Highlights of 2020

Thanks to Covid-19 I read a personal record of 158 books in 2020.

(asterisks indicate Australian authors)

Non-fiction

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)

The Five is an astonishing social history that delves into the lives of the ‘canonical five’ victims of Jack the Ripper. The book seeks to put their lives into their contexts of poverty and disadvantage and to de-sexualise them, as their representation in the popular imagination remains synonymous with sexual temptation and prostitution. Indeed, as Rubenhold shows, for four of them there is no evidence that they were prostitutes. There is a fascinating interview with Rubenhold on the Guardian books podcast, which is where I first heard about it. 

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss (2020)

Biss trains her unique and perceptive lens on capitalism and labour. Fascinating insights into reflections on the lives of Virginia Woolf and Marx also pepper the book. This brief outline doesn’t do it justice, so read Aminatta Forna’s review in the Guardian.

Our Bright Hour by Nina Rigg (2017)

This memoir by the poet Nina Rigg chronicles her years living with terminal breast cancer, as she comes to terms with the fact that she won’t grow old with her husband, or see her two sons reach adolescence. It is a moving portrayal of the life she created with her partner John and the daily wonder of raising two precocious children. Interestingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was Rigg’s ancestor, and she also reflects on his contribution to literature, as well as her love for Montaigne’s essays. Rigg died at 6am on 26 February 2017 at the age of 39. I would say this is the standout book of my reading year. Read it with tissues- you may need more than one box.

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon (2018)

Translated from French, this book reveals the ongoing effects of living with childhood sexual assault. As a young girl, Adelaide was attacked by a serial rapist, and has spent the rest of her life trying to cope with the trauma. Bon also gave an illuminating lecture on witches in the cultural imagination at Sydney Writers Festival.

Night Fishing by Vicki Hastrich (2019)*

These essays are profound meditations on the artistic process, and how obsessions- for Hastrich, with the Woy Woy area, the ocean and Goya- are an undercurrent in artists’ lifelong creative quests. The collection was born out of Hastrich’s ‘fallow period’; a decision to be ‘unproductive’ when a novel she was writing wasn’t working out:

The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea: I would go dormant but in a way that was still active. If I opened myself up and calmy listened, there might be all sorts of things to hear – things I didn’t immediately have to turn into something else, as writers often feel compelled to do. In fact, I would be anti-production. I would read and walk and look at art and people and nature, and I would let whatever came my way to wash over and through me, and then let it go.

She also offers us this pearler: ‘…the pleasure of thinking a big idea is not to be dismissed as nothing. Even if the idea is never realised, the thinking is real and enlarging, sustaining, as much a part of art and the life of inquiry as actual production.’

After Our Bright Hour, this is the next best book I read in 2020.

The Girls by Chloe Higgins (2019)*

Chloe Higgins’s debut details the legacy of living with intense grief and trauma. When she was in her final year of school, Chloe’s two younger sisters died after the car their father was driving was involved in an accident and burst into flames. Beautifully written and unsparing in its honesty, this book is a compelling read and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Travel Light, Move Fast by AD Fuller (2019)

This memoir, from the author of the instant classic Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, looks at the death of her father and the ongoing legacy of her parents’ colonial existence in Rhodesia and Zambia. It has to be noted that Fuller is one of those memoirists who reproduces long conversations and claims them to be verbatim, which usually rings alarm bells for me. However she has worked as a journalist so it is possible she meticulously chronicles her life and interactions. Nevertheless, this book is so beautifully written and draws out the dynamics of complex family relationships in a post-colonial setting so finely that it deserves a guernsey.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: a True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (2020)

This is Summerscale’s fifth book, and her second to be set in the interwar period (this was the backdrop for her first book The Queen of Whale Cay).  Summerscale looks at reports of poltergeists in suburban London as the second World War looms darkly on the horizon. Focusing on one household- that of the eponymous Alma Fielding- Summerscale follows the investigation of Hungarian-Jewish ghost hunter Nandor Fodor, and the burgeoning belief in psychoanalysis and the unconscious, which makes Fodor question his belief in the supernatural. Watch out for a review on this blog in 2021.

The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight (2020)*

I had not previously read Daylight’s work, and came across her book of essays after an excerpt was published in the Guardian. I devoured it in a weekend.

