Author, Book review, Fiction, Frank Moorhouse, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.

Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.

First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.

It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.

But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.

A journey to a new life

When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)

In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).

In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.

She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.

Highly recommended read

Did I like this book? Yes. And no.

It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.

But there was so much of it I enjoyed.

  • The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
  • The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
  • The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
  • The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
  • Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
  • The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
  • The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
  • The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters

There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.

For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Alf Taylor, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Poetry, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories

‘Cartwarra or what?’ by Alf Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 156 pages; 2022.

Cartwarra is a Nyoongar word that roughly translates to “silly” or “crazy”.

In the Foreword to Alf Taylor’s book, Cartwarra or what?, the academic Anne Brewster writes: “You’ll understand the power and reach of the word by the time you finish the book.” She’s right.

This is a truly remarkable and engaging collection of poems and short stories from a widely respected and prolific First Nations writer. Despite some of the heavy themes — alcoholism, poverty and prejudice, for instance — that underpin his work, Taylor writes with a sense of mischief: humour and wry wit are never too far away.

 Dry humour

Take the short story “Charlie” in which a 60-year-old man is arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the WA gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. He’s thrown into jail for the night and then released without charge, the sergeant warning him that he shouldn’t pick a fight with Paddy Hannan and think he can get away with it. Paddy, it turns out, is a statue! (This one here, in fact, of Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Hannan.)

Many characters in his other short stories enjoy ribbing one another — or taking the piss, as we might say, cadging money from whoever’s lucky enough to have a few dollars and chasing others for a charge (drink). Indeed, his ear for dialogue and (sometimes crude) vernacular is spot on, bringing conversations alive and making them crackle with repartee and wit.

This humour shines through in some of his poems, too. “Nyoongar Woman and a Mobile Phone” is an example:

No more reading smoke signals
pick up mobile phone and talk —
to who? She might say
the Kimberleys, the Wongis, Yamitjis, Nyoongars,
or to any blackfella’s
got my number;

she scratches her head
in eager anticipation:
Huh, huh,
‘nother ‘lation on the line
‘Yes, my dear. Oh hello’
‘How are you?’
‘What!’
‘You want twenty dollars?’
‘But I got fuck-all!
You got your money today.’
‘Why me?’
‘Um not a big shot
Nyoongar yorgah
’cause I work for A.L.S. [Aboriginal Legal Service]’
‘No, I got nothing!’
‘Um wintjarren like you.’
‘Yeah and fuck you too!’

Sombre stories

But the flipside to the laughter isn’t far away. In the opening story, “Wildflowers”, Taylor gives voice to the pain and fear of a mother whose daughter is stolen by policemen on horseback while out picking wildflowers:

It all happened within a split second of fierce movement. But to Ada it would come to seem a slow-motion replay in her mind. Ada had just barely touched the flowers when her daughter was snatched from the ground, and the troopers held her tightly. Queenie screamed and screamed for her mother. As the troopers rode off with the screaming child, the dust lingered high in the late morning. All Ada could see were the beautiful petals falling aimlessly to the ground, amidst the red dust.

Taylor is, himself, a member of the Stolen Generations and was raised in New Norcia Mission, Western Australia. As the blurb on the back of this edition states, his work “exposes uncomfortable truths in the lives of his Aboriginal characters”.

In Cartwarra or what? we meet an underclass of Aboriginal people, many cut off from Country and culture, struggling to get by. But Taylor also highlights the strong bonds between Aboriginal Australians, their tight-knit family and kinship groups, their love, care and kindness towards one another, and their enduring resourcefulness and resilience.

I much enjoyed spending time in their company.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

Please note, Cartwarra or what? is only available as an eBook outside of Australia. If you would prefer a paperback edition, you can order it from the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Thora Hjörleifsdóttir

‘Magma’ by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (translated by Meg Matich)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 200 pages; 2021. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich.

Thora Hjörleifsdóttir is a poet from Iceland who has turned her hand to writing fiction.

Magma is her debut novel, originally published in Icelandic in 2019 as Kvika and translated into English by Meg Matich two years later. Oprah Daily named it one of the Best Translated Books of 2021, describing it as an “erotic thriller” in which “volcanic desire oozes beneath the thin rust of relationships”. It’s garnered plenty of critical acclaim from a wide variety of reviewers and outlets.

