Every December it’s a staple item for the literary pages of newspapers: an array of brief responses by a bevy of writers and critics to the question ‘Which books stood out for you during the last year?’ Many of these respondents have reviewed several publications over the previous months, often in the same publication, so it’s not difficult for them to slap together a couple of paragraphs that draw selectively on verdicts they’ve already delivered.
I do a fair bit of reading, but not since my high school days have I kept a memo list of all the titles, and I no longer write reviews frequently. So if – lacking those aids to memory – I now ask myself which books back there in 2013 made an impact on me, the emphasis of the question shifts slightly because a few months have elapsed: it’s about what still lingers in the mind, what the residue of all that reading is. In some cases a book that may have engrossed my attention at the time when I was holding it in my hand has since begun to fade from recollection, while another book continues to do its invasive work in my head.
Writers hope that their readers will experience both kinds of engagement. I was delighted when someone reviewing my first novel (in Bookseller & Publisher) said she was ‘completely absorbed from the first page to the final scene’; but it was especially satisfying that another reviewer (in The Sydney Morning Herald) said ‘It has stayed with me and has been hard to shake off.’ Lasting impressions, even if they involve mixed feelings, can sometimes be more important than an immediately positive response of ‘liking’ a book.
Most of what I read last year was hot off the press; other titles had been out in the world for longer. Regardless of whether they were newly published, what do I now think about some of those books?
I’ll omit reference to a lot of the non-fiction, because that reading was merely instrumental – it belonged to the research groundwork for a couple of novels I was drafting last year. But a few other non-fiction books have stayed with me, and I’ll discuss them in the rest of this post, leaving the fiction to a sequel instalment.
An unusual ethnographic study that came my way is Icelandic Men and Me by Robert Faulkner, who spent many years as a music teacher in Iceland. He writes about the way in which male identity in Icelandic communities is still shaped by traditional group singing. A specialised book, yes – but its author makes it very readable, not least by bringing candidly into the foreground some fascinating reflections on the shaping of his own masculinity in England. Faulkner’s book also appealed to me because of my own long-standing interest in Icelandic cultural traditions (I learned the language as a student, and analysed a 13th-century mythological tale by Snorri Sturluson in part of my book Narrative Exchanges).
When the shaping of an entirely factual story is exceptionally skilful it can acquire most of the qualities of literary fiction. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale (whose previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was similarly memorable), is a meticulous, compelling account of a sensational mid-19th century divorce case in England and the events leading up to it. I can’t think of any other book that gives such a moving insight into a woman’s experience of marriage and sexuality in that period.
Completely different in its scope and in the kind of reading experience it provides, Simon Schama’s massive work of scholarship Landscape and Memory was heavy going, and at times the weight of detail felt oppressive as I waded through its 650 pages of text and its countless colour plates and other illustrations. Yet I keep recalling portions of it, and I think I’ll be opening the book again from time to time. The extraordinary range of Schama’s research has produced an encyclopaedic compilation of imagery and stories about the relationship of Europeans to their physical environment – forests, waterways, rocks, mountains and the rest of it – over many centuries. It’s a gigantic monument to the process of making meanings from the symmetries and tensions between culture and nature.
Noelene Bloomfield’s Almost a French Australia is a handsomely produced and diligently researched book, full of fine illustrations and fascinating historical details. But for me its most memorable feature turns out to be the recurrent narrative pattern summed up in its title’s plaintive first word: almost. This account of French exploration in the southern oceans relates episode after episode of near-success, disappointment and last-minute disaster. Among the most notable tales of (mis)adventure are those of Saint-Aloüarn, who claimed Australia’s western coast for France in 1772 but died in Mauritius on his journey home, and of Baudin three decades later, who also perished in Mauritius after surveying much of Australia’s shoreline. Between those hapless voyagers came (among others) the brilliant navigator La Pérouse – lost in a shipwreck near New Caledonia after criss-crossing the Pacific from Cape Horn to Russia and from Alaska to Botany Bay – and D’Entrecasteaux, whose search for La Pérouse took him to many places before he too died at sea. Apart from hundreds of French place names dotted around Australia’s coast, there is little to show for all that doomed heroism.
I remember clearly the distinctive qualities of three books of essays read in 2013. Other Colours, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, gives a colourful picture of what cultural life in Istanbul has been like for someone who education and family background bring east and west into a productive tension. Legal Limits, by Western Australian lawyer-and-writer Nicholas Hasluck, illuminates several aspects of the relationship between law and literature and conveys particular insights into fictional work by Kafka, Orwell, Coetzee, Borges and others – including some of Nick’s own novels. And Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, impressively edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, assembles nearly 90 short lively essays by different hands to give a kaleidoscopic account of literary and popular culture in this country during that period.
But most of what I read last year was fiction, and I’ll discuss about 20 titles in my next post…