This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.
These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.
Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill
A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.
The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor
This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!
Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.
Chatterton Square by E. H. Young
Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.
The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)
Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.
The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff
During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.
Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.
- Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.
- The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
- Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.
- Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
- The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!
All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…
What a lovely list!
Thanks, Marina. Merry Christmas to you!
Thank you, some I have read but, of course, more for my list. Especially William Trevor who I enjoy so much and Laurie Colwin, I know you’ve recommended her before so must try her soon. Again, I think I’ll just carry on reading what you’re reading!
If anyone is looking for a chunky read over the holidays I’m enjoying Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads.
Happy Christmas to you and your readers and, hopefully, a less complicated 2022.
Lovely! The Trevor is quite dark and twisted, much more so than his later work, but if you’re up for something malevolent and mischievous then it very much fits the bill. Laurie Colwin has been a joyous discovery for me this year, courtesy of fellow blogger Dorian, a longstanding fan. I think you’d like her a lot. And many thanks for recommending Crossroads. It’s been years since I last read any Franzen, but I recall enjoying The Corrections very much, and this new one sounds like a real return to form.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, and all the best for the year ahead – as you say, let’s hope it’s less stressful than 2021. X
I keep meaning to try the Matute as I read and reviewed a bilingual edition of her (very) short stories a good while back…
I think it’s tremendous – very powerful and visceral, with an excellent use of imagery to accentuate the island’s horrors. I think you’d like it, Tony.
So many temptations in this list. I’m particularly drawn to Chatterton Square, the period between the wars is a fascinating one. Fortnight in September caught my interest when I heard some snatches of the radio adaptation.
Chatterton is great – full of interesting characters and contrasts, while the political dynamics of the period feel central to novel’s ‘fabric’ (if that makes sense). I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
Lots of readers seem to have picked up on the Sherriff as a result of that Book at Bedtime reading – partly because the narrator did such a great job of it, carefully reflecting the novel’s tone and general rhythm. Not always easy to do, especially with an older book, but he managed it brilliantly.
That might explain why I haven’t been able to get a copy from the library – there is a very long queue
Lovely to see William Trevor and Nella Larsen on your list. A very happy Christmas to you, Jacqui. Fingers crossed for a calmer 2022.
Thanks, Susan. A very Happy Christmas to you, too, and all the best for 2022 – reading-wise and otherwise!
What a fabulous list Jacqui, I also loved Black Narcissus and am planning to read that Trevor next March. Merry Christmas!
I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Trevor, Cathy. It’s definitely somewhat different to his later work, especially in tone. Marry Christmas to you, too! I hope you have a lovely break.
Black Narcissus is the one here that you most make me want to read, but I’m really intrigued by the Margaret Kennedy, as I’ve enjoyed but also been a bit baffled by the ones of hers that I’ve already read: somehow she makes me feel I’m not quite *getting* it.
Black Narcissus was my first by Godden, but I’d definitely like to read more. She conveys such a wonderful sense of place in that novel – very atmospheric and evocative, the sort of impression that leaves its mark on the reader. It reminded me a little of Olivia Manning’s books in that respect, the way they capture the cultural ‘feel’ of a setting, if that makes sense.
I’ve only read one other novel by Kennedy, (The Constant Nymph), so my experience of her is still pretty limited…but if it’s any help, I think The Feast is the better of the two. For starters, it doesn’t have the problematic sexual or racial issues of The Nymph, plus it’s entertaining too – a marvellous bit of escapism with some interesting points at its heart!
I’ve also read The Ladies of Lyndon and Together and Apart (which I liked quite a bit). I taught Nymph in a class and the students actually really liked it – more than I do, which was interesting! I found her book about the novel also really engaging (Outlaws on Parnassus).
That is interesting about Nymph, although I can imagine the coming-of-age elements appealing to young readers. Maybe we’re more sensitised to the problematic parts because we’re older and see the situation from a different angle? It’s an interesting one to consider…
I’m glad to hear that you liked Together and Apart as another reader recommended that to me a few years ago, likening it to some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work (not sure how accurate that is, but it’s definitely a selling point for me). I’d like to read it for sure, especially given your endorsement!
Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton? I’m intrigued and I must read! The Fortnight in September is just the most brilliant brilliant book isn’t it? fabulous. What a lot of great reading you’ve had and I’ve really enjoyed your posts thank you Jacqui.
Those ghost stories are brilliant, really unnerving! Oddly enough, it’s about a year since I read them but some of the key scenes and twists are still cutting though. Definitely recommended, as long as you don’t mind being spooked!
Black Narcissus I’ve already picked up and plan to read soon. The Larsen I recently bought, I think in thanks to your review actually. The one that stood out on the list though for me, like for BookerTalk, is Chatterton Square which I’d missed (or have forgotten). Frankly on a short description it sounds a bit dull and forgettable, but execution is everything isn’t it? I’ll look out for it.
Great! Just replied to you about Narcissus in the first post, so I won’t repeat that here, other than to say it’s a terrific choice.
Passing is remarkable, such an interesting book for its time. Given that it was written nearly 100 years ago, it actually feels surprisingly timeless, almost as it could have been set in the 1950s or ’60s, or possibly one of a number of points in 20th century. It also made me think about how we’ve all ‘passed’ in one sense or another at some point in our lives, whether that’s socially, intellectually, culturally…or possibly racially, as is the case here. I guess there’s a broader significance to the concept of passing that goes above and beyond the situation Larsen explores in her novel. I’ll be fascinated to see what you think of it!
