I bucketed through Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (& Other Stories, 2014; 1990), which is like a theologically-minded version of Victoria Wood’s “The Ballad of Barry and Freda”; I then continued bucketing with Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016), a pounding bit of storytelling that makes you fall in love with its foster-kid star and made me cry more than any other book this year. I should probably have read The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter (Virago, 1985) a long time ago, having dipped into it at uni: it’s a great political analysis of women and madness that is ripe for revisiting as we face a contemporary crisis in girls’ mental health.
Penguin Modern Poets One: If I’m Scared We Can’t Win by Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins (Penguin, 2016) is a gloriously rangy collection. Carson was the standout for me. Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? (Usborne, 2015) is YA done the best way: funny, fearless and kind, with a solid backbone of feminism. I passed my copy on to a young friend who soon came back for the follow-ups. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013) is a provocative – and I think correct – work of moral reasoning. Hecht’s open and unembarrassed interest in establishing, and maintaining, ethical norms for the good of communities is rare and valuable.
Mount! by Jilly Cooper (Bantam, 2016) was just horrible. I reviewed it for Literary Review. (It’s paywalled, but I’m sure they won’t mind me giving you the conclusion: “about as jolly as masturbating with a DVD of Top Gear. Truly there is nothing the rich cannot ruin – including, it turns out, a good wank.”) And Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (Picador, 2014) did not win me to her fans. I found it aggravatingly twee, with a story that collapsed like dust under the slightest application of scrutiny.
I know that objectively Oneworld has had a storming year with its second Booker in a row, but subjectively, the only book of theirs I read was Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Oneworld, 2016) and that was a stinker. I reviewed it for the Guardian. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child (Granta, 2012) was not at all what I expected, in a very good way (inexplicably, I thought it might be a picaresque tale about a travelling salesman and his son): not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection, but all-round bewitchingly macabre, with the best metaphysical policemen since Flann O’Brien. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, 2016) is a close character study, finely drawn and emotionally stark. Then I read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (City Lights, 2014; 1914) and never felt quite sure whether it was ravishing or piss-taking, but I did like “magnificent asparagus” a lot.
Two weeks of holiday (Rutland followed by Scarbados) started with Scarlett Thomas’s Bright Young Things (Canongate, 2012; 2001), a kind of nineties-nostalgia version of And Then There Were None with an abundance of lightly deployed malice that would surely please Christie. Rereading The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin, 2000; 1926) is ever a pleasure, with its cruel fates, crueler personages, splendid excess and peculiar grace. Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees (Faber, 1975; 1971) is great collection slightly out of the high ranting style of Ariel: a piece like “Three Women” shows her thinking through the body in the most brilliant way. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (Virago, 2001; 2000) was just tremendous. Pulpy, playful and heart-gorgingly romantic, I loved every single page.
Why didn’t I love Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2014; 2012)? I found it too much tell and not enough show, with characters outlined in detail but never actually realised. But it sprang to life in the last few pages enough for me to think I’ll read the sequel. Back home, I read Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (Virago, 2014; 2013) which cleverly combines brilliant and clear-eyed criticism with my other favourite non-fiction genre, true crime. Churchwell is a great reader and will make you a better one.
I loved A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and so I also loved Eimear McBride’s more-of-it follow-up The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016). More unspeakable trauma! More fractured stream-of-consciousness lyricism! More transfixingly awful descent! But, this time, some redemption too, and a Tindersticks reference that I was very gratified by. Tiffany McDaniels’s The Summer That Melted Everything (Scribe, 2016) came from a reliable publisher in a plush package (my heart soared at the foil on that dust jacket), and was terrible. Overripe southern gothic with an incoherent chronology (the “present” sections of the narration appears to be set more-or-less now, but the age of the character suggests that it should actually be several decades into the future), magical negro bullshit and a false rape accusation thrown in for good measure. I reviewed Wendy Jones’s The Sex Lives of English Women (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) for New Humanist. A collection of decontextualised interviews with women about sex, it’s doggedly unenlightening thank to Jones’s refusal to offer any connecting argument or buttressing factual detail. Read Nagoski (see May) instead.
