Best Books of 2013

This may not have been a fabulous year for me personally, but it was a great reading year. I had very few reading slumps and enjoyed a bumper number of good books. Above all it was the year for non-fiction, so much so that I’ve had to introduce a range of categories to cover all the books I feel obliged to mention. Let us look back fondly.

Best Literary Fiction

Louise Erdrich – The Round House

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

 

Best Innovative Fiction

J. R. Crook – Sleeping Patterns

 

Best Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall

 

Best Debut Novel

Beatrice Hitchman – Petite Mort

 

Best Quirky Cute Novel You Can Read In An Afternoon

Alexis M. Smith – Glaciers

 

Best General Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Harriet Lane – Alys Always

Amanda Smyth – A Kind of Eden

 

Best Contemporary Crime

Stella Rimington – The Geneva Trap

T. V. LoCicero –Admission of Guilt

 

Best Golden Age Crime

Elizabeth Daly – Somewhere in the House

 

Best Crime That Managed To Be About More Than Crime

Attica Locke – The Cutting Season

 

Best Poetry Collection

Kaddy Benyon – Milk Fever

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Nature

Kathleen Jamie – Findings

Neil Ansell – Deer Island

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Memoir

Jennie Erdal – Ghosting

James Lasdun – Give Me Everything You Have; On Being Stalked

Kathryn Harrison – The Mother Knot

 

Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Completely Uncategorizable

Maggie Nelson – Bluets  (my favourite post of the year)

Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life

 

Best Non-Fiction That Brought Self-Illumination

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Susan Cain – Quiet

 

Special Award for Services to Existentialism

(I will never tire of watching that)

Life; An Alternative

I once read a case study about a child who, when she learned that her parents were splitting up and they would have to move house, took one of the ornate candlesticks from the dining room table and buried it in the garden. This was perhaps not the most fortuitous choice as the parents thought they’d been burgled and called the police in, but the child sat tight-lipped, and never gave a sign of what had been done. Years later as an adult in therapy she recalled the incident, eventually returned to the house and, with more permission than she’d had the first time around, dug the candlestick up again. It had served its purpose as a horcrux. For all those years it had held a part of her that had been happy and secure, keeping faith with a version of herself she knew she would have to leave behind. Burying it had been an act of self-protection, and a promise to the future.

deer islandI remembered this case study while reading Neil Ansell’s latest book, Deer Island, which begins and ends with a similar act at an isolated cairn in the wild and mostly uninhabited Isle of Jura in the Hebrides. In Neil Ansell’s case it’s even more extraordinary that he should have anything at all to leave behind. I fell in love with his first book, Deep Country, which was about five years spent in a tumbledown cottage in the heart of the Welsh countryside practising a kind of extreme self-sufficiency. This new book, a hybrid of nature writing, travelogue and memoir, starts from an earlier time in his life when he worked in London for a charity, The Simon Community, dedicated to helping the homeless by finding them safe spaces where they could live on their own terms. Those who worked for the charity accepted voluntary poverty themselves – no wages, no possessions, no place of their own to live. They stayed with the homeless in their squats and derries and at the residential centres owned by the charity.

The boundary between the homeless and the volunteers was such a ‘porous’ one that ‘there was risk of traffic the other way, too.’ And this book treads an exquisitely fine tightrope between the healthiness of being free and empty-handed and its unhealthy flipside, spiritual destitution. At the heart of Neil’s writing there’s an extraordinary mindset in this age of acquisitiveness, one of absolute simplicity, in which the narrator has nothing but his inner resources and is, for this very reason, infinitely open to the world around him.

After three years with the charity, he was burnt out and exchanged his London life for peripatetic travel, striking out for mountains and deserts, places of emptiness and otherness. One journey takes him to the Isle of Jura, whose wild and windswept beauty enchants him. It’s a sanctuary of sorts, a place of soothing wilderness and welcoming locals. But another takes him to the Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi salt pans, the ‘most extreme landscape’ he had ever seen. The experience is a turning point of sorts, a moment of such fierce impression that it leaves a mental and emotional bruise: ‘The land stretched perfectly flat and unmarked to every horizon. Except there was no horizon, because the heat haze melded the earth to the sky in an unbroken wash of light. The pans were the bed of a shallow lake long since dried up, leaving just salt. The earth was a crystal plain, entirely featureless.’ Finally a flatbed truck with a dozen or so other travellers turns up and he hitches a lift, through two hours of desert storm with forked lightning and icy cold torrential rain.

I think part of me was washed away by that rainstorm in the desert. I felt that I no longer had any will, any power of self-determination, that I no longer had any control over my future, that any choices I could make were an irrelevance, that I was in the hands of the universe and I could only follow wherever it might lead me.’

Travelled out, he returns to London and, with no money and no job, realises he will have to pick up a lifestyle he once knew very well and find a squat in which to live. In the early days, the people he came to know shared a sort of integrity of the homeless. But during the intervening years, the culture has changed as hardcore drugs have swept through. The squat he finds which looks so promising at first – an empty children’s home – is subject to a hostile takeover by drug dealers and eventually wrecked. Sullied by the experience, Neil Ansell needs to take one more journey, one that will bring him back to himself.

