It has been a big year in Australian literature, filled with high and lows; from Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize win for The Testaments, the much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, to the staggering comments published in Parenting by once-beloved children’s author John Marsden. And while Indigenous authors celebrated a booming global interest in their literature, after becoming top-performers in local sales, local booksellers weathered legal threats over the sale of international MeToo author Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. Not to mention we lost an icon in Clive James. To sum up 2019, we asked writers from here and overseas to tell us about their favourite reads this year.
State of Origin (Puncher & Wattmann) by David Owen Kelly is a memoir of fresh and hilarious modesty: a white, gay call-centre worker goes searching for his lost Aboriginal “brother”, who fled as a boy from their brutal foster father. A tribute to the saving imaginations of abandoned children.
Imre Salusinszky’s The Hilton Bombing (MUP) tells this 1978 Sydney terrorist crime through a biography of the confessed bomber, Evan Pederick: a thrilling story of youth corrupted by fanaticism, of terrible remorse and the making of amends.
In Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (Allen & Unwin), three once-stylish women of mature years – still amazed and furious to find themselves on the scrapheap – spend a stormy weekend together cleaning out their dead friend’s beach house. Sharp, funny, beautiful.
Helen Garner’s most recent book, Yellow Notebook, is published by Text.
MIN JIN LEE
Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House (Bloomsbury), is a gorgeous and moving work. Though the title property is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the narrative is set in the modern day, The Dutch House serves as a much needed, wonderful old-fashioned story that is deeply immersive and gratifying.
A first-person account, told by Danny, the younger son of a Philadelphia real-estate developer, the reader learns what follows when his father marries a young, selfish woman who is obsessed with his father’s beloved mansion. Danny and his sister Maeve, whose mother has left them to serve the poor, face the consequences of their father’s second marriage. Danny and Maeve’s sibling bond, forged from loss, sacrifice, betrayal and enduring love, is a wonder to behold.
Reading a new work of Ann Patchett is one of life’s consoling pleasures, because we are in the hands of a writer whose wisdom and compassion shines through her pages.
Min Jin Lee’s most recent novel, Pachinko, is published by Head of Zeus.
I was lucky enough to get an early proof of Olive, Again (Viking) by Elizabeth Strout and I could not put it down. The characters are so alive and real that I felt as if I was living the book. Funny in moments, darkly sad in others – stories of ordinary life that illuminate what it is to be human.
It’s exciting to see Maxine Beneba Clarke publish The Saturday Portraits (Black Inc.), a collection of her electric portraits from The Saturday Paper. Powerful and fearless, Maxine is one of our best writers and these portraits are refreshing and captivating.
Earlier in the year, I devoured Heart of the Grass Tree (Vintage) by Molly Murn. A beautiful debut about Kangaroo Island and its living history. I loved it.
Favel Parrett’s most recent novel, There Was Still Love, is published by Hachette.
I usually read literary fiction, but after judging two book prizes this year I can’t stomach any more: I’m full! What a relief it was to read J.M. Green’s Shoot Through (Scribe), the final book in her Stella Hardy crime series: crisp prose, rocketing pace, a flawed hero and some of the best jokes in fiction.
There are more great jokes in Wayne Macauley’s Simpson Returns (Text), a book every Australian should read.
Minnie Darke’s Star-Crossed (Transworld) was a genuine, delicious pleasure, light-hearted but clever and finely crafted.
Mandy Ord’s When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over (The Lifted Brow) is a graphic novel that records every day of Ord’s life for a year, and accrues into a piercing commentary on how we live.
Lucy Treloar’s incredibly sophisticated writing in Wolfe Island (Picador) is currently luring me back to lit.
Jane Rawson’s most recent novel is From the Wreck (Transit Lounge).
My most enjoyed literary fiction came from Carmel Bird, Peter Goldsworthy and George Saunders. I admired Bird’s Field of Poppies (Transit Lounge) for its wit and wisdom and the elegance of her social satire. Hard-boiled page-turner, psychological comedy and ancient myth, Goldsworthy’s Minotaur (Viking) even successfully suspended this reader’s disbelief in a blind detective. George Saunders’ now-famous Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) was so emotionally involving, intimate and original in its portrayal of familial love and loss that it expanded the boundaries of literature before my eyes.
The non-fiction book that impressed most was Castaway (Hachette) by Robert Macklin. The survival story of a cabin boy shipwrecked on Cape York in 1858, and his adoption by Aborigines, it cries out for both wide readership and film treatment.
