This has been a big year for me in the literary sense. I graduated from a degree in English Literature and was simultaneously filled with a sadness at not having a mountain of assigned texts to read and an excitement at being able to delve in to my shelves and read the books I’d been stashing for months previously. The second we submitted final coursework, group chats and Instagram were filled with variations of the same ‘I never want to read a book again.’ Me? I was cosied up in the bed the morning after submission starting Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, a moment that had been my light at the end of the tunnel during the black hole that was deadline season. Fortunately, since then I haven’t fallen out the habit of having a next book to be excited for. This past month alone I’ve worked my way through another Aciman novel, Mitford’s book included on this list, Rooney’s second novel Normal People, poetry anthologies and culture essays.
Picking just five texts was easier than expected (partly because my poor memory meant raking my brains for texts I’d read in 2018 didn’t conjure up much!) These five texts were the stand outs that I found myself thinking over, gushing about and desperate to share. My reasons for picking these particular texts to read were varied: after seeing the film of Call Me By Your Name, I knew I needed more of that world; The Pursuit of Love was an emergency train station pick up; the rest were recommendations from friends, family or tutors. It’s clear from the list what I love to read – mainly contemporary fiction that explores identity, place and love, particularly unrequited. I’m intrigued to see how my reading habits change and to discover whether those themes endure or whether it’s more a reflection of the time of life I’m in.
I hope you enjoy this list. I hope it inspires you to pick up at least one of these texts or reminds you of that one on the bookshelf you never picked up. If you think there’s any text – fiction or otherwise- you think I’ll love, drop me a line! I’ve put a short list of upcoming reads I’m excited for at the end but would love to add to it over the coming weeks.
Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman
‘But I was in heaven. That he hadn’t forgotten our conversation… gave me a shot of tonic I hadn’t experience in many, many days. It spilled over everything I touched. Just a word, a gaze, and I was in heaven. To be happy like this maybe wasn’t so difficult after all. All I had to do was find the source of happiness in me and not rely on others to supply it the next time.’ (49)
Aciman writes desire, lust and passion like nothing I’ve read before. The honesty with which he puts pen to page is often so powerful I often had to put the book down just to take a breath. Just as Oliver stays with Elio, Call Me By Your Name stays with the reader, lingering long and slow in the back of your mind. Aciman writes so evocatively – about physical desire, the streets Elio and Oliver inhabit, the summer, hopeless longing, isolation – that you can’t help but to sink deep in to their story. Written from Elio’s perspective, it often reads like a rambling journal and I often found myself reading a line, paragraph or page and being reminded of my own writing, the private kind done in those quiet, dark moments which I’d never share with anyone. I have such admiration for Aciman: to write this way about unfulfilled, tragic love, I believe you have to have known it yourself. To know it yourself and share it is in equal part frightening and brave.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
‘She felt weak, for not having a passion, not being sure what she wanted to do. Her interests were vague and varied… none of them had a firm shape.’ (202)
Americanah was a refreshing read and a welcome cultural education for me. Adichie’s writing is vibrant, rich and evocative, and her exploration of identity so candid. I related to much of Ifemelu’s character: her sense of displacement in a new place, her deep longing for home, her desire to think, explain and share with others. Adichie paints such a rounded, full view of a character that I understood almost completely who she was, despite an absence of racial, cultural or geographical similarities I could bring to the text. Americanah has love stories layered within it: with Nigeria, with America, with family, with the parts of her identity she discovers, loses, and finds again. Reading these stories entwine and unfold was an education in to a world I didn’t know, and yet, simultaneously, reading Americanah felt like a reflection of my own experience: that of a twenty-something establishing a sense of self and a place in the world by getting to know, and accepting unapologetically, who they are.
Now In November – Josephine Johnson
‘I do not see in our lives any great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth. There is nothing majestic in our living. The earth turns in great movements, but we jerk about on its surface like gnats, our days absorbed and overwhelmed by a mass of little things – that confusion which is our living and which prevents us from being really alive.’ (197)
I have a soft spot for texts which explore a protagonist torn between two versions of themselves: that which belongs to them, and that which belongs to the land. A popular theme in Irish and Scottish literature, James Leslie Mitchell’s Sunset Song is a prime example of someone indebted to the land which raised them, and their family for decades before.
Josephine Johnson’s Now In November was a hit on publication yet has continually gone in and out of print since. Introduced to me for my US Fictions of the Great Depression course, I fell in love with everything about this text. Johnson’s writing is poetic and elegant yet grand and powerful; Marget, her protagonist, is empathetic, insightful and intelligent; both the family bonds and family hardships are given equal time and attention; and the land itself is painted in such a way that you come to consider it a character in itself. What I love most about Now In November is the balance struck between the quiet, dusk-lit moments of pastoral life and the loud, desperate cries of a family who face devastation. Presenting romantic desire, domestic contentment and human exploration on the backdrop of the land, and a life controlled by factors outside of any of these human realms, Johnson paints a tale of desperation, and in turn a raw, sorrowful account of life lived for the land.
The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
‘But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook the other person for him.’ (139)
The irresistibility of The Pursuit of Love’s protagonist, Linda Radlett, is that she always just knows it is true love. She blindly throws herself in to every love affair she has and in doing so disregards any sense. She is a hopeless romantic, searching for the love of her life and never hindering herself with logic or restraint. The Pursuit of Love was a refreshingly unapologetic account of growing up and what is to be learned from the love affairs, heart aches and heartbreaks that you encounter as you go. Written with such humour and wit, Mitford pokes fun continually: at Linda’s optimism, at the privilege of the outdated elite the family belong to, and in doing all this, at herself. I knew before reading this was a semi-autobiographical novel (her childhood with a large family in the remote English countryside inspired early chapters), but not until after did I learn that Mitford herself had two failed marriages with unsatisfactory matches and then lived the rest of her life hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with a man named Gaston Palewski. Mitford writes with honesty and melodrama in such a wry tone that you can’t help but chuckle, scoff and grin at the tragedy of it all!
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
‘He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought, of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.’ (621)
A Little Life had me sobbing repeatedly and while it devastated, within a few pages more it had given a glimpse once again of the joy, strength and resilience humanity affords. It’s neither cynical nor saccharine sweet; it doesn’t boast its intelligence nor hide away from it; it succeeds in creating an experience which really can only be likened to living itself. It is as though you’ve not only read the story of Jude’s little (though rich, complex and full) life, but as thought you’ve lived a little life yourself in the process. I devoured its 720-pages over a five-day period on holiday and I found myself the next day wishing I could go back to it again. Because Yanagihara cleverly affords the reader with the sense that, despite every detail, character development, revelation, intimate moment, tender word, letters read, written and found, memory told, that there is more to find. Despite its hopping between narrative voices and timelines, its artful, delicate addition of a new perspective on a conversation or interaction at the turn of each page, you feel that there is even more to this life.
This is an excerpt from my post ‘Musings on Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life” shared in June 2018.
My Reading list for 2019
The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne
Vandalism – Lizzie Eldridge
The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
Written by Katherine Warren