I managed to miss Marlena when it first came out last year; luckily, I had another chance at reading it when it was released in paperback a couple of months ago. It bears some thematic similarities to Emma Cline’s The Girls, Rosalie Knecht’s Relief Map, Andrée Michaud’s The Last Summer, Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones and especially Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, but Marlena is a cut above. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly. Occasionally I weary of writing straightforward reviews – let’s be honest, you get tired of reading them, too – so I’m returning to a format I last used for my review of The Animators and pulling out four reasons why you must be sure not to miss this book.
- Michigan. Have you ever read another book set in northern Michigan? After her parents’ divorce, Cat moves to Silver Lake with her mom and older brother, and almost immediately meets Marlena Joyner, their new next-door neighbor. Although Marlena drowns in suspicious circumstances less than a year later – this is not a spoiler; it is part of the back cover blurb and is also revealed on the fourth page – her impact on Cat will last for decades. The setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom.
Probably most teenagers think where they live is boring. But there aren’t words for the catastrophic dreariness of being fifteen in northern Michigan at the tail end of winter, when you haven’t seen the sun in weeks and the snow won’t stop coming and there’s nowhere to go and you’re always cold and everyone you know is broke…
- Emulation and Envy. Catherine wants to be just like 17-year-old Marlena: experienced, sensual and insouciant. She puts childish hobbies and studious habits behind her and remakes herself as “Cat” at her new school. Through Marlena she develops a taste for alcohol and cigarettes. She also turns truant and starts hanging out with drug dealers at all hours. All along she’s conveniently ignoring that Marlena is essentially parentless – her mother left and her father cooks meth – and that popping pills and sleeping around aren’t exactly a great strategy for getting out of Silver Lake. Living with a single mom who works as a cleaner, Cat also starts to envy the rich incomers whose summer houses she helps to clean. In the scene that may well linger with me the longest, Cat tastes whole almonds for the first time at the Hodsons’ mansion and steals a stash.
I looked up to Marlena—she was tough and beautiful and I never once thought she wasn’t in control. … Even at fifteen I wasn’t dumb enough to glamorize Marlena’s world, the poverty, the drugs that were the fabric of everything, but I was attracted to it all the same.
- Teenage Shenanigans. I was the squeakiest of squeaky clean kids in high school, but it’s always fun to experience very different lives through fiction. With Cat and Marlena you’ll get to skip school, throw unsupervised parties, and pull all manner of pranks. Their most impressive spectacle is affixing giant papier-mâché genitalia to a Big Boy restaurant statue as an act of revenge on a teacher who hit on Marlena.
Everything was happening in consequence-less free fall … the two of us made one perfect, unfuckwithable girl. Nothing could hurt us, as long as we weren’t alone.
- Hindsight Is Everything. Cat is writing this nearly 20 years later. In short interludes labeled “New York,” we learn about her adult life: a job in a library, a husband named Liam, and an ongoing struggle with a bad habit she formed under Marlena’s influence. When Marlena’s little brother Sal gets in touch and asks to visit Cat in New York City to hear about the sister he barely remembers, it sparks a trip back into memory. This narrative is like an exorcism or a system detox for Cat: not until she gets it out can she truly live her own life.
Those days were so big and electric that they swallowed the future and the past … a difficulty letting go of the past can run in families, like a problematic thyroid.
This is one of those books where the narration is so utterly convincing that you don’t so much read the plot as live it out. I felt no distance between Cat and me. When a first-person voice is this successful, you wonder why an author would ever choose anything else.
Marlena was published in paperback in the UK by Picador on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.
The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any previously published reviews linked in (many of these books have already appeared on the blog in some way over the course of the year). You know the drill by now: to keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title. The first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. Across these three best-of posts (see also my Top Nonfiction and Best Fiction posts), I’ve spotlighted roughly the top 15% of my year’s reading.
- As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař: The story of Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who leaves his wife behind to undertake a noble research mission but soon realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. A terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space.
- English Animals by Laura Kaye: A young Slovakian becomes a housekeeper for a volatile English couple and discovers a talent for taxidermy. A fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging, this is one of the more striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years.
- Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Reeling from a broken engagement, Ruth Young returns to her childhood home in California for a year to help look after her father, who has Alzheimer’s. This is a delightfully quirky little book, but you may well read it with a lump in your throat, too.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty: In MacLaverty’s quietly beautiful fifth novel, a retired couple faces up to past trauma and present incompatibility during a short vacation in Amsterdam. My overall response was one of admiration for what this couple has survived and sympathy for their current situation – with hope that they’ll make it through this, too. (Reviewed for BookBrowse.)
