Best of the Year: This Year’s Releases

I’ve read 160 books this year, so it’s impossible to stick to a list of a mere ten top favourites. So instead I’ve organised things by categories. Don’t worry, I won’t quite name 160 books! After a stint of rereading and a look at modern classics from the first half of the 20th century, I am now becoming more contemporary and looking at this year’s releases. This used to form the bulk of my reading back in 2013-2016 when I was doing a lot of crime fiction reviewing, but I have been much slower to read them these past 2-3 years. I now much prefer for the buzz to die down. The buzz for the titles below is more than justified, though!

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions

This book meant so much to me personally, both as a budding translator and as someone who studied Japanese, lived briefly in Japan and worked for Japanese organisations in the past. It is also written in such an interesting way: not just a memoir, not just an essay about translation or cultural encounters, and also a Bildungsroman, cutting a young person’s ego and certainties down to size (in painful ways, occasionally). Unashamedly subjective and yet universal.

…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water, Penguin.

I was utterly smitten with the beautiful, sensous, rhythmic prose of this one, a real prose poem, and for once the use of the second person felt completely justified. It also made me feel about nineteen-twenty again!

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful.

Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies, Faber & Faber.

The author captures the humdrum of the everyday but also the numinous moments of awareness, of things that occasionally make us change (but most frequently don’t). Understated yet so powerful – a voice that grows and grows on you at each reading.

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments. I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger, transl. Philip Boehm, Pushkin Press.

No other book conveys the plight of refugees so accurately, without being about refugees explicitly. In this portrayal of a privileged German Jew who suddenly finds himself on the run after Kristallnacht, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling hunted and unwanted, of casual and deliberate racism, the bureaucratic hurdles that make it nearly impossible to escape still feel extremely topical.

The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.

Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, transl. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Pushkin Vertigo.

The first book in a very promising new series featuring retro-detective Zaitsev, set in 1930s St Petersburg, with the Stalinist oppression never far from the surface. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace, and a complicated story featuring serial killers, political machinations and priceless stolen treasure. In equal measure entertaining and educational, but we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were.

If you haven’t found your favourite book of 2021 in the brief list above, there is still a chance they made my ‘Sheer Entertainment’ category, which will follow shortly, or else in my New Discoveries and Deeper Dives section.

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 5 and 6: The Tribulations of Youth

What is it like to be young, sensitive, well educated but struggling to make ends meet, particularly in a big anonymous city like London in the past few years? The two recent titles on my #20BooksofSummer list address this question from a female and male ethnic minority perspective, while a bonus book that I borrowed from the library has a slightly older protagonist with one foot in Northern Ireland and another in London.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful. The prose has all the rhythm and syncopation of poetry, an idiosyncratic delight, written in second person which for once did not jar or feel pretentious.

Two highly educated, beautiful, creative young Londoners meet, become friends, fall in love: he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Her boyfriend is one of his friends at the time when they first meet. They are both still living with their parents, so it is not easy to be together in private. She returns to study in Ireland. He is traumatised by countless microaggressions because of his race – and several much more serious incidents. They hardly dare to allow themselves to fall in love, to trust each other, to hope in a common future, no matter how comfortable and safe they might feel with each other. The world around them does not feel safe or kind, especially towards him as a young black man.

You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know to love is to be a whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest. It is to place someone next to your beating heart, in the absolute darkness of your inner, and trust they will hold you close. To love is to trust, to trust is to have faith. How else are you meant to love?

The author manages to capture the universality of the exhilaration and magic of youthful love and finding your ‘soulmate’, but also brings us back to earth with a jolt, showing how abruptly this magic can be curtailed if you happen to inhabit a black body. There are certain quotes in the book which reminded me very strongly of James Baldwin (a clear influence), and which are heartbreaking in their restrained but clear anger:

You hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.

I heard the author speak at a Hay Festival event and was looking forward to reading this book – and it did not disappoint. By far the most beautiful, immersive and meaningful description of Millenial or Gen Z life that I have read, although my personal experiences have been so different in terms of age, time, place and race.

Jo Hamya: Three Rooms

I fully expected to love this book as much if not even more than Open Water, since it describes a more familiar type of experience: a young woman wandering from one rented room to another, trying to embark upon a career at least halfway worthy of her education.

… the end goal I wanted, through any job necessary, was to be able to afford a flat, not just a room, and then to settle in it and invite friends to dinner. I thought I had put reasonable effort into this desire through successive degrees while waiting for the economy to clear up enough to raise the median starting wage… Now, even to me, it seemed ridiculous to concede that I had accumulated substantial debt and a few degrees so that I might contractually labour for the sake of having two free days a week in which to cook a meal in a kitchen I could not actually afford to own…

This is basically the book in a nutshell, although the narrator is made to feel even worse because of Brexit, because of her race, because of the hostile political forces she senses all around her. She does not wish to compromise like the intern she sees at the magazine she temps for, simply for the sake of fitting in. In the Clore Gallery, looking at a room full of Turners, she realises the troubled relationship she has with her country, the patriotism fanned by BBC dramas and generic painterly landscapes, how much she wants to love it but how the news cycle tells her otherwise:

The whole thing was abstract enough in style to take on whatever you gave it; and so, though it was unmistakably English, it could have been Yorkshire, it could have been Sussex… Whatever bit of English countryside you could connect it to in your head to hold, and because the painting was a beautiful thing, with its warm tint, its heavy golden frame and its place in the airy, magnificent gallery, the country became beautiful too.

She recognises that this room (this country) does not belong to her, but neither does the country of her parents:

I was newly uncomfortable in the gallery, but I did not want to leave… Because the room I was in did not belong to me, I could not do this infintely. But for the moment I was in it at least, I had the dignity and freedom of a sense of self which belonged entirely to me. I wanted to keep it.

However, if Open Water was all heart, almost visceral in its portrayal of both joy and suffering, this book was all about the intellect and contained far too little joy. The style was reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, although with more emphasis on the first person than on other people’s stories. The political comments felt shoehorned in, undigested rather than organic.

Bonus Book: Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies

A short story collection portraying a series of young women (some of them slightly older than the protagonists of the two previous books) experiencing their own personal epiphanies, both great and small. The twilight zone of illegality for a Belfast student having to rely on drugs ordered online to end an unwanted pregnancy. A young American woman coming with her pastor and the Youth Ministry to convince voters in Ireland to ‘make the right choice’ in the vote about legalising abortion, who starts to question her own motives. Two co-workers pondering upon the unknowability of each other. However, her most relatable ones (for me at least) are about the sheer exhaustion and everyday fears of motherhood.

The author lays bare every single shred of doubt, fear, guilt, self-flagellation of mothers everywhere, but with a fresh contemporary twist. An overwhelmed mother having to leave her baby with a stranger at a cafe so that she can take her toddler for an emergency toilet break. Being alone at night in the house with small children and suddenly hearing what sounds like a possible intruder. Having to endure a long plane flight with a baby and a helpful stranger who might just make you rethink your life choices. An endless car journey with the family – and being reminded of one’s blessings.

Nothing monumental happens in most of these stories, at least not outwardly, but, as the author says in the final story, a sort of letter to her child:

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments…

I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

It might not be easy to translate those battles, but I am grateful to Lucy Caldwell for attempting it regardless.