2018 was a year of relative calm, following the tumult of 2017. It was my first full year in the US and a year in which (following my decision to abandon academia) I made a whole lot of decisions regarding my future. The calm certainly served my reading habits and 2018 ended up being one of my most productive years. Not only did I manage to redesign and relaunch The Book Habit following a few years off, I also made my way through 38 books. Having seen some people’s literary accomplishments, I recognise that this number pales in comparison to what many of you have achieved. But I managed to read with a breadth that makes me incredibly proud of my ‘year in books’. I finally combated and conquered the monstrous Moby Dick (and learnt a whole lot about whales in the process), I ticked off a couple more Dickensian works, and I made my way through a considerable number of brand new publications.
This January I’m going to be writing a few posts to do with setting up 2019 as a year for reading – figuring out what your goals are, uncovering some tips on how to read more efficiently, and listing some of the books that you might want to watch out for in the coming year. To start us off, however, I’m going to reflect back on my favourite publications of 2018. It was an incredible year for fiction! So take a look through my list, let me know whether you agree with my picks, and, as always, new recommendations are very welcome!
1. There There by Tommy Orange (Knopf)
There There is Tommy Orange’s debut novel and probably my favourite read of 2018. I read it a few months ago and still can’t shake its power. Taken from my own review of the book: “There There details the journeys of its 12 narrators, connected through a variety of familial relationships and, more abstractly, a shared exploration of the meaning of belonging within the context of contemporary Native American communities.” Building up to the Oakland Powwow, each character is forced to confront the question “of what it means to be Native American in a society that is, for them a product of violence, displacement, and loss.”
This novel was easily the most powerful and evocative of those I read in 2018. It calls attention to the manner in which the triumphant are afforded the ability to write history as they choose, excluding narratives that fail to serve their purpose. The Native American community has been intensely impacted by this process of exclusion and Tommy Orange’s debut work is a vital move toward the reclamation of the right of victims to tell their own stories.
2. The Overstory by Richard Powers (Norton)
Another incredibly forceful read, The Overstory is a moving exploration of humanity’s relationship with nature (a full review of this book will be coming on Friday). The story is told with remarkable breadth, through the experiences of an array of disconnected characters united in their developing fascination with trees. Although abundant with fact, Powers crafts The Overstory with such skill that any learning on the part of the reader takes place with real ease. His expansive narrative captures the diversity of human experience – growth, love, death, ambition – whilst ensuring that the reader never loses sight of the manner in which these fleeting journeys remain shadowed by the depth and immensity of the natural world.
The novel serves as a wake-up call and an effective one. It reminds us of the ways in which we walk our lives almost totally unable to see or recognise the world around us and the destruction that mankind systematically brings to bear upon nature. The Overstory is as enlightening as it is engaging. It should be required reading as a compelling admonition of our own wilful ignorance:
“The Greeks had a word, xenia – guest friendship – a command to take care of traveling strangers, to open your door to whoever is out there, because anyone passing by, far from home, might be God. Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees – an oak and a linden – huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer…”
3. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Knopf)
Bridge of Clay was a book that I wasn’t expecting to love as much as I did. Although I was enamoured with the unique narrative style of The Book Thief, it had been ten years since this publication and a lot of the shine of excited expectation had certainly worn off. However, Bridge of Clay is just further demonstration of the fact that Zusak really knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting complex, believable characters. From my review of the book: “Bridge of Clay follows the story of the five Dunbar brothers, living an almost feral existence following the death of their mother and abandonment by their father. Their life together is tribal: full of boyish violence, understated love for one another, and a fierce preservation of their mother’s memory.” At the return of the father, asking for help with building a bridge across the river by his house, however, the status quo that the boys have established in his absence is effectively demolished. Clay is the only brother that agrees to help. From there the novel follows Clay’s journey as “the bridge-builder whose love for stories allows him to rebuild a family shattered by tragedy.”
Bridge of Clay was such an unexpectedly moving book. The grief that transcends it is palpable but is tempered by Clay’s immovable determination to achieve reconciliation through an exploration of the stories on which his life, and the lives of his parents, are constructed. Although it was at times difficult to keep track of the various narrative threads that the novel explores, its incredibly poignant examination of familial love and shared tragedy transcends any over-ambition on Zusak’s part. It’s an amazing book and definitely one of my favourite publications of 2018.
4. Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe was a book that had been on my radar for quite a few months before I actually got around to reading it. I ended up selecting it as my pick for the tiny long-distance book club that I belong to along with two of my best friends. We’d had a good track record with impressive female writers and the excitement that surrounded Miller’s novel meant that it served as a natural choice for our intense Skype-based literary interrogation (truly just drinking tea and chatting away on various tangents). Before delving into Circe, I had enough time to make my way through Miller’s debut novel – and winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 – The Song of Achilles. Although the book had its flaws (you can read my review of it here), I loved so much of what Miller was able to accomplish in her re-telling of the legend of Achilles and the Battle of Troy.
In a similar vein to The Song of Achilles, Circe offers a contemporary reinterpretation of the life of Circe – the witch who is best known for her appearance in The Odyssey and her relationship with Odysseus. It is an interesting premise that lends itself fully towards Miller’s determination to centralise relatively faceless and one-dimensional characters from Greek myth. Told in the first person, the narrative of Circe generates a remarkable amount of sympathy toward the immortal daughter of the titan Helios. We follow her challenges as a unremarkable and diminished member of Helios’ court and her banishment to the island Aeaea. Part of what makes Circe’s tale such an interesting choice is her place at the centre of many of the most fascinating stories of Greek myth. She helps her sister Pasiphae deliver herself of the minotaur (this part of the story involves some perplexing logistics regarding Pasiphae’s encounter with a white bull), she cleanses Jason and Medea of their ‘sins’, and she plays host to Odysseus and his crew.
Circe was assigned the ‘feminist’ label almost immediately upon publication. For this novel, the label feels like a heavy duty to carry. Circe’s decisions are driven in large part by the men in her life and this is something from which she never entirely escapes. I was left feeling that something was slightly lacking once I’d closed the novel, but I think this has more to do with the expectations that labelling a work of fiction ‘feminist’ can bring to bear. However, Circe remains a fascinating read and one that I breezed through in little time. The plot of the story truly recommends itself and Miller’s easy narration holds the reader’s interest throughout. I’ll definitely be waiting with excitement for any of Miller’s future offerings!