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: An Irish college student navigates friendships and an affair with a married man. This is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality; a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: The residents of Georgetown cemetery limbo don’t know they’re dead – or at least won’t accept it. An entertaining and truly original treatment of life’s transience; I know it’s on every other best-of-year list out there, but it really is a must-read.
- The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw: Shaw travels through space, time and literature as he asks why we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the smells we encounter every day. If you’re interested in exploring connections between smell and memory, discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is a perfect introduction.
- A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: Tomalin is best known as a biographer of literary figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, but her memoir is especially revealing about the social and cultural history of the earlier decades her life covers. A dignified but slightly aloof book – well worth reading for anyone interested in spending time in London’s world of letters in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The story of a mixed-race family haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the effects of racism, drug abuse and incarceration in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town. Beautiful language; perfect for fans of Toni Morrison and Cynthia Bond.
I’ve really struggled with short stories this year, but here are four collections I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
- Unruly Creatures: Stories by Jennifer Caloyeras
- Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
- The Great Profundo and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (1987)
The Best 2017 Books You Probably Never Heard of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me!):
- The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson: The coroner’s career is eventful no matter what, but Marin County, California has its fair share of special interest, what with Golden Gate Bridge suicides, misdeeds at San Quentin Prison, and various cases involving celebrities (e.g. Harvey Milk, Jerry Garcia and Tupac) in addition to your everyday sordid homicides. Ken Holmes was a death investigator and coroner in Marin County for 36 years; Bateson successfully recreates Holmes’ cases with plenty of (sometimes gory) details.
- Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Tasting notes: gleeful, ebullient, learned, self-deprecating; suggested pairings: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off. A delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
- A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, edited by Eleanor Brown: A highly enjoyable set of 18 autobiographical essays that celebrate what’s wonderful about the place but also acknowledge disillusionment; highlights are from Maggie Shipstead, Paula McLain, Therese Anne Fowler, Jennifer Coburn, Julie Powell and Michelle Gable. If you have a special love for Paris, have always wanted to visit, or just enjoy armchair traveling, this collection won’t disappoint you.
- Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: Essentially, it’s about the American story, individual American stories, and how these are constructed out of the chaos and violence of the past – all filtered through a random friendship that forms between a film student and an older woman in the Midwest. This captivated me from the first page.
- Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel, Thomas H. Cook: In 28 non-chronological chapters, Cook documents journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism; instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (Reviewed for Nudge.)
- The Valentine House by Emma Henderson: This is a highly enjoyable family saga set mostly between 1914 and 1976 at an English clan’s summer chalet in the French Alps near Geneva, with events seen from the perspective of a local servant girl. You can really imagine yourself into all the mountain scenes and the book moves quickly –a great one to take on vacation.
Various Superlatives, Good and Bad:
The 2017 Book Everybody Else Loved but I Didn’t: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. (See my Goodreads review for why.)
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Between Them by Richard Ford and George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Books by Charlie Hill (ironic, that). My only one-star review of the year.
The Downright Strangest Book I Read This Year: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle.
My Best Discoveries of the Year: Beryl Bainbridge, Saul Bellow, Bernard MacLaverty and Haruki Murakami. I’ve read two books by each of these authors this year and look forward to trying more from them.
The Debut Authors Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Laura Kaye, Carmen Marcus, Julianne Pachico and Sally Rooney.
The Best First Line of the Year: “History has failed us, but no matter.” (Pachinko, Min Jin Lee)
The Best Last Line of the Year: “If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.” (Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty)
Coming tomorrow: Some early recommendations for 2018.
Below I’ve chosen my top nine fiction releases from 2017 (seven by women!), followed by the backlist titles I loved the most this year. Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, as with my nonfiction selections I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This atmospheric novel reminiscent of Iris Murdoch is no happy family story; it’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate, yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right. I recently caught up on Fuller’s acclaimed 2015 debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, and collectively I’m so impressed with her work, specifically the elegant way she alternates between time periods to gradually reveal the extent of family secrets and the faultiness of memory.
- The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico: You may remember that our shadow panel chose this as our winner for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award: we were blown away by this linked short story collection set in a drug-fueled Colombia in which violence and its aftermath are never far away. For the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing, this can’t be topped.
- The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber: The name Margery Williams Bianco might not seem familiar, but chances are you remember her classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This is about Margery and her daughter, Pamela Bianco, a painter and child prodigy troubled by mental illness, and the themes of creativity, mental health and motherhood are nestled in a highly visual debut novel full of cameos by everyone from Pablo Picasso to Eugene O’Neill.
