Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing

This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are the ones that stayed with me:

Fiction

Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour

Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life – a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith – finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine

Poetry

I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.

Non-Fiction

Deborah Orr: Motherwell – not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.

Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked uponย The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.