This has been a year of great personal change for me. More than ever, I'm aware of how books work like a conversation informing our lives and that it's important to talk back. (This blog is me talking back.) My reading this year increased somewhat largely because I joined in on a shadow jury for the Baileys Prize and as a judge for this year’s Green Carnation Prize. I read 96 books in total, but this doesn’t count the dozens of books I started but put aside after fifty or even two hundred pages. I’ve become more cutthroat because the truth is there isn’t enough time to keep reading a book that’s not doing it for you. You might not connect with it only because of where you are in your life, but I think it’s best to move onto something you feel passionately engaged with rather than slogging through something you feel you should read. There are rare examples like “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which took me longer to read than any other book this year and which I found incredibly difficult. Ultimately it was rewarding and I’m glad I stuck with it till the end, but such cases are rare.

There are dozens of really superb books I’ve read this year. I’m always passionate about reading short stories and the books I’ve read by Donal RyanTom Barbash, Ali Smith, Mahesh Rao, Stuart Evers and Thomas Morris all contain stories which have really stuck with me. Because the Green Carnation Prize is open to books in all genres, I also read more memoirs, young adult novels, poetry and nonfiction than I usually do. I hope to continue reading more widely as some of these books like Erwin Mortier’s profound/heart-wrenching memoir and Mark Vonhoenacker’s meditation on flying have been truly fantastic.

Book podcasts have also been a welcome new presence for me this year. I’ve always avidly listened to The Readers, hosted by two of my favourite book bloggers. But I’ve also started regularly listening to Sinéad Gleeson’s The Book Show and Castaway’s Bookish, hosted by the owners of two Irish bookshops. These two definitely have struck a chord with me because I’ve been reading so much Irish fiction. The country does seem to be going through something of a renaissance producing a profuse amount of writing of sterling quality. This has been debated about in the media such as this Irish Times article about a Guardian article which highlighted the “new Irish literary boom.” Although, to my mind, the best Irish book of the year is Mrs Engels which seems strangely missing from all these lists.
If you have favourite book podcasts please do comment and let me know about them as I enjoy finding more.

Finally, here are my top ten books of the year which have all made such a strong impact on me and left me thinking about them long after finishing the last page. Click on each title's name to read my full thoughts about these books.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
It’s funny looking back on this post I made last year about books I wanted to read and hadn’t yet got to (including this one). At that point, Marlon James’ most recent novel had received praise from critics, but hadn’t made many sales. I didn’t get to reading it until this summer as part of judging the Green Carnation Prize. It went on to win as well as taking that obscure award called the Booker. What a difference a year can make in the life of a book!

The Green Road by Anne Enright
I felt slightly suspicious starting this novel because I was worried it wouldn’t do anything new, but Enright proves again with this novel that she's an enormously creative writer. She creates a fresh structure for this book and takes her characters into territories unlike any of her other tremendous novels. It all works to present a complex and entirely new kind of portrait of a family.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
Lizzie is headstrong and tough, but she possesses rare passion which bleeds through every page of this beautiful novel. It pierced my heart and stayed with me like nothing else I’ve read this year. Sometimes it's like I can still feel her near me with all her earnest judgement, wisdom, humour and tender feeling. I'm deeply saddened she isn't a part of my life any more.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
I wasn’t expecting to like this novel much since I’d only felt a mild response to Robinson’s writing in the past. To my delight, it gripped me and held me all the way through. Lila is a girl who came from nothing but through the generosity of a scant few people and her own determination she makes a life for herself and finds a rare kind of love. This is writing which is profoundly moving and it’s a story which completely captured my imagination.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
History books are strewn with footnotes about fascinating women like Lizzie Burns in "Mrs Engels" who probably never became more famous because of the simple fact that they were women or from a lower class. Bergman honours a select and fascinating few to create mesmerizing short stories with immense emotional depth. The points of view they pose allow us to re-enter history and question what we find there.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I was introduced to Groff’s writing last year when I read her impactful story in the Best American Short Stories 2014. What a thrill it was to discover that her compressed and strong style of writing can also work in such a long novel. This book was an absolute pleasure to read giving such a unique perspective on relationships and the secrets we keep from those closest to us.

The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates
It’s so rare for Oates to reflect on her own life in her writing. It’s unsurprising that she approaches the subject of childhood and her formative years in a deeply questioning and philosophical manner. In this creative and deeply-personal book she reflectively looks at her own life and her life as a writer/reader to produce a profoundly surprising point of view about the nature of identity.

The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson
Many anthologies of short stories are a patchwork of good and fair stories, but few contain great after great like this revelatory volume of Irish women writers. Several stories are by writers whose books I've read and admired over the past couple of years such as Anne Enright, Mary Costello, Eimear McBride and Belinda McKeon. Other writers like Kate O'Brien, Maeve Brennan, Molly McCloskey and Anakana Schofield are new to me. There are stories of high drama and stories of subtle power, but all utilise language to capture exactly what it is they need to say. In addition to the fascinating diversity of styles and subject matters covered in this entertaining and lovingly-assembled anthology this book serves as a fantastic jumping off point for reading more of these talented writers' work which I'm now eager to track down. Each story is prefaced by compelling short bios for each writer which serve as helpful prompts for discovering more. This is a book to always keep by your bedside. 

Sophie and the Sybil by Patricia Duncker
It’s rare that I find a book where I love every minute of the reading experience. This novel which functions as both a love letter and critique of George Eliot is tremendously fun, immensely clever and makes a truly romantic story. It takes a lot of bravado for an author to insert herself into a narrative, but Duncker does so with fantastic results.

Physical by Andrew McMillan
Poetry can be such an intimidating form of writing to engage with because much of it can feel opaque. McMillan’s extraordinary writing spoke directly to me. I’ve found myself going back to several poems in this book again and again. I’ve also recommended this book to a huge amount of people because I think these revelatory poems will connect with many.

 

Have you read any of these or are you now curious to give them a try? I've enjoyed reading through many end of year book lists so please comment to let me know your own favourites. 

Don’t you love those moments when you are reading and the text seems to be speaking directly to your heart? Suddenly you’re so struck by the story that it feels like there can be nothing more important in the world than reading this book right now. I had that feeling consistently throughout reading “Lila.” I’ll make a feeble attempt to try to explain here why it struck me so deeply, but of course it’s impossible to summarize. Something about it must resonate in a deep way with my life right now and I feel so enriched for having read it. I was aware of this book when it came out last October, but for some reason I was wary of reading it. Marilynne Robinson is such a well-respected figure in the literary establishment and, while I read “Gilead” and remember appreciating it, it didn’t leave a lasting impression. But, sitting here now, reeling from having just finished reading this majestic, beautifully written novel I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

“Lila” begins with the story of a young girl who is poor, sickly and unwanted. She’s living in a house with a group of people who she most likely isn’t related to. The year at the start of the novel is never specified, but it’s probably around 1921 because there is a reference to The Crash several years later – something which doesn’t dramatically affect the people who have always been poor. When she contemplates the depression: “It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined, or gone.” The girl is taken up by a woman with a scarred face who calls herself Doll. This woman values her in a way no one has ever cared for her before. She nurtures the girl back to health when she probably would have otherwise died unnoticed. The girl is dubbed Lila which is a name chosen by an old woman who the pair live with for a short amount of time. Her identity is gradually formed from scratch because she began with nothing.

Names have a tenuous connection with the things they are attached to in this novel because the thing exists before a name was needed. It’s as if Robinson has absorbed Plato’s Cratylus dialogue and incorporated this argument about the relation between language and the things they signify into a story about a life. So, in a sense, Lila is entirely self-created making everything she learns and experiences feel fresh for the reader as well. We’re so accustomed to being called our names since childhood, it’s startling to think what it would be like to be unknown/unloved all your life. When Doll takes her on and they decide upon a name to call her: “That was the first time she ever thought about names. Turns out she was missing one all that time and hadn’t even noticed.” Lila’s wide-eyed practical approach to the world makes us question the way language impacts how we perceive everything around us.

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  “That credenza was the shape of a coffin, with little legs on it, and flowers of lighter-colored wood on the front of it, some of them peeling off, some of them gone, just the glue left. It was always locked.”