I must also advocate for James Lee Burke’s The New Iberia Blues (Orion), my favourite crime writer’s latest offering from the Louisiana bayous, without which no summer holiday is complete.
Robert Drewe’s latest book, The True Colour of the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), won the Colin Roderick Award and the H.T. Priestley Memorial Medal for Australian literature.
The Prettiest Horse in The Glue Factory (Penguin) by Brisbane comedian Corey White is a harrowing memoir about growing up in the foster-care system. It is honest, and raw, and very funny. I cried and laughed in equal measure, and I really admired White for surviving.
The politically charged Bruny (Allen & Unwin) by Heather Rose is deeply unsettling for the truth it tells.
The Cherry Picker’s Daughter (Wild Dingo Press), Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s memoir of growing up Aboriginal, felt like an important historical document in my hands. It made me angry about Australia’s history of racism, but it showed me the difference one loyal, fierce, kind woman can make.
Beauty (Allen & Unwin), Bri Lee’s very personal essay on women’s relationship to their appearance, reminded me to question the lies we are sold by the fashion industry and how much power lies in denouncing them.
Sofie Laguna’s most recent book, The Choke, is published by Allen & Unwin.
This was an eclectic year. There was Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees (Text). Such a beautiful, remarkable memoir.
There was Favel Parrett’s beautiful evocation of family in There Was Still Love (Hachette).
Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women (Vintage) sets out all ways in which the world is not designed for women (i.e. we die in more car accidents because cars are not designed for us).
Rohan Wilson’s Daughter of Bad Times (Allen & Unwin), set in 2075, is both dystopian and prophetic writing.
I discovered Lenny Bartulin’s vivid Infamy (Allen & Unwin) and devoured Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore (Vintage) and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Vintage).
But the most remarkable was Dark Emu (Magabala) by Bruce Pascoe. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. This is our most important book of Australian history.
Heather Rose’s latest novel is Bruny (Allen & Unwin).
My reading year began in style with Carrie Tiffany’s astonishing Exploded View (Text). It’s unlike anything I’ve read before: the novel as modern art where every precise brushstroke of a sentence is intended, not to move the plot or reveal character, but to elicit feeling from the reader. Tiffany has eliminated the (in her hands) superfluous aspects of fiction in favour of Kafka’s adage “the book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us”. It’s thrilling and extraordinary.
For something lighter, I loved J.M. Green’s hilarious third Stella Hardy novel, Shoot Through (Scribe), in which our lefty heroine battles high-tech cattle rustlers, neo-capitalist prison entrepreneurs and her old nemesis, Minister for Justice Marcus Pugh (aka Mucus Pukus).
Toni Jordan’s most recent book, The Fragments, is published by Text.
Fiona Harari’s We are Here: Talking with Australia’s Oldest Holocaust Survivors (Scribe) is a deeply moving collection that sits alongside such works as Jacob Rosenberg’s masterpiece, East of Time, and Kitia Altman’s Memories of Ordinary People, as a brilliantly readable example of Holocaust writings. My grandchildren are reading it and are absorbed by it. Harari’s interest is in the living, the precious memories of those who are still with us from that other world.
Harari, an award-winning journalist and author of two previous books, reminds us who we are as Australians and how we came to inhabit this culture of ours: “From 1946 to 1961, 27,000 Jewish survivors migrated to Australia, more than doubling the size of the country’s pre-war community, and irrevocably infusing it with a Central European character.” The young, as well as the old, are hungry to be informed about who they are as Australians.
Harari’s book is a richly valuable source of cultural understanding for our own and the generations that are to follow us. It is a necessary book, in which the truth of our history remains alive and immediate.
Alex Miller’s most recent novel, The Passage of Love, is published by Allen & Unwin.
It seems fitting that in the year the gathering wave of the climate crisis finally washed over us, two of the best books I read were directly engaged with questions of time, grief and survival. The first, Robert Macfarlane’s dazzling, epochal Underland (Hamish Hamilton), is already one of the essential texts of the Anthropocene, a web of deep thought and unexpected connection.
Sophie Cunningham’s wonderfully peripatetic City of Trees (Text) is outwardly more unassuming but similarly immense in its implication.
I also loved Tony Birch’s deliberately plain-spoken but ultimately devastating depiction of Aboriginal life in the 1960s, The White Girl (UQP), Charlotte Wood’s brutal but deeply empathetic (and very funny) The Weekend (Allen & Unwin), and, although it only just sneaked in under the finish line, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (Viking).
