Books of the Year 2014 (Part 1)

I’m being cheeky this year and splitting my books of the year into two posts. Tomorrow will be books published in 2014; today’s it’s books I’ve read this year and loved but that were published prior to 2014. I’ve decided to do it this way because (at the time of writing) I’ve read 131 books so far this year and there are 24 that I think deserve highlighting. That needs splitting into two, so this seemed like the fairest/easiest/most sensible way to do it. So, the books I loved this year that were published before 2014 were (click on the titles to see the original reviews):

 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s not often as an adult that you read a book which changes your world view. Adichie uses her main characters Ifemelu and Obinze to explore race in America and the UK and love in Nigeria. It’s thought-provoking and compelling. A potential future classic.

 

 

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

A book that I nearly gave up on and ended up so pleased I didn’t. It begins as the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in Calcutta, one involved in political protests, the other studious and well-behaved, but it becomes the story of Gauri, transported to America after Udayan’s death. Sparse prose and a woman in a situation she doesn’t know how to deal with. Superb.

 

 

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Jake’s a sheep farmer on a remote island. She chooses to cut herself off from the locals but something’s killing her sheep. As her present day story is told, alternate chapters reveal why she left Australia – in reverse chronology. Inventive, tense and told in sharp prose. Deserves every award it won.

 

 

The Awakening – Kate Chopin 

A feminist classic, republished this year by Canongate. Edna Pontellier, treated as an object by her husband, begins to reject motherhood and decides to break from society’s expectations of her. Powerful and still relevant.

 

 

The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever. Fuelled seemingly equally by the compelling story of Elena and Lena in The Neapolitan Novels and her desire to protect her anonymity. The Story of a New Name is my favourite book of the series so far. Ferrante is superb at depicting the type of love/jealousy filled friendship that only women seem to have. The novels are brutal, both in terms of the relationship between the two women but also because of the backdrop of Naples and poverty. I intend to spend some of 2015 reading the rest of her back catalogue.

 

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge is angry. She’s spent years as the woman upstairs, the one who’s well-behaved, who no one pays any attention to because she’s single without any children. She meets the Shahid family and life changes for a time but is Nora really being seen? I loved this book and if you don’t agree, well ‘fuck you all’!

 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Another feminist classic. Connie Ramos is committed to a psychiatric unit by her niece Dolly’s pimp after she attacks him in self-defence and he – and Dolly – tell the medics that she’s violent. But Connie discovers she can visit the future, a future where there’s no gendered pronouns, babies are all bred mixed heritage/race and have three parents, and people contribute equally to society. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure – how far have we come in 38 years?

 

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers who are taken to live with a cruel grandmother, surrounded by other cruel people. A dark, twisted alternative take on fairytales and the nature vs nurture question. Brutal, stark and compelling. I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy in 2015.

 

 

Thanks to Fourth Estate, Evie Wyld, Canongate and Europa Editions for review copies.

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers are taken by their mother to live with their grandmother while the war rages.

“My grandsons? I don’t even know them. How many are there?”
“Two. Two boys. Twins.”
The voice asks:
“What have you done with the others?”
Mother asks:
“What others?”
“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Grandmother’s personality is established very quickly. Kristof uses short, precise sentences to convey information:

Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she’s finished eating or drinking. She doesn’t wear underpants. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs, and pisses on the ground under her skirt. Of course, she doesn’t do it in the house.

Early in the novella, we are told the reason for this: it is one of many exercises that the boys carry out. These exercises begin when they realise their grandmother’s treatment of them is harsh – she’s sold the luxuries their mother sent them with; she makes them do chores to earn their food and shelter; there’s nothing to wash with, and she hits, pulls and grabs them.

Their first exercise is to toughen the body: they slap and punch each other; they strip naked and hit each other with a belt; they put their hands over fire; they cut their thighs, arms and chests, and they pour alcohol on their wounds.

Their second exercise is to toughen the mind. Their grandmother calls them “Sons of a bitch!” Others say worse.

When we hear these words, our faces get red, our ears buzz, our eyes sting, our knees tremble.

They don’t want to react that way, so they call each other abusive names until they are immune to them. They also use the words their mother used to say to them: “My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!” By repeating them, they also lose their power.

This is the crux of Kristof’s exploration: if two young children are taken from those they love, with whom they have a comfortable life and are placed in the care of mean and cruel people – and it’s not just their grandmother, there is also the soldier they come into regular contact with and the priest and his housekeeper and Harelip, who lives next door and thinks no one loves her so allows the twin’s dog to penetrate her – how will they survive? What will they become?

Their story is told by the twins themselves. They blackmail the local bookseller into supplying them with writing equipment, including a notebook. In it they write compositions which they set each other.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not Good”, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what it is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”

By doing this, Kristof has set herself quite a restrictive writing challenge. The problem with ‘flat writing’, as the name seems to imply, is it could lead to writing that lacks depth. However, her skill ensures that this style is used to allow gaps in the writing that the reader fills. These gaps provoke utter horror at the way the twins are treated and at their behaviour.

The Notebook is an incredible book – I use that term to refer to both the content and the style. It is brutal from beginning to end but it is also gripping; I read it in one sitting and when I reached the end – and what an end it is – I was glad I’d bought the edition that includes the other two novellas in the trilogy – The Proof and The Third Lie because really, the end of The Notebook is the beginning of the story.