I picked it up by chance at my local independent bookstore (a big shoutout to New Edition in Fremantle where I seem to spend half my wages) because the blurb sounded interesting. I figured it would be a good read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS, a month-long celebration of work from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Fast-paced read

It’s a quick read… less than two hours, in fact, helped partly by a compelling storyline and a layout that adopts a lot of white space. Indeed, some chapters are just a single paragraph and every new chapter starts on a righthand page. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the book, totally engrossed and keen to see what will happen next.

And then — BINGO! — you’ve finished.

And, if you are anything like me, you will feel:

spent

creeped out

angry

distressed

a bit gobsmacked

outraged

icky and

sad.

You might also feel a tiny bit hopeful that the narrator has found a path out of her predicament.

Toxic relationship

That predicament comes in the form of a man. Not a very nice man. A man who is manipulative, devious, narcissistic, untrustworthy and unkind.

He’s good-looking — and knows it.

Our narrator, Lilja, a 20-year-old university student, is in love with him.

She is impressed by his ability to quote the French philosopher Derrida, his commitment to vegetarianism — “We’ve banded together in our meat-free lifestyle” — and his DVD collection.

But right from the start, she’s less impressed by the knowledge he has two children (by two different women) with whom he has little contact, and a recent ex-girlfriend he can’t seem to ever let go.

Despite this, she’s on a mission to become more than a sexual partner: she wants to become his girlfriend.

I love him, but I’m not going to tell him, not yet anyway. I don’t believe he loves me back, but we’re getting there. And I don’t care. It’s enough when he touches me, wraps his arms around me, fucks me.

They hang out together, but he never truly commits to her. Even when she moves in with him, he continues his philandering and maintains his privacy to a ridiculous degree.

He lacks any kind of social skills — he rudely reads a novel at the dinner table when invited to meet her parents, for instance — and never introduces her to any of her friends, even when they are in her company, and makes constant snide remarks about how many men she has slept with.

His sexual proclivities, and what he expects Lilja to do in bed with him, are also questionable.

It’s hard to understand what Lilja sees in him, but she’s obsessed and seems prepared to subject herself to all kinds of humiliations in the name of so-called love. The book takes a very dark turn when Lila begins to self-harm.

Living in silence

The author claims she wrote Magma to highlight the kinds of abuse so many women endure in silence. “Shame and isolation thrive in that silence,” she writes in her preface. “If it isn’t broken, this story will continue to repeat itself”.

Her objective is honourable but reading this I couldn’t help but think the story was mildly gratuitous. It’s sexually explicit in places (you have been warned) and makes for uncomfortable reading (which is, perhaps the point).

The saving grace is the beautiful impressionistic prose. It’s stripped right back but remains elegant and eloquent. Every word counts. And that makes for a powerful — and, at times, shocking — impact.

In telling the story of a young woman whose all-consuming love affair with a manipulative man results in her eventual unravelling, Magma is as much about lust as it is about the lengths we are prepared to go to stay in a relationship.

I read this book as part of Annabel’s #NordicFINDS23, a month of celebrating literature from the five Nordic countries. You are welcome to join in however you wish, with books by Nordic authors or a Nordic setting. To find out more, visit AnnaBookBel.

A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Venice, William Trevor

‘Cheating at Canasta’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 252 pages; 2008.

To kick off ‘A Year With William Trevor‘ — which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 BooksI randomly selected Cheating at Canasta, a collection of short stories that were first published in the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Tatler

It proved a perfect introduction to this year-long reading project, because the tales here, so masterfully written, showcase Trevor’s recurring themes: the complexity of family dynamics and relationships between men and women; the darker side of human nature; missed opportunities; and the ways in which the past has a habit of catching up with the future. Fear and shame dominate.

There are 12 stories in this volume, all roughly the same length, some set in Ireland, the country of Trevor’s birth, and some in England, the country where he spent most of his long life. But the title story, “Cheating at Canasta”, is set in Venice, specifically, Harry’s Bar, where a man, who is losing his wife to dementia, returns to the place they both adored and finds his time there disrupted by a younger couple quarrelling on a nearby table.