I thought this book was amazing, and it’s extremely hard to write about in a way that does it justice. It is very short and written with such directness and lucidity in a style that manages to echo the unpretentious economy of Neil’s way of living. Yet it evokes such spiritual depth and explores such strange and unusual places. It is not at all a religious book, but I can’t quite shake the impression of the narrator as a modern day saint (not that he’d thank me for that description, I’m sure!); at the very least he is a man with a shining faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and the willingness of the world, even in its most inhospitable spots, to encourage and nurture life. Deer Island looks at the oddest of communities and the most extreme places with gentle tenderness and poetic sensibility, and it considers what really remains with us from sometimes vivid, sometimes violent, experience. It’s quite a book that, after forty years of pretty intensive reading, takes me somewhere I have never been before and am not likely to go again. I thought it was creative non-fiction at its finest.

Findings

FindingsGiven that the essay can be a performative little genre, the variety hall act of the literary world, I am compelled to grant enormous kudos to Kathleen Jamie for crafting something so lovely out of the perspective of the introvert. In the eleven essays that make up Findings, Jamie is on her own, often in the most distant and desolate locations in Scotland and the Hebrides, watching through binoculars or a telescope at small things far away, and meditating on the cycle of destruction and renewal that governs our lives no matter how hard we try to cover it up. Little things, finely wrought and deeply pondered become rich and complex in her crystalline prose. These are quiet essays, even when the subject is her husband sick in hospital with pneumonia; she eschews the footlights of the stage to take her seat in the stalls and maintain her calm, thoughtful viewpoint. It turns out to be a very illuminating one.

After the sensational hustle and bustle of so much of our contemporary literature, it can take a while to settle down into her voice. The first essay concerns a long, slow midwinter journey to Maes Howe on Orkney to visit a Neolithic burial tomb. Her hope is to witness the miracle of early architecture that is the sinking sun of the winter solstice illuminating the inside of the main chamber. But cloudy weather ruins the effect and the journey is made in vain. On first reading, I had the odd sense that nothing had happened, and the essay felt blank and inconsequential. But then the subtlety of Jamie’s writing took effect. Darkness has a bad press, according to Jamie, being relentlessly linked with evil, melancholy and death, but this is clearly a poorly informed view. Hoping to experience both pure darkness and pure light, she is thwarted; the night spent sailing to Orkney is full of the artificial brightness of human dwellings on the coast, whilst the visit to the tomb is spoiled by clouds. But multiple, tender ironies arise as Jamie makes her journey, from the surveyors and the brilliance of their 21st century lighting inside the burial chamber to the sound of Elton John being piped through the ferry, singing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. I began to realise that there was a gentle but insistant playfulness at work, wonderfully alive to the symbolic potential of the moment.

The essays are full of lovely touches that bring the natural world into harmonious parallel with the human one. In ‘Crex-Crex’, which concerns the near extinction of a once tremendously common bird, the corncrake, Jamie goes to the island of Coll to seek them out in a nature sanctuary:

It’s not ideal weather for corncrake viewing. The sky’s overcast and threatens squalls, the breeze is too fresh. A wind above three knots, and the corncrakes don’t like to come out. They don’t like flying, don’t much care for wind and rain, don’t want to be seen in public – the kind of bird who’d want to be excused games.’

In ‘Skylines’, Jamie ascends Edinburgh’s Calton Hill with a telescope, intent on paying close attention to the tops of buildings in the city, the weathercocks, stars, crosses and antennae of different ages, most of which are ignored or invisible to the passers by on the streets. Again I feared there might be too little to hold my interest for the duration, but I underestimated the clarity of Jamie’s vision, her eye for the intriguing:

There is a woman, though, who sails aloft on the dome of the Bank of Scotland HQ. The bank stands at the top of the Mound, bearing down upon the prosperous New Town as though to remind it of exactly who’s boss. In Scotland’s capital city, Fame faces firmly south. Green with verdigris – not an unbecoming shade – and draped in robes, she holds in her hands two laurel wreaths. She is about to cast them away, to bestow them onto some unsuspecting pedestrian far below. For all the grandiose Baroque nonsense beneath her bare feet, Fame stands as stylish and bored as a cruise passenger playing quoits.’

This is the strength of Jamie’s writing, the simplicity of voice married to the richness of her perspective. In my favourite essays, ‘The Braan Salmon’ and ‘Sabbath’, there is the most delicate thread of a theme running through the observations. Watching salmon leaping upstream – and watching those watching them do so – Jamie is forced to ask uncomfortable questions about the inspiring image of tenacious nature at work, when it becomes clear that the river has been tampered with to prevent the salmon returning to their breeding grounds. And in ‘Sabbath’, she juxtaposes a summer of difficult family events – her young daughter’s head wound, her mother having a stroke, her grandmother needing to be put in a home – with a few days of pure isolation spent walking to clear her mind before the university term starts. Would it help, she wonders, if we all were forced once again to respect a Sabbath, a day in which we did nothing but allowed the stirred up emotions of life to settle?

Kathleen Jamie’s publisher had all sorts of difficulties deciding how to categorise her essays, which made me cheer because being able to put a book firmly on a shelf in a shop does not necessarily do anything for the quality of the book, or the reader’s delight in reading it. But essentially, these essays are about the way we interact with nature, our inevitable thumbprint on its dead and disappearing elements, the amazing beauty and grandeur we can find if we take the time to look, the pleasure it bring us to see ourselves and our habits reflected in the natural world. If there isn’t a category for that already, then perhaps there really ought to be one.