Books of the year

My favourite books of 2015

Books-of-the-yearIt’s New Year’s Eve, so  it’s time to carry out my annual tradition of selecting 10 of my reading highlights from the past 12 months.

Over the course of 2015 I read 80 books (nine of which are still to be reviewed — oops) which is about average for me. I could probably read twice that if I spent less time on Twitter and didn’t have to go to work!

My favourite books come from a variety of countries and languages. Some were published this year, most were published prior to 2014. A few could be regarded as modern classics, several may well turn out to be classics of the future. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, some made me feel sick to the stomach. All intrigued and delighted me.

Here they are. Note they have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (2015)
My favourite read of the year, Kevin Barry’s award-winning novel follows the exploits of a troubled man who simply wants to spend three days alone on the island he bought off the west coast of Ireland years ago but has never visited. The plot, which draws strongly on Samuel Beckett, is full of riotous comedy, quick-fire dialogue and surreal moments of despair and angst. I loved it.


Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
Sara Baume’s debut novel is an impressive achievement. Written in the second person, present tense, it’s a beautiful and sad tale about the year in the life of one man and his newly bought rescue dog. Yet the story is less about their relationship and more about how a social misfit, a resourceful man who can barely string two words together, seeks solace in a world he doesn’t really understand.


The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
This evocative novel (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) is about forbidden love set in exotic Indochina in 1929. It is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life, as she recalls the love affair she conducted, aged 15, with a Chinese man 12 years her senior. It is, by turns, heart-wrenching, sensual and disturbing, deeply melancholy and pulsates with an aching loneliness. It brings to mind the very best writing of Jean Rhys.


Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (2014)
This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The urgency of the writing and the dire predicament of the young narrator — Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old forced to live with her drug-addicted father and his underage lover — make it absolutely compelling reading. It’s not a book to be forgotten easily.


The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year, for The Good Doctor is written in such a lucid dreamlike style I felt I couldn’t function in the real world until I’d finished it. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a middle-aged staff doctor, working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a newly qualified doctor brimming with idealism. Thrust together in this unnatural way, the older doctor who narrates the story must confront dark truths about himself — and his country.


The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji (2012)
Possibly the strangest book I’ve read all year, this post-modern novel (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is set in Lithuania even though it’s by a Korean writer.  Hal, the 40-something protagonist, arrives in Vilnius looking for the Republic of Užupis — his father’s homeland — but no-one seems to know where it is located or even whether it exists. Written in dreamlike, melancholic prose, it explores the idea of nationhood, and plays with the notions of time and memory, so it feels like something Paul Auster might have come up with. It’s weirdly compelling.


This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held (2015)
I went through a phase of reading books about the Holocaust earlier in the year, and this one left a memorable impression, perhaps because it looked at what happens to someone who manages to survive the Nazi death camps; can they ever hope to find happiness and lead a normal life again? The tale is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior. This beautifully told tale offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated from the German by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds. Deeply affecting — and based on a true story.


The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
The Dig pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control — and then explores the outfall between them. This powerful and violent novella explores rural life, Nature,  crime and grief. It is an intense and immersive reading experience, dark and thrilling, but also heart-wrenching and occasionally stomach-churning. I liked it so much I went out and bought Jones’ entire back catalogue.


Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? It is essentially a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. I especially loved its depiction of life working on a magazine, and the New York setting was a plus too.


The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Proving that I don’t always read fiction that is dark and miserable, The Enchanted April turned out to be a rather delightful, joyous and, dare I say it, enchanting read (see what I did there?) First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners and follows the often humorous exploits that follow. A brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and funny book.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2015?

Note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2014 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Finally, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, likes, clicks and links — both here and on Reading Matters’ Facebook page over the past 12 months; it is very much appreciated. Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! 