Young people caught up in events

When the hardcover edition of the book was published in 2007 it garnered mixed reviews, including a rather churlish one by Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian (which I’m deliberately not linking to) which claimed Trevor couldn’t write about young people very well. I beg to differ.

In “Bravado”, a teenage girl witnesses a deadly assault on a boy she doesn’t know by her boyfriend who does it to impress her, earning himself an 11-year prison sentence in the process. Before her boyfriend is arrested, Aisling knows she should speak up but she’s understandably conflicted, caught between the excitement of her first romantic love and the responsibilities of the adult world she’s yet to fully join. What really holds her back, though, is the fact that she doesn’t want her father to know she went behind his back and kept seeing the boy he had warned her to stay away from.

It’s all resolved in the end, and Aisling does the right thing, but it leaves a long-lasting mark on her:

In a bleak cemetery, Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

Petty jealousy and imagined hurts

In ‘The Children’, an 11-year-old girl (and only child), Connie, handles the death of her adored mother with aplomb — “You’ve been a strength, Connie,” her father tells her after the funeral — and quickly adjusts to life without her.

But when her father falls in love with a local woman a few years later and installs her and her two children, one of whom is Connie’s best friend, into the house, Connie’s behaviour changes. She spends more and more time alone, hiding on the roof, which she’s forbidden to climb, to read her late mother’s books.

And in one instant she turns on her soon-to-be step-sister with the cruel words: “This isn’t your house.”  Connie’s sense of betrayal, of a deeply held hurt, petty jealousy and an inability to accept changed circumstances is palpable.

Teenager in danger

And in ‘An Afternoon’, teenage Jasmin meets up with an older man she’s only ever met online. Her naivety is alarming as she spends an afternoon in his company, laps up his attention — “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re pretty, Jasmin” — accepts the alcohol he offers her and agrees to go back to his house.

Again there was the ripple of excitement. She could feel it all over her body, a fluttering of pins and needles it almost felt like but she knew it wasn’t that. She loved being with him; she’d known she would.

She’s rescued at the last minute — Trevor doesn’t always let bad things happen to his characters — and the sense of relief, for this reader at least, is enormous but hard-earned.

The first is the best

The stand-out story of the collection, however, is the first one, “The Dressmaker’s Child”, which you can read online at the New Yorker, and which I had originally planned to read at the end of the year according to the schedule Cathy and I put together for A Year With William Trevor. (I didn’t know it was in this collection, so I’ll have to substitute that with something else and will let you know in due course.) 

In this story, Cahal, an Irish car mechanic, drives two Spanish tourists to see the “Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg”, a religious icon discredited by locals, and thinks nothing of charging them €50 for the privilege. On the way back to town, he runs over a child, the daughter of the local dressmaker, but does not stop to help. The Spaniards in the back seat are too busy kissing each other to notice the bump in the road.

What enfolds afterwards is a mixture of pure shame and fear and dread as Cathal wrestles with his conscience, even though the body is found not on the road, as expected, but at “the bottom of a fissure, half covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived”. 

This strange development is quintessential William Trevor, a writer who likes to take seemingly ordinary characters and thrust them into unusual circumstances to see how things play out. Most of the stories in Cheating at Canasta contain moments of oddity that change the direction of the narrative. Each tale is an adventure. It’s like getting into a car and not knowing quite where you will end up…

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

This month Cathy has reviewed ‘The Old Boys’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beach Read’ to ‘The Second Son’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeHappy New Year all, and welcome to my first post of 2023.

I have had a refreshing “digital detox” over the festive season (my favourite books of 2022 post was scheduled in advance) and stayed off the Internet for almost two weeks. I took an (excruciatingly expensive) air flight to Melbourne to catch up with family I hadn’t seen in three years (because of covid border restrictions) and had a lovely time doing as little as possible for about 9 days. But now it’s time to get back into the swing of things.