Chatterton is great – and you’re right, execution is everything – but I’m not entirely sure that it would be your kind of book. Have you read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners? If not, may I steer you in that direction instead? The era is broadly similar, maybe a little earlier than Chatteron, and there’s a similarly pompous prig at the centre of the book. But given that you’ve read and enjoyed another Armin before, I feel it might be a better fit. That’s not to say you wouldn’t like the Young – you might well do! – but there’s something holding me back from recommending it to you more strongly.
A wonderful list of older books, Jacqui – several of which I have read and loved. Interested in your comments about Elizabeth Taylor – as you know I had a year of reading her, and I think that even ‘minor’ Taylor is head and shoulders above many writers. Even in the books when her plotting might be lighted, her characterisation is always spot on. Looking back at my review, I actually found this a particularly strong Taylor and it’s perhaps unusual with a male central character. Totally agree that it’s a gem!
Yes, definitely agree with you about second-tier Taylors. Funnily enough, I actually preferred The Sleeping Beauty to In a Summer Season (which lots of other readers seem to love). That said, even in her ‘lesser’ novels there are flashes of brilliance, typically in certain scenes or character portraits. It’s her skill in creating vivid secondary characters that often sets her apart from other writers – her mothers, mothers-in-law, char ladies and older, slightly befuddled / eccentric men are all brilliantly realised. I’ll take a look at your review of The Sleeping Beauty a little later, just to see how our thoughts compare!
I’ve done something similar with my ‘books of the year’ – it feels more like you are comparing like with like. Sleeping Beauty was my first Elizabeth Taylor – I remember it distinctly as I got it out the library just before I went into hospital for an operation! As you know, I also rated The Island.
Yes, that’s just what I thought. (It’s a wonder that it hadn’t occurred to me before! I mean. it seems obvious now…but at least I got there in the end.) The Island is brilliant, isn’t it? Somewhat reminiscent of Moravia’s Agostino, which you’ve also read IIRC. I’m very interested to see what makes your ‘best of’ lists for the year, Grant – both new and old!
Some lovely choices Jacqui! I’m hoping to read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead for the 1954 Club next year so I’m delighted to see it made your list.
Oh, that’s a great choice for the Club, madame bibi! I’ll have to take a good look at my shelves next year to see what might fit…)
Lovely choices Jacqui, a few favorites like Larsen, Trevor, and Wharton, and a few that are waiting patiently on the TBR. Here’s hoping for a new year with many wonderful book finds and a little more sanity!
Lovely! It’s nice to have some favourites in common and others to look forward to. Wishing you all the best for the festive season, Jule, and hopefully a less stressful year ahead!
What an incredible selection of books, several I love too many favourite writers. Delighted to see Barbara Comyns, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Taylor and Nella Larsen on your pile and I agree with you about the strength of Chatterton Square, a wonderful novel which deserves to be better known. The Fortnight in September is an underated piece of brilliance. The twentieth century is definitely my go to for good reading material. I have read that William Trevor too, but to be honest it was one of his I liked less, he is a brilliant writer though. The Island is going on my ever growing books to buy in 2022 list. What a fantastic year of reading you have had.
Thanks, Ali! I think I first discovered E. H. Young through you, possibly a recommendation or review of Miss Mole, which I very much enjoyed a few years ago. It’s good to see her being picked up by the BL as part of their Women Writers series, hopefully introducing some more readers to her work.
The Island has such a strong sense of place, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. A good one for the summer, so a possibility for WIT Month, if you can wait that long!
I’m really looking forward to your ‘best reads of the year’ list, particularly as our tastes seem broadly similar, albeit with some healthy differences. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Ali, and all the best for 2022!
A delightful account of your top reads for the last year. From your list my favourite was the Barbara Comyns; so strange, funny yet dark. I enjoyed Rumer Godden too back on the day, although the Powell and Pressburger film is hard to beat.
Yes, Comyns has been a revelation for me over the past few years. So dark and twisted, and yet delivered in such a strangely innocent, matter-of-fact voice. She’s one in a million. I’m hoping that the P&P adaptation of Black Narcissus might turn up in the TV schedules at some point over the holidays as it feels like time for a re-watch!
What a great list, and I’ve read and enjoyed six and have one on my TBR! I have had to move away from Comyns as too dark for me now, and I have read the Trevor but aaaages ago and remember that being pretty dark, too. You’ve read some great books this year!
Thanks, Liz, and I get what you’re saying about Comyns, especially given the events of recent times. Oddly enough, I think I have grown to love her even more over the past 3 or 4 years. probably because I know what to expect from her now. She has a very particular way of viewing things, almost like one of those weird distorting mirrors at fairgrounds where everything seems skewed and off-kilter yet oddly recognisable.
Chatterton Square is my favorite E H Young title and I agree with your pairing it with The Caravaners. Both are really well written and interesting reflections of the times. I also loved A Fortnight in September, Passing, and Who Was Changed. I’ve read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s marvelous fiction but not The Sleeping Beauty and I will look forward to reading it soon. I’ve made note of a couple of more titles, too.
Oh, that’s great, Grier. I’m glad you’ve found a few more books of interest, especially as our tastes are so closely aligned. Elizabeth Taylor is such an excellent writer, and even though The Sleeping Beauty isn’t quite up there with her best, there’s still much to enjoy. Best wishes for 2022, Grier. I hope you have lots of good reading to look forward to!
Lovely selection – lots of books I love, and not just the BLWW titles. That’s my favourite Comyns, and I love the Sherriff and Taylor too. And a further encouragement to finally try William Trevor.
I think you’d like William Trevor a lot. He’s very much in the style of a mid 20th-century author, and he can be wickedly funny too. A master of the tragi-comedy, in the vein of early Penelope Fitzgerald and possibly Muriel Spark.
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Oh I love Black Narcissus, too. Have you read In This House of Brede? It’s brilliant.
I haven’t, but I’ll make a note for the future. Thanks for the recommendation. :)