Books of the Year 2016, Part Two

Yesterday I revealed my pre-2016 published fiction and 2016 non-fiction books of the year. Today it’s turn the of the 2016 fiction list and what an absolute corker of a year it’s been. (It needed to be to make up for the dire straits that is real life.) I’ve read and reviewed lots of good books so I’ve been very strict for this list and only included books I thought were superb and would happily re-read again and again. Click on the book covers to take you to my full reviews.

4627425830The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

If you’ve read my review or follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no surprise that this is my Book of the Year. Set over the course of a year, newly widowed Cora Seabourne decamps from London to Essex with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually. With themes of science and religion, love and friendship this book is as smart as it is engaging. I didn’t read this book, I lived inside it. Pure joy.

 

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Eily leaves Ireland for London and drama school, determined to lose her virginity. When she does, it’s with Stephen, a relatively famous actor, who she assumes she’ll never see again. Of course it’s only a matter of weeks before she does and, despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight, a relationship, of sorts, begins. Over the course of a year in the 1980s, Eily and Stephen fall in and out of love and Stephen reveals his dark past. Written in a similar staccato, interior style to her debut, McBride places the reader in Eily’s head and we live out the year with her. Superb.

 
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Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in John’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing. An unusual subject told in an experimental, circular style, this really does linger long after you’ve finished reading it.

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Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways due to their different cultural backgrounds – although all of their issues fall under the banner of patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives, loves and friendships.

 

 

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Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium, listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify and moving through a number of narrative voices, including the body of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae. Shocking, violent and eyeopening.

 

 

coverMy Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. When Tina, the neighbour, calls social services, Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home. Heart breaking and precise, de Waal nails a child’s perspective, writing convincingly about a situation not often covered in literature.

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Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. A new patient arrives, an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh. Jeanne strikes up a friendship with the artist which becomes a catalyst for her long hidden feelings about her life. A wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world.

 

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour. A gem.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman

A male academic, living in a matriarchy, writes a book about how women gained power – personally, through an electric current which becomes live in their bodies, and politically. The story follows three women: Roxy, a gangster’s daughter; Margot, a mayor, and Allie, an abused foster daughter, as they overturn their situations and begin to run the world. All of this is documented by a male journalist, Tunde, the first to capture the power on camera. Violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse, this is indeed a powerful read.

 

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Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

24-year-old Eileen lives at home with her cruel, ex-cop father. She works at the juvenile detention centre where she fancies one of the prison guards who never acknowledges her existence. The week before Christmas, 1964, Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution to be the first ever director of education. She takes a shine to Eileen and Eileen’s life takes a very dark turn indeed.

 

510ryhmdeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa 

Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. Dealing with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures, the tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise.

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Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen

An exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction. Framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund, the story of her childhood and subsequent trip is told mostly through her notebooks. Virtually imprisoned as part of a social experiment by Dr Vargas, Lund’s childhood was an unusual one which ended when her sister disappeared. This is the story of her search for Camille. A welcome addition to the cult fiction genre, reclaiming something from generations of male writers. Hurrah!

Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen + Q&A

A multilingual Russian novelist, poet, lepidopterist and chess composer once noted that the spiral is the spiritual circle: a circle set free. Had Camille and I spiralled out of the circle of life on Earth? Had that first cup of hemlock tea killed us? And then there were all of the other mishaps which could have resulted in the death of my body while my spirit lived on believing that the body was still there, like the phantom limb of an amputee. For all I knew I was my own hallucination. But in the end, what did it matter? Einstein had supposedly said: “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” As long as my imagination was intact, there were no limits. I could create meaning and purpose and that was enough.

Madsen’s debut novel, and the first to be published by new independent imprint Dodo Ink, is an exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction.

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Dodge and Burn is framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund. A notebook of hers containing a manuscript has been found in a cave in Altamira, Spain. The novel begins with an excerpt from it during which we learn about Lund’s childhood, and that of her sister Camille, following the death of their mother.

Their mother died after being attacked by killer bees at the home of Dr Vargas, with whom she was staying. As their father was on an expedition to Antarctica and could not be found, Dr Vargas adopted Eugenie and Camille in accordance with their mother’s will. They lived in Maine, the first two years in hiding as Vargas believed the children were at risk of being kidnapped. They had an unusual upbringing, learning how to survive in the wild, reading voraciously, practising gymnastics, learning to play poker and being classically conditioned. Eventually they were ‘re-socialised’ in the first year of middle school, learning to move ‘like ghosts […] We were to acquire the skills of espionage, infiltration, and sabotage most often attributed to ninjas’.

Occasionally schoolyard gossip would turn to Vargas. The general consensus held that he was a blood-sucking vampire and baby killer. It was true, Dr Vargas did, to some extent, have an air of Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu about him, except that his teeth fit properly in his mouth, his fingernails were shorter and he moved with more speed and agility. Vargas chose to cover his baldness from the world with a thick, black, luxuriant toupee he wore with authority.

By the end of the chapter, Vargas has revealed his hand and been dealt with and Camille has disappeared. Eugenie decides to go to Altamira to look for Camille.

When we next see Eugenie, we’re reading from seven notebooks that have been found in a backpack in Maine, she’s on the run with her husband Benoît after taking the Vegas strip, turning ‘two grand into sixty-three’, and being threatened by casino security. We follow them on a trip (often in both senses of the word) across the west of the USA from Nevada to Colorado as Eugenie searches for her sister.

