Books of the year

My favourite books of 2021

[UNDERSTATEMENT WARNING] 2021 has been strange and absurd and crazy and stressful and happy and sad and all kinds of things, hasn’t it?

But the one consistency in this rollercoaster of a year has been all the books I have been able to buy, borrow, read and review. I have read so many excellent novels I have been putting off choosing the best 10 because it’s just so difficult to pick which ones to include and which to leave out. So this year, I’m making an exception — and choosing a Baker’s Dozen instead.

I read a total of 89 books, just a few more than last year, and most were published in 2021, but the books I am going to select here aren’t all new, they’re simply ones I chose to read between 1 January and 31 December regardless of the year they were published.

In fact, I made a concerted effort to read older books by embarking on a plan to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May in a project I dubbed #TBR21. I actually managed to complete this but never did a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fifth time and managed to successfully read 20 books from my TBR — all listed here.

Other projects I did this year included running Southern Cross Crime Month in March and #BIPOC2021, which was my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the year (I read 12 in total). Once again, I attempted to read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist but only managed three out of five. (It didn’t help that I was in the throes of purchasing a new apartment at the time.)

I also participated in various other challenges and blogger events across the year, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 (a wrap-up post will follow tomorrow), Bellezza’s Japanese Literature ChallengeGerman Literature Month, Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and non-fiction November.

Phew! That’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito (2021)

A wickedly fun story about a narcissistic, paranoid, upper-class woman who believes her writer husband has used her as inspiration for one of his unsavoury characters in his latest best-selling novel.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021)

Tracing the downfall of a white Afrikaans family over the space of 40 years, this year’s Booker Prize-winner is framed around four funerals, each about a decade apart, and uses a style and structure inspired by filmmakers to create a dazzling novel that feels fresh and new.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy (1981)

Set in tropical Darwin in 1967, this masterful coming-of-age story is about a teenage boy who takes piano lessons from a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past.

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

A brilliant gem of a novel set in the 1990s, it recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan (2020)

A haunting tale of a long-distance lorry driver trying to come to terms with the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

A deeply affecting dystopian novel set on an island in which residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects — including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars — by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police which round-up and  “disappear” anyone who disobeys.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jock Serong (2017)

A hugely entertaining tale of two brothers, one good and one bad, who rise to become successful cricketers on the world stage.

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff (1931)

An utter delight to read, this heartwarming tale perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside.

‘Here we are’ by Graham Swift (2020)

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, this is a truly immersive story about three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

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 2021, I’d love to know.

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2021 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 293 pages; 2021.

Damon Galgut is one of my favourite authors. Ever since I belatedly discovered him in 2015, I’ve been steadily making my way through his back catalogue, and I am yet to meet a book by him I haven’t adored.

I love the recurring themes in much of his work about religion, racism and community, all seen through the lens of South Africa’s complicated history and issues arising from the dismantling of apartheid.

His new novel, The Promise, is his first in seven years, so its arrival came with some expectation. I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.

A family going to ruin

In a nutshell, The Promise is about the Swarts, a privileged white Afrikaner family, living on a farm outside of Pretoria. It charts their downfall over a period of some 40 years, using this as a metaphor for the decline of white colonial rule.

The book is structured around four family deaths, each about a decade apart, and is told in the third person using an ever-shifting perspective — pegged to different characters — to create a free-flowing big-screen narrative that wields a rather hypnotic effect.

(Admittedly, it does take a while to get used to this style, because the lines between a character’s thoughts, their actions and the commentary of the narrator do blur, but once you get “into” the story it is quite spellbinding as it ebbs and flows and weaves its magic.)

The omnipresent voice swings between intimacy and sardonicism, sometimes within the space of a paragraph, and has a gleeful, occasionally witty undertone. One of the characters, for instance, likes to hang out in a particular shopping mall because “nothing terrible could ever happen to you there”:

Though she did see a man having a fit once, maybe even a heart attack, in the pet food aisle in the supermarket. Imagine, your last sight in this world, a bag of dog food!

In another, a woman wants to help her niece…

…but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.

