2013 has been a year of many great books. Some, but not all, of which have ended up on The Bookshelf.
Here are the numbers:
Books Reviewed: 75 (over a quarter were written by Australian authors and 84% were written by women)
Overall mentioned*: 213 books (over a third were written by Australian authors and 81% were written by women)
The other interesting statistics is this: every single book on my Top 10 in 2012 went on to win literary awards, some won several awards. Spooky huh? It’s nice to know that my imprimatur isn’t the kiss of death!
Farewell 2013! Here, in no particular order, are my favourite books of the year.
The Yearning by Kate Belle
It is 1978 in rural Australia when a gorgeous substitute teacher drives into small country town. Solomon Andrews ignites a sudden interest in English Literature but he also lights up a school full of bored, sexually-frustrated teenagers. Only one is lucky enough to be his next-door neighbour, spending her nights watching him, fantasising about him and writing him tortured love letters.
Sexual longing is fertile territory but few writers could tackle the socially taboo subject of an older male teacher and a young student with the finesse of Kate Belle. The yearning of the novel’s title is about much more than sexual or emotional desire, for people yearn for many things—financial security, stability, and connectedness amongst them. Some will sacrifice passion for them, but if you choose not to sacrifice passion, creativity or sexual desire, where might that path take you? This novel stays with you long after the last page is read.
Transcending the tawdry, The Yearning is challenging, thought-provoking and beautifully written.
Gotland by Fiona Capp
Back in their university days, Esther and David were two idealistic students madly in love and determined to live life by their own rules. However thirty-five years later, life alters dramatically. Persuaded to switch from academia to politics, David finds himself thrust into the media spotlight as the future Prime Minister. Here is his chance to turn idealism into practical solutions. His mistake is to assume that Esther wants to make this journey too.
Gotland is a small novel but enormous in its scope and complexity. Superficially it is about putting yourself in the limelight where anything can happen. There is a tension between the introverted Esther’s fear of public exposure and the safety she finds in the realm of her classroom—where she is always the centre of attention but has complete control over her environment. The outside world paralyses her.
The Scandinavian island of Gotland becomes Esther’s sanctuary. She is trapped in a marriage that promised freedom but offers none and now contains her within the constraints of public office. A lump of limestone and the Gotland artist who gave it to her are all that save Esther from herself. Fiona Capp is eloquent on the subjects of compromise and the battle to retain the shape of ourselves in hostile environments, even the ones we create ourselves.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
On January 27, 1866, twelve men meet in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, a gold rush town on New Zealand’s west coast. They are men of various means who would ordinarily have little or no business together except that they are drawn to this room, on this night, to discuss matters pertaining to them all.
At question is a murder, a prostitute found half dead on the road to Arahura, a missing trunk, a stolen identity and the whereabouts of one Emery Staines, a wealthy gold-digger cum local business man. Each man knows part of the story and they are all aware that what they do know implicates them, intentionally or otherwise, in the current crimes and conundrums. Together they are hoping to create a whole from the fragments but truths, fictions and half-truths have a way of turning in on themselves.
The Luminaries is a marvellous literary romp with all the key ingredients—-mystery, murder, fraud, fortunes won and lost and men with very dark pasts. As Catton playfully suggests with the title of the book, the light only ever shines on a sliver and never on the whole. The partial resolutions will keep you returning to possibilities time and again.
Maddeningly entertaining, this novel will reward every second spent with it. The Luminaries won the 2013 Man Booker prize.
The Mannequin Makers by Craig Cliff
In 1902, in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, lives Colton Kemp and his adored pregnant wife Louisa who is the inspiration for the mannequins he carves for Donaldson’s department store in town. On the night Louisa tragically dies in childbirth, leaving Kemp to raise twins, his grief drives him into town where he watches the famous strong man Sandow perform feats of strength.
As Kemp watches the show, these two events become fatally intertwined in his mind. He decides to raise the children using Sandow’s self-development model, dreaming of how they will grow to become living mannequins, the embodiment of perfection. The twins will be his triumph.
Spanning continents and ages, The Mannequin Makers is a story of voyages across the globe, shipwreck and discovery, a surf lifesaver and a strong man. It is a story that is at once fantastical and deeply human. Reminiscent of the likes of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda or Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, there is something delightfully off-kilter, imaginative and original in Craig Cliff’s tale that is a reminder that storytelling can be anything it chooses to be.
