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.

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Woman on the Edge of Time begins with Dolly, Connie Ramos’ niece, screaming outside Connie’s apartment to be let in.

Blood was oozing from Dolly’s bruised mouth and she gasped a wad of matted paper handkerchiefs brown with blood and spotted bright red with fresh. Her left eye was swollen shut. “Geraldo beat me.”

Soon, Geraldo also arrives at the apartment:

Geraldo pounded on the door. She kept quiet. In the bedroom Dolly moaned and began to weep again.

Geraldo hit the door harder. “Open the door, you old bitch! Open or I’ll break it down. Bust your head in. Come on, open this fucking door!” He began kicking so hard the wood cracked and started to give way.

During the fracas that follows – which includes Geraldo pushing Connie back onto a hot stove – Connie breaks a wine bottle in Geraldo’s face. The next thing she knows, she’s strapped to a hospital bed.

The purpose of the first chapter is twofold: firstly, it shows the power men hold over women; Geraldo is Dolly’s pimp and once they reach the hospital, she lies about her own injuries, saying that Connie caused them. Connie, we learn, has been interred at a mental hospital previously following a breakdown after the death of her partner. Her young daughter was taken from her by the state after she neglected her. Connie’s remorse is shown clearly throughout the novel, however, the authorities continue to use the incident against her. This makes it easy for Geraldo to have her committed again and when her family – mainly Dolly’s father, Lewis (he prefers to pronounce his name the American way rather than Luis) – are reluctant to help her secure her release, it seems as though she’ll be committed indefinitely.

Secondly, it suggests to the reader – and to Connie – that Luciente is real: Dolly hears her speaking to someone else when she is outside the apartment door and when she sits on a chair in Connie’s kitchen, she comments on it still being warm. We don’t meet Luciente, however, until chapter two.

Initially, Connie thinks she’s dreaming about Luciente but then she appears to her on the street. There’s some confusion about Luciente’s gender – Connie thinks he’s a young man but eventually it’s revealed that she’s a young woman. The confusion is partly to do with Luciente’s dress:

…his clothing was substantial and well made. Big heavy boots like the kids wore, black pants cut something like jeans, a red shirt she could glimpse at the throat, a worn but handsome leather jacket with no insignia or gang or social club but instead a pattern in beads and shells in the sleeves.

And partly to do with Luciente being from the future, a future where there are no ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns, only ‘per’ (it took me a while to realise this was derived from ‘person’).

In Luciente’s world, babies are created from a mix of DNA, meaning everyone is mixed race/multi-heritage, and children have three parents of different genders and ages and with different strengths. Everyone studies and is expected to contribute to their community. The only thing they appear not to have solved is war which rages on their borders.

At first it is Luciente who visits Connie but she soon takes her over to the future and eventually Connie realises she can call for Luciente. She does this often when undergoing the barbaric treatments in the psychiatric ward. It’s soon made clear to both Connie and the reader that Luciente’s world needs Connie’s help and for her to fulfil her duty to them, she will have to break free from the experiments the hospital want to run on her and her fellow patients.

The structure of the book moves between the two time periods. This can be disorienting and confusing on occasion and there are some ideas in the future sections that do need careful reading in order to fully comprehend them but that can only be expected of a novel set in an unfamiliar time.

My creative PhD supervisor suggested I read Woman on the Edge of Time saying it was the book she’d recommend the most/bought the most copies of for other people. I can understand why. It looks closely at the way women are treated in a patriarchal society – abused; neglected; left powerless; considered to be hysterical; caged – and offers some solutions as to how things could change for the better – no gender discrimination through neutral pronouns, equal parenting and a balance of education and work skills. I can see that when the novel was first published it would have felt revolutionary, exciting and filled with potential; reading it thirty-eight years later what strikes me is how little progress we’ve made – you only need to look at the Everyday Sexism account to see that the treatment of women as second-class citizens is rife, that’s before you begin to look at the statistics on the number of women killed my men this year; rape victims; number of reported domestic violence incidents and so on.

Woman on the Edge of Time is a brilliant book – a great idea, well-executed – but it is also a depressing book; if it’s taken us thirty-eight years to make baby steps towards equality, how many more will it be before something close to the future world depicted in the novel is realised?