The titular promise, which is broken almost as soon as it has been uttered, revolves around Salome, the family’s faithful Black housekeeper, who is supposed to inherit the house in which she lives and the land upon which it stands when Rachel Swart dies. But it is never fulfilled.

Atoning for a broken promise

There are three children in the Swart family — their names all annoyingly starting with “A” (Anton, Astrid and Amor) — but it is the youngest, Amor, who spends her whole life trying to make good on the promise. As a young girl she overheard her mother, who was on her deathbed, urging her father, Manie, to do good by Salome even though, technically, it wasn’t possible under South African law at the time for Blacks to own land.

But Manie denies the promise was made and Amor’s protestations to the contrary are dismissed  — Amor, it turns out, was struck by lightning as a young child while out on the koppie and as a result her family think she is “not quite right” in the head. Anything she says is taken with a pinch of salt.

As the story unfolds against a backdrop of constant societal changes — “Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!” — we get to know these characters intimately. None, apart from Amor, are remotely likable. All harbour deep-seated prejudices against anyone who is not white, but they are human and all have been shaped by their upbringing and life experiences.

Manie, as the patriarch of the family, is headstrong, arrogant and ignorant. His refusal to take on board his wife’s wishes to be buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery is indicative of his whole attitude to other people.

Anton, the son, is a would-be novelist who thwarts opportunities to do good or to better himself. He seems unable to ever let go of the fact that he shot and killed a Black civilian while in the Army during national service (he went AWOL afterwards) and believes that the untimely death of his own mother, at around the same time, is his punishment.

Astrid, the oldest daughter, is spoilt and stuck-up. When she embarks on an extra-marital affair, she cannot understand why the Catholic priest, to whom she confessed, won’t absolve her of the adultery. Her sense of entitlement is palpable.

By comparison, Amor is deeply ashamed of her family. She cuts herself off from them, moves to Durban and devotes herself to helping others, becoming a  palliative care nurse on a HIV ward. It is here that she can atone for her family’s broken promise, all the while holding on to the idea that maybe at some point in the future she can honour it.

Personal made political

The Promise is a wide-ranging novel that deals with big themes, not least of which is religion, racism, integrity, honour and loyalty.

By focusing on the microcosm of a single family, Galgut highlights what has happened to South African society from the 1980s to now. As the narrative moves through time, history is brought to life in a way that feels real — using sporting events and political change, for example, as signifiers of certain periods.

The mellifluous prose is light and fluid and joyous to read. Yes, it meanders, but it’s the uncertainty of the journey and the ever-changing multiple viewpoints that provides the flavour of this accomplished novel. And while the overall subject matter is weighty, the humourous one-liners and funny commentary lighten the mood.

I’m not sure this “review” articulates the brilliance of this novel. It’s taken me two weeks to put my thoughts together, but even then I am at a loss to express how deeply affecting it is, how it marries the past with the present, how it shows the Swarts as products of their time but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions about their place in history and whether it is ever possible to atone for past mistakes.

The Promise has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, which will be announced on 3 November 2021.

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers blog and Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beezus and Ramona’ to ‘The Well’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

This month, the starting book is…

Beezus and Ramona’ by Beverly Cleary (2020)
I haven’t read this book. Indeed, I am not familiar with this author’s work at all. I know she writes for children and that she recently died, aged 104. I had to look up this title on Amazon to find out what it was about and it tells me it is “a humorous portrayal of the ups and downs of sisterhood”, which made me think about all the novels I had read featuring sisters… so the first link in the chain is…

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (2020)
This literary novel, which I read last year, is about two estranged sisters who grew up in the remote gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. One of the sisters is widowed relatively young after her husband dies of mesothelioma, a malignant tumour that is caused by inhaled asbestos fibres. This made me think of…

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston (2018)
Set in Wittennoom, Western Australia, this novel looks at the town’s deadly legacy in which hundreds of asbestos miners developed terminal mesothelioma. The story follows two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. This made me think of…

‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut (2003)
Set in the “new” post-apartheid South Africa, this novel is about a staff doctor working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a younger newly qualified doctor. This medical pairing is a metaphor for the new South Africa versus the old South Africa, but it is also an intriguing look at what happens to people living in isolated communities, where relationships between people can become strained and oppressive because they are living in such close proximity to one another. This made me think of…

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing (1950)
Lessing’s debut novel, this astonishingly gripping story is set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It’s about a marriage between a “town girl” and a farmer which slowly begins to unravel over time, culminating in a murder. This marriage, under pressure on a farm, reminds me of…

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings (2001)
This lyrically written novella follows the course of a marriage between two incompatible people in interwar Australia. The couple lives in an old house on an 800-acre irrigated farm 500 miles from the nearest city. The isolation puts a lot of strain on everyone. The intensity of the story and the strangeness of the relationship made me think of…

the well

‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Set on a sheep and wheat farm in rural Western Australia, the story charts the story of two women, an elderly widow and the young woman she “adopts” as a kind of daughter figure. It follows what happens when the pair, driving too fast, accidentally hit a creature on the farm track. They dispose of the body by pushing it down the farm’s unused well, which is covered over with a tin roof, but is it human or animal?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a children’s story about sisters to a strange and almost Gothic friendship between an elderly woman and her young companion, via stories set in rural Australia, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, many set on remote farms and about incompatible relationships. Coincidentally, three of the books are by women writers from my newly adopted state of Western Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Book lists, Book review

4 new books by favourite authors

As much as I try NOT to read a constant diet of shiny new books it’s sometimes difficult when there are so many tempting new books being advertised on social media and being reviewed by bloggers. My wishlist seems to grow exponentially by the day!

To make matters worse, four of my favourite writers are due to have new novels published this year: John Banville (Irish), Damon Galgut (South African), Per Petterson (Norwegian) and Colm Tóibín (Irish).

Here’s some more information about the books, arranged in order of publication date and with details lifted from publisher websites:

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Publication date: June, in UK and Australia

“The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.”

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson
Publication date: August, in UK and Australia

“In 1992 Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight and divorced. Turid has left with their three girls, slipping into her young, exuberant crowd of friends, ‘the colourful’, and a new house with no trace of their previous life together. More than a year has passed since the tragic accident that took his parents and two of his brothers. Existence has become a question of holding on to a few firm things. Loud, smoky bars, whisky, records, company for the night and taxis home. Or driving his Mazda into the stunning, solitary landscape outside of Oslo, sleeping in the car when his bed is an impossible place to be, craving a connection that is always just beyond reach. At some point, the girls decide against weekend visits with their dad. Arvid suspects that his eldest daughter, Vigdis, sees what kind of a man he really is. Adrift and inept, paralysed by grief. And maybe she’s right to keep her distance from his lonely life. Is there any redemption for a man in his situation? When Arvid has lost or been left by all those dear to him and feels his life unravelling, perhaps there is still a way forward.”

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: September, in UK and Australia

“The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville
Publication date: October, in UK and Australia

“When Dublin pathologist Quirke glimpses a familiar face while on holiday with his wife, it’s hard, at first, to tell whether his imagination is just running away with him. Could she really be who he thinks she is, and have a connection with a crime that nearly brought ruin to an Irish political dynasty? Unable to ignore his instincts, Quirke makes a call back home and Detective St John Strafford is soon dispatched to Spain. But he’s not the only one on route: as a terrifying hitman hunts down his prey, they are all set for a brutal showdown.”

Are there any books here you would be keen to read? What books are you looking forward to this year?

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel that bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Africa, TBR40

‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 249 pages; 2009.

Money, morality, loneliness and being true to yourself are the central themes in Damon Galgut’s sixth novel, The Imposter, first published in 2008.

Set in the “new” South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid, it tells the tale of Adam Napier, an unmarried white man, who loses his job and his home and then reinvents himself as a struggling poet.

Rejecting his younger brother’s offer of a job working in his (dubious) property development company, he heads to a remote township in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the Western Cape. He moves into a decrepit four-roomed house, with an overgrown garden, which his brother bought years ago but never lived in.

