A Year in Books, A.K. Blakemore, Agnes of Little Neon, Ailsa McFarlane, All I Could Never Be, Amanda Smyth, Anzia Yezierska, Attia Hosain, Bette Howland, Claire Keegan, Claire Luchette, Claudia Hernandez, David Bushman, Eve Babitz, Fortune, Gayl Jones, Glenn Stout, Hazel Drew, Highway Blue, In the Shadow of the Yali, Joan Didion, Julia Laite, Laura Palmer, Lilian Pizzichini, Mariella Novotny, Mark T. Givens, Monique Roffey, Murder at Teal's Pond, Nadifa Mohamed, Nervous Conditions, Palmares, Post-Colonial Writers, Profumo Affair, Slash and Burn, Small Things Like These, Suat Derviş, Sunlight On a Broken Column, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, The Fortune Men, The Manningtree Witches, The Mermaid of Black Conch, The Novotny Papers, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid, Trinidad, True Crime, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Turkey, Twin Peaks, W-3, Zimbabwe
Among all the great new writing and reissues I’ve found this year, it’s clear that the world of books, like film, is becoming ever more diverse and we are all richer for it. After a long absence, Gayl Jones returned with the monumental Palmares, following a woman’s epic journey from slavery to an embattled free settlement and beyond. Set in 17th century Brazil, this story contains multitudes, offering an extraordinary meditation on the cost of freedom.
With The Fortune Men, British-Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed revisits the historic injustice against Mahmood Mattan, hung for a murder he did not commit in 1950s Cardiff. This Booker-nominated novel conjures the immigrant experience with startling immediacy.
This year’s Costa Prize winner, Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch is an enchanting modern fairytale.
Another new title from Peepal Tree Press, Amanda Smyth’s Fortune revisits colonial Trindidad for a thrilling tale of desire and ambition, inspired by the oil fires which ravaged the island in the 1920s.
With Slash and Burn, Claudia Hernandez traces the impact of El Salvador’s civil war through the voices of a former teenage guerilla and her daughters (none of whom are named.)
Chicago writer Bette Howland is best known for her short stories, but in her 1974 debut, W-3, she recounted an earlier stay in a cash-strapped psychiatric ward with bleak honesty and humour.
Reading Anzia Yesierska’s autobiographical novel, All I Could Never Be (1932) – based on her doomed romance with social reformer John Dewey – led me to seek out her other works, all focused on her struggle as a Polish immigrant in the tenements of New York turned literary phenomenon unable to accept her own fame.
With Nervous Conditions (1988), Tsitsi Dangarembga drew upon her girlhood in pre-revolutionary Zimbabwe, beginning a novel cycle charting the breakdown of colonialism and its difficult aftermath.
Attia Hosain traced another girl’s coming of age in a privileged family amid the end of empire and partition of India and Pakistan in Sunlight On a Broken Column (1961.)
Turkish novelist Suat Derviş subverted the ‘fallen woman’ trope with In the Shadow of the Yali (1947), a neo-gothic narrative of an unhappy wife condemned by a patriarchal culture.
I also enjoyed three debut novels this year: The Manningtree Witches, A.K. Blakemore’s rebellious alt-history of an infamous English witch trial and its sole survivor; in Highway Blue, Ailsa McFarlane takes us on a road trip with a young woman and her fugitive ex-husband; and Claire Luchette follows a dwindling cloister of nuns thrust into the secular world, in Agnes of Little Neon. And Claire Keegan leads us into Christmas with Small Things Like These, a nativity parable transposed into a modern Ireland where religious certainties are soon to unravel.
It was also a good year for (historic) true crime: in Murder at Teal’s Pond, David Bushman and Mark T. Givens reconstructed the unsolved case of Hazel Drew – whose watery death was an inspiration for Twin Peaks‘ Laura Palmer; with The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, Julia Laite retraced the hidden history of an adventurous New Zealand teenager who brought her global traffickers to justice; Glenn Stout uncovered the brief but heady reign of Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid, the Bonnie and Clyde of the Roaring Twenties; and Lilian Pizzichini’s The Novotny Papers explored the scandalous life of Mariella Novotny, the ‘other woman’ in the Profumo Affair.
And finally, it’s a poignant irony that two of the West Coast’s leading women writers who emerged in the 1960s – and are often compared, although poles apart – died within days of each other this December. Eve Babitz, a defiant LA woman, chronicled the city’s high and low wife with wit and whimsy in her auto-fictions, Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days and Fast Company, and her journalism (I Used to Be Charming.) After a long retreat, she became an unlikely feminist champion and nostalgic symbol for more carefree days.
A Sacramento native, Joan Didion lived as a New Yorker, but California was never far from her mind. A literary icon, she is considered the greatest essayist and prose stylist of her time, but was also an eerily prescient observer of a fragmentary world. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are essential volumes of the New Journalism she pioneered, and her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, resonates in this era of plague and grief. Or else you could watch The Panic in Needle Park (1971), the New York movie she co-wrote with husband John Gregory Dunne, starring a young Al Pacino.