Some recommendations from the last few month’s reading – wonderful books all:
I stumbled across A Woman in Berlin in the history section of the beautiful Scarthin Books in Derbyshire – one of those oh this looks interesting moments that reminds you to browse bookstores more. The diaries of a German woman – a journalist in her pre-war career – during the final phases of WWII, it chronicles the Russian invasion and sacking of the city of Berlin. It’s a rare first-hand record of the civilian experience of defeat, and the history of its publication is equally fascinating – the first German-language edition in 1960 received such negative reactions that the text was withdrawn, and it was only in 2003, following the anonymous author’s death in 2001, that it saw print again. With its subject matter of rape and sexual collaboration for survival, this is not the easiest read, but what stays with me is the voice of the narrator; the resilience, the dry humour and lack of self-pity, the will to survive. I was especially struck by the author’s reflections on the returning soldiers. The myth of man, she says, has crumbled – ‘That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex’ – an observation which sadly was not to be proven in the post-war era, but makes this even more of a relevant read today.
A Japanese schoolgirl writes a diary which in the aftermath of a tsunami washes up on a remote coastline in Canada in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. I loved the premise of this. Nao’s diaries are instantly engaging (so much so that I missed her initially during Ruth’s chapters); inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s diary, the novel expands to reveal the fascinating histories of Nao’s family, including her ‘anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun’ great-grandmother Jiko, her kamikaze pilot grandfather Haruki #1, and her post-Dot Com Bubble computer programmer father Haruki #2. Exploring the dynamics of power and bullying, Ozeki examines what it really means to be a hero.
I was blown away by Forna’s memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and her novel The Memory of Love. The Hired Man is outwardly a quieter novel, but one that creeps up on you with increasing power. Protagonist Duro creates a slow-burn narration, flitting between a seemingly peaceful present, and the darker memories of the past, as the secrets of a Croatian town in the aftermath of civil war are gradually uncovered.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has an outwardly simple premise: narrator Harry lives, and dies, and lives his life over and over again, each time retaining the memories of his previous lives. The way it is told is gorgeously intricate. I loved the circular narrative, the employment of form to echo theme, as the book moves back and forth through Harry’s lives, with some playful and at times truly dark historical visitations. The relationship between Harry and his one-time student Vincent is fascinating; as are the philosophical debates eschewing from that relationship. This is a great read from start to finish.
Two journeys are at the heart of The Girl in the Road – Meena, fleeing from India across the Trail, an energy-harvesting floating bridge which crosses the Arabian Sea. And Mariama, a young girl crossing from West Africa to Ethiopia, bewitched by fellow traveller Yemaya, who she worships as a goddess. There were so many things I loved about this – the wonderfully-rendered near future setting; the way the two characters’ journeys intertwine through stories and mythology; the fierce, at times savage voice combined with a gorgeous use of language. I also liked the way it touched on issues such as race, class, sexuality and mental health, whilst not foregrounding any of these; the narrative always comes first.
Kapoor’s A Bad Character explores a very different Indian setting. Sometimes after reading something particularly epic it’s a joy to really focus down, and Kapoor’s novel is exactly that: a distillation of a relationship. Poetic, evocative, burning with suppressed desire and sexuality, it’s told in a series of staccato vignettes by a young woman in Delhi whose name we never learn.
If you read one thing this year, read this. Macdonald’s deeply empathetic memoir encompasses two narratives: it’s the story of how she trained a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death, and the story of the troubled writer T.H. White. It’s a book about nature and a book about struggling with grief. By turns exquisitely poetic and unflinchingly raw, Macdonald explores what it means to be wild and what it means to be human, and the at times perilously precarious bridge between the two.