What better way to kick-start my blogging mojo than by participating in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme that runs the first Saturday of every month and is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. It works like this: Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. Click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Beach Read’ by Emily Henry (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which I believe is a romantic comedy starring two writers who are polar opposites. The description on Amazon sounds rather fun, although the reviews are mixed. I’m linking this one to…

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (2019)

In this hugely fun novel with a dastardly twist, a narcissistic writer does everything he can to become rich and famous despite having little to no creative ability. He uses people, steals their intellectual copyright, purloins their personal stories and passes off others’ work as his own — regardless of the consequences!

‘Vladimir’ by Julia May Jonas (2022)

Another rip-roaring tale about someone behaving badly and ignoring the consequences is Vladimir, a campus novel starring a popular English professor who pursues a man much younger than herself while her husband stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles (1959)

I’m not really into campus novels, but this American classic, largely set in a boarding school, is a compelling story about a fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys growing up in the shadow of the Second World War.

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch (2009)

I’m linking to this because it has the word “peace” in the title, but it also shares the Second World War setting. In this gripping novella, a group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy in difficult terrain and weather conditions when their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman — which poses complex issues for all who witness it.

‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović (2015)

War crimes feature in this deeply affecting story about a 10-year-old Croatian girl who becomes a child soldier in the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s. When she is smuggled out of the country to begin a new life in the USA, her past continues to haunt her well into adulthood.

‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck (2021)

 In this gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs,.a Croatian immigrant heads up an organised crime family which runs a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.  

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a romantic comedy to a gangland crime novel, via stories about narcissistic people, the Second World War and the Yugoslavian civil war.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2022

So it’s that time of year again… deciding what my favourite books were in 2022 and listing them here for posterity.

I didn’t read my usual number of books — probably because I changed jobs in late April, then my social life picked up in August and other things took priority — but I still kept buying (and borrowing) them!

I had great plans to read more books by First Nations writers but that didn’t really happen. I did, however, participate in a few “events”, including 20 Books of Summer (for the sixth year in a row), Novellas in November, the 1954 Club, the 1929 Club, German Lit Month, Australian Reading Month and Reading Ireland Month.

I also read every book on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist, something I try to do every year, and discovered some memorable books, two of which are listed below.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my top 10 reads of the year. Note, they’re not necessarily books published in 2022, they’re just the ones I managed to read in the past 12 months.

They are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname and, as ever, hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott(2022)

My favourite novel of the entire year, this is a truly moving coming-of-age story — about kindness, loss, love and family — set on an apple orchard in rural Tasmania during the Second World War.

‘Surrender’ by Bono (2022)

An intimate, warm and humourous memoir, structured around 40 U2 songs, which reveals the author can write prose as well as he can write song lyrics. [Note, not yet reviewed on this site.]

Assembly by Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown (2021)

A scathing examination of institutional racism, this novella is framed around a successful Black woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her white boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (2008)

The dark side of motherhood comes to the fore in this slim novella in which a middle-aged woman takes a holiday on the Italian coast but soon discovers the past has come back to haunt her. [Note, not yet reviewed on this site.]

‘Beautiful Screaming of Pigs’ by Damon Galgut (1991)

A former South African soldier recovering from a mental breakdown goes on a road trip with his mother on the eve of the first free election in South West Africa.

‘Bright Things Burning’ by Lisa Harding (2021)

It’s the confidential, strained and disbelieving voice that gives this novel about an alcoholic woman whose life goes off the rails its unique and compelling twist.

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty (2018)

An intimate portrait of a long marriage between two retired people begins to unravel when the pair go to Amsterdam for a midwinter break.

‘Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor (2022)

A bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson (2021)

This melancholic novel reacquaints Per Petterson fans with Arvid, a recurrent character, who is newly divorced and clinging to the routines that mean something to him.

‘Red Dirt Talking’ by Jacqueline Wright (2012)

Life in an outback Aboriginal community in the northwest of Western Australia comes alive in this impressive and totally immersive debut novel.

Honorable mentions also go to ‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin, ‘Hare’s Fur’ by Trevor Shearston and ‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael.

I hope you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2022?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2022 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson, Iceland, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2018. Translated from the Icelandic by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All is a beautiful tale that celebrates a small fishing community in northern Iceland.