James Bradley’s most recent novel is Clade (Hamish Hamilton).
In Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown) Mary Gabriel tells the story of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, artists whom history has, usually, forced to take a back-seat ride. Here are times so heady, characters so big that one can only sympathise with the author, who must contain them in 900 pages.
It must have been almost impossible to construct a narrative and sometimes it feels over-packed and sometimes it slows to a crawl, but for all of that it earned its place on my list (which should have given equal space to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (HarperCollins), Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Vintage) and Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena (Viking)).
The film of Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang (Penguin) is released on January 9.
In her novel Women Talking (Faber & Faber), Miriam Toews takes real-life events as her starting point: in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, a group of women and girls discover they’ve been drugged and sexually assaulted by men in their community. The novel takes place over the course of two days, in which the women hold secret, urgent meetings to decide whether they should stay and fight or leave forever. This book is smart, incisive, funny, tender, painful and important. It was my favourite this year.
I was deeply moved (and angered) by Tara June Winch’s The Yield (Hamish Hamilton), a novel about the endless losses endured by a close-knit Indigenous community, whose members are expected to somehow both struggle and thrive under the constant threat of yet more loss and theft – of artefacts, of language, of land.
And finally, I took a social media break this year (OK, it was just one month) and curled up with Jenny Slate’s sweet, magical essay collection, in which a girl is born as a croissant, haunted by a lovesick sea captain, and dies from rolling her eyes too hard at a guy talking about the #MeToo movement. If you’re planning to unplug this summer, I recommend the joyful, hilarious company of Little Weirds (Little, Brown).
Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is published by Hamish Hamilton.
In May, I visited my NY publisher, a German man now head of a publishing empire. He’s watching Trump with a particular horror freighted by the 20th-century history of Germany, and so has been publishing books about fascism. He gave me Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (Tim Duggan Books), a powerful little primer — almost an innoculation — on how to recognise what’s going on in this age of resurgent anti-democratic strongmen: “Both fascism and communism were responses to globalisation: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.”
Also Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (Crown) which, these days, is mostly by being white-anted by incumbent leaders, rather than in old-fashioned, red-blooded coups.
Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works (Random House) is fascinating, as he so clearly articulates how fascism relies on harking back to a mythological, patriarchal past, in which women and foreigners stayed in their places.
I loved Michelle de Kretser’s On Shirley Hazzard (Black Inc.), David Malouf’s beautiful poems in An Open Book (UQP), Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton), and was fascinated by Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, (OUP).
Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin for her novel All That I Am (Penguin).
Some terrific novels: Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (Allen & Unwin) is a gem, as is Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (Allen & Unwin). Both authors seem to be setting themselves new challenges and digging deeper all the time.
There is gentle wisdom in both Melanie Cheng’s Room For a Stranger (Text) and Steven Carroll’s The Year of the Beast (Fourth Estate), the latter the last book in a monumental series.
For non-fiction, Paul Mendes-Flohr’s Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (Yale University Press) does superb justice to the intricate ideas of a thinker who is often overlooked these days. John Barton’s A History of the Bible (Allen Lane) may well be my book of the year. Here is 40 years of relentless scholarship piled up against all the self-serving mush of a world that thinks in clichés.
Michael McGirr is the author of Books That Saved My Life (Text).
Lucinda Holdforth’s Leading Lines: How to Make Speeches that Seize the Moment, Advance your Cause and Lead the Way (HarperCollins) is marketed as a business book, but it’s actually a subversive, thoroughly inspiring guide for ordinary people (hello, Greta!) on the power of the speech as a tool for radical change and social cohesion.
My book of the year is Vicki Hastrich’s stunning memoir, Night Fishing (Allen & Unwin), a sublimely original, thoughtful account of one woman’s life by the water. A kind of Annie Dillard crossed with Tim Winton, Hastrich is the ultimate observer, showing us how deep, serene attention to art and the natural world can teach us to embrace who we are, and where we belong.
Charlotte Wood’s most recent novel, The Weekend, is published by Allen & Unwin.
A book I’ve returned to frequently this year is Zaffar Kunial’s debut collection Us (Faber & Faber, 2018). It’s not unusual – it’s probably obligatory – for a poet to delight in words; Kunial seems energised by letters, vowels especially. (I’m not sure that the title isn’t the plural of “U”.) He’s also a cricket fan and his pamphlet Six (Faber & Faber) marries two of my favourite things. I suspect he’s destined for greatness.
