I read a lot of books this year, no different to any other year. But I did try to read differently, adding writers of colour and translated works to my usual reading list. I accepted review copies by writers I had never previously read. I read more short stories and essays, more poetry, more non-fiction. Here are the books I loved in 2019.
Kathleen O’Connor of Paris by Amanda Curtin.
Amanda Curtin’s highly anticipated biography of Kathleen O’Connor is part travel narrative, part biography. Meticulously researched and written, this narrative resurrects O’Connor as an artist whose famous father’s tragic suicide overshadowed her prodigious talent. I loved everything about this book and you can read a brief review here
White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad
I found this debut work by journalist Ruby Hamad both deeply unsettling and enormously comforting. It is a critique of western feminism and is unsparing in its detailed unpacking of the ways in which white women have consistently denied brown women a voice. Read my review here
Legacy by Julie Watts
The winner of the 2018 Dorothy Hewett Award, Julie Watts’ legacies are tender and tough, philosophical and unsparing, leading the reader gently into terrain at once familiar and unknown. As Dennis Haskell says, this poet shows us a “world that is closely observed and closely imagined; life is a kind of music and she renders it with rhythmic and imagistic richness.”
Stone Mother Tongue by Annamaria Weldon.
Tracy Ryan notices the “meditative, delicate and restrained” nature of the poems in this collection, also published by UWA Publishing. From the description of Malta as ‘a slight blemish on the sea’s glaze’ to the poem which gives the collection its title, these meditations on history, identity and the nature of stone make this a collection I returned to several times this year.
Boots by Nadia Rhook
I read an advance copy of Nadia Rhook’s debut collection of poetry, arriving early next year via UWA Publishing, whose commitment to Australian poetry continues in these exquisite and intelligent vignettes on what it means to simply exist, in a settler society, as a white woman on stolen land.
Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull
This debut collection of short stories is remarkable in its deeply observed humanity towards the people (well-behaved or not) whose lives are examined, sometimes critically, sometimes tenderly. The clamour of different voices and lives resonate with energy, wisdom and complexity. Never cynical, always thoughtful, Emily Paull’s women are uncomfortably real and compelling. I loved this collection completely.
Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard
This novel has already deservedly won awards and is on several shortlists. What I loved about this novel was its honesty and lyrical intensity. This is powerful storytelling at its most incredible. Essentially a story of the marginalised, Holden Sheppard’s skill in saying the unsayable and in doing so, bringing that important postcolonial moment – the margin to the centre, is exceptional. Read my review here
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
I was sent a review copy of this book which is scheduled for release in March 2020. This novel recreates a little-known piece of Australian history through Asian eyes. Race, language, class, identity, privilege and country are explored with restrained anger and compassion in this astonishing novel which I expect will be shortlisted for several awards when it is released.
I came late to The Poisonwood Bible, and made up by binge reading everything by Barbara Kingsolver, including her latest, Unsheltered. Kingsolver has joined the handful of writers who make me glad I am able to read.
In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie continues her fearless and uncomfortable project of voicing the very things that strike terror in our hearts by examining despair, religion and complicity in a novel so much ‘for our times’ it needs to be read by politicians who routinely peddle division and fear.
And finally, Milkman by Anna Burns is the kind of Irish novel that also makes me glad I have sight and can read. It is a hallucination, a chant, a haunting, a triumph and a deeply intelligent feminist reworking of The Troubles.
There were other anticipated novels by writers I had been intending to read for a while. Some of them turned out to be disappointing.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is a writer I admire, having read The Thing Around Your Neck and aspired to read more of her books. While I was able to finish reading Half of a Yellow Sun, I was underwhelmed. It seemed to me to be unnecessarily tedious, earnest and preachy. Recent Australian fiction like Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip tackles the tangled knot of history, race, identity and privilege (also Adiche’s concerns) with so much more grace, humour and narrative accessibility, as does Sisonke Msimang’s memoir of growing up in Africa as a child of several intersections.
Mario Vargas Llosa is another writer I’ve been meaning to read. The Neighbourhood is described as “stunning, sexy and provocative,” and a “thrilling detective story.” When a murder mystery leaves you bored, vaguely annoyed and unenlightened, you know it’s either lost something in translation or it’s simply not a very good story.
Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer whose novel, Ties, is translated into English by one of my favourite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri. I confess I picked this because I wanted to read Lahiri and figured I would also be introduced to a new writer. Ties was definitely uninspiring, and I cannot blame the translator for this. I just didn’t care that much for the couple or their problems.
And finally, one of my favourite writers, Kate Atkinson, also managed to disappoint. I had been hanging out for the latest Jackson Brodie novel, Big Sky. I found it strangely lacking in the warmth, humour and desperation of the ‘usual’ Brodie narrative, which Atkinson has sustained over four novels before this. I think it referenced the previous novels a little too heavily and I may need to go back and read some of the others before I can truly appreciate this one, but to my mind, it should deliver on its own.
I’m glad I’ve made a smallish dent in my to-read pile and am currently enjoying Australian fiction, Markus Zusack’s Bridge of Clay. I’m looking forward to adding to my pile as the Perth Writers Festival approaches in February 2020.