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.

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.

Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.

The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.

I turn home, and all across the floor

the spiked white flowers

light the way. The world is dark

but the wood is full of stars.

Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.

The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.

There was a time when I thought

the sound of a dove cooing and flitting

over a pond was sweeter than the voices

of friends. There was a time when

I preferred the blackbird and the boom

of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think

that the chanting of the mountain grouse

at dawn had more music than your voice,

but things are different now. Still,

it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather

live above the bright lake, and eat watercress

in the wood, and be away from sorrow.

The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.

But hush. No one is coming.

We are handed our lives

by a fierce work. Onto which

blank space will I lock my gaze

when my father

is gone? How am I to wear

his love’s burning mantle?

The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:

The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.

I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.

I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?