of the plans for a combined Ditlevsen. Well, that definitely makes sense given the length of the three books; although I did read one or two other things between Childhood and Youth, just to give my emotions a bit of a breather! Is the collected edition coming from Penguin? I’m guessing so.
Brookner I would definitely recommend to you although I’m less certain about the Powell. You might find the latter a bit alienating or lacking in relevance to the modern world? It sort of depends on how you feel about writers like Evelyn Waugh, particularly given the similarities with Powell in terms of social class/cultural milieu!
How wonderful! Dance to the Music of Time is a big favourite of mine, too – I’ve read it twice. I’m not doing my list until 1 Jan, as always, as I inevitably read something in the end days of the year that makes the list (or doesn’t get finished quite and makes next year’s list). Here’s to a good year of reading next year, with no more fractures!
Oh, that’s great to hear! I think I’d like to revisit Dance at some stage, mostly because it feels like the sort of series where there’s always going to be something ‘new’ to discover with another reading.
On the subject of these ‘best of’ lists, good for you in waiting a couple of weeks to finalise your highlights. I know I really ought to do the same, but I can never resist putting mine out there in the run-up to Christmas as the festivities begin to kick in!
Wishing you all the best for the festive season, Liz. I’m glad we’ve found one another this year. It’ll be interesting to see which books make your 2019 round-up when you post it in Jan!
Excellent list as ever. Does it never worry you that you might read something next week which should be on the list but now it’s too late?
If I wrote a best of the decade list, which I shan’t, the Carr would be near the top of that for me. It’s just extraordinary.
I’ll look out that Fitzgerald. I have unread by her, but only one and it’s good to have Fitzgeralds in reserve…
And congratulations again on finishing the Powells, though that makes them sound like hard work which they really aren’t at all.
Ha! Yes, I do worry about that; but then again, as I’m unlikely to post anything else until the new year they can just go into the pool of contenders for my 2020 round-up!
The Carr is remarkable, isn’t it? It was actually a re-read for me, but as I hadn’t written about it in the past it felt like a good opportunity to jot down some thoughts this year. There’s something very profound about that novella, an aura or feeling that’s hard to put into words. A very special little book. It does relatively well for us in the shop, particularly during the summer months.
The Fitzgerald is a delight, very much in the style of Offshore. As you say, it’s always a bonus to have one or two of her books close at hand. She’s such a consistently excellent writer. I may well choose one of her novels as my next pick for our book group, probably later this year.
Oh, and the Dance was the highlight of my reading year, for sure. As you suggest, it wasn’t a chore at all; just pure literary pleasure virtually all the way through. A truly exceptional series of books.
Will you be posting a best-of-2019 round-up of your own, Max? I do hope so. I love your blog and miss it hugely. It’s always such a pleasure to read your reflections on the books you’ve been reading, particularly as there seems to fair degree of overlap in our tastes.
I’m going to have to stop reading all these ‘books of the year’ lists. There are too many books that look so interesting and I have some other priorities. Great recommendations – thank you.
Ah, you’re very welcome, Caroline. It’s impossible to read the myriad of interesting-sounding books that catch our eye while flitting through these lists, especially when we have plans or proprieties of our own. I wish you another great year of reading in 2020. All the very best for the festive season, Jacqui.
I’m very sorry that the fracture was partially responsible for the volume of books you read this year, but you certainly seem to have had a magnificent year of reading. I’ve only read a scant few of the works you list here, but that just means more to go on the reading pile. I’m especially interested in the Powell series, the Yuko Tsushima and the Ditlevson works. Happy reading in 2020!
Thank you! I think you would love the Tsushima. It’s a little like some of Yoko Ogawa’s work, albeit more melancholy and humane. Plus, it’s threaded through with the most beautiful imagery. All in all, a very memorable little book. The Ditlevsens are absolutely worth tracking down too. There’s been quite a buzz about them in the literary world over here. Not always a good thing, but in this case the groundswell of praise is fully justified. They really are remarkable, all the more so given the author’s candid, matter-of-fact style.
Happy reading in 2020 to you too, Scott. I hope you’ll be able to find some time to do an end-of-year round-up for 2019. I’d love to hear more about your highlights this year.
You did have a great reading year Jacqui. Luckily, the fracture didn’t keep you from reading. It must have been a dreadful experience. I was in pain most of the year, so I can relate. Sadly, in my case, it kept me from reading as it involved a lot of headaches and aches in my arms. If I did better with audio books the latter wouldn’t have been such a problem. Yeah well . . .
Yes, the fact that I was able to read made it much easier to bear (without books I would have been going stir crazy, for sure).
Your year sounds really rough, Caroline. I’m so sorry that you’ve been experiencing all this pain. I must be incredibly debilitating to deal with on a day-to-day basis, especially when any periods of relief are few and far between. I hope things have improved somewhat for you by now, and that you have a plan of action for managing things going forward. Wishing you all the best for 2020. Better times ahead, I hope…
Just seeing the title Driver’s Seat set my heart racing and my mind scream OMG. Unforgettable book. I may give Territory of Light a try. Iirc Month in the Country is on my tbr. Good selections!
The Spark is something else, isn’t it? Completely unique. I do hope you enjoy A Month in the Country. It really is a very special little book – quite magical in certain respects.
Nice list, Jacqui! Some great recommendations there. William Trevor is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, so thanks for the reminder there. Very sorry to hear about your fracture, but well done for putting it to such good use!
Ah, thanks for your good wishes, Andrew. Luckily, the fracture has healed up now, so I just get the odd twinge now and again from some ligament damage. Nothing too painful, though.
As for William Trevor, I can thoroughly recommend him. He writes beautifully, and his observations on life’s disappointments and tragedies are so insightful. Definitely a writer worth trying at some point.
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