The house, filled with dust and a depressing mix of furniture, is a metaphor for Adam’s falling-apart life. He is warned that the place is filled with “presences from the past” and he convinces himself that his own shadow is a ghost with whom he has conversations.

He has one neighbour, whom he dubs the “Blue Man” because he’s always wearing blue overalls, but the pair rarely speak — it takes months before either of them is prepared to acknowledge the other’s existence. And even then they “dance” around each other, frightened of what might ensue if they develop a friendship.

Struggling writer

Adam struggles to put pen to paper and fails to write a single poem. And even when the local mayor orders him to clean up his overgrown garden or risk being fined, he doesn’t pull out any weeds, nor chop down the offending trees he’s been told to remove. It’s like he settles into a gripping listlessness and doesn’t know how to shake it off.

From this ennui, he’s offered a reprieve of sorts when he runs into an old childhood friend, Canning, who has inherited a large estate called Gondwana, comprising a hunting lodge and safari park, a short drive away. He invites Adam to come to stay for the weekend and he accepts, even though he can’t quite place Canning in his memory.

As soon as he meets Canning’s exotic black wife, Baby, he’s drawn into the couple’s lavish lifestyle, spending every weekend at their home, drinking fine wine, eating great food and exploring the stunning landscape. But there’s something not quite right. Canning is too effusive, too needy, too generous and Adam is too embarrassed to admit he can’t remember a thing about him from their school days.

Meanwhile Baby, enigmatic and mysterious, become’s Adam’s muse, sparking his imagination and giving him the inspiration to finally compose those elusive poems he’s been so desperate to write.

As the narrative progresses, Adam’s friendships, with both Canning and Baby, come under strain — in different ways — and a sense of foreboding ensues. As he unwittingly becomes drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption, with all-too sinister implications, one wonders where — and how — it’s all going to end.

A literary thriller

The Imposter is the kind of novel that draws you in. It reads like a literary thriller, but it’s really a dark exposé of modern South Africa, highlighting how the new world is colliding with the old, how some people — both black and white — are becoming incredibly wealthy, while others are still living lives of servitude.

Through Adam’s eyes we see how personal ethics are challenged on every front as the country finds its new feet and we also see the deadly repercussions that can result if you put your head above the parapet.

The book features Galgut’s typically dreamy prose, which has an almost fable-like quality to it (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King). He uses simple language but has an eye for poetic detail and his descriptions of the savannah landscape, for instance, are especially evocative. He also has an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue.

But what made the story so compelling for me — and made me keep speedily turning the pages — was the slow build up of suspense and the dark undercurrents bubbling away underneath the surface.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought The Imposter was a terrific read — and one that only furthers my admiration for this very talented writer.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 24th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in August 2017 as part of my plan to read his entire back catalogue. As it currently stands I’ve now read five of his novels — there are three more to go!

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2018

books-of-the-yearSo, another year draws to a close, which means it’s time to sum up my reading over the past 12 months.

I read 68 books, quite a bit down on previous years, but I read a higher percentage of women (62 per cent) than ever before.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects, with mixed results.

On first impressions, I’d say it was a relatively mediocre reading year for me, and going back through my reviews I can see that it was a definite year of two halves, with the first being particularly strong and the second being much weaker.

So here’s my list — a mix of old and new, heavily weighted towards Australian novels with a handful by authors from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and South Africa  The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

The sound of my voice

The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (1987)
The day-to-day struggles of a biscuit factory executive who is also a high-functioning alcoholic.

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

The Sinners’ Bell by Kevin Casey (1968)
A heart-rending portrait of a doomed marriage set in small town Ireland.

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut (1995)
Suspenseful South African novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

Fairyland by Sumner Lock Elliott (1990)
Thinly veiled memoir about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in 1930s/40s Sydney.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Passage of Love

The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (2018)
Fictionalised account of the author’s own life trying to pursue a writing career at the expense of his marriage and financial security.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (2018)
Beautifully evoked portrayal of a father’s grief masquerading as a treacherous road journey across a snowy British landscape.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (2018)
Fast-paced tale about a teenage boy on the run through some of the outback’s most inhospitable territory.