This is a superb novel of parental obsession, the lure of the unattainable and the tragedy inherent within human nature.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Alma Whittaker is born on 5th January 1800 at the dawn of a century that will be marked by the quest for discovery and a thirst for scientific knowledge. Her father Henry once sailed with Captain Cook collecting botanical specimens for Sir Joseph Banks and made his fortune from his own botanical and trading conquests. Her mother, Dutch-born Beatrix, is classically educated, speaks several languages and possesses an incisive intellect. Under her mother’s instruction, Alma receives an incredible education, and free to roam White Acres she explores her own botanical interests, although not her horizons. By the time she reaches adulthood, Alma has been moulded into a glorious, formidable and extraordinary woman.
What defines Alma is her optimism and her ceaseless quest to unravel the mysteries of life and this she does via the microcosm of mosses. Mosses teach her the transmutability of living things; that nature is in constant flux and evolution. Her studies mean that Alma finds it increasingly difficult to accept that the signature of all things, God’s hand, can be seen in all of creation. It is only via her own physical and emotional journey that Alma reaches the crucial understanding that, “anything less than a fight for endurance is a refusal of the great covenant of life.”
The Signature of All Things is a book of immense scope that needed a behemoth such as Alma Whittaker to be its narrator, for only a woman as wondrous, intelligent and flawed as Alma could embody the majesty of creation. Not only is it amusing, witty and gracious, The Signature of All Things is a treasure trove of ideas jostling for supremacy.
Elizabeth Gilbert has presented a superlative novel of grand ideas and broad vision. The tempo never fails and Alma, as character and narrator, sustains the reader throughout this incredible pass through history.
The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharine Hagena
When her grandmother Bertha dies, Iris is surprised that she has been left her house in the tiny rural village of Bootshaven in northern Germany. Iris returns to the house for one last summer and finds it full of memories of long hot days spent lazing under the apple trees and swimming in the black lake with her cousin Rosemarie and their neighbour, the strange and dark Mira. Iris raids the wardrobes, wearing her mother and aunts’ old ball gowns and party dresses, and in doing so, she is drawn back into her family’s past. Truths are revealed about her grandparent’s marriage, the war that changed her grandfather forever and the events that lead to her cousin Rosemarie crashing through the roof the glass conservatory.
The Taste of Apple Seeds is a beautiful exploration of the idea of memory. From her grandmother’s failing memory as she ages and her grandfather choosing to forget his years in the war, to the secrets held close by her mother and aunts, Iris must unravel the memories to find the truths hidden within. The shifting alliances of friendships and family are thrown against the backdrop of Bertha’s house and garden—the apple orchards, the redcurrants and the gorgeous fabrics of the dresses with their sequins, taffeta and tulle.
The novel has an enchanting, dreamy, magical edge and it is little wonder that it became a European bestseller.
Cat & Fiddle by Lesley Jørgensen
Dr Choudhury and his wife Mrs Begum reside at Windsor Cottage, adjacent to Bourne Abbey and far from the prying eyes of the Bangladeshi community of Brick Lane. Like many families, their children are too easily corrupted by modern London ways and with all three on the brink of ruining any prospect of a respectable marriage, Mrs Begum must act quickly. Her fool of an interfering husband threatens her well-laid plans but with the British Royal family as her guide and consolation, Mrs Begum will not rest until her offspring are suitably matched.
Henry and Thea Bourne rely on Dr Choudhury’s expertise in historical British architecture to help them restore the family seat Bourne Abbey to its former splendor. Meanwhile Henry’s brother Richard lives the bachelor life of a barrister keen to make silk and makes rare and reluctant forays to his ancestral family home. But a chance view of a fracas at the V&A involving a beautiful woman in a sari and a tall dark handsome man unsettles Richard. She is the last person he expects to see, barely a week later, secreted away in an upstairs bedroom of Bourne Abbey.
With the players in place, the scene is set for this delightful modern comedy of manners complete with all the necessary wit, misunderstandings, grasping social climbing, and truths disguised. In the matchmaking stakes, Mrs Begum is the modern embodiment of Pride & Prejudice’s Mrs Bennett and she is just as driven to improve the family’s good name and fortunes at any cost. Reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest or P.G. Wodehouse, this is a clever, accomplished novel that had me re-reading passages for the sheer pleasure of laughing out loud again.
