Earlier this month I wrote about the 11 best books of 2019 for 10 Daily. However, there were also many books that I read this year that were not necessarily published recently.
Here are my picks of the best books I’ve read in 2019, in no particular order.
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Written by a former judge’s associate who travelled around regional Queensland, hearing child abuse and rape cases with such frequency that Bri Lee began to feel concerned that she might become immune to their horror, Eggshell Skull is written with great emotion and confidence.
Lee expertly takes the reader with her as she seeks justice for her own childhood abuse. However, it is really a book about all men, and the gulf between her own loving and supportive father and partner, and the men who commit terrible crimes against women and children that Lee encounters in the courts.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
I had never read anything by David Sedaris, and after reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, I’ll pursue more of his work. Sedaris is hilarious in his observations about the absurdity of topics ranging from shopping to his own family. These bite sized stories are a joy to read, written with great wit and humour.
The Rip by Mark Brandi
I was looking forward to reading Mark Brandi’s second book after being moved by his debut, Wimmera. The Rip was an entirely different book, but just as impressive. It follows a homeless drug addict through Melbourne. However, this is not a book that judges or condescends, but rather, invites the reader to understand the life of those who live rough. It is just as grim as Brandi’s first novel, but not without a sense of hope, and I found myself wishing for a happy ending for Dani.
Lanny by Max Porter
It is difficult to describe Lanny without making it sound ridiculous. However, this story of a small village where mythical figure, Dead Papa Toothwort, emerges from the undergrowth, is touching, haunting and immensely memorable. It centres on the disappearance of a young boy who has been receiving art lessons from an ageing local artist. The disappearance of Lanny brings the prejudices of the villagers into sharp focus. There is an underlying sense of foreboding as Dead Papa Toothwort stalks the nearby forest.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I’m so pleased that I finally got around to reading Gone Girl, years after it became a bestseller and was adapted to the screen. I had dismissed it as being a light thriller that was bound to quickly find its way to the bargain table of most bookshops, but I was entirely taken in by the story and the way it was written. Flynn’s book is full of both surprises and ideas, offering insightful commentary on relationships cushioned between all of the story’s twists and turns. I loved it.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Another wonderful but harrowing read this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. It tells of a young mother who is jailed after killing her stalker. Her experiences are a little Orange is the New Black, jumping between an exploration of the personalities she encounters while incarcerated, and the story behind the murder. It is difficult not to empathise with a woman who found herself in such a terrible situation as a result of her desire to protect her child from a man she feared.
The Mars Room is a fascinating and tragic story of a life gone awry.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
I don’t usually choose short stories, but any reader would enjoy Alice Munro’s perfectly formed nuggets in Dear Life. The stories offer sharp insights into human interactions, from that between a door-to-door saleswoman and the ex on whose doorstep she unknowingly finds herself to the woman who momentarily neglects her child as she meets an interesting stranger on a train, with potentially disastrous results.
Just like in the best novels, sometimes nothing momentous happens in a story, yet this offers space for the subtle emotions of Munro’s characters to shine. Dear Life made me want to read more short stories, and certainly more of Munro’s work.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
The ever-reliable Tim Winton has produced another work of beauty in The Shepherd’s Hut, the story of a young man, Jaxie, running from his past and trying to survive in Australia’s inhospitable interior. At first, the language that Winton uses as he writes from the perspective of his protagonist, is off-putting, but eventually I started to enjoy its rhythm and character.
As always, Winton evokes the arid Australian landscape in a way that is both starkly beautiful and imbued with a sense of dread and darkness. Similarly, when Jaxie meets an older man living on his own in the middle of the bush, they form a relationship that is brittle, with moments of warmth. In The Shepherd’s Hut, Winton explores masculinity, fear and powerlessness, and the ending is shocking, but somehow, inevitable.
Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Days of Abandonment is not a happy book to read – it is full of pain and anger to a degree that it is sometimes uncomfortable, as if listening in to a neighbour’s marriage problems through thin walls. There is a sense of desperation that Ferrante captures perfectly in this tightly wound novel, as a husband abandons his wife for a younger woman. The wife spirals out of control, and at one stage she finds herself unable to unlock the flat. It is an apt metaphor for the position she is in, seemingly without any escape from her outraged mental state. As in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the characters are often unlikeable, but they are always mesmerising. I was unable to look away.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
I found this book in an op shop, and it turns out that I found quite the treasure for $6. Set during a stiflingly hot summer in Spain, it is the story of a mother and daughter who seek a cure to the mother’s mysterious ailments. The experience is strange and transforming for the two, as they encounter a questionable doctor and other locals who drive them to explore more deeply why they have made the journey.
I loved Levy’s evocative descriptions of the landscape and its people – it was easy to be transported to the beach where the daughter spent hours while her mother rested.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
I read Rachel Cusk’s trilogy out of order, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the intelligence of these short and intense novels. Following Faye as she travels to Athens to lead a writing workshop, Outline was my favourite of the three, but that might just be because I read it last and so got swept away by Cusk’s writing immediately. In a way, the book is a series of conversations between Faye and the people she meets. They offer snippets of their lives as Faye listens, and the stories are revealing of the characters telling them and sometimes terribly sad as they touch on love and loss.
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins
The setting in a remote boarding school is key to Robert Lukins’ atmospheric novel, The Everlasting Sunday. It is not hard to imagine the bitter cold of winter and the sense of imprisonment the boys sent to the boarding house faced. There is a clear sense that disaster is not far from the door as the boys, cast out of their usual lives as a result of circumstance or misbehaviour, navigate their lives and the social complexities of their home.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna
After I adored The Choke, in all its devastating and harrowing beauty, I was excited to pick up Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep. I wasn’t disappointed by this heartbreaking and beautiful story of a mother and her son. Both are entirely dependent on each other, with the mother so obese she struggled to leave the home and the boy displaying signs of autism. The relationship between the two is at the heart of the novel, and there were times while reading the novel when I was moved to tears. I don’t know another writer who so perfectly captures the experience of the traumatised child as Laguna, and I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
What an ending! If you’ve read Home Fire, you’ll know what I mean, and if not, read it and see. Home Fire is a modern retelling of the classical story of Antigone, centring on a Muslim family living in London. When the disillusioned son decides to travel to Syria to support ISIS, those left behind react in different ways that set them on paths that will not only challenge each other, but also the British political system. I love being surprised by a novel, and this one definitely surprised me.
I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am is a memoir with a difference, recounting the many times the writer has escaped death. While some of the events that O’Farrell remembers were more hair raising than others, all are written in a language that is so accessible and engaging that I often felt pins and needles as I raced to the end of the story to find out how she survived.
One story in which O’Farrell meets a stranger while hiking, and afterwards learns of what he did afterwards, is particularly chilling.
The White Girl by Tony Birch
The White Girl is written in language that is simple and accessible, yet it is a book that is not easy to read. Tony Birch writes about a grandmother and her granddaughter as they try to find a way to live, despite the constant fear of separation, under Australia’s cruel and divisive laws. It is a history that is shameful, but essential for all Australians to confront and understand.
Birch creates characters who are strong, yet vulnerable, flawed yet admirable. I really enjoyed the tender and affectionate relationship between the grandmother and granddaughter, which made the spectre of their separation even more difficult to comprehend.
This is a book that should be read widely by Australians, however difficult they might find the history it explores.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I re-read Beloved a few months before hearing about Toni Morrison’s death, and so felt a greater sadness than I might have expected at the loss of this literary genius. Morrison’s book about a woman desperate to save her family from the horrors of slavery, is even more heart-wrenching on the second reading.
It can be hard to access Morrison’s language, but once you relax into its rhythm, its beauty is startling. I ended up folding over many, many pages with passages that I wanted to remember. However, I probably didn’t need to bother as Morrison’s words are impossible to forget.