Hope you’ve had an exciting reading year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2018?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2018 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

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

‘Small Circle of Beings’ by Damon Galgut

Small Circle of Beings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 224 pages; 2012.

First published in 2005, Small Circle of Beings, by Damon Galgut, comprises a novella and four short stories.

All five narratives in the book venture into very dark territory and all are set within the confines of the family unit, what Galgut terms a “small circle of beings”.

Childhood illness

It is the titular novella which is perhaps the most disturbing story of them all. In it we meet a cowardly mother who fails to take her nine-year-old child to hospital when he is seriously ill because she puts her needs before her son’s: she is scared of the city and does not want to leave their secluded home on a dusty road in the mountains. Her husband, a farmer, is no better. He is emotionally detached, “keeps his distance and speaks of silly things”. He does not love his son.

When a doctor pronounces that there is nothing wrong with their child they accept his proclamation, but things get worse and David is later found to have a strange growth in his throat, which puts his life at risk.

In this account of two parents struggling to come to terms with their son’s illness in vastly different ways, Galgut throws a light on the tensions and strains between husbands and wives forced to confront their greatest fears: the loss of a child. He shows how different priorities — a mother’s over a father’s, for instance — can have devastating consequences for all involved, and how incidents from our childhood can have far-reaching repercussions long into our adult lives.

Written in delicate prose from the mother’s point of view, Small Circle of Beings wavers between claustrophobia and anxiety, love and anger. It is emotionally complex and the reader will find themselves torn between empathising with the mother and hating her for her passivity. I came away from it feeling a mix of heart ache and oppression. It is one of the most memorable novellas I have ever read.

Four stories

The four short stories that follow — Lovers, Shadows, The Clay Ox and Rick — tread similar territory, focusing on dysfunctional families, abusive parents, domestic violence and exploitation of black South Africans, all with an uncanny eye for detail and an emphasis on observational nuance.

There’s not much light relief, but it’s not Galgut’s style to shy away from humanity’s deepest flaws and failings. What he presents is ordinary white people thrust into extraordinary situations. He lets them manage for awhile, then has them flounder and it’s while they’re floundering, struggling to make sense of a new situation, that he looks at what happens to them under stress or when they think their power or sense of entitlement is under threat. The result is not always pretty.

Small Circle of Beings is a book filled with hatred, violence and antagonism. But for all the angry emotion portrayed here, Galgut is a superb stylist, making every word count and creating light-as-a-cloud prose that feels as if it might float off the page. I loved it.

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

‘The Quarry’ by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 176 pages; 2012.

Last year, having read the extraordinarily good In a Strange Room (which made my top 10 favourite reads of 2017), I decided that Damon Galgut was now one of my favourite authors. I had previously read The Good Doctor and very much enjoyed it. Now it was time to explore more of his backlist.

A compelling chase novel

The Quarry, first published in South Africa in 1995, is a novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

It is a brilliant depiction of horror, suspense and murder using beautiful pared back language and an evocative South African landscape as the setting.

The prose is often poetic, especially when Galgut is describing the terrain across which the protagonist is fleeing:

He saw the mountains recede like a bite-mark on the sky and then a charred plain replaced them.

Even the way he describes the chase between murderer and policeman is beautiful:

The man climbed out of the dam and went on. When he had gone for a way he stopped and he saw the policeman come to the dam too and climb in. He experienced again the taste of the water because he knew that the other man was drinking. He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.

Narrative tension

The chapters are exceedingly short (there are 56 of them) but they are filled with so much suspense and drama, it doesn’t take long to race through the entire 176 pages. I read it in two short sittings.

It’s difficult to say much more, because the joy (for want of a better word) of reading this book is being carried along for the ride and not knowing what is going to happen next.

It’s not a conventional story by any stretch of the imagination and the dubious morality of the characters makes the reader feel complicit in their crimes. But this is not a crime novel (as I have seen it described) but a compelling chase novel where danger and violence lurk around every corner.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Beastings by Benjamin Myera dystopian-like chase novel across the wet and wild landscapes of northern England.