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?

J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

A Month in the Country

It’s not easy to write about A Month in the Country, but it’s easy to a summarize it. It’s 1920 and Tom Birkin, a man in his late twenties, has come to Oxgodby where he’s hired to spend the summer uncovering a medieval mural in the church. Birkin is a man who feels unmoored. He has a facial twitch, a legacy from his time in the trenches, no money, and his wife ran off with another man. Coming from London to the north of England, he feels like he’s in enemy territory at first, but the stationmaster’s warm welcome and the offer of friendship from the archeologist Moon, a veteran like Birkin, make him soon feel at home. His keen sense of detail and his fondness of things, people, flora and fauna, soon help him to recover. Birkin enjoys these blissful, enchanted moments in the country and even falls in love. As the days go by, he becomes more and more part of the village life, uncovers the stunning wall-painting, and makes friends. The book ends with the first days of autumn and a dramatic, tragic twist, which illustrates that even really awful things we experience are often not as fatal as our own hesitations.

That rose  . . . Sara van Fleet . . . I still have it. Pressed in a book. My Bannister-Fletcher, as a matter of fact. Someday, after a sale, a stranger will find it there and wonder why.

In a review, I read that this was an account of happiness, which puzzled me. Yes, we are told that Birkin was happy, but we never feel it. Or rather, I never felt it, because the narrator of this story isn’t the young Birkin, but the old Birkin looking back. And we also know, early on, that his life didn’t turn out happy and that he mourns not only this summer but a whole way of life that’s long gone in 1978.

She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road – not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they’d never met a Londoner before.

A Month in the Country is a stunning book. Not so much for the story but for the fine observations and subtle descriptions. And most of all for the structure and use of time. There’s very little backstory clogging up the story; only a few sentences, inserted here and there, paint a full picture of what happend before. What’s masterful as well is that not only does the narrator look back but he writes about himself in 1920 and how he did then look back at his time in the trenches. This really gives away the main theme of the novel – the passing of time and the fleetingness of life.

Ah, those days . . . for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

The painting Birkin uncovers illustrates this perfectly. It is more than just a story element, it’s a symbol. It’s magnificent but has been covered up. Nobody knows why. It’s a painting of a man at the height of his art but it’s not finished, Yet, you can see that he wasn’t an old man. The brushstrokes are too vigorous. So why did he stop? Birkin uncovers it all in the end

Death and the passing of time are ever present in the book and all the joy that Birkin experiences—the Sunady meals with the stationmaster, the strong tea in a tea room, his early morning talks with Moon, the funny outings with the villagers, talking to the woman he’s in love with— it all speaks of bliss but it is tainted with sorrow. Carr achieves this through authorial intrusions, which never allow that we stay in the moment, but always remind us that the moment is long gone and the man telling us about it is looking at things past.

I liked him from that first encounter: he was his own man. And he liked me (which always helps). God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather—gone as though they’d never been.

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.

I first read about A Month in the Country on Max’s blog here and knew right away it would be a book for me.