2020 In Review: The Final Countdown

on Tuesday, December 29, 2020
One hundred and forty one books. Many of them great.

Here are the ones I loved the most. (Well, all except my favourite.)

10. Nikolai the Perfect by Jim McIntyre
Some books are just worth the wait. Jim McIntyre has been working on Nikolai the Perfect for almost thirty years. It has, to say the least, trodden a difficult path to publication, despite having been a runner-up in the Unpublished Manuscript category of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards a few years back. How there wasn't a bidding war over this stunning novel will always be beyond me. A story of dislocation, disposession and long-held family secrets, Nikolai the Perfect is the kind of literature that just doesn't get written anymore. It is classical in the truest sense; lush with lyrical beauty, a finely-crafted pleasure to read. Despite being hailed by both Jane Harper and Toni Jordan in The Age Summer Reading special, the pandemic has meant that Nikolai has flown a bit under the radar. McIntyre has yet to get the recognition he so richly deserves. Still, I suspect time will be kind to Nikolai. This is the kind of slow burn book that will simply refuse to be ignored.

9. Weather by Jenny Offill
Like many fans of Offill's masterpiece in miniature, Dept of Speculation, I've been champing at the bit to get my eyes back on her sentences. And while Weather didn't have anywhere near the cataclysmic power of its predecessor, it was sharp and smart in a different (but still satisfying) way. Ultimately, it struck me as a novel of observational fragments that, when its various threads are pulled together, worked as a State of the Planet address (with a particular focus on the moral decay of America under Trump). In the days following the Biden/Harris victory, I found myself thinking of Offill, hoping that she had found not only comfort and relief, but also a skerrick of hope for what might lie ahead.

8. Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Following on from her extraordinary novella, The Fish Girl, Mirandi Riwoe returns with a brillaint slice of historical fiction that has already won a stack of prizes and, for my money, must be the hot favourite to win next year's Miles Franklin Award. Stone Sky Gold Mountain is everything I'd hoped for and more! I'd never given much thought to the Chinese experience during Australia's Gold Rush; back at school it was a footnote, an afterthought. Here, Riwoe places it front and centre to staggering effect. Siblings Ying and Lai Yue find themselves on the goldfields of Queensland, but soon their paths diverge in vastly different but equally challenging ways. Dreams of fortune are unceremoniously dashed on the altar of racism and injustice. There is decency to be found, but mostly in characters who also exist on the fringes and whose futures are similarly bleak. Riwoe bring great moral force to a gripping, immensely readable tale. No wonder it's struck gold with readers. #SorryNotSorry

7. The Watermill by Arnold Zable
A beautiful, engaging amalgam of reportage, storytelling and meditative thought about the power of art in the aftermath of atrocity. Zable takes us across the globe, to four sites of collective national trauma, and, through a cast of remarkable people he met in his travels, helps us understand a depth of common humanity that we might easily overlook when so wholly engrossed in the particulars of our own loss. It’s heartbreaking and immensely powerful but ultimately life-affirming - precisely what we've all come to love about Zable’s extraordinary body of work.

6. Peace Talks by Tim Finch
I picked up this novel on a whim - I liked the cover; it had a gentle, enticing aura. Little could I have expected such a profoundly moving story of grief and hope, delivered through the unlikely vehicle of a peace negotiator trying to come to terms with the brutal murder of his wife. Finch's juxtaposition of Edvard's high stakes work and his melancholy considerations of what might become of his life has a consistent bittersweetness that speaks important truths without ramming them down the reader's throat. A thoughtful, thought-provoking gem.

5. Pew by Catherine Lacey
What a delightfully strange and unsettling book this is! Lacey takes a well-worn premise (stranger appears in small town, trouble ensues), and fashions of it a compelling exploration of identity, belonging, guilt and community. With echoes of Shirley Jackson, Jordan Peele and any number of classic, dark fables (think: The Brothers Grimm), Pew is a timely little novel that is astonishing in its beauty and depth.

4. Late Sonata by Bryan Walpert
Seizure Online's Viva La Novella Prize has unearthed some absolutely astounding little books over the years. I have relished novellas from the likes of Jane Rawson, Marlee Jane Ward, Avi Duckor-Jones, Mirandi Riwoe and heaps more, so much so that I make it a habit of buying every winner without even bothering to check if it's going to be my kind of thing. Well, with no disrespect to the previous winners, this year might just have served up my all-time favourite. Bryan Walpert is, so far as I can tell, highly regarded as a poet. Reading Late Sonata it is not hard to see why. The gorgeous flow of his prose is veritably musical; perfectly fitting Late Sonata's subject matter. Stephen, an ageing novelist, attempts to finish his wife's manuscript on Beethoven's Sonata 30 op Cit 109. She, an acclaimed academic, is disappearing into the mists of dementia. While sorting through her notes, he stumbles across various clues about an affair she had that forces him to reconsider not only their marriage, but also his paternity of their late son, and his lifelong friendship with his best friend. Setting Stephen's tortured quest against his own novel-in-progress about an experimental treatment to reverse ageing, Late Sonata is a little book with very big things to say about music, memory, love and the dark complexity of life. It is the only book I read twice in 2020.

3. Fracture by Andrés Neuman
You know how we all have that one book we've been meaning to read forever? When Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century was published to great acclaim back in 2012, I picked it up in harcover with every intention of ripping through it post haste. Fast forward eight years and, well, here we are with it still languishing on my shelf. Not Fracture. It never even made it to my shelf. After reading a glowing review in The Guardian, I rushed out to buy it and took it to a nearby cafe. I was instantly hooked. Within the first few pages, I was frantically scribbling passages into my notebook. Then it escalated to photographing entire pages and posting them to Twitter. I never do that kind of thing! Fracture is an exquisite book; the experience of reading it not unlike giving yourself over to graceful meditative transcedence. It is, at least on its surface, the story of Mr. Watanabe, a survivor of both atomic bombs in Japan, who makes a pilgramage of sorts to Fukushima following the 2011 disaster at the nuclear power plant. Of course, that kind of reductive description does the book a great disservice - it is, at heart, a kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary life, one lived precariously in a perpetual state of an uncertaintly not of one's own making. Structurally ingenious - it is mostly related through the reflections of former lovers - Fracture manages to capture and make bearable the existential horror of our times. I read it at the start of Melbourne's second lockdown, when life seemed particularly bleak and scary. Neuman's depth of humanity, his ability to plumb the depths of existence and find goodness within, gave me much solace. Needless to say, Traveller of the Century is now at the top of my Summer reading list.

2. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Hilariously indignant, gorgeous, heartbreaking... Brilliant. A perfectly-pitched dose of acerbic satire aimed at the casual, institutionalised racism in the entertainment industry. Of course, the barbs could easily be transposed to any industry and it’s not a far stretch to see the racism directed towards other minorities reflected in the main character’s experience. Willis Wu hopes to break into Hollywood but, no matter how far he seems to reach, he is only ever a variation of “Asian Man”. The glass ceiling is infuriating but the book itself is an absolute scream. Once again Yu proves himself to be among America’s best comedy writers and, quite possibly, a contemporary successor to Jonathan Swift.


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