The essays are masterclasses in both analysis and critical writing, with her love of Helen Garner and George Saunders shining through, although for a critic she is surprisingly rigid when it comes to the canon- she despairs for the university students she teaches who have not read ‘the classics.’ This is a flaw of the book- surely the role of the critic, especially a female one, is to challenge the male-dominated canon? It is an odd blindspot considering the lead essay is about the damage childbirth did to her vagina and challenges the silence our society has constructed about the horror of childbirth and women’s health more broadly. She also valorises the critic James Wood, whose insightful work nevertheless shares her own blindspot: his book How Fiction Works is dominated by the work of white men. This quibble aside, however, the collection is well worth a read.

Fiction

Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey* (2020)

A hilarious and poignant look at a bunch of Harvard graduates gathering for their fifteenth reunion in the shadow of a Trump-like President. As I wrote in my review for the Newtown Review of Books, Dovey’s move to a more commercial premise has not compromised the profundity of her fiction.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (2020)

The narrator is asked by her friend to assist her to die as she suffers from terminal cancer. A stirring meditation on friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of planetary destruction. Nunez’s style is circuitous, spare and, at times, oblique, but she still manages to get to the heart of the matter.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)

2020 will also be memorable for my belated encounter with the prickly and imperfect Olive, who, despite her flaws, is an endearing character who the reader can’t help but care about. Strout’s heartwarming portrayal of ordinary people going about their lives as best they can is deeply moving. A sequel was published in 2019 which is on my list for this year, as is her forthcoming novel

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

O’Farrell’s eight novel takes a beautiful, heartbreaking look at the life of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died in childhood from the plague. O’Farrell’s imagined journey of the fleas carrying the plague to Hamnet is remarkable, as is her portrayal of grief and the way it haunts its sufferers.

I had wanted to review this for a journal as there is hardly any critical work available on Maggie O’Farrell (a very nothing-y review was published in the TLS, a slightly better one appeared in the New Statesman), but unfortunately the publication I approached turned my review down. I did however review it on this blog. Hamnet won last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, so hopefully her next book garners more critical attention.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

I finally got around to reading Normal People, which the media, including critical cultural publications, love to refer to as the quintessential millennial novel. The word millennial gets flung about with such abandon that it now fails to signify anything meaningful. I’ve found it is often accompanied by the adjective ‘solipsistic.’  

If anything, Normal People challenges this lazy designation. Turns out, your late teens and early twenties are a meaningful period of your life. There is a scene when the two main characters, Connell and Marianne- an on-again-off-again couple whose personal and collective shame keeps getting in the way of their relationship- are reflecting on their shared history and the current state of their lives.  ‘Its funny the decisions you make because you like someone,’ says Connell, ‘and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’

A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled in parsing the appeal of Normal People, and of Rooney’s oeuvre (if you can call it that after two books). A mixed review by Madeline Schwartz in the New York Review of Books drew attention to Rooney’s flat prose and self-destructive female characters. Lauren Collins, conversely, waxed lyrical in the New Yorker about Rooney’s millennial sensibilities. Meanwhile, for Emily Temple writing in Lithub, it’s all about the sex:

how vulnerable it is, how tender…But it’s necessary, too. Marianne and Connell are magnetized in this mysterious way, both in the book and in its adaptation; it’s a sexual magnetization as well as an emotional one, and it comes with the constant refrain: “it’s not like this with other people.” Indeed not, and for that reason the sex stops short of being realistic, exactly—which only makes it more effective at transmitting the narrative’s central concern: the uncommon bond between these two people, and whether it can outlast the world around it.

To me, the success of Normal People can be explained by the way it counters the pervasive belief that the relationships formed and broken in early adulthood are not damaging, or that they have no bearing on the rest of your life. Rooney gives voice to the lingering feelings of shame and longing that forever colour the memory of your first romantic attachment. We want to believe that love will win out; indeed, we are drip fed this message from an early age. But the mutual attraction and vulnerabilities shared by Connell and Marianne does not mean their love is straightforward. Questions of image, and the pursuit of status and of glamour – not to mention class – cannot be separated from our ideas about love. This, too is a lifelong tension.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Though it may at first seem like a stretch, I think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham is, in many ways, the corollary of Normal People. Whereas Rooney’s novel is forward-looking, Sittenfeld’s is a playful retrospective examination of the fork in the road that was Hillary Rodham’s decision to marry Bill Clinton.

Like Marianne, Hillary has a problematic father, which leaves her with lingering psychological effects, including insecurity. By the time Bill asks her out on a date, Hillary has already taken a senator to task in her university graduation address; one would assume she is gearing up to take her place in the world, yet she cannot believe a man of his stature would show any interest, let alone romantic interest, in her.