- The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. Though it seems lighthearted, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators as Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy.
- In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir: Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father.
- How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream.
- Elmet by Fiona Mozley: The dark horse on this past year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, this is a twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. It’s a gorgeous, timeless tale balanced between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through.
And my fiction book of the year was:
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery – born in Dublin in 1945 – for whom homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It’s an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy.
My poetry read of the year was:
All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, Mary A. Hood: There is so much substance and variety to this poetry collection spanning the whole of Hood’s career. A professor emerita of microbiology at the University of West Florida and a former poet laureate of Pensacola, Florida, she takes inspiration from the ordinary folk of the state, the world of academic scientists, flora and fauna, and the minutiae of everyday life.
And here’s a quick run-through of the seven best backlist titles I read this year:
- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis: Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!).
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Brings together so many facets of the African and African-American experience; full of clear-eyed observations about the ongoing role race plays in American life.
- Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: Contains the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: those may be clichés, but it’s all these things and more.
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami: Mesmerizing and bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements like dreams do. I’m a definite Murakami convert.
- The Nix by Nathan Hill: A rich story about family curses and failure, and how to make amends for a life full of mistakes. Hill is a funny and inventive writer.
- Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: Simply superb in the way it juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.
My overall most memorable fiction read of the year, to my great surprise, was:
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: I’ve been lukewarm on Anne Tyler’s novels before – this is my sixth from her – but this instantly leapt onto my list of absolute favorite books. Its chapters are like perfectly crafted short stories focusing on different members of the Tull family. These vignettes masterfully convey the common joys and tragedies of a fractured family’s life. After Beck Tull leaves with little warning, Pearl must raise Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and struggle to keep her anger in check. Cody is a vicious prankster who always has to get the better of good-natured Ezra; Jenny longs for love but keeps making bad choices. Despite their flaws, I adored these characters and yearned for them to sit down, even just the once, to an uninterrupted family dinner of comfort food.
What were some of your top fiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up and listing a few other superlatives.
Yesterday evening all of us on the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel met up again for the official prize-giving ceremony at the London Library.
My train arrived late and then I got lost, twice (I don’t own a smartphone and hadn’t brought a map – foolish!), so I walked through the door just moments before the prize announcement, but as that was the most important part of the event it didn’t matter in the end. If you haven’t already heard, the prize went to Sally Rooney for Conversations with Friends. She’s the first Irish winner and the joint youngest along with Zadie Smith.
This did not really come as a surprise to the shadow panel, even though we unanimously chose Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Ones as our winner.
Three of us had chosen Rooney’s novel as our runner-up, and when I saw it appear in the Times’ Books of the Year feature, I thought to myself that this was probably a clue. In the official press release, judge and Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate writes, “for line by line quality, emotional complexity, sly sophistication and sheer brio and enjoyment, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends really stood out.”
Judge Elif Shafak states, “I salute Rooney’s intelligent prose, lucid style, and fierce intensity.” Judge Lucy Hughes-Hallett says, “This book stood out for its glittering intelligence, its formal elegance and its capacity to grip the reader. At first reading I was looking forward to bus journeys so that I could read some more. Second time round I was still delighted by the sophistication of its erotic quadrille.”
Being a part of the shadow panel was a wonderful experience and one of the highlights of my literary year.
Now that the shortlist has been announced in the Sunday Times, I can also share it here:
For the first time ever, the judges have chosen five titles, having apparently found it just too difficult to decide on four!
- Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman, Minoo Dinshaw (biography)
- The End of the Day, Claire North (science fiction novel)
- The Lucky Ones, Julianne Pachico (linked short stories)
- Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney (contemporary novel)
- The Lauras, Sara Taylor (contemporary novel)
My initial thoughts: I only predicted Sally Rooney, and am surprised not to see Fiona Mozley here. My only other disappointment is that no poetry has been recognized this year.
There is great variety on this list, ranging as it does from sci fi lite to biography/history. I have only read part of one of the books: an unsuccessful attempt with The Lauras last December, though I am more than happy to try again because I loved The Shore so much. I am now halfway through.
I enjoyed the one book I read by Claire North very much (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) so look forward to trying another, and I have heard a lot about the Sally Rooney book and read various reviews (it seems to be a polarizing read, though).
I think we are all feeling a bit daunted by the 640-page biography about a historian I had never heard of. However, I have been getting more into biographies so will be interested to see how the author shapes this life story. I am a few chapters in so far, but have a feeling I will be reading it right up until our decision meeting.
I will be posting 1+ shortlist review per week in November, starting with The Lauras.