“That credenza was the shape of a coffin, with little legs on it, and flowers of lighter-colored wood on the front of it, some of them peeling off, some of them gone, just the glue left. It was always locked.”

Lila may not be aware of the way most people understand and interpret the culture and society around them, but she is not stupid. Robinson reveals throughout the novel how Lila is capable of complex feeling and tremendous depth of thought. To represent someone so under-educated yet still in possession of such intelligence is a tremendously skilful and difficult challenge for a writer. Later, when Lila is a young woman, she meets and marries a much older man, the Reverend John Ames. Through him and their conversations about life and the bible, Lila’s brilliance really shines through: “She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America – they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him.” Through their exchanges about the meaning of life and referencing Lila’s brutal experience of the world, the novel reveals startlingly clear insights into fundamental questions about existence.

The story is told in a curiously circuitous way so that references are frequently made to events in the future or people from other areas of Lila’s life. Yet, Robinson carries the reader along with such skill I never felt disorientated. It’s known from early on that Lila will marry the Reverend, but the way in which they meet and come together is revealed only gradually. What’s so radical and thrilling about the way this relationship is presented is that, even though they are married and Lila has the first real stability in her life, it’s never perceived by the characters as something that will continue with certainty. Lila has always planned to save money to take a bus to California – an amorphous dream of another life she always carries with her. In beautifully touching and heart-wrenchingly tender scenes Lila and the Reverend openly discuss the possibility of her leaving and their separation. This uncertainty about their future gives insight into the ambivalence everyone feels about their own direction in life and relationships. Despite any declares of eternal devotions, relationships can be abruptly ended by either partner. But love is a declaration of hope. As Robinson states: “Wife is a prayer.” This creates suspense in the narrative as well as showing a deeper understanding of the complex psychology of the characters.

Lila’s journey in this novel is one in which she slowly formulates a certainty about her identity and right to be despite her impoverished and neglected origins. Robinson sums up brilliantly the way in which her existence has been like an imitation of a life: “Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it.” There is a frequent sense throughout that Lila possesses a deep loneliness because of the solitary necessity of relying only on herself and the hardened nature she’s acquired from growing up in desperate circumstances. It’s a constant presence that Lila feels: “She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.” This complicated emotional state has been a part of her existence for so long it’s become something she even feels in her body.

Robinson reads an extract from Lila and takes questions.

I was greatly moved by the beautifully delicate way Robinson goes about evoking Lila’s deep sense of aloneness and how it naturally makes her want to stop herself from fully trusting or revealing herself to others. It’s resignedly observed “That’s one good thing about the way life is, that no one can know you if you don’t let them.” Thus Lila is very careful about committing herself to anyone or anything because she understands how transitory and untrustworthy life can be. She’s defensive even when she’s offered kindness because “That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” It’s startling to me how complexly Robinson crafts her character delineating Lila’s thoughts, feelings and motivations with short poignant phrases that perfectly capture a state of being.

Lila’s journey is very specific, but Marilynne Robinson has an extraordinary capacity for making her story feel universal. I would normally be hesitant about a novel which contains so much dialogue with religious text, but there is nothing prescriptive or preaching in this novel. The character of Doll is adamantly against religion. Yet, it’s the way in which she and Lila’s husband, the Reverend, both exhibit a beautifully patient sense of kindness for no other reason than out of human decency which is truly inspiring. Gradually Lila feels inspired to show kindness herself. It’s what lifts what would otherwise be a terribly bleak novel out of the depths. As I mentioned before, I’ve read “Gilead” which is an epistolary novel from the Reverend Ames’ perspective so I was already somewhat familiar with his character, but I haven’t read Robinson’s follow-up novel “Home” which is about Reverend Robert Boughton (a close friend of Reverend Ames). I don’t feel it’s necessary to read either of these before reading “Lila” but there are references to Boughton which I’m sure would have more meaning if I had. Like Rachel Joyce’s extraordinary “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” which is a companion novel to her earlier book, “Lila” is powerful enough to stand on its own. It’s is a deeply profound novel full of uncompromising truth and human spirit which I’m sure I will return to again and again.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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