In fiction, a highlight of 2019 was the return of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie in Big Sky (Doubleday): as chaotic, humane and brilliant as ever. And apparently there’s another on the way, which answers the question a previous volume posed – When Will There Be Good News?
Mick Herron’s most recent book, Joe Country, is published by John Murray.
I spent a good part of this year doing events with autistic writers, performers and activists — and reading their books. If there’s an autistic teenager in your life, give them Michael McCreary’s Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic (Annick Press ). After reading it yourself.
If you liked The Rosie Project, try Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test (Allen & Unwin): similar premise, completely different story, autistic writer, more sex.
In the broader spirit of walking in others’ shoes, Lee Kofman’s finely written account of living with physical scars, Imperfect (Affirm) and Growing up Queer in Australia (Edited by Benjamin Law, Black Inc).
Sometimes I read a book that is so accomplished my immediate instinct is to give up all literary ambition and bow low to genius.
This year, that book was Lanny (Faber & Faber) by Max Porter. It is a masterpiece of imagination, a slender, exquisite novel about a village and its inhabitants, including the mythic Green-Man figure of Dead Papa Toothwort. The language is toothsome, the meditations on family, friendship and connection to place delivered with a light touch that nonetheless leaves an indelible mark.
In non-fiction, I found unexpected pleasure in Heida (John Murray) by Steinunn Sigurdardóttir (trans. Philip Roughton), the biography of Icelander Heida Ásgeirsdóttir who walked away from a potentially lucrative career in modelling to become a sheep farmer and, latterly, an activist. Heida’s fight to prevent the destruction of land through the development of a power plant is a timely reminder of the power of the individual who refuses to back down.
Hannah Kent’s most recent novel, The Good People, is published by Picador.
Barry Lopez’s long-awaited Horizon (Vintage) is my book of the year. It’s sumptuous, electric, wise and far-ranging. Coming 30 years after Arctic Dreams (Vintage), it dazzlingly picks up the conversation where that masterwork left off: about how a baseline attitude of reverence and wonder, even as the world spirals into ecological and existential crisis, might yet be the start of a Resistance; might save us yet. (Full disclosure: I consider Lopez a friend and make a brief appearance late in the book.)
Martin Hagglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon) feels like it’s in a rich dialogue with Horizon. While Lopez’s book is overtly about our relationship with the physical world, Hagglund’s grapples more with the question of how we are to live — spiritually, so to speak — in the wastelands of unbridled capitalism.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II (Vintage), has been translated into English for the first time since its publication in Russian in 1985. It’s distressing and disturbing but extraordinary. Alexievich weaves together the voices of survivors of the Russian experience, decades after their childhoods. It’s like a book-length prose-poem, or a collection of coal-dark fairy tales.
Finally — I’m a little behind on this year’s new Australian poetry, though I was very impressed by L.K. Holt’s Birth Plan (Vagabond Press), which is warm, dense and demanding at the same time. And slyly funny, too.
She Said (Bloomsbury) by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey is a dazzling account of how deep collaboration and journalistic rigour brought Harvey Weinstein’s victims justice, written as a compelling thriller.
Anna Krien’s fiction debut, Act of Grace (Black Inc), is both brilliant novel and story collection, the power of which is on the same level as Maxine Beneba Clarke’s and Nam Le’s.
Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger (Text) was an unsentimental, quiet but riveting story of connection and friendship in an era of divisive Australian tribalism.
And though The Great Believers (Little, Brown) by Rebecca Makkai technically came out in mid-2018, it’s been the book I’ve most recommended to people in a reading rut. Set in the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, it both broke my heart and reconfigured it.
I also adored Lanny (Faber & Faber) by Max Porter and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Vintage), each so unique and powerful – I’ve never read anything like them.
Benjamin Law is a writer and broadcaster. His book The Family Law (Black Inc) was the basis of the SBS series.
It’s certainly been a bold year online, but Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (Harvard), edited by Cristanne Miller, is papery, weighty and trustworthy. And full of a joy bereft. For me it proves that, despite what the calendar says, Dickinson is the writer for our times. Up-close to Death, and equally so to Mushroom, Bee & Star, the Amherst recluse shines her sun on narcissism’s roots in faithlessness.
As does Underland (Hamish Hamilton), British writer Robert Macfarlane’s leap from nature writing to human nature writing. Underland takes us to uncomfortable places: deep time caves and starless rivers. We watch the ice melt and feel the future yearn. See it in our children’s eyes. A courageous book.
