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Best of 2019

I’ve saved my round-up of the year for as late as possible, and am posting it with the caveat that I still have a couple more recent releases to read! So who knows, I may be adding an addendum in the new year; the new-in-2019 books I’m particularly excited about but am carrying over to 2020 are Chantal Thomas, Memories of Low Tide, tr. Natasha Lehrer (Pushkin Press), Hanne Ørstavik, Love, tr. Martin Aitken (And Other Stories), and Donatella di Pietrantonio, A Girl Returned (tr. Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions).  But for now I’m going to share with you the ten books I’ve enjoyed most of the 100+ I did manage to read in 2019. My selection is based entirely on personal enjoyment: these are the ten that lift “I couldn’t put it down” from a meaningless cliché into a real experience.

Drum roll please…

Tokyo Ueno Station
Yu Miri, tr. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press

This was one of the year’s early releases, and it has stood up to everything else I’ve read in 2019. Tokyo Ueno Station is a haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife, condemned to watch the living carry on making their mistakes and forgetting all about him – if they had ever encountered him at all. His story is intertwined with that of the Japanese Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with an utterly unforgettable ending. I cannot recommend this highly or widely enough.

Feebleminded
Ariana Harwicz, tr. Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, Charco Press

Feebleminded is Ariana Harwicz’s electrifying second novel, and I found it absolutely addictive. The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside of an unnamed country, constantly at loggerheads with one another but unable to exist apart. Their volatile relationship is threatened by the daughter’s obsession with her married lover, and the tension builds towards an edge-of-the-seat finale. The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic and viscerally poetic, and the basic premise rests on the following question which propels the narrative towards a gripping climax: could a person want something so badly they destroy it?

The Sea Cloak
Nayrouz Qarmout, tr. Perween Richards, Comma Press

The Sea Cloak is the much-anticipated debut collection of Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout, and was the best-selling book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer. Qarmout draws on her own experience of living in war-torn Gaza: she fictionalises real events and writes from an understanding of and compassion for victims of violence. Yet this empathy extends far beyond the immediate context, as not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion, showing us gently yet persuasively that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

Selfies
Sylvie Weil, tr. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives

This innovative and genre-crossing collection represents a thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal. Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history: each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes an personal memory for Weil. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic: unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Selfies is a superb collection, in which intimate insights are woven together with shrewd observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence.

The Adventures of China Iron
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, tr. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre, Charco Press

The Adventures of China Iron is an epic and subversive dialogue with Argentine history and literary canon: told from the perspective of China, the abandoned wife of José Hernández’s eponymous gaucho poet Martín Fierro, The Adventures of China Iron reinscribes female experience in a male-dominated context. With a luscious and rhythmic prose, Cabezón Cámara subverts and queers one of Argentina’s great literary texts in an unforgettable journey across the pampas, but also offers profound reflections on industrial progress, women’s experience, colonialism, and sexuality.

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe
Adélaïde Bon, tr. Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press (available in the US in Tina Kover’s translation for Europa Editions)

At nine years old, Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a charmed life in a bourgeois district of Paris. Then one sunny day a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming. I’ve read the UK translation, the US translation and the original, and each time I have been bowled away by the power of Bon’s story and her determination to confront the man who defined her life by taking her childhood.

The Jeweller
Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies, Honno Press

Reclusive Mari has a stall in the market of a small coastal town where she sells second-hand jewellery. But Mari is not simply an eccentric hawker: little by little, in the privacy of her home, she is working on an uncut emerald with which she feels an intimate connection. At the heart of the emerald is a unique feature that could be the key to its brilliance, but the work needed to bring it to the surface must be carried out delicately and expertly: one false move and it could shatter and be irreparably ruined. This is a metaphor for Mari’s own life, revealed to us little by little in the course of this compelling narrative, layers of brittle carapace slowly chipped away until the aching heart is exposed in a twist that left me breathless.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Made for Men
Caroline Criado Perez, Chatto & Windus

This powerful manifesto for gender equality should be mandatory reading for everyone: I truly believe that in it lies the key to real – as opposed to legal or theoretical – equality. Criado Perez’s award-winning study investigates a variety of ways in which women are discriminated against in invisible or insidious ways – some of which can be life-threatening. She exposes the ways in which gender bias is embedded at every level of social and cultural interaction, challenges the assumptions we inherit and perpetuate, and stipulates that for change to occur, society as a whole needs to change something fundamental in the way that we think. For me this is the defining feminist text of my generation, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year.

Sergius Seeks Bacchus
Norman Erikson Pasaribu, tr. Tiffany Tsao, Tilted Axis Press

Sergius Seeks Bacchus is a beautiful collection of contemporary poems about (be)longing. Pasaribu writes all the pain of being gay in a society that does not accept his sexuality, and though the poems are deeply personal they also have universal resonance: the articulation of yearning reminded me of the first time I discovered Oscar Wilde, because of the exquisite way in which Pasaribu writes the silence of a love that cannot reveal itself. The superb translation by Tiffany Tsao was carried out in close collaboration with Pasaribu, and the result is an extraordinarily special collection of poems that expose sorrows, challenge stereotypes, and celebrate life.

Leonard and Hungry Paul
Rónán Hession, Bluemoose Books

This quiet treasure is an antidote to our fast-paced times: socially awkward Leonard and his diffident best friend Hungry Paul navigate the pitfalls of modern life in a tender and wise account of everyday disaster and everyday kindness. Hession writes every page with warmth and immediacy; to read Leonard and Hungry Paul is to live a while in their world. I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters, I cared about them, and they have lingered with me all year as I’ve watched in delight while Leonard and Hungry Paul gets nominated for awards, has the US rights sold, and is discovered by thousands of readers who, like me, feel better about the world for knowing that we have a talented new author who can write such gentleness and kindness.

Thank you to the authors and translators who make my reading life so rich, to the publishers who send me their books and trust me to write an honest, nuanced review, to my blog subscribers, who give me the confidence of knowing that when I hit “publish” my words don’t disappear into the void, and to everyone who visits this site and has a look around. I wish you all a wonderful festive season, and I look forward to catching up with you again in the new year. Thanks for reading!

Helen Vassallo

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