Madsen’s created a novel that asks big questions about life: who are we? Where are the limits of our existence? Are we just writing our own narratives?

There’s a wealth of information about all kinds of otherwise disparate things in the book and it’s fascinating to see them all brought together. This is a story written on a relatively small geographical canvas but containing a vast backdrop of ideas and imagination. It fits within the tradition of the cult road trip novel – Madsen references Kerouac and Burroughs towards the end of the book – but by making her protagonist female, reclaims something of that movement for the women who were excluded from it in the 1950s.

The novel’s also very readable – if you fear you have an aversion to experimental fiction, you shouldn’t be put off this one – I gulped it down in an afternoon, desperate to know where it was going – literally and figuratively. Dodge and Burn is a joy. It’s a smart, often funny, wild ride. Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Emma Cline’s The Girls are the female-led, American novels people have been talking about this year. If there’s any justice, Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn should be top of that list. A gem.

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I’m delighted to welcome Seraphina Madsen to the blog.

Dodge and Burn began life as a short story you wrote on your MA course. What inspired the piece and how did you go about turning it into a novel?

The piece was a recollection or enactment of a short story I wrote when I was seventeen with a Dr Vargas and killer bees which was lost long ago when I ran away from home. At the time I was obsessed with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway. I had to submit a piece for an experimental writing module at Kingston and had no idea what I would do, so I decided the only thing I could do in that short period of time was to edit the short story I had tried to recreate out of a sense of plumbing the depths of my past. It was incredibly personal and I didn’t really want my tutors to see it but I had nothing else to submit. So it was pretty terrifying when they said I’d had a breakthrough and it was the best thing I’d ever written and Lee Rourke ended up submitting it to The White Review. I just told myself that in making art you had to have courage so I had to face my demons.

The novel fits into the cult California road trip, drugs and psychedelia tradition, which is dominated by male writers (some of whom – Kerouac and Burroughs – you mention towards the end of the book). How do you see yourself within that tradition? Are there any other cult female writers you think deserve to be better known?

There weren’t many women authors of Beat fiction. Joyce Johnson wrote the first Beat novel, Come and Join the Dance, published in 1962, which didn’t have any of the structural or stylistic innovations Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs were experimenting with, and was more like a memoir disguised as fiction. But what was contained within the pages of Come and Join the Dance was daring because it depicted women who were ‘real’ as Johnson saw them, not the demure housewives society wanted respectable women to be. At the time it was perfectly fine for a man to go hitch hiking across America, to drink and smoke and frequent jazz clubs and still remain respectable. If a women were to do the same thing she would have been considered tainted, ruined, and disgraceful. Upright, honest women of good repute simply did not do things like that and in the 1950s and early sixties did not go out without a chaperone. So, because of the civil rights movement and changes in perceptions of women someone like me has the freedom to write about drug fuelled adventures akin to something Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac would have gotten themselves into without the stigma of being louche or contemptible. There is still a long way to go toward equality between women and men, and civil rights for minorities for that matter, but it was much worse for women during the Beat Era in that regard.

With Dodge and Burn I wanted to incorporate some of the energy and concerns of the Beat movement into the postmodern mix, so I see myself as taking aspects of the tradition, venerating them and challenging them.

Alexandra-David Neel’s memoir Magic and Mystery in Tibet is work that comes to my mind that perhaps most people haven’t heard of and is phenomenal in every sense.

None of your characters are particularly likeable. In an industry that seems obsessed with likeable and relatable characters did you feel any pressure to soften them?

With complex characters and challenging situations, I don’t think you’re going to have completely likable characters, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs certainly didn’t. The narrative voice of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was essentially a paedophile. Then there is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Nikolai in The Demons, the list goes on. Eugenie is dealing with severe childhood abuse and hasn’t had any kind of therapy whatsoever, so she is living in this disassociated state with PTSD, trying to make sense of the world. I envisioned her to be a lot like Edie Sedgwick. As my final project at Kingston I was working on another American road trip novel with a DJ male protagonist who was misogynistic and constantly trying to get his girlfriend into threesomes with other women. Everyone in the workshops hated him and said they didn’t want to read anymore because they detested him so much. So, at the end of the course, for fun, I decided to create another DJ, but this time an ideal, who ended up being Benoît. Everyone loved him and thought he was super cool. I scrapped the previous road trip novel and began Dodge and Burn.

One of the things that impressed me about the novel was the amount of knowledge that seemed to be contained within it – literature, music, film, surviving in the wilds, physics. How much research did you do? Is there a fascinating piece of knowledge you can tell us which didn’t make the final edit of the book?  

I have an inquiring mind so I’m constantly looking into things. The knowledge in Dodge and Burn took many years of research, maybe my entire lifetime. There were loads of things in retired Navy Seal Clint Emerson’s 100 Deadly Skills: the Seal Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation I didn’t have the opportunity to use.

Dodge and Burn is the first publication from fledgling publisher Dodo Ink. How does it feel to be the first writer published by a new imprint?

It’s pretty incredible. In my wildest dreams I wanted to be published by an indie publisher like Dodo Ink and they are proving to be even better than what I could have imagined.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Alexandra David-Neel, Carson McCullers, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter.

 

Huge thanks to Seraphina Madsen for the interview and for Dodo Ink for the review copy.