NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2016
Unusually, this year Jean only features one crime novel, but as usual our picks are widely different. Linda’s close following of Australian women’s fiction is evident, while Jean has returned to some classics.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist writing back to Jane Eyre, telling Rochester’s mad wife’s story from before Brontë’s novel begins. It is a frequent re-read for me and I am always freshly struck by the vivid tropical world, the depth of character portrayal and the emotional and psychological insights packed into such a small volume (192pp). It is a finely faceted jewel of a book, cool and polished on the outside but with smouldering fires flashing beneath the surface. Its structure and restraint make it perhaps as close to perfect as it’s possible for a novel to be. (Read my full review here.)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
This is another book I re-read often. It’s more like a caged tiger than a jewel, always threatening to break out and go on the rampage. Somehow the bars hold, and what could have been a sprawling failure is what I consider to be one of the greatest novels written in English. Layer upon layer of narrative reveal the doomed passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, always through the eyes of others. And around and beneath the story is the Gothic atmosphere of the moors, bleak and wild, reflecting and enlarging the characters’ emotions and experiences. (Read my full review here.)
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
A Twitter conversation prompted me to return to this comedic gem.
After the deaths of her parents, Flora Poste, a capable and pragmatic young woman, comes to live at Cold Comfort Farm in the village of Howling among long-alienated relatives (the Starkadders). Here she finds old grudges and traumas festering away in a mess of emotion and impending doom (in fact there is an Aunt Ada Doom). Commonsensical Flora decides to sweep away the cobwebs from the dark and haunted corners and the resulting clash between unbridled ignorance and modernity is hilarious.
Written in satiric reaction to the romantic and portentous novels of rural life popular in the early 20th century (including those of modernists like DH Lawrence) as well as to Hardy’s rural realism and the Gothic romances of the Brontës, and casting an evil squint towards whimsical fantasists like Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, Cold Comfort Farm is, simply, extremely funny and clever and a must-read for anyone who hasn’t.
The Bird Tribunal, Agnes Ravatn
Allis Hagtorn flees her life as a TV presenter and takes a job as housekeeper for the enigmatic and morose Sigurd Bagge, who lives way out on an isolated Norwegian fjord. Gradually, as Allis discovers a love of gardening and begins to make herself a new life, Sigurd thaws from his frosty silence and their relationship develops – in strange ways. The claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere builds like a storm cloud, alleviated only by the harmonious descriptions of domesticity and gardening. Is Sigurd’s wife really travelling? What is Allis trying to escape? Secrets are gradually revealed as they both tell their stories in carefully rationed segments that keep the tension building, and the final revelation, though not entirely unexpected, leads to a violent and dramatic ending.
It’s a gripping psychological thriller, as they say, but don’t expect lots of murder and detection. The suspense lies in the characterisation, the brooding landscape, the hints of the supernatural, and the cryptic mysteries that gradually unfold.
I read a lot of Nordic noir, and The Bird Tribunal has been a stand-out for me this year. I’ll be watching avidly for more of Ravatn’s books to be translated.
From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it, Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes (eds)
And on another note entirely, I really enjoyed this book about the only game – AFL – that, as its title implies, canvasses previously unheard perspectives on footy. Of the book’s 31 contributors, 22 are women, several are gay or lesbian, Indigenous, migrants, from ethnically ‘other’ backgrounds, or a combination of the above. Not the usual demographic for public commentary about AFL.
Complexity is the name of the game here, and ambiguity of response. How can feminists and LGBT people relate to this sport that is all about men (mostly white, mostly heterosexual)? The essays in this collection go a long way to explaining, or at least illuminating, the apparent paradoxes, with lots of fun along the way. (Read my full review here.)
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood
This year was Charlotte Wood’s year, with The Natural Way of Things winning not only the Stella Prize but also sharing the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It’s a book of considerable power, beautifully written, and has made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussions about misogyny this year. I hesitated to pick it up when it first came out (which is why it is on my list this year rather than last year, when it was first published) – the subject of women being unjustly imprisoned seemed just too depressing, and I was not entirely convinced by the set-up (how have they come to be imprisoned? By whom?) But within pages I was hooked and found it not only a compelling page-turner but rich in its delineation of character and vivid in its evocation of the landscape. Make no mistake, this is challenging material, but Charlotte Wood has crafted it into a novel that burns brightly and its energy is difficult to resist. (You can read Kylie Mason’s review here.)
An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire
An Isolated Incident also deals with issues of misogyny and violence towards women. It subverts the usual tropes of crime fiction by refusing to dwell on the details of the victim’s death (and it’s true, what you imagine is always worse), and instead keeps its gaze firmly on those trying to cope in the wake of the crime. Chris, the victim’s sister, is a compelling mix of feistiness and grief and her voice is pitch perfect. I wrote a more detailed response to the novel here.
The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard
Earlier this year I read Hilary Mantel’s article in the Guardian about Elizabeth Jane Howard, and sought out The Long View (first published in 1956). It is considered by many to be Howard’s finest novel, and it is not difficult to see why it is so admired. Technically it is superbly controlled, as the narrative proceeds backwards through the life of an unhappily married woman, and it is simultaneously sharp-eyed, compassionate and thought-provoking. Its world-view is very much of its time, but not uncritically so. The protagonist, Antonia, is expected to do little more than marry well, and despite her father being an academic, her education has equipped her for little else. Yet in its delicate unpeeling of a relationship, and what it leaves unsaid, it is timeless.
The Dyehouse, Mena Calthorpe
1956 is also the year in which Australian Mena Calthorpe set her novel of inner-city factory life, The Dyehouse, which was first published in 1961. This has recently been reissued in the Text Classics series and has a handy introduction by Fiona Macfarlane that sets out some of the background of Mena Calthorpe’s life. Calthorpe had worked in factories herself, and brings liveliness and compassion to her stories of the workers in the dyehouse, from Hughie, who has given the dyehouse his working life and can mix dyes like a magician, to Patty the innocent young office girl who believes the boss when he says he’ll marry her. The manager, Renshaw, manipulative and mendacious, is himself beholden to the managers in the city. There is romance, corporate and individual bastardry, an unplanned pregnancy and a premature death. While the author has put a disclaimer at the front to say that the Macdonaldtown of the book bears no relation to any actual place, it’s clear that it’s set in what is now called Erskineville, next door to Newtown, once home to many factories. Told through the eyes of the different characters, the novel breathes life into each of them so that we care what happens to them.
The Midnight Watch, David Dyer
Finally, David Dyer’s fresh account of the sinking of the Titanic in this debut novel, had me dreaming of icy seas for some time after I had finished it. The conundrum at the novel’s heart is a perplexing and tragic one: how could the SS Californian, a mere 20 miles away, not have seen the Titanic’s distress rockets? How could it not have gone to help? I wrote a more detailed review here and pondered how we humans can have the capacity to refuse to see what is in front of us.