2015: Best of Bridesmaids

on Saturday, December 26, 2015
2015 was a pretty strange year in literature. First up, it was the year of the BIG book. Tomes a plenty lined the shelves of bookstores everywhere and, I'm glad to say, readers seemed to snap them up. Four I really wanted to read but missed out on were Garth Risk Hallberg's City On Fire, William T. Vollman's The Dying Grass, Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind and the newly translated Hungarian classic Captivity by Gyorgy Spiro. Secondly there were lots of fair to middling books - the type of novels that were pleasurable to read but really made no lasting impression. I could rattle off a whole list of them but, well, they don't seem worth mentioning. Then there were the few that got massive raves but I simply couldn't get around to reading. And so I suppose I owe them some kind of golf clap anyway: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Whites by Richard Price, Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan and The Green Road by Anne Enright. I will get to you eventually. Then I'll clap louder. Without white cotton gloves.

Which leaves me with the 60-odd books (I'm still going, year's not over yet) that I did read that were published in 2015 (out of a total 120 something read altogether). I had a tough time picking out a Top 10 and I'm still deciding on their ultimate order. Luckily I still have a few days up my sleeve. These, however, are the books that didn't quite make it but were still stupendously excellent and, at the risk of severe paper cuts, deserve a big literary high five:

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas. I've been waiting years for Vila-Matas to produce something as delightfully playful as the extraordinary Montano's Malady and, five or so books later (though to be fair there is a time quake between when his books were written and the order in which they are being translated), here it is. An author is invited to an obscure art festival where he is expected to sit at a table in a Chinese restaurant and write in view of whoever wants to watch. Thoroughly confused by his assignment he decides to dedicate his time to constructing his Lecture To Nobody, which he intends to deliver to an empty theatre at the end of his sojourn. Crazy meta-riffage on avant garde art through the prism of McGuffins makes for one of the most challenging and enjoyable reads of the year. Vila-Matas rivals Joseph Heller for the number of ways he can play with a single concept. Read if you dare.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I still think Obioma should have won the Booker Prize for this wonderful novel about four brothers in Nigeria caught up in the political disintegration of their country. Part morality tale, part elegy for saner times, its weaving together of traditional mythology with brutal reality, all through the eyes of a child, makes for a wholly original, urgent read. Forget the comparisons with Chinua Achebe. Obioma has a voice of his own and has marked out an important, new space for himself on the world stage.

The Year of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. Had it not been nominated for the Booker Prize I would never have picked up this novel of the subcontinental immigrant experience in England. Well, I'm very glad it did. As I said in my review, Sahota picks off the scab of wilful blindness to reveal a heartbreaking side of contemporary British society through the lives of four young Indians just trying to find their feet. Faced with rampant exploitation, prostitution, cruelty and poverty, the characters shine through, never giving up their beautiful sense of hope for a brighter tomorrow. A very tough read but ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.

Between the Word and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The only non-fiction book to have made my list, Coates's fierce polemic on race and justice is as prescient a book as any I have read. Written as a letter to his son, it perfectly captures what it means to be a black man in America in 2015. Forget the political spin-makers, this is the most genuine State of The Union Address you're likely to read. And for those of us who didn't live through the civil rights movement, it's as close as we'll ever get to our own "I Have A Dream" moment. Except here it is "I Am Living a Nightmare". More than required reading, I'd say it should be mandatory. Extraordinary.

Honourable Mentions

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov. Gogol meets Babel meets Terry Pratchett in this literary romp that kind of resembles an episode of Might Power Rangers. The works of a crappy communist hack take on biblical proportions in post-Cold War Russia.

The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. A compassionate and wise novel that speaks to the contemporary Israeli condition. Fear of terror (ultimately realised), the frustrations of Israeli society and Jewish guilt personified (by a neurotic ghost, no less).

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. Elusive, dark and surreal this short book is The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime for grownups. A multi-voiced (one of which is a raven) fable/prose poem that tears at the fibre of your soul.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. Even a minor work by Morrison is a cause for celebration and this brief novel is no exception. Here she turns her infinite wisdom and compassion to the questions of race and identity as moulded (and misshapen) by misguided parenting.


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