But what, exactly, is Bill’s interest? Sittenfeld cracks open this question through her retelling of the famous Sixty Minutes interview; in the actual historical interview Hillary sits beside her cheating husband and defends him to the American public. In Rodham, Hillary looks on with horror as the woman who had the misfortune to marry Bill does the same.

Perhaps I loved this novel so much because it is close to the bone. I started dating my first boyfriend in the summer immediately following my graduation from highschool. Aspiring to poltiical office, he worked on and off in the electoral offices of various state Labor MPs. Alas for me, my hair was not long enough, my smile not broad enough, my conscience not silent enough, my personality not submissive enough. Eventually he unceremoniously ditched me.

Now, I await elections with dread. But even if we have the collective misfortune of one day seeing him on television, at least I will never be that woman on Sixty Minutes; I will also never be dragged out, like Margie Abbott was in 2016, to inform the Australian public of my politician husband’s penchant for period dramas, or to reassure voters that if you actually get to know him, he really is a nice guy.

Prior to this experience, I had wondered earnestly about how you could spend your life married to someone who was so obviously a pig, and not only keep on being married to them but also deny their piggery. I was so confident in my ability to avoid this particular pitfall. Now, of course, I know better.  As Anne Enright wrote in her review of Rodham for the Guardian, ‘Love is the great accident. We can fall for the wrong person, or we can have the great good fortune to attach ourselves to the right person, and the strange thing is, we may never know which is which.’

Michelle de Kretser writes that the job of good writing is to make us feel seen. Rodham did more to validate the decade of humiliation I felt as a result of that formative relationship than any counselling I’ve undertaken. I had joined the ranks of Hillary and Margie for a time, but was ultimately spared. Now I can look back with gratitude.

Best critical writing

Two lengthy reviews really stand out in my mind. The first by Roslyn Jolly examines Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock in conjunction with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It is a searing validation of ‘angry’ literature, canvassing the ‘indignities, trespasses and violence to which women are subjected, in the wider world and more particularly in their own homes.’

Angry Women | Roslyn Jolly on Evie Wyld and Anne Brontë (sydneyreviewofbooks.com)

The second by Thornton McCamish looks at Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum.

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’ | The Monthly

I also loved the take on the writing life offered by the supremely talented Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Called ‘Award Rate,’ it captures the ignominy of trying to carve out an artistic life under capitalism, and the rock-and-a-hard-place scenario of being shortlisted for a major literary award, ‘a once-in-a-lifetime boon from a government that would prefer we didn’t exist.’

Thanks for the money, I imagine saying, then slipping offstage. Would that be too ungracious? Uninspiring? Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around.

Award Rate | Laura Elizabeth Woollett on writing | Sydney Review of Books

What I’m Looking Forward to reading in 2021

Australian

Alice Pung, One Hundred Days (June, Black Inc.): a pregnant sixteen year old battles her mother as the due date approaches.

Anna Spargo-Ryan, A Kind of Magic (July, Picador): Spargo-Ryan’s memoir is based on her 2016 Horne prize-winning essay The Suicide Gene.

Krissy Kneen, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen: Travels with My Grandmother’s Ashes (May, Text): Kneen investigates the early life of her grandmother, following the trail through Eastern Europe and Egypt.

Kathryn Heyman, Fury (May): novelist Kathryn Heyman discusses the aftermath of a sexual assault and how she survived it.

International

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking): a study that looks at the legacy of empire from the NHS to Brexit and Covid.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber): involving an “Artificial Friend,” this nvel considers humanity and the meaning of love.

Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner (William Collins): a memoir centering on objects.

Everybody by Olivia Laing (Picador): an investigation into bodies, which looks at protests, alternative medicine and the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus): looks at Count Camondo, a prominent Jewish banker and the creator of a vast collection of decorative arts, who lost a son in the first world war and whose daughter and grandchildren died in the Holocaust.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador): the author of Say Nothing investigates the secrets of the controversial pharmaceutical family.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton): The final instalment in the award-winning “living autobiography” series.

Consumed by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre): the Guardian’s theatre critic tells the story of her sister’s death from TB, and also considers the history of the disease.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (Granta): a fesh look at Orwell through his love of nature and gardening.

Author: The Armchair Critic

I'm Amy, a Canberra-based reviewer, writer, reader and general culture vulture. The mission of The Armchair Critic is to stimulate critical cultural conversation in an engaging and accessible way.

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