Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, essays, Ireland, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Sinéad Gleeson

‘Constellations: Reflections from Life’ by Sinéad Gleeson

Constellations book cover

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 304 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish essay collections reviewed on this blog are like London buses — none for ages, then two come along at once. Yesterday I wrote about Ian Maleleny’s Minor Monuments; today I want to tell you about Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life.

Before I begin, I also want to tell you a bit about how I first came to know Sinéad. Back in 2007, when my blog had been going for about three years, I decided to challenge myself to read 12 classic works of Irish literature based on this poster, which anyone who’s ever visited Dublin will have seen in all the tourist shops.

Sinéad, who had a very successful arts blog I had been following for a while, left a comment, politely pointing out that that poster annoyed her because there were no women writers on it. This was something I hadn’t even noticed  — at the time I never considered the gender of the authors I read — and it was a bit of an eye-opener.

As it turns out I never did complete my challenge, and Sinéad and I became firm online friends, both on this blog, her (now defunct) blog and on Twitter (and, much later, Instagram).

Since then she’s become a broadcaster, reviewer and editor — no surprise that the first book she edited, The Long Gaze Back, was an anthology of stories by Irish women writers, followed up by The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.

In March this year we got to meet face to face for the first time when her debut essay collection was featured as part of a Picador Showcase event. She was as delightful and as enthusiastic and as friendly and as warm as I had come to expect from our online exchanges.

Life-affirming essays

Constellations: Reflections from Life gathers together 14 extraordinary, life-affirming essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (for example, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, about Sinéad’s childhood illness and visit to Lourdes, was published in the online edition of Granta magazine in 2016, and an edited extract of Our Mutual Friend, about the death of an ex-boyfriend, was published in The Guardian a couple of months ago) with which I was familiar.

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.

It might be stretching it a bit to say the essays are inter-linked, but they definitely share common themes — the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity — and all are highly personal accounts of issues and events Sinéad herself has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors.

The body – its presence, its weight – is both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted. I started paying particular attention to mine in the months after turning thirteen.

Her prose throughout is eloquent, lyrical and, occasionally, visceral. It is moving, often poignant, but free from self-pity. She knows how to craft a story — most essays in this collection have a powerful punch, the sort that makes you feel bereft or emotionally wrung out or simply reeling by the time you get to the end.

Unputdownable book

I actually read Constellations in one sitting, unable to put it down (though, to be fair, it was a rather wonderful distraction from painting my hallway, a DIY task I regretted as soon as I started). By the final page I was a bit of a wreck, the cumulative effect of reading about so many potent experiences, of what it is to live with illness and the battles to be endured when you are a woman struggling to be heard.

It is fair to say I loved every essay in this book, but my two favourites are right at the end. Second Mother, about Sinéad’s godmother, is a devastating account about the impact of dementia on a person and their loved ones; A Non-Letter to My Daughter, is an eloquent poem, fierce in nature but wise and brilliant, too, about being a woman in this world, the kind of message I wish I’d been given as a teenager about to embark on an independent life.

I write this to you daughter,
Place these words in your hands,
To help you understand
The way the world will be
Because you are a girl

In essence, I’m not sure this review can ever do justice to such a fine, wide-ranging collection of essays. All I can do is urge you to read it. But I’m not the only one saying this. Booker Prize-winner and Irish writer extraordinaire Anne Enright, who describes Sinéad as an “absolute force”, says “If you want to know where passion and tenacity are born, read this book.”

If next year’s Wellcome Prize wasn’t paused I’m sure it’d be a shoo-in!