The end of the year is always an opportunity to look back on what I’ve read and see what has really stayed with me. Here are my top twelve picks from the 58 books I read in 2018 – as usual, not everything was published this year. It’s impossible to rank books, so they are listed in order of reading, but I did have two standout reads this year: When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, and Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.
Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor
Fourth Estate, 2017
A teenage girl goes missing whilst on holiday; the shock of her disappearance reverberates with the residents of the village for years to come. The narrative moves seamlessly in and out of the perspectives of a cast of characters, and the land itself, with a voice quite unlike anything else I’ve read; the result is a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of a community in a fast changing world.
Happiness – Aminatta Forna
Two strangers meet on a London night on Waterloo Bridge: Ghanaian psychiatrist Attila, and American biologist Jean, studying urban foxes. A beautifully rendered portrayal of lives colliding, the oft overlooked and hidden side of a frantic metropolis, our relationship with the natural world, and the themes of trauma, loss and survival which are recurrent in Forna’s work.
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie’s contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and deservedly so. Like all of Shamsie’s work, this is a brilliant examination of conflicting loyalties and worldviews which continually challenges where the reader’s empathy lies.
Fever – Deon Meyer
Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
“I want to tell you about my father’s murder.
I want to tell you who killed him, and why. This is the story of my life. And the story of your life and your world too, as you will see.”
So begins Fever by Deon Meyer, shortlisted for The Kitschies this year. I hugely enjoyed this coming-of-age novel which is part thriller, part environment breakdown and part survival story, with an absorbing voice and a great twist at the end.
Rosewater – Tade Thompson
Another fantastic read, it’s no surprise this book has made all the best of 2018 science fiction lists. An imaginative exploration of alien contact and telepathy set in Nigeria, 2066, what really made me love this novel is the brilliantly realised character and narrative voice of Kaaro, which moves between present and past. I can’t wait for the next in the series, due 2019.
Gnomon – Nick Harkaway
William Heinemann, 2017
Near future Britain, a nation under surveillance where every word and action is observed and recorded. This is the framing for an incredibly ambitious and complex novel which weaves together stories and characters with trademark panache and brilliantly baroque prose. My favourite novel by Harkaway yet.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
Faber & Faber, 2017
What an absolute joy of a read. Devoured in a single sitting on holiday, Conversations with Friends is an examination of the unfolding relationships and intimacy between four people: insightful, witty, observant and funny. I’ve just got my hands on a copy of Normal People and know I’m going to love it just as much.
When I Hit You – Meena Kandasamy
Atlantic Books, 2017
An impulse pick-up from a table in Waterstones, this leapt straight into my top two of the year. The novel’s subject matter of domestic abuse is explored in a narrative which is immaculately structured (with trigger warning incorporated from the first page), and exquisitely written. A fierce, heartbreaking, utterly brilliant novel.
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
Portobello Books Ltd, 2018
Narrator Keiko is 36 years old and has worked in the same supermarket for eighteen years. This is a gloriously oddball satire of the many and hypocritical expectations placed on women in society and one woman’s refusal to conform.
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories – Vandana Singh
Small Beer Press, 2018
This beautiful collection delivered everything I want from contemporary science fiction – compassionate, considered, gorgeously written contemplations of journeys through space and time and intriguing scientific premises.
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
Faber & Faber, 2013
“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.” There are some novels where you read the first line and you know instantly you are in safe hands. Kingsolver’s superb exploration of climate breakdown, and how it impacts on those with the least power to combat it, is achieved through the perspective of Dellarobia, a young woman trapped in poverty who discovers a population of monarch butterflies threatened by changing weather patterns. A masterpiece in storytelling.
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan
Serpent’s Tail, 2018
Eleven-year-old slave Washington Black finds himself selected as a personal assistant to the naturalist and abolitionist Christopher Wilde. They escape the plantation island in a thrilling adventure that moves from Barbados to the Arctic Circle to London. Edugyan’s gorgeously evocative prose describes the limits of an unlikely friendship and the understanding of another’s suffering.
I’ve discovered some fantastic books in 2018; here’s to another year of excellent reading in 2019.