Best of the Year: New Discoveries

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – 160 books and counting! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. Bear with me, as this is yet another of my posts by categories. When I say New Discoveries, I don’t mean books that were published this year (I’ve already got a post on those), but authors that I may have previously heard about from social media or my blogger friends, but I’ve only just started reading this year.

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi, transl. Konstantine Matsoukas, Europa Editions.

Quite a challenging read for a mother of sons, this is the story about a middle-aged woman trying to reconnect with her son, who is on a brief release from prison for a rather grim crime. Told first from the mother’s point of view, and then from the son’s, it is a powerful story of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us and the challenges of communicating within the family.

…no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. 

I’m not sure that anything else by this author has been translated into English, and I wish my Greek were good enough to read more. I hear she is also active as a scriptwriter, so maybe I can dig out some films written by her.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence.

I was at work in London the day they announced the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I instantly rushed upstairs to the library to seek out the work of this British/Tanzianian writer. This was the first one I picked up, and on the strength of it, I have bought two more of his books (including a signed copy of his latest Afterlives from the London Review Bookshop, who organised a Q&A one evening with him recently, with Kamila Shamsie as the interviewer). His novels of displacement, of recreating an identity, of the impossibility of a return to your old life, really spoke to me. The quote below, for example, really shook me to the core (a sense of guilt I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life):

we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Marian Engel: Bear.

After hearing Dorian enthuse so much about this book, I had to read it and make up my own mind. I was certainly intrigued by it – although it was far less titillating than some recent reviews have tried to make it out to be. It felt much more like a fable, a simple story but with hidden depths. It is a novel about loneliness, about losing and regaining your passion, about reconnecting with nature and with your own true self.

What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is 

I immediately went on to read another novel by Marian Engel, the far more messy and obviously feminist Lunatic Villas, which I liked less, perhaps because of its sprawling nature. Yet I will certainly explore more of her body of work (not all that extensive, unfortunately, since she died relatively young).

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder, Vintage.

Of course I’ve read many reviews of Ogawa’s books, a number of which have been translated into English. But somehow, I never quite took the plunge. Hearing her talk about The Memory Police (published nearly 30 years ago) at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year made me think it would be perfect reading matter for me, but I did nothing about it. That’s just how it goes sometimes with inertia! Luckily, book expert Jacqui and her colleagues at the Chorleywood Bookshop sent this to my son as part of his subscription, so I got a chance to read it before he did. I am still discombobulated by the beautiful descriptions which contrast with the rather frightening subject matter of enforced collective forgetting.

… this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife.

Another shocking omission from my reading: Irish (later Canadian) author Brian Moore. I have heard of his work, even bought the Judith Hearne book a few years back, but it’s still sitting patiently, unread, on my shelves. So it’s thanks to the #1976Club and several of my favourite book bloggers reviewing this title that I finally made his acquaintance – and it certainly was memorable, even if the book and its premise feel slightly dated. It is a Madame Bovary for the 1970s, I suppose, but the 1970s in Northern Ireland, which was probably more like the 1950s in England. Nevertheless, I became completely immersed in the story and felt sorry for everyone concerned. Even when they don’t deserve it.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. 

Isn’t it funny how, even when you are sure that a certain writer will be your precise cup of tea, you keep on postponing that moment of becoming acquainted? Maybe I am saving them for a rainy day? Well, these past two years have certainly taught us to make the most of things, and not delay for the rainy day…

26 thoughts on “Best of the Year: New Discoveries”

  1. Can’t believe you’d never tried Ogawa! I’ve read all the ones in English, and I’m tempted to move onto French as they have a far better choice 😉

  2. So glad you loved Ogawa – I’ve read three – all different and all wonderful. I meant to join in Cathy’s Brian Moore celebrations, but got diverted! He is an author I should read more by, having managed a couple pre-blog but not since.

    1. So many authors, so little time. I’m moving back towards my teenage years in my reading style: upon discovering a new author I like, exploring all the other works I can find…

  3. I must read Admiring Silence, Marina Sofia. I’ve heard how powerful it is, and now you’re reminding me of that. It makes me think, too, of the stories I hear where I live (which is about 76 km from the border with Mexico). There are many people here who face the same issues and ask themselves the same questions.

    1. One of the critiques I heard about his work is that he is nearly always dealing with the same subjects and with Zanzibar – and he replied that he can’t seem to escape the subject, that he doesn’t set out deliberately to write about it, but that what he writes about could also apply to other places.

  4. Loved your post, Marina! Loved the quote you shared from Gurnah’s book. So moving and powerful. I love Yoko Ogawa but haven’t read The Memory Police. Glad you liked it. I couldn’t join in the Brian Moore readalong this year. Hoping to read Judith Hearne next year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

    1. It’s always a bit of a surprise to see which of the new authors I discovered really stuck with me. I might also have added Victor Pelevin, whom I’ve only just read, but I’m still making my mind up about him.

    1. It’s one of those things, where you are not sure if you can recommend the whole opus of an author on the basis of one single book, but I hear this one is not even considered one of his best…

  5. Very glad, of course, that you enjoyed Bear. Even more impressed that you tracked down Lunatic Villas, which I’ve not read–hard to find.

    I’ve only read two Moores, but I really loved The Mangan Inheritance.

    1. I didn’t know Lunatic Villas was so rare – it was available second-hand outside the big bookshop on my way to work. I also have The Honeyman Festival to read, but the blurb made me want to wait for better timing for reading it: ‘the dreams and nightmares of a woman caught between a harried present and a faded but persistent memory of a more glorious past’ – a bit too close to home!

  6. The only one of these I’ve read is The Memory Police – which certainly stays in my memory! My plans to return to Brian Moore this year (I have read him before) did not – as so often – transpire!

    1. The Memory Police does linger in my mind – which is ironic, isn’t it, when it’s all about forgetting. Ah, reading plans so often go awry, don’t they?

  7. Really pleased to see that you enjoyed The Memory Police so much! I think it’s my favourite Ogawa, although her short fiction is excellent too. You might want to take a look at Revenge, a really unnerving collection of linked short stories, or The Diving Pool, which features three unsettling novellas. They’re really dark, but thought-provoking too!

    1. Yes, all thanks to you and your colleague! I think Revenge is the one that tempts me most. I did not like the sound of the Professor one and it’s had some mixed reviews.

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