My favourite books of 2016

As the year draws to a close it’s time for a round-up of my best books of 2016.  In the interests of making sure my favourites get into the list (!) I’m taking the liberty of including books that were new in paperback this year rather than just hardback – I’m sure you’ll forgive me!  Choosing my favourites was one thing; putting them into an order of preference was quite another, but after immense internal struggle I’ve arrived at this, the final countdown.

  1. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

I’m not sure I could describe this as an enjoyable read given the traumatic nature of the subject matter in places, but it’s certainly the book that’s stuck most resolutely in my mind over the past few months.  There are a few passages so grim that once read they can never be erased, but ultimately this is a tale of finding hope after horror.  Not everyone I know was a fan, but the author’s skill is undeniable.

  1. This must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never yet read a Maggie O’Farrell novel that I didn’t like so this was pretty much a shoe-in for my top 5.  Her characters are so authentic that they almost aren’t even characters; they could be any one of us.  Love, loss, grief, jealousy….she nails every single feeling on the emotional spectrum with this novel, as she does every time.

  1. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This is hands down the cleverest book I’ve read this year.  It plays around with the concept of the unreliable narrator and takes it to another level, until we start to question not only who is “reliable” and who is not, but whether there is any such thing as absolute truth at all, or only our own perception and experience.  It’s unexpectedly moving too.

  1. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

What I loved most about this book was the way it took me back to my childhood almost as if the author had been there!  The setting of a community where neighbours know each other intimately and children wander around the streets from house to house without anyone batting an eyelid evoked a real feeling of nostalgia for me.  Yet there’s a darker side to this utopia, where people band together to victimise outsiders without bothering – or wanting – to learn their story.  Utterly brilliant.

  1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

If you know me this number one will come as absolutely no surprise to you!  This is quite simply the book I’ve been banging on about to anyone who’ll listen (and even to people who aren’t particularly listening!) since the moment I read it.  It’s got everything – period setting, touches of gothic horror, love and romance, mystery and real emotional heft.  I loved every sentence and it’s not just in my top five for this year, but quite possible of all time.  That’s saying something.  If you haven’t read it yet there’s still time to rush out and buy yourself a copy so you’ve got something amazing to curl up with this Christmas.

I’d love to know if any of these would be in your top five too, and if not, what have I missed?!

This will be my last post on Girl, Reading until after Christmas now, so enjoy whatever festivities you have in store and I hope to see you back here very soon.

Merry Christmas!

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“This Must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell – review

Nobody can write about being human like Maggie O’Farrell.  Nobody else I’ve read comes close to capturing the emotional essence of the tiny moments that coalesce to form our lives – the almost-brush of two hands, the sound of a long forgotten voice, the flash of memory from a photograph.  Nobody can put into words as she can the deepest and most unfathomable states of being such as grief and love.  When it comes to unravelling lives and knitting them together again into a gut-wrenching tapestry of humanity, she is in a class of her own.

If someone was to ask me what this book was about, hoping for a neat plot summary, then there wouldn’t be an easy way to tell them.  The linear story strand is really a thread from which to spin a multitude of narratives and ideas, each one digging deeper into the lives of the characters; it’s almost not so much about what happens as it is how and why.  The principal players are Daniel and Claudette, an apparently content married couple who live with their young children in a remote part of rural Ireland.  We join them just before something happens that tips their relationship into crisis and sets in motion a struggle between the forces that pull two people apart and those that keep them together.  The trigger for everything that unfolds is a seemingly insignificant event: a voice on the radio.  As soon as Daniel hears it he is jolted into remembering someone from his past who has lain dead and buried, literally and figuratively, for many years.  At this stage we know nothing about this mysterious woman, but she’s significant enough to send him on a quest that spans hundreds of miles – a journey he hopes will provide and answer to the question that’s been smouldering at the back of his mind for two decades or more.  It soon begins to look, however, as if by seeking out his past Daniel may be in danger of jeopardising his present happiness with Claudette; it transpires that she too has a history that has left her nursing an emotional fragility not apparent from her confident, no nonsense exterior.  Just as important as these current events, though, is the story of the lives that husband and wife have led up to this point, about which we find out through chapters told in flashback and narrated by different characters.  With this emphasis on backstory the author shows us how fundamental our pasts can be in shaping our present self, and how we can only truly understand her characters by seeing the loves, tragedies, transgressions and disappointments they’ve experienced and still carry with them.

Often when a novel is written using numerous voices and jumps between time periods I find it frustrating to read.  There is the potential confusion of where you are in the story’s timeline and also the pitfall of not engaging with some of the narrators as much as you do with others.  It takes an immensely talented writer I think to make all the voices resonate as authentically as each other, and the fact that Maggie O’Farrell has that ability is one of the things that makes the book work so well.  There are no filler characters or anyone whose point of view has been shoehorned in purely to provide some exposition: every single one makes a crucial contribution to the picture being painted of the two lead characters.  It’s almost as if by using such a complex, multi-person narrative the author is demonstrating that in a way each of us are as many different people as there are others to perceive us.  There’s even a chapter very near the end of the book told from the point of view of a completely new character who we’ve never met before and who has no bearing at all on the rest of the story.  At first I found that slightly bewildering but after some thought I realised it revealed another truth, namely that even people with whom we connect only fleetingly can have an insight into an aspect of our personality or situation that we ourselves haven’t seen.  Yes, it’s a novel about something that’s happening to people every day the world over – the forging and then the disintegration of a relationship – but the author is determined to go as deep as possible into the nuances of this commonplace yet absolutely fundamental element of human existence.

There are some perfectly captured moments here that will move you to tears; Daniel shouting for help in the hospital as he clings to his suffering child is the one that has stayed with me the most.  And you won’t be able to hear the words, “I’ve changed my mind” again for a while without your heart breaking ever so slightly.  Yet while nothing in the novel is smooth sailing – after all, when is life ever like that? – it’s still ultimately an optimistic book at heart.  If we love someone enough we will never stop fighting for them is the message here, and I can’t think of a more joyful message than that.

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