Top Reads of 2017

In 2017 I anticipated that I wouldn’t read as much as I had read in previous years, due to giving my reading time over to some personal studies and the reading that would accompany them and to the social visits I had from many of the men in my family, brother, Uncle, Fathers. As a result, less of my writing appeared here in Word by Word and more of it found its way in the old-fashioned long form between the pages of journals that I keep.

However, I did still manage to read 48 books from 21 countries (10 in translation) including Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Turkey, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Palestine, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Pakistan, France, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Greece, Spain, Mauritius, Australia and of course the UK and the US.

Outstanding Read of 2017

The one stand out novel for me came very early in the year, in February and I knew as soon as I finished it, that it was likely to be my outstanding novel of 2017.

This novel came out with a lot of fanfare and so I was a little dubious to begin with, novels that arrive with great expectations have a tendency to disappoint avid literary readers, so I read with intrigue what other reviewers had to say. Some loved it, others saw it as a collection of stories, and then my very dear Aunt, who totally knows what kind of books I love sent it to me for my birthday. Of course I dove right in.

Here is what I had to say in my review:

“I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.”

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but lived most of her life in the US. After revisiting Ghana, she began writing her novel by asking herself what it meant to be black in America today and through the lives and descendants of two sisters, her narrative will arrive eventually in the modern day. Here’s what she was trying to do and in my opinion totally succeeds. Read my review here.

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Top Reads 2017

Here in no particular order are a few books that have stayed with me long after I read them and the year has passed.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a slim novella, the third book by this young Irish writer and his best in my opinion.

The story is told in a way that pulls you inside the book and makes you feel it happening. Incredibly the author writes from the first person perspective of Melody, a 33-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant to a young Traveller, a turning point that disrupts the confined world she has created and had been living in.

He has such penetrative powers of observation, that create a sense of foreboding and intrigue, it’s a book you’ll likely read in one sitting and then wonder in awe, how he did that. Just brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published by Gallic Books new imprint Aardvark Bureau, I’ve loved all the books they’ve brought out under this imprint and Salt Creek might just be the best so far. It’s an historical novel, inspired by the events of the authors family, who immigrated to Australia from Britain, portraying one family trying to find success in farming in a harsh, unforgiving environment of South Australia.

This too is a book that gets under your skin, especially as a woman reading about the lives of other women and children (particularly daughters) who are at the mercy of the dreams and aspirations of men, men who have little empathy for how disruptive and out of the comfort zone, this life might be for a woman, and ironically, on the contrary, how quickly young children adapt, how easy it is for them to integrate and thus cross societal taboos when it comes to mixing with indigenous populations. It’s a novel richly populated with colonial issues of the time, that make you wish at times, that it could have a fantasy element, where it all might end differently.

Read my full review of Salt Creek here.

The Complete Claudine by Colette (translated by Antonia White) was my One Summer Chunkster for 2017, a French classic, relatively little known outside France among general readers, but an author who should be more widely read, especially by young adult readers, as it charts the young Claudine’s journey through her last year in school, then her adventures in Paris with her father, through marriage and into maturity.

The book includes an excellent introduction by Judith Thurman, which I devoted a full post to, as she was such a fascinating woman, so far ahead of the era in which she lived, being such a free spirit, determined to experience love, to live her artistic desires and be financially independent, wild and adorable!

Below are the links to the introductory piece and the four books that are contained in this one volume.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

A brilliant choice for my one fat summer book of the year.

The Complete Claudine – An Introduction

Claudine at School

Claudine in Paris

Claudine Married

Claudine and Annie

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is a quirky fable-like book I read about and was intrigued by, recommended by a fellow reader. It is an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival, one which features, as the title suggests, two old women.

This is one of those stories, like Najaf Mazari’s excellent collection The Honey Thief, handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation and now finally, thankfully, someone has captured it in print, so it can endure and be discovered by an even wider audience than originally intended.

I loved it because it teaches us the value of paying attention to our (women) elders, who possess much wisdom, something that if ignored wastes away and can even be forgotten by those who possess it. Let not our elders sit too quietly, lest they believe they have creaky bones and limp minds! Read my full review here.

My Story by Jo Malone is one of the six memoirs I read in 2017 and the one that was the most intriguing and personal to me, not because I’m a fan of her perfumes, but because I too have a love of the aromas of plants, flowers, resins, herbs and like to create remedies from essential oils and mix them with other plant oils to use therapeutically.

Knowing Jo Malone to be a high-end luxury brand, I had little idea that she came from such fascinating and humble beginnings and was a woman of such incredible perseverance. As I say below, I loved it!

“I absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.”

Read my full review here.

Worthy Mentions

I could go on, but rather I will just say that I also really enjoyed the excellent debut novel Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller was an accomplished evocative novel, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was as exquisite, heart-breaking and lyrical as I expected after her brilliant What Lies Between Us I’d read in 2016.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso and The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé were a brilliant pair to read together, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa while observing her relations with others around her, in a post-apartheid era. And personally I thought Zadie Smith’s depiction of female friendship in Swing Time easily rivalled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, with her poignant insights and ever-present mastery of that sense of place and community, particularly in London. And though it didn’t reach the heights of Homegoing for me, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing also left an equally strong impression:

“how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect on people’s behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. “

So did any of these books make your top reads for 2017? If not, what was your one Outstanding Read of the Year?

Happy Reading!

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Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

 

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious to me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.