Gregory Day’s most recent novel, A Sand Archive (Picador), was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin award.
Two interesting new offers from Iran: Ali Araghi’s The Immortals of Tehran (Melville House) and Nazanine Hozar’s Aria (Viking) are debut novels to be published next year and written in English and set against the passions and pains of the Iranian Revolution. They offer, in their different ways, compellingly intimate portraits of private lives in the shadow of that event.
Another book by a debut author I enjoyed is Nicole Flattery’s collection of short stories, Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury). It reverberates with a strange tension and fine sentences.
Over the past two years I have been making my way — slowly and with great pleasure — through the nearly 2000 pages of verse that the generous and deeply talented American poet A. R. Ammons left us. He is a hopeful example: an author who seemed to only get better with time.
I am also relishing Carl W. Ernst’s new and lively translation of the 10th-century Arabic poet Husayn Ibn Mansur al Hallaj, published by Northwestern University Press.
Hisham Matar‘s latest book is A Month in Siena (Viking).
The best book I read in 2019 was My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Vintage) by Ottessa Moshfegh, a Jewish Iranian novelist who lives in New York. It is that incredibly rare book hyped as being “hilarious” that is actually funny.
It’s the story of a troubled, privileged, beautiful Upper East Side young woman who tries to stay in bed for a year as a way of coping with her problems. It’s also a devastating satire of WASP culture, psychiatrists and New York – the kind of thing Woody Allen used to do back when he was still amusing.
The best book I read in 2019 that was published in 2019 was Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton) – a series of expeditions into various caves, tunnels, abandoned subway systems and the like that Macfarlane has been undertaking for the past five years or so.
What makes the book so special isn’t just the originality of the subject matter but Macfarlane’s depth of learning and the quality of his prose, which you feel has also been hewn carefully out of some occult seam of literary marble by a master craftsman.
Adrian McKinty’s most recent book, The Chain, is published by Hachette.
Toby Fitch’s Where Only the Sky Had Hung Before (Vagabond) has a Klippel picture on its cover. For this book, technology produces language as mechanical form. These poems, like Klippel’s artworks, are assemblages. They test, in language, what Klippel called “the inter-relationship between the cogwheel and the bud”.
Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories (New Editions) are jaggedly alive and intense to read together. Elizabeth Bishop was the first to translate one of Lispector’s stories into English. This year, in Bishop’s Collected Prose (FarrarStrausGiroux), belatedly I found stories and pieces I hadn’t read before.
American photographer Emmet Gowin was the sole photographer granted access to the Nevada Test Site. His book The Nevada Test Site (Princeton) collects astounding photographs of this nuclear site — the craters, trenches, sand turned to glass.
Lisa Gorton’s most recent poetry collection is Empirical (Giramondo).
In a year of great reading, Lucy Treloar’s luminous Wolfe Island (Picador) was a standout. Kitty Hawke is the last inhabitant on a sinking island, resolutely alone until her granddaughter arrives seeking refuge.
The Yield (Hamish Hamilton) by Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch begins when August Gondiwindi returns home to Massacre Plains for her grandfather’s funeral. A fierce and lyrical novel about language and identity.
Jock Serong’s Preservation (Text) is a beautifully written, sometimes chilling, story inspired by the shipwreck of the Sydney Cove, and the disappearance of 14 of its 17 survivors.
In Hearing Maud (UWA Publishing), Jessica White intertwines her own experiences of deafness with that of 19th-century Maud Praed in a moving hybrid memoir.
Emma Viskic’s latest book, Darkness for Light, is published by Echo.
This year I discovered, belatedly, The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (Serpent’s Tale) by the anonymous writer Bandi (meaning “fire-fly”). Written in secret at risk of his life, it’s the first book published outside North Korea by a current resident. Vivid and straight-forward, these extraordinary stories portray – repeatedly – extreme repression alongside life-defying love.
I have not been able to remove from my head Love in the New Millennium (Yale University Press) by Can Xue, a truly strange, experimental novel, or “soul story”, which reads like a lucid dream.
But my best read this year was Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip (UQP). Its language is addictively poetic, its cry for social justice real; it’s powered by literary rocket fuel.
And I can’t end without mentioning an Australian book that evoked such extreme reactions in the book store when I bought it out of interest that it wholly proved its point: Welcome to Your Period: Your Easy No-Dumb-Questions Guide to Handling it Like a Boss (Hardie Grant) by Yumi Stynes (for younger readers) and its predecessor (for all).