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Avant-garde artist Annie Oh is nervous about her upcoming nuptials to Viveca, once her hip New York agent and now her soon-to-be wife. After twenty-seven years of marriage, neither her three grown children nor her ex-husband Orion are handling her seemingly sudden conversion to lesbianism particularly well. Orion re-evaluates their courtship and marriage in the light of Annie’s ‘defection’ and the enormous success of her strange angry art that she once made in the basement out of scraps and is now commanding exorbitant prices amongst the celebrity set. Their children’s reactions are mixed.
The approaching wedding acts as a catalyst in the Oh family. Feelings are running high and as the past is raked through it casts events in a new light. Truths begin to emerge, truths that have been deeply buried for many years.
We Are Water is a complex novel that is simultaneously intimate and soul-searching and a comment on American society today. Lamb asserts that humans are like water, “we mostly follow the path of least resistance,” and that is the essence of the story. The Oh family with their imperfections, deceits, unintended hurts and even downright unattractiveness at times are sustained by the enduring love they have for each other. It is this universal truth that makes reading We Are Water a rich reading experience.
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko
After a painful divorce, Jo Breen buys twenty acres on Tin Wagon Road in the Byron Bay hinterland. It’s her patch—hers, the horses and her thirteen year old daughter Ellen’s. Behind her is life in the city as a successful musician, now Jo maintains the local cemetery and works hard to turn the weed-infested twenty acres into her private sanctuary. But this is also home in a bigger sense; the property Jo buys is on Bundjalung land, her mob’s land. It’s her chance to reconnect to the broader sense of who she is as a person, but as she says, it’s one thing “to buy your country back off the land grabbers. But how do you buy back a tribe? Where do you shop for a mob to call your own?”
Mullumbimby is a powerful novel about our need to find a place we can call our own to be ourselves. Jo is seeking answers and her questions are less about her aboriginality than about finding her feet as a single mum and building some sort of family infrastructure around her. There are many things to enjoy about this novel; the larrikin humour and the wonderful experience of being immersed in the Australian/ Bundjalung language amongst them. Lucashenko’s compassion towards the feisty Jo shines on every page and Jo is a woman it’s impossible not to like.
This is a novel perfectly cast for modern times as well as celebrating the physical beauty of the country and its deep historical and spiritual meaning.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Sheltering from a sudden downpour, Theo and his mother Audrey take refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art—fortuitous, as Audrey has been meaning to see an exhibition on the Dutch Golden Age, in particular a painting she has adored since childhood, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.
Fatefully, Audrey rushes back to sneak one last peek at the paintings as Theo wanders down to the gift shop to buy postcards. Seconds later a bomb explodes and when Theo regains consciousness, he retrieves The Goldfinch, dislodged from its frame and now a dusty rectangle of board, from amongst the wreckage.
Alarmingly alone in the world, Theo first finds refuge with a chum from his elementary school days until his estranged father Larry appears out of nowhere and whisks Theo off to a live in a housing estate in Las Vegas. Here Theo meets Boris, a thieving teenage alcoholic with a certain charisma, and with Boris as the devil on his shoulder Theo is able to express the depth of his grief and fully exploit his own flaws.
The painting is Theo’s saviour and his destruction, his joy and his sorrow, an object of love and yearning and a fearful burden. Throughout this journey, for reading The Goldfinch is a magnificent journey, sometimes it seems that without Donna Tartt’s firm hand at the tiller, Theo, Boris and all the characters caught in their wake, would spiral into chaos. This could have been a much smaller story about a missing painting and a lost soul but in the hands of Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch is a novel that offers a reflection on post 9/11 America and a powerful invocation to the ideals of beauty, love and truth.
What did you love in 2013? Let me know in the thread below, and look forward to much more in 2014!
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*Meredith Jaffé is a writer, avid reader and The Hoopla’s books editor. Her reviews have been featured in the NSW Writers’ Centre 366 Days of Writing and in 2013 she was a member of the expert panel that selects the longlist for the Australian Book Industry Awards. When she is avoiding work, she cooks, plays Scrabble online or occasionally updates her Facebook page.