2019 In Review: The Final Countdown

on Monday, December 30, 2019
Crack out the sparklers, I'm vertical again. And I'm not sure if it's just the painkillers speaking or just how I always get when it comes to writing down my Top Ten but I feel like jumping up and down on a couch with excitement Tom Cruise style as I announce my favourite books of the year. But, let's face it, I'd probably put my back out again so I'll just sit here and type as usual.

10. The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Have you ever wondered what Hitchcock might have made of Camus or Saramago if given half the chance? Me too! Well, I reckon the answer might lie in Meg Mundell's fantastic new novel, The Trespassers. It's spec fic awesomeness is abundance, where paranoia, claustrophobia and murder run rampant on the high seas and sharp social commentary simmers between the lines. As a highly original take on important issues like refugee policy, xenophobia, environmental degradation and corporate greed, The Trespassers really has it all. An excellent, layered novel that is an absolute ripper to read.

9. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Ferocious, complex and deeply humane, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is an extraordinary work of protest fiction. Shafak has a remarkable ability to empathise with her characters who, for the most part, dwell on the margins of Turkish society. As such, her meditation on the "disposability" of certain classes of people is nothing short of an excoriation. Finishing this book left me bereft, even with the sweet glimmer of beauty at its end. I still think it should have won the Booker.

8. The Parade by Dave Eggers
I blow hot and cold with Eggers. But the moment I saw this on the release horizon I had high hopes. Set in an unidentified, lawless country, it follows two Western contractors hired to clear a path to the capital. It's mostly a record of repartee between two completely unsuited companions, but there is something sinister lying underneath. An urgently modern fable, with lashings of Beckett and Kafka, an undercurrent of Kadare and a fistful of, well, Eggers, it drew me in only to punch me square in the jaw. With my favourite closing paragraph of the year, The Parade is easily Eggers's best work since What Is The What.

7. Bloomland by John Englehardt
Bloomland is a stunningly masterful reckoning of contemporary America. Innovative in the way it is told, perceptive in its understanding of desperation, grief and anger, and unadorned by cheap gimmickery (I'm looking at you, Shriver), I genuinely cannot think of a better novel about the scourge of school shootings than Bloomland.

6. Lanny by Max Porter
Like almost everyone who read Porter's extraordinary debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, I was very excited to see how he'd follow it up. Grief was such a singular work, its style unique and confounding in the best possible way, but it was also short. Could Porter sustain this kind of magic over the length of a novel? In a move that seemed almost tailored to my taste, what he gave us was a folk tale; a fable that deconstructs the form with its own traditional tools. Lanny is a breathtaking work of the imagination, rendered with stylistic gusto.

5. A Devil Comes To Town by Paulo Maurensig
Lampooning the world of writers and writing might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's bloody hard to pull off successfully. I can count on one hand the literary satires that really work - The Information by Martin Amis, um... um... At last I can add a second to the list with this incredibly funny, oddball tale. The conceit itself is a riot: a rural town in which everyone is a writer working on their manuscript, desperately hoping to be published, is visited by the devil in the form of a big city publisher. Petty rivalries spill over, jealousy abounds and each writer demeans him or herself worse than the last. It's absolutely absurd but, dare I say, it's also scarily accurate. Read it and weep with laughter.

4. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
Goldberg follows up her international bestseller, Bee Season, with this morally complex story of art, motherhood and ambition. Based loosely on a true story, and set against the restrictive social mores of post-War America, it charts the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of photographer Lillian Preston. Goldberg brilliantly presents it as the catalog to a posthumous exhibition at MOMA, annotated with recollections from her friends, lovers, curators and, of course, her daughter, naked childhood photos of whom precipitated the fall. A beautifully challenging, but ultimately redemptive and moving read.

3. The Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
A crushingly sad, yet hugely triumphant finale to Coetzee's Jesus trilogy. I think it took me until about halfway through this third book to finally understand his grand project, and wow is it a deep, existential one. Of course, I may be wrong - taken together, the three books are remarkably enigmatic - but I think he is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived? I'm not entirely certain of his answer, but is clearly the profound fixation of somebody grappling with his own legacy as he reaches his later years. How might he be remembered? By who? And for what purpose? These are vexing questions for someone who, like Coetzee, has made a point of living a moral, activist life. That said, it might do well for anyone who dares wonder if their life was worthwhile to ask the same. Let's just hope that, as Coetzee might be obliquely suggesting, it's not some quixotic folly to suppose we've mattered at all

2. EEG by Daša Drndić
Could this be the most searing swan song ever written? Andreas Ban has failed to kill himself (you may remember Belladonna closing with his apparent suicide), and so his misanthropic disdain has only intensified. Sick, exhausted and pissed off, he continues to rail against everything and everyone he hates, while trying to wrench the faceless, nameless victims - those who history usually forgets - from the abyss of memory. Drndić, who died last year, bids us farewell (read: gives us the middle finger) with a veritable evisceration of our species' propensity for barbarity, brimming with the moral ferocity, dark humour and panoramic history readers have come know and love (or should I say fear?). A dense, unflinching masterpiece.

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