Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

 

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

 

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

 

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

 

 

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

 

 

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

 

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

 

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

I’m beginning this review with a trigger warning for sexual violence. There are occurrences throughout the novel but it opens with an incident that’s shocking and, I feel, it’s impossible to write a review of the book without discussing it.

A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.

The book begins with the births of our two protagonists – Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot is born to a girl who is ‘only twelve years old’. Her cousin, a soldier, comes to see her in his uniform and tells her he’ll give her a medical examination to see if she’s fit to be a soldier too.

He’d said that he had to stick his penis inside her in order to test her internal temperature. When he was done, satisfied with her perfect health, he had handed her a little red ribbon that had come off a cake box. Then he pinned it to her jacket as a badge of honour for her grand consummated service to her country.

The girl is sent to the Hôpital de Misericorde to give birth in shame like other young girls.

These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub.

Pierrot’s father is named – Thomas – but his mother is only ever know by the name the nuns at the hospital give her – Ignorance.

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Rose’s mother is eighteen.

[She] hadn’t particularly liked Rose’s father. The boy waited for her on the corner of the street every day. He would always beg her to come into the alley with him and let him have a peek at her breasts. She decided to give in one afternoon. Somehow she thought that if she made love to him, he would go away and leave her alone. Which, actually, proved to be the case.

O’Neill clearly begins the novel this way to shock the reader. I’ve quoted at length from the first few pages because I think it’s important to get a sense of the tone of the book. O’Neill is firmly on the side of women and girls and scornful of the way in which society treats them – not just men but also other women who’ve bought into patriarchal ideas of how women should behave. 

She also explores the idea of sexual shame and the impact it can have on people’s behaviour; Pierrot is repeatedly abused at the orphanage by one of the nuns. Also…

At the orphanage, those caught masturbating had their hands whipped with a ruler fifty times. And then they would stand on a chair in the common room wearing red gloves so that everyone would know what they had done. There was a different little boy standing up on the chair every few weeks. And then one day there was the lovely Rose. Nobody could believe it. But perhaps most shocking was the look on her face. She stood with her chin up in the air, a look close to pride on her face.

Pierrot sometimes told people that that was the moment he fell in love with Rose.

At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the love story of Pierrot and Rose. Pierrot’s an excellent pianist and acrobat; Rose dances and acts, her most successful performance taking place with an imaginary bear. After they’re seen by the cousin of the prime minister in a play put on by the orphanage, they begin to get regular work performing in the houses of the rich. Just at the point where it looks as though things might begin to work out for them, life intervenes. There are gangsters, prostitution and heroin waiting to derail the pair of them. For some time, they will lose themselves and each other.

O’Neill skewers society, its obsession with sex and money and how both can be derailed by love. There are lots of fantastic lines, I highlighted so many:

While the only females in society who had any real bargaining power were the dopey little virgins with rags, safety-pinned to their underwear, filling up with blood the colour of fallen dead rose petals. The minute they gave themselves up, they really had no agency whatsoever.

“I’ve had it up to here with crazy women. All you have to do is be fucking pleasant and spread your legs, and you are taken care of. You don’t know how easy you have it.”

Everything written by any woman was written by all women, because they all benefitted from it.

If this sounds too depressing (and O’Neill does emphasise the miserable by setting the majority of the action during The Great Depression), there is light in Pierrot’s playing, Rose’s performances and a surprisingly optimistic, although not saccharine, ending.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel probably isn’t for everyone – if the reactions of the Baileys Prize shadow panel are anything to go by it’s definitely marmite – but I absolutely loved it.

 

Thanks to riverrun for the review copy.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan