Looking back on a year of reading can reveal surprising patterns. Considering the books I read in 2016, I notice that in the vast majority of cases (24 of 36 to be precise), I was reading the author for the very first time. I'm not sure what this means, though it does seem to indicate a certain restless curiosity, or maybe a disinclination to revisit familiar terrain. But it seems to me that there are lots of writers I've previously read who I return to when they publish new work, and others whose past catalogues I'll explore after coming to them late. Maybe 2016 was just unusual.
It occurs to me now to wonder how often I’ve read more than one book by the same author in a given year. I remember years ago I went through a Dickens phase, reading maybe six or seven of his novels in succession. Later, for a few months, I became similarly infatuated with the novels and stories of Joseph Conrad. Lately, however, I don’t seem inclined to go “all in” with a single author, choosing instead to spread my reading around to as many authors as I can fit into my schedule. I'm attracted to new voices: either new to me with several books to their credit, or altogether new: ten of the books I read in 2016 were the author’s debut publication.
But it doesn’t matter if I’m reading an author’s first or twentieth book, what I’m looking for is the same: an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don't want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.
The books listed below do all of these things and do them well.
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Helen Garner's remarkable novel The Spare Room is an unflinching and brutally honest exploration of a loving friendship between two women of late middle age. Nicola has journeyed from Sydney to Melbourne to stay with Helen while receiving a 3-week course of treatment for advanced cancer. Helen, anticipating Nicola's visit with a mix of anxiety and dread, has prepared the spare room in her house for her dear friend. Nicola arrives a wreck. Helen fears Nicola is at death's door. But the sick woman rallies and regains energy and her good spirits in what becomes--during the next several weeks--an agonizing pattern of euphoric highs, miserable lows and sleepless nights that grinds Helen down until she can take no more. Nicola's alternative treatments, dispensed at an independent clinic in the city, are expensive, controversial and based on a kind of science that, when Helen digs into the root of it, begins to seem not just dubious but downright fraudulent. As Helen watches her friend's suffering deepen she grows impatient, first with the treatments and then the clinic, and finally with Nicola herself, whose relentless optimism and cheerful stoicism start grating on her nerves. The rage that bubbles to the surface of Helen's normally pragmatic demeanor shocks her with its raw intensity. She doesn’t want to betray her friend by cruelly destroying her faint hopes of recovery, but after two weeks she can no longer endure Nicola’s breezy insistence that the treatments are working and that she’s going to get better. Garner’s narrative is engrossing but sometimes painful to read. In this book we confront one of the most deeply ingrained of human fears. What are we to do when someone we love is dying, but won’t face up to it? Under such dire circumstances, with the inevitable outcome looming, how important is the truth? In the end, Helen and Nicola work out a compromise based on their own selfish needs. Helen Garner is an unsentimental writer who cuts through the crap like few others, dissecting human motivation with surgical precision: like a scalpel, her writing is sharp and effective. The Spare Room tells a potent story that acknowledges the inevitability of death, while also recognizing that for the person approaching the end of life, acceptance and defiance both serve a purpose.
This Marlowe by Michelle Butler Hallett
This Marlowe is a spellbinding account of the last months of the life of English playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was murdered brutally under mysterious circumstances at the age of twenty-nine on May 30, 1593. The historical record suggests that Marlowe was an agent working for the English government who carried out assignments on the European mainland, where tensions had arisen between Protestant and Catholic factions. The novel accepts Marlowe’s role in international espionage as fact and fleshes out the scant official record with sufficient incident and dialogue to make for high drama. In 1593 Queen Elizabeth, at age sixty, had no heirs, and there was no apparent successor to the throne. The lack of an heir was causing unrest at her court, and behind her back a struggle was underway to gain control of how events would unfold after her death. Central to the action is the scheme hatched by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to discredit his main rival, Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and Marlowe’s employer, by implicating Marlowe in an incident that became known as the “Dutch church libel.” Notices were posted around the City of London threatening Protestant refugees with violence while making overt reference to Marlowe’s plays. Butler Hallett slowly builds a story in which much whispering takes place behind closed doors, innocent bystanders fall victim to a byzantine political mechanism, and where everyone has an agenda. The author’s Elizabethan London is a damp, filthy place where concepts of innocence and guilt are malleable and even those who have done nothing wrong have good reason to fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night. But Marlowe himself is the main attraction, a man with a conflicted and contradictory nature, whose self-destructive tendencies in the end spell his doom. Openly homosexual and ungodly in an age when being just one or the other would be enough to place him at odds with prevailing morals and civil and religious authorities, he does not bother to conceal his defiance and often baits and provokes those in a position to do him harm. This Marlowe asks a lot of the reader. It deploys a sizable cast of characters whose motivations are sometimes hazy, and it speaks in a voice that will sound alien to our modern ears. But this is a marvelous and masterful novel. Taking up the challenge it presents is more than worth the effort.
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
The Millstone is Margaret Drabble's third novel, published in 1965 when the author was twenty-six. Rosamund Stacey, a young graduate student writing a thesis on the English Romantic poets, maintains a solitary and emotionally isolated existence in her parents’ flat in London (her parents are living in Africa). Rigorously intellectual and self-aware, she’s plotted out her neat and tidy life every step of the way. Even the romantic involvements she’s permitted herself are planned and calculated for minimum fuss and muss: she goes on occasional outings to pubs and movies with two different men, neither of whom she finds particularly attractive and each of whom is under the impression she’s sleeping with the other—the result being that neither pressures her for a physical liaison or deeper commitment. But even Rosamund can’t control forever her own desire for human connection, and one night she meets a man in a bar, gets tipsy, brings him to her flat, and they have sex. It’s her one and only sexual encounter, and against the odds she discovers she’s pregnant. It’s at this point that her analytical approach to living breaks down and she begins questioning her motives and objectives. Reason dictates that she have an abortion and put the episode behind her. But almost without reaching the decision consciously, and without any help from her family and with very little from her friends, she foregoes this option and proceeds resolutely onward, making arrangements for the birth and for the presence in her life of someone who will depend on her for everything. Drabble’s assured narrative—first person from Rosamund’s perspective—is touching, thoroughly engrossing, psychologically penetrating, and sometimes very funny, as Rosamund, the middle-class intellectual, struggles with feelings and passions that often take her by surprise, and is shocked again and again to discover how profoundly ignorant she is about life in the trenches. Drabble’s voice in this book is refined and mature and never lets the reader down. Her later novels are longer and more complex, but by any measure The Millstone remains a literary achievement of the first order.
The Lost Girls by Heather Young
Heather Young’s first novel is a captivating mystery, a gorgeously fashioned entertainment , and a solid piece of writing. It is a family story of loss, betrayal, cowardice, courage and dark secrets. Many dark secrets. The novel is narrated in two streams. In the historical story, Lucy Evans, nearing the end of her life, decides she must write down an account of the events that took place during the summer of 1935, the last summer her family (sisters Lucy, 11, Emily, 6, and Lilith, 13, and their parents) spent together at their vacation home on the lake in Williamsburg, Minnesota. The contemporary story is a third person narrative from the perspective of Justine Evans, Lucy’s grandniece and Lilith’s granddaughter. Justine is living in San Diego with her own two daughters, Melanie and Angela, and her boyfriend Patrick. Upon Lucy’s death, Justine is astonished to find that she is the sole beneficiary of her great aunt’s will (which skips over Justine’s irresponsible and frequently inebriated mother, Maurie), inheriting the house and a substantial sum of money. Seeing an opportunity that she didn’t even realize she was waiting for, and without a word to Patrick, Justine packs her daughters and a few belongings into the car and takes off for Minnesota. Both narratives proceed at a leisurely pace, gradually and effectively ramping up the tension and suspense. Lucy’s story of that last fateful summer is heavy with foreboding, focusing mainly on her relationship with her sister Lilith, whose behaviour she is beginning to find perplexing, rebellious and occasionally mean-spirited. As the summer progresses Lucy notices changes in her family and in herself, noting especially the odd and distressing antipathy springing up between Lilith and their devout, straight-laced father. Meanwhile, Justine’s story shows her coping with the challenges of a house in an advanced state of dilapidation stuffed with the dusty belongings of people long dead, and the severe Minnesota winter, all while trying to placate her two daughters, deal with Maurie when she shows up not entirely unexpectedly, make ends meet, and keep her whereabouts secret from Patrick. Heather Young has conjured up a spellbinding drama with a cast of unfailingly interesting characters. The prose shimmers with evocative sensory detail that brings the rustic Minnesota setting to life. One of the greatest pleasures of this novel are the descriptions of the house, the lake and the surrounding forest. There is a sensual, full-blooded, multi-dimensional quality to the writing that makes it memorable and raises The Lost Girls to another level. When Lucy ventures into the wild, we are there with her experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. What's more, the story is masterfully paced, the mystery unravels in a most satisfying manner, and the book comments meaningfully on human frailty and endurance and the strategies we use to live with our transgressions.
The Afterlife of Birds by Elizabeth Philips
In The Afterlife of Birds, Henry Jett is alone, his latest girlfriend having packed it in after being freaked out by his unconventional hobby of reassembling the skeletons of birds and small animals. Even though he has no interest in cars, he works a menial job at Ed’s Garage. Unlike his self-centred brother Dan, whose looks, charisma and athleticism have made him a social dynamo and girl magnet all his life, Henry is unassertive and unremarkable: the friend whose face you have trouble remembering but who can nonetheless be counted upon to answer the call for help when things fall apart. Henry’s life is going nowhere at a snail’s pace, and he knows it. But what is he to do? However, change is happening all around him. His brother falls off the radar after deciding to run a marathon and embarking upon an obsessive regimen that takes over his life; his mother decides to sell the nursery that she’s been operating for as long as Henry can remember and go to Australia; Marcie, an employee of long standing at the nursery and close friend of Henry’s, decides she wants to be a mother; and Mrs. Bogdanov, an elderly acquaintance of Henry’s who he’s been helping in numerous small ways for years, runs into health problems. As he observes the effects these changes are having on himself and those he loves, Henry finds it is impossible to stay unaffected and untouched. Elizabeth Philips’ novel is about an ordinary man who discovers that to be ordinary is to be anything but. Drawn into a world of change, Henry Jett is forced to acknowledge wishes and desires he didn’t even know he harboured. The novel is closely observed and emotionally resonant. The action moves at a slow burn, but Philips writes complex and beautiful sentences that must be savoured. Entertaining and poignant, The Afterlife of Birds is literary fiction at its best.