I had an even harder time writing this than usual. From the 82 books I read over the course of the year, I whittled down to a short list of 22, and getting from 22 to 10 was a very challenging task, leading to me saying goodbye to a swathe of the books I’ve rated 5 stars on Goodreads this year. Still, this can’t be a bad thing really – it just says a lot about the year I’ve had in reading.
Common themes are immediately obvious – 9/10 are women (and the 10th is of disputed authorship so it’s possible that all 10 are women, who knows) and 8/10 are in translation – special mention to Megan McDowell who translated two of them! It comes as no surprise, then, that a good portion of the list is taken from things I read in Women in Translation Month back in August. I never got around to doing a proper round up post of that, but since half of them are in here, not such a big deal! Increasingly, I’m reading primarily modern stuff, with most of the below published in the last couple of years And finally, the writers come from 9 different countries, illustrating just how much fun I’m having whilst reading my way around the world.
10. Susan Abulhawa – Mornings In Jenin
The story of a Palestinian family who were evicted from their homes in 1948, told through four generations and centring on Amal, a young girl at the beginning of the story. This was a deeply uncomfortable and painful read at times which made me cry on the tube more than once, but it was so compelling it was difficult to put down.
9. Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream (trans. Megan McDowell)
I raced through this in one sitting and didn’t know quite how to feel afterwards. Not quite horror, but unsettling all the same.
8. Scholastique Mukasonga – Our Lady of the Nile (trans. Melanie L. Mauthner)
Another pick for the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club, which I’m not attending much at the moment due to not being in the country for most of the year and subsequently attending German classes on the same nights, but trying to read along where I can. It’s set in a girls’ school in Rwanda during a period of increasing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, dripping in religious, tribal and political drama as well as the day to day concerns of teenage girls in an all girl environment. A chilling prelude of what was to come.
7. Mariana Enríquez – Things We Lost In The Fire (trans. Megan McDowell)
A book of short stories from contemporary Argentina, on the face of things unconnected but all with similar threads running through – the darker facets of modern life. Told in beautiful(ly translated) prose with a hint of magical realism here and there, this is another one that I read in one or two sittings because I just found it so difficult to put down.
6. Kurban Said – Ali and Nino (trans. Jenia Graman)
This is the exception to this years’ rules in a couple of ways, in that it (probably) wasn’t written by a woman and it’s also a lot older than the others. I picked it up as part of my read the world challenge (for Azerbaijan) and was immediately transported to the Caucasus of 100 years ago and to the challenges of the love story between Christian, Georgian Nino and Muslim, Azerbaijani Ali. This is another one that had me in tears on public transport at the end, with beautiful writing and an incredible evocation of place throughout.
5. Olga Tokarczuk – Flights (trans. Jennifer Crofts)
I’ve been a fan of Tokarczuk for a while and regular readers (!) will have noted her appearing in my end of year lists before now. However, this one just blew me away. Threads are drawn across time and space to pull together this strange but enchanting narrative, which I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain but loved all the same. I should put in a mention for Fitzcarraldo Editions‘ beautifully put together books (to which I’ve now taken out a subscription) – and I’m really excited that they’ll be publishing Books of Jacob, by all accounts Tokarczuk’s masterpiece, next year – and also translated by Jennifer Crofts.
4. Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulders, Signal (trans. Misha Hoekstra)
This is one of those books you read that occasionally hits a bit close to home. I found myself really identifying with the protagonist, Sonja, who by the sounds of it had just as hard a time learning to drive as I did amongst other things! The prose is absolutely exquisite throughout. I had a hard time believing it was pipped to the post by A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, which I wasn’t impressed with, but as we discussed at the book club meeting on the subject, we all take different things from reading and this was a book which particularly resonated with me.
3. Ananda Devi – Eve Out Of Her Ruins (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman)
Now we’re getting to the difficult bit. 30 seconds ago, this was sitting in position 2, but sorting out the last few positions has been so difficult because it’s been such a good year! This tells four interconnected coming-of-age stories centred on the eponymous Eve, with a side of Mauritius that the tourists don’t see as a backdrop. Brutal, harrowing and yet poetic. For some reason, this is an absolute pain to get hold of in the UK and may require some hassling of your friendly local bookseller/a long wait from Amazon, but it’s more than worth it!
2. Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing
I read this much earlier in the year whilst still in Poland and rewarded myself for getting through a challenging day’s study with a few pages of this in the evening. A few pages became a few chapters until on the 3rd or 4th day I stayed up all night to finish it, which is always a good feeling even if you do regret it in the morning! Homegoing tells the stories of two half sisters in Ghana, one of whom is married to a slave owner and another who becomes a slave herself, and three hundred years of their descendants, one line in America and one line in Ghana. The chapters could each be taken individually as short stories and enjoyed but together the storytelling is masterful. It’s hard to believe that this is a début novel.
1. Lidija Dimkovska – A Spare Life (trans. Christina E. Kramer)
This is an incredibly unusual story in many ways. It’s the story of conjoined twin sisters Zlata and Srebra growing up in Communist Yugoslavia and the sacrifices they must make for each other in order to move forward, before deciding to take the ultimate risk and attempt surgery to separate. It’s also an allegory on the end of Yugoslavia itself and its breakdown into multiple independent states. And finally, it’s an absolutely outstanding novel – I can say unreservedly that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It doesn’t seem to even have a proper UK release – it was published by Two Lines Press in the US and it’s been a pain in the backside trying to source it as Christmas presents for friends and family this year, but perhaps if enough of us try to buy it someone will give it a proper UK release? It’s certainly more than worthy of a wider audience.