Best of 2019: Fiction and Poetry

I’ve managed to whittle my favorite releases of 2019 down to 20 in total: 12 nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow), 5 fiction and 3 poetry. It felt like a particular achievement to limit myself to five top novels, though plenty more turn up on my runners-up list, due Saturday.

Let the countdown begin!

 

Fiction

 

  1. Bloomland by John Englehardt: Subtle and finely crafted literary fiction about a mass shooting at a fictional Arkansas university. The second-person narration draws the reader into the action, inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, a student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter. Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, too.

 

  1. Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: Autofiction in fragments, like a pure stream of memory and experience. Navigating between two cultures and languages, being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the Brazilian–English main character. What a hip, fresh approach to fiction. I’d hoped to see Fowler on the Women’s Prize longlist and winning the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. It’s a warm, funny book, never strident in its aims yet unabashedly obvious about them. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner.

 

  1. The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: Every day the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian Fry and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get celebrated Jewish artists and writers out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. This is richly detailed historical fiction at its best.

 

  1. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Crosby, Maine feels like a microcosm of modern society, with Olive as our Everywoman guide. She hasn’t lost her faculties or her spirit, but the approach of death lends added poignancy to her story. Strout is a master of psychological acuity and mixing hope with the darkness. Those who are wary of sequels need not fear: Olive, Again is even better than Olive Kitteridge. (I revisited the book for BookBrowse, whose subscribers likewise voted it the 2019 Best Fiction Award Winner.)

 

Poetry

 

  1. Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough: From the Costa Awards shortlist. I was struck by the hard-hitting, never-obvious verbs, and the repeating imagery. Flashes of nature burst into a footloose life in Brighton. The poems are by turns randy, neurotic, playful and nostalgic. In “Flock of Paper Birds,” one of my favorites, the poet tries to reconcile the faith he grew up in with his unabashed sexuality.

 

  1. A Kingdom of Love by Rachel Mann: The Anglican priest’s poetry is full of snippets of scripture and liturgy (both English and Latin), and the cadence is often psalm-like. This is beautiful, incantatory free verse that sparkles with alliteration and allusions that those of a religious background will be sure to recognize. It’s sensual as well as headily intellectual. Doubt, prayer and love fuel many of my favorite lines.

 

  1. Flèche by Mary Jean Chan: Exquisite poems of love and longing, with the speaker’s loyalties always split between head and heart, flesh and spirit. Over it all presides the figure of a mother – not just Chan’s mother, who had difficulty accepting that her daughter was a lesbian, but also the relationship to the mother tongue (Chinese) and the mother country (Hong Kong). Fencing terms are used for structure. I was impressed by how clearly Chan sees how others perceive her, and by how generously she imagines herself into her mother’s experience. I’ve read 3.5 of the 4 nominees now and this is my pick to win the Costa Award.

 

What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction of 2019.

25 responses

  1. How lovely to see Olive at the top of the fiction tree! I’ve yet to get around to Stubborn Activist but hope to in early 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like a Marmite book. It worked for me. I hope you enjoy it as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha, I have all your top five novels on my TBR except the Evaristo which I have obviously read. I don’t think it will make my top ten but definitely one of my stand-out reads this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You must have read some great stuff in 2019 for GWO to have been beaten by 10 more books! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t compile my top ten books list until the 31st December, so I guess it could still make the cut, but her failure of empathy for her younger protagonists edges it off for me. If I don’t put it in my top ten it will definitely be in my highly commended post though.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I heard an interview about Evaristo’s decision to depict more middle-aged and older women as a deliberate contrast to the plethora of characters in those ranges who were written by young writers (who hadn’t always captured the kind of the nuance that she feels is due to older folks). It might have been The Guardian podcast? Interesting to see that you’ve both (L and R) enjoyed her so much despite feeling the younger characters weren’t portrayed as sympathetically as the rest?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, she spoke about this in the event I attended with her at the Sage Gateshead. I agree with her that there aren’t enough middle aged/older characters in fiction but disagree that younger writers can’t write older characters (and also don’t think that the dearth of older characters in fiction is the fault of younger writers, as most writers are over 30). However, Evaristo’s breadth is hugely impressive even when you take a few less convincing narrators out of the equation.

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      2. There were chapters/characters I liked more than others, but it didn’t necessarily go along age lines for me.

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  3. I just bought the Strout today and look forward to reading it.
    The Orringer was on my radar and I had forgotten about it – thanks for the reminder!
    I enjoyed the Evaristo but I’m not sure if it’s a story that will linger for me (I only just finished it) and therefore it’s unlikely to make my favourites list this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Orringer is definitely one to look out for. I think you’ve been extremely restrained to only pick 5 fiction books. Can’t wait to see the NF.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More NF than F stood out to me this year! I did choose lots of runners-up, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, Julie Orringer’s The Best. And if there’s the Pyrenees as a key player, how can I resist?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! A perfect one for you.

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    2. Great list! I can’t wait to read Olive Again, and I’d love to read the Evaristo, too.
      I’m impressed by your ability to narrow your list to 5!!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I ended up with 5 fiction + 3 poetry + 12 nonfiction = 20 in total. I was happy with that number, and it seemed to fairly reflect the fact that I read more standout nonfiction this year.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Girl, Woman, Other is going to be in my top ten for definite, as I don’t have much fiction reading planned before the end of the year so no pipping to the post is likely there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a clear standout for me as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] with an asterisk are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s […]

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  8. I’m definitely impressed you’ve narrowed this down to only 5 books! Your descriptions are quite persuasive 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am very lazy so I pulled these mini-reviews out from my full-length ones with almost no tweaks.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Congrats on the winnowing process. That must have been really challenging! I’m very keen to get to the Strout (eventually – I left a copy on the “new” shelf just before the holiday started – I like knowing she’s waiting for me) and for the Orringer (I might start with the first one – I recall that you also enjoyed that one a great deal). I’m looking forward to hearing more about your 2020 plans too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This year I had a lot less stand-out fiction than nonfiction; my top 5 was actually pretty clear, and I didn’t want to force myself to make it up to a higher number just for the sake of it.

      Orringer’s first novel is slightly better, so I would definitely advise starting there.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Weather; I’d be perfectly happy for it to go to Bernardine Evaristo’s stylish, multivocal Girl, Woman, Other; I’d not be surprised at all if it went to Hilary Mantel’s accomplished epic, The Mirror & […]

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