Each chapter is devoted to a different resident in the village so it reads more like a short story collection than a novel. But there are common threads and recurring motifs so the stories feel connected. A woman wearing a white dress with blue polka dots, for instance, appears in every chapter as she rides her bicycle down the main street.

That woman is Kata and she’s the young woman who plays the clarinet in the local choir. She’s on her way to the village hall for an ambitious concert of Icelandic choral songs, but we don’t really find out her story until the end.

In the meantime, we meet a varied and interesting collection of characters, many nursing heartbreaks and heartaches, but all just getting on with their lives as best they can.

There’s the poet struggling to write the piece he will perform at the concert; there’s pipe-toting Árni, a blow-in who arrived just two years ago, that the locals are unsure about; there’s Svenni, a taciturn and reserved foreman in the refrigeration plant, who was molested as a child by a politician who visited the family home; and there’s Ólafur, a banker who was caught up in the collapse of the Icelandic financial system in 2008 when the branch he managed lent too much money to the local fish factory.

This is just a small selection of characters from a wide and varied cast. Each one is well drawn, reflective and flawed, their stories fleshed out via flashbacks or memories to build a detailed, engaging and all-too-human portrait. And because we often see each person from multiple viewpoints as the book progresses, we learn more than they, themselves, might be willing to share, including the nicknames they’ve been assigned, some of them secretly.

Each person has a story to tell and the stories accumulate to build up a picture of a village with a rich and complex history.

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we.

The landscape, or more specifically the weather, is also an additional character. The story is set in Midsummer so there are references to the bright light, the sounds of summer — lawnmowers, motorboats, children playing, birds singing — and the smell of the sea.

Reading And the Wind Sees All in one sitting is advantageous if you want to spot the connections and better understand who’s who and how the characters know one another. I read it on Christmas Day and enjoyed identifying the elements that are repeated across the book, but there are repetitions within chapters that lend the prose a particular rhythm and style.

This is a lovely, graceful  and occasionally bittersweet novel, full of quiet moments of joy, revelation and sadness, a story that invites a second reading to spot the connections you missed first time around.

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, W.W. Norton & Company

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty

Fiction – paperback; W. W. Norton & Company; 208 pages; 2018.

Northern Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break is an intimate portrait of a long marriage between two “empty nesters” who are keeping secrets from each other.

Gerry, a retired architect, is desperately trying to hide his dependence on alcohol. At the same time, Stella, a former teacher, wants to explore her faith by joining a religious order — without her husband tagging along.

It’s only when the pair go on a midwinter break to Amsterdam that things begin to go awry and they are forced to confront the fact that they want different things out of life now that they have raised their family and no longer work. Stella describes it like this: “I’m tired. I’m tired of living the way we do.”

A quietly devastating story

Slow-moving and with next to no plot, the story unfolds gently in the third person.

MacLaverty employs a close observational style that details the minutia of travel and the minor tensions and annoyances that can arise when a couple are confined together in strange surroundings.

As the pair traverse the city, visiting the sites — the Red Light District, the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank’s house, amongst others — we follow their every move in minute detail, eavesdrop on their conversations and come to understand their deep love and affection for one another. But we can also see the pressure points.

MacLaverty switches the viewpoint from character to character with each new chapter, giving the reader a glimpse of the individual mindsets at play, and from this clever, but gently deployed device, we see how Gerry and Stella are very different people, driven by different agendas, motivations and desires.

Through this slow but intimate revealing of personality, a quietly devastating picture builds of a couple who endured a tragedy early on in their marriage and handled it in vastly different ways. That event, which resulted in them leaving their native Belfast for a new life in Scotland, has shaped them in ways that are still playing out 50 years later…

Contemplative — and funny, too

I loved this deeply contemplative book, with its intimate insights into a marriage and its carefully constructed narrative. It’s not overly heavy or depressing; it’s realistic and wise and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

There’s a particular scene in Anne Frank’s house, in which Stella is mistakenly thought to have stolen an item, that is quite hilarious, and there are other more observant “truths” that resonated. I’ll leave you with this gem, a metaphor for the push and pull of Gerry and Stella’s long marriage:

A gap opened up in the traffic, and he walked her to the middle. There was a black four-by-four approaching but they had time to cross. Gerry strode forward but Stella was nervous and held back. He tightened his grip on her hand but she had frozen in the middle of the road.
‘Come on.’ She wrenched her hand away from his. Her whole body was immovable so Gerry walked on across the road. He waited for her on the far pavement. She stood in the road looking this way and that. The black four-by-four cruised past her and she came almost running to Gerry’s side.
‘Some day you’ll get us both killed,’ he said.
‘I can judge for myself,’ she said. ‘But you can’t judge for me.’