Book review, Books in translation, Dalkey Archive, Fiction, Haïlji, literary fiction, Lithuania, Publisher, Setting

‘The Republic of Užupis’ by Haïlji


Fiction – paperback; Dalkey Archive; 150 pages; 2014. Translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I love reading books from non-English speaking countries because it’s the best (and cheapest) way of getting to know new and unfamiliar cultures and to experience the world through different eyes.

With that in mind, it might seem odd that my first foray into a book translated from the Korean language wasn’t actually set in Korea: instead Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis, which is part of the Library of Korean Literature series — a joint venture between the Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea — is set in Lithuania.

But it proved a remarkable and entertaining journey — and if this slim volume is any indication of the state of Korean literature I’ll certainly be exploring more novels from this country in the future.

Stranger in a strange land

The book tells the story of Hal, a man in his early 40s from Korea, who arrives at Vilnius airport, hoping to bury his father’s ashes in his homeland known as the Republic of Užupis. But the immigration officer, who admits him into the country for 48 hours, doesn’t understand the reference. Later, when he asks a taxi driver to take him there, he’s met with a similar response:

“Where to, sir?”
[…] ‘Užupis,” said Hal.
‘Užupis?” said the driver, as if he had never heard of the name before.
“Yes, the Republic of Užupis.”
“Republic?” The man looked even more puzzled.
Hal produced a postcard and offered it to the driver. “Here’s the address. I think maybe it’s not so far from here. It’s postmarked Vilnius, Lithuania.”

As it turns out, the Republic of Užupis does exist — as this travel website clarifies — but only as a bohemian quarter on the other side of the river in Vilnius. But Hal is looking for something more substantial: a proper country with its own language and customs, yet he cannot find it and no one he meets along the way can take him there. This is despite the fact that he has family photographs proving the republic’s existence, can understand the language (but not speak it), knows its national anthem and flag, and swears his father was given a medal by the president.

Hal’s quest to find the republic becomes a kind of absurdist mystery, as the lines between what is real and what is not keep shifting and changing. As a reader, you never quite know if he’s looking for a real place or one that simply does not exist. And, by extension, you begin to wonder if the people he meets are real or is the whole journey a figment of his imagination?

Lost nationhood

The Republic of Užupis is essentially a novel about nationhood. What happens to people who lose their homelands through political boundary changes or annexation by other nations? And what is it like to be a stranger in a strange land looking for a place that no longer exists? Who should you trust? Who is responsible for authenticating history?

But while this might make the book sound rather heavy, let me assure you that it’s not. Instead it’s a rather delightful, intriguing and effortless read, which has been superbly translated by husband-and-wife team Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

It’s incredibly atmospheric, particularly of place: everything is still, quiet, desolate; it’s cold and snowy; the buildings look “glum and distinctly the worse for wear”; and the icy streets, shrouded in mist, are lined on either side by piles of dirty snow.

The city was still overcast, and today it was shrouded as well, with barely thirty feet of visibility in any direction. Pedestrians emerged coughing from the fog to Hal’s left and coughed their way back into the fog on his right. The sodden chill that characterised the weather here must have made the local people susceptible to pneumonia. Before he realised it, Hal was coughing along with them.

The narrative is dotted with lots of recurrent motifs, and it’s filled with characters — menacing, helpful, exotic — who come and go, disappearing and reappearing like the fog that swathes the city.

Indeed, the mood and atmosphere reminded me very much of Japanese writer Taichi Yamada’s ghost story Strangers, perhaps because it’s so dreamlike and melancholic. But the narrative is also marked by whimsy and a kind of magic realism, yet it could not be truly classified as one genre or the other.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved The Republic of Užupis — it’s peculiar and occasionally baffling, particularly as the author plays with the notions of time and memory, but the wonderfully hypnotic prose casts a spell that is hard to shake off. This is actually the author’s tenth novel — what a shame it’s the only one currently available in English.

UPDATE: Tony, who blogs at Tony’s Reading List, has also reviewed this book. You can read his thoughts here.