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm (Granta, 2012) is a captivating study of biography, its ethics and its victims. All the Plath and suicide reading I’ve been doing was towards an essay for publication next year, which unexpectedly includes a quote from Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir (Granta, 2016) – although I actually picked this up for a change of pace after thinking my research was done. Negroland, like Hanley’s Respectable and Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level (which I reviewed for the Guardian last year), belongs to the intriguing genre of “aesthetic autobiography”: it’s about race and class and taste and aspiration and mobility and acceptability, with a knockout section about female ambition and the drive to self-destruction. If I felt frustrated in the end that Jefferson keeps the reader at a cool distance, I also grasped enough to see that my wish for more intimacy was in direct conflict with the dignity that Jefferson values so much.
Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon, 2017) is Cordelia Fine doing what she does best: dismantling the stories that sustain sexism, and doing it wittily and comprehensively. I’ll be reviewing it for the Guardian in the new year. My friend Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Macmillan, 2017) follows up her great YA friendship story Beautiful Broken Things with a sensitive and sweet love story between a mute girl and a deaf boy, which is really about finding your voice. Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (Allen Lane, 2003) is hilariously bad. Did you know that making mix tapes is a fundamental trait of the male brain? The book is, in fact, a pile of one undeniably essential aspect of maleness: ballbags.
Sara Flannery Murphy’s The Possessions (Scribe, 2017) is a great gothic potboiler. Again, look out for the Guardian review next year. I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman. In fact, one of the few things to give me solace since the US election has been making lists of men I’d like to electrify, given the same power that Alderman bestows on women in her book; consequently, I am a living exemplum of the novel’s thesis that non-violence doesn’t come naturally to women.
God, Emily Witt’s Future Sex (Faber, 2016) was disappointing. I reviewed it for Literary Review, and found it sloppy with details to the point of downright disregarding anything unhelpful to its thesis, although it did give me the jump-off point for this New Statesman column about the demise of techno-utopianism. Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) is crisp and melancholically lovely, although it is also, as the Private Eye review pointed out, in quite large type and and surrounded by rather a lot of white space. It feels like part of a (very good) novel rather than the full work. I’d been putting off reading Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, 2013) because come on, how interesting is a book about the pharmaceutical industry really going to be? Answer: very interesting. Read it and suddenly the world of medicine looks like a whodunnit to be cracked open.
Dragon’s Green (Canongate, 2017) is Scarlett Thomas’s first YA. It heads to a weird place about a third of the way through, and that’s when it starts to get very interesting. Look out for it. The main pleasure it gave me, though, was being set in a world where due to some cataclysm or other the internet and mass media no longer exist; and since I was reading this as the US election result came in, I was more than happy to escape into the counterfactual of a world where a reality show bully couldn’t make a Twitter-fueled power grab. Ah well. Good luck, planet.
In those bleak days, the only thing that felt like consolation was reading Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (Vintage, 2008), which I know everyone else read ages ago but is perfect for now if you need it underlining that yes it can happen here, yes it can happen faster than you think, and when drinking and dancing are the only acts of resistance left, you’d better get some blackout curtains to drink and dance behind.
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, 2016), like The Pure Gold Baby (see January), is told from an anthropologist’s perspective, and it’s possible that I just don’t like books about anthropologists. While the writing is often luminous, the overall effect is flat, and characters seem to simply act for the sake of acting. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017) is a low-key coming-of-age novel; review coming for the Guardian next year.
Another upcoming review is Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others (Picador, 2016), which I’ve done for the Spectator. I am very, very excited about this novel and plan to bore on about it to anyone who will listen. Next, I read Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole (Orion, 2015), which is a chatty and funny introduction to the idea of gender as performance. If you tend to side with Nussbaum over Butler (and I do), O’Toole is your go-to for proving that performativity is actually a mighty useful concept for getting under the skin of gender, although I think the book’s strongest in the first half when it’s running headlong at the issue of male power and privilege. Performativity can show that men’s dominance is unjustified, but I’m sceptical about whether that’s enough to convince men to get up and (say) do the laundry or wash the pots en masse. (Disclosure fans: we share an agent.)
And now, and possibly till the end of the year, I’m finally reading something Victorian: Villette by Charlotte Brontё (Penguin, 2004; 1853). I was nudged into rereading by The Possessions, which riffs on Brontё’s epically sad novel. It is hard to think of any book quite as suffused in bleakness as this one, as protagonist Lucy Snowe’s comforts and securities are progressively stripped away from her by death and unnamed fates. It’s a novel where nature and nurture tussle it out in full view: “I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and activity were forced upon me by circumstance,” says Lucy, whose prissiness would make her disagreeable if she wasn’t surrounded by so many even more disagreeable people. And so in the end the Victorians did have 2017’s number after all: it is all so very, very grim.