Best Novels of 2015

Kreative Leidenschaft

This wasn’t a great reading year. At least not during the second half of it. I’ve read so many books, I didn’t even bother reviewing because they left me cold. On the other hand I read a lot of nonfiction I loved but didn’t review either. That’s why, for the first time, my list was very easy to compile.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. From my review:

Pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

After Julius

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s  After Julius. From my review:

I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if we’re not living in more prudish times now.

Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.

It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo – The Leopard From my review:

I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.

I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.

Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front. From my review:

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

( . . . )

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

Farewell, my Queen

Chantal Thomas’  Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine. From my review:

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

A Month in the Country

J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. From my review:

I can’t praise this novel enough and would really like to urge everyone to read it. It’s not only a joy to read but illustrates what great writing can do. It will be on my “best of list” at the end of the year and I might even add it to my all-time favourites.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart— knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

Eva Rice’s  The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. From my review:

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a smart, charming, exuberant book, filled with witty, endearing and eccentric characters, whose sharp insights, clever repartee, and uncrushable optimism are a delight to follow. If you need some intelligent cheering up—this is the book for you.

One Fine Day

Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day. From my review:

One Fine Day is intense and lyrical, a novel for those who like introspective books and don’t need a lot of action. But it’s also masterful because of the delicate way Mollie Panter-Downes uses motifs and other recurring elements that reinforce the themes of loss, change and – more positively – transformation. And how she juxtaposes the lives of her two main characters, who undergo, in one single day, a whole transformation, believing at first that they each want what the other has – an independent life, leisure to savour what a day brings -and then discover – it’s already there – they just have to grab it.

Jardì vora el mar

Sorry, this one hasn’t been translated yet.

Mercè Rodoreda’s Jardí vora el mar. From my review:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

Of Kids and Parents

Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents. From my review:

As I said, I’m really grateful Stu suggested this book. I loved every moment of it. It’s so rich, intense, and full of life. But also highly intelligent and lucid. It says a lot about being human and getting older. About history and how it repeats itself again and again. And about the humans who think they are the crown of creation while they are not. And I shouldn’t forget to mention that, at times, it’s a very funny book.

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’sThe Disappeared. From my review:

The book explores the question of how much we can really understand of a foreign country. I liked that Anne never accepted to stay an outsider. She wanted to be part even if that meant that she put herself in danger.

The Disappeared isn’t easy to read but I loved this haunting book. It’s an amazing achievement, an intense, lucid, lyrical, and compassionate novel about a devastating conflict and a love that surpasses everything.

802630-5

Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness. From my review:

I expected The World My Wilderness to be a lot like Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day but it’s much more like a novel by Colette. Helen herself reminded me a lot of Colette and some of her heroines. She’s such an uninhibited, freethinking, sensual woman. While Helen is a cheerful woman, in love with life and love, she’s also a tragic figure because she was deeply in love with her second husband.

The World My Wilderness is also excellent in the way it describes post-war London with its ruins and struggling population. Everything is still crumbling—the houses and the society. It’s a world in change in which destruction is found right along a wild, mysterious beauty.

*******

As you may have noticed I decided to leave out the crime novels, although in terms of thrillers and crime, the year wasn’t bad at all. I even discovered four authors I really liked and want to read more of: Phil Rickman, Elly Griffiths, Louise Millar, and Laura Kasischke.

How was your reading year?

Elizabeth Jane Howard: After Julius (1965)

After Julius

It is twenty years since Julius died, but his last heroic action still affects the lives of the people he left behind. Emma, his youngest daughter, twenty-seven years old afraid of men. Cressida, her sister, a war widow, blindly searching for love in her affairs with married men. Esme, Julius’s widow, still attractive at fifty-eight, but aimlessly lost in the routine of her perfect home. Felix, Esme’s old lover, who left her when Julius died and who is still plagued by guilt for his action. And Dan, an outsider. Throughout a disastrous – and revelatory – weekend in Sussex, the influence of the dead Julius slowly emerges.

Elizabeth Jane Howard is best known for her Cazalet Chronicles, which I haven’t read yet. I don’t know where I came across After Julius, I only know I liked the premise. I’m drawn to stories that deal with the aftermath of an action. While After Julius is more complex than that, all the characters are affected by Julius’ last heroic action, which took place during WWII, twenty years before this story begins.

After Julius is divided into three parts; each part is subdivided into several chapters, each of which is told by another narrator. In lesser hands this might have turned into a fractured story, but Elizabeth Jane Howard is a very skilful writer and, while each chapter is told in a distinct voice, the whole feels seamless.

The narrators are Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow, Cressy, her older daughter, Emma, her younger daughter, Dan, Emma’s friend and Felix, Esme’s former lover. These five people, plus a married couple and an old Major meet for a dinner at Esme’s house in the country.

In the first part we see them all get ready for the weekend. Cressy and Emma live together in a dingy flat in London. Emma works in her late father’s publishing house, while Cressy struggles as a pianist. Like her mother, Cressy’s been a widow since the last war. She’s a great beauty, one of those that make whole rooms go quiet when she enters. A bit like Lily Bart. And, like Lily Bart, her beauty isn’t doing her any good. She attracts many, mostly married men, and all of her affairs end in drama and tears. When we meet her first she’s crying and thinking of ending it with her current lover Dick. Esme lives luxuriously in a big house in the country. Her only occupations are her garden, answering letters, planning meals and instructing the housekeeper. Dan’s a struggling poet and Felix is a doctor, who has spent most of his life abroad.

The dinner turns into a disaster for many reasons. Felix, who is Cressy’s age, was once her mother’s lover. He left her when Julius died and they haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Cressy’s lover is the husband of the woman, Esme invited for the dinner. The friend Emma brings along is an eccentric poet that she’s met only a few hours ago and invited spontaneously.

The last part of the novel shows each character after the disastrous meal.

The plot isn’t the most important thing in this book. What is amazing is how true to life these characters are. How we get to see their vulnerabilities, their disappointments, their hidden motivations. It’s a very outspoken book. Whether it lays bare the hopes of the protagonists, their sexual desires, or their life choices, it’s so honest, it’s occasionally painful to read. We forget that these are characters on paper and think we’re actually looking into someone’s soul.

It’s a beautiful book and a tragic one. We can’t help but wonder—when did things start to go wrong? While Julius’ death sets things in motion, it’s not the real beginning of the drama.

Esme is by far the most tragic character. She’s looking forward to seeing Felix again. Although he’s fourteen years younger, she hopes that there could finally be a future for them. She never assumes that he may have come for other reasons.

I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if we’re not living in more prudish times now.

Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.

It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.

Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Jane Howard novel?