Tag Archives: Samantha Harvey

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year 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.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.