Other (less favourable) reviews include Brona’s at This Reading Life and Karen’s at Booker Talk.

I read this book back in August as part of my participation in #20booksofsummer 2022 edition but just never got around to reviewing it. I bought it secondhand from my local book warehouse in January 2022.

Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Namibia, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 140 pages; 2012.

All around us, South West Africa was turning into Namibia. The air was shimmering and bright, as if a gigantic energy had been unleashed somewhere.

Finding independence, both personal and political, is the central theme of Damon Galgut’s novella, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, which was first published in 1991.

Set on the eve of the election that would grant independence to South West Africa, a territory under South African jurisdiction, it’s an insightful look at loyalty, territorial rights, black and white relations, and the long legacy of colonial rule.

But it’s also a story about the impact of violence on one man, the narrator of the story, Patrick Winter, who has been honourably discharged from South African military service after an incident left him severely traumatised. Or, as he puts it, “‘I had a little crackup there.”

On the road

The story charts a quick road trip Patrick makes with his mother to Windhoek, the capital city of South West Africa, from Cape Town in South Africa so that she can visit her lover.

She had met him there eighteen months before while she was lecturing at the academy. All I knew about him was that his name was Godfrey and that he was twenty-six years old. Also, of course, that he was black.

Godfrey, it turns out, is deeply involved in SWAPO, a political party and independence movement, which Patrick had been fighting during his compulsory military service.

But Patrick, numb from what happened to him, has no “desire to talk politics, much less the politics of the South African war on the border”. He ends up helping Godfrey distribute pamphlets, and later attends a funeral of a SWAPO leader who has been shot dead.

All the while he grapples with an increasing sense of dislocation, of not being able to connect with others, of knowing there “was a brotherhood of men […] to which I would never belong”:

I was convoluted, involuted, bent on myself. Like the whorls of a shell, my patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist. My individuality was isolation, my personality an absence. I didn’t connect with the world. I stood outside movements and masses and words. There was too much desert in me.

Reworked edition

Galgut, who won the Booker Prize last year for The Promise, says the book has troubled him since it was first published. He wasn’t happy with the “rhythms of the language” and took the opportunity to rework it when it was reissued in 2005. “It’s not a new book, but it’s not quite the old one either,” he writes in the Author’s Note at the front of this edition.

I can’t compare the two versions, but this one features the simple, languid prose style I have come to associate with Galgut’s work (I have now read six of his novels) and yet it brims with tension and unpredictability: you are never quite sure what direction the narrative might take.

And Galgut expertly keeps things close to his chest, doling out important bits of information in a slow-reveal style, which makes for an intriguing read.

His central characters are normally outsiders, people who are at odds with white South African society, and Patrick, in this instance, is no exception. He’s been burdened with the death of his older brother, killed in a traffic accident, which leaves him with the feeling “that it would have been better if it had been me that died”.

There was the knowledge, too, that I was carrying a heavier cargo now, of guilt or transplanted hopes. And the dread of failure.

And then there’s the whole toxic masculinity thing. Patrick does not want to be like the men around him, especially his father, who is a hunter, his brother, the boys he grew up with, the soldiers he fights alongside:

I would never hunt animals in the bush, or stand around a fire with them, beer in hand, tugging at my moustache. I was pale, I was weak, my jokes made them blanch. I would never be part of their club.

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs  — the title refers to the sound the animals make when Patrick witnesses them being slaughtered — is a thin volume but is packed with big ideas. It’s the kind of story that would benefit from a close reread as there’s so much going on.

I loved its insights into a political movement that gave rise to an independent Namibia and found myself looking things up on Wikipedia as I went along. But don’t let that put you off. This is a compelling read by an accomplished writer.

This one is going on my top 10 reads of the year.