Along with About Bloody Time: The Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have (Victorian Women’s Trust) by Karen Picking and Jane Bennett, they are first of their kind and replace the apparent mortification and taboo with research, dignity and respect.
Zoe Morrison’s most recent book is Music and Freedom (Vintage).
I would never have known about The Farm (Bloomsbury), the first novel by American journalist Joanne Ramos, had I not met the author at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Thank goodness I did – it was my stand-out, hands-down book of the year. It reveals a world of race, class, privilege, exploitation, greed, entitlement and capitalism taken to its logical – and terrifying – conclusion: the commercialisation of women’s wombs for corporate profit. A riveting book for our times.
Most Australians will never have the experience of visiting or living on a remote Indigenous community, so it is a great privilege that the Yolngu Gay’wu Group of Women from north-east Arnhem Land have brought the songs, stories, insights and ancient learnings of their people into everyone’s homes (and hopefully hearts) through their remarkable book, Song Spirals (Allen & Unwin). To read it is to change the way you see, think and feel this country.
Like a greedy vulture, I’m pecking the eyes out of Yellow Notebook (Text), Helen Garner’s diary memoir. It’s a gift to watch a gifted writer teach herself to write, but I still can’t believe she’s left her tender morsels so exposed.
Also savoured: Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt (MUP), Tony Birch’s novel The White Girl (UQP) and Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni’s cultural history, Half the Perfect World (Monash).
Clare Wright’s most recent book is You Daughters of Freedom (Text).
Arturo’s Island (Pushkin) by Elsa Morante. On a remote island, Procida, in the Bay of Naples, a motherless boy, Arturo, roams the shores and dreams up a world of daring exploits on the sea. His father, Wilhelm, lives away and rarely returns to the island. Increasingly erratic, Wilhelm suddenly arrives with a new young wife, Nunziata, and Arturo falls in passionate love with her.
In Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day (Jonathan Cape) two couples, Alexandr and Christine, Zachary and Lydia, have been close friends for 30 years. Then one evening Alex and Christine receive a distraught phone call from Lydia: Zach is dead. Moving between the past and present, through the survivors’ thoughts and interactions, the novel explores the fragility of their seemingly rock-solid friendship, and the grievances that rise from the past.
Stalingrad (Harvill Secker) by Vasily Grossman is one of the great classics of wartime literature. In it he writes: “True knowledge of war includes knowledge of the enemy and his weapons, knowledge of war at dawn, in the mist, in bright daylight, at sunset, in the woods, on the road, in the steppe, in a village, on the banks of a river. It includes knowledge of war’s sounds and whispers and – above all –knowledge of yourself, of your own strength, stamina, experience and cunning.”
Joan London’s most recent novel is The Golden Age (Vintage).
My favourite novel this year was Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (Profile). It felt like a collage of his previously translated works, though it was funnier and sadder, and a bit less dark. It’s set in a doomed Hungarian town during the return of the nominal Baron, who stands to maybe save the population from its poverty and torpor. He doesn’t.
Wayne Macauley’s Simpson Returns (Text) was a strange Australian adventure, satirical but not hardened.
Bright (Brow Books) by Duanwad Pimwana was engaging – I’ve never read a Thai novel before.
But mostly I read Zola novels. I discovered Alain Robbe-Grillet and Malcolm Lowry (mostly thanks to Krasznahorkai).
I re-read Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers (HarperCollins) and finally found her out-of-print oddity, White Topee.
Shaun Prescott was a Sydney Morning Herald best young novelist in 2018. His novel The Town is published by Brow Books.
John L’Heureux wrote many great novels. The Medici Boy (Astor & Blue), for instance, his masterpiece set in 15th-century Florence, about the sculptor Donatello, captures a unique moment in which politics, art, religion and sexuality collide, and these have been L’Heureux’s enduring themes.
Now in The Heart Is A Full-Wild Beast (Public Space Books), L’Heureux’s posthumously published new and selected stories, you can read the finest examples of his great and enduring work, his legacy which is stunning, elegant, unforgettable and always focused on how we fail in love.
These stories are the most sustained and intelligent self-interrogation I’ve ever read. The book is luminous and breathtaking, often outrageously funny and always varied and delightful and surprising, scattering perfectly shaped gems before us.
David Vann’s most recent book, Halibut on the Moon, is published by Text.