It’s been a fantastic reading year as I discovered some excellent new debut authors, new books from great authors I’ve read before and several classic novels which I read for the first time. I’ve especially enjoyed following a number of book prizes this year including The Women’s Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize, The Windham-Campbell Prize, The Booker Prize, The Books Are My Bag Awards and The Young Writer of the Year Award. Of course, what I enjoy most is all the debate and discussion these prizes encourage.

Reading isn’t a race and numbers aren’t important, but in total I read 96 books this year. I enjoyed the experience of reading so many of these but here are ten of my favourites. Click on the book titles to see my full reviews of each book.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This novel based on real life recent events presents a dialogue between women who’ve been egregiously abused and raped by men within their own isolated religious community for years. But without the knowledge or even a common language to connect with the larger world they face the terrifying question: what should they do next? It’s an arresting conversation.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Truman Capote sought to immortalize his high society female friends in a great work of literature. But, having divulged their most closely-guarded secrets in public, he made himself into a social pariah. This novel imaginatively relates the perspectives of these betrayed women on one of the 20th century’s most infamous writers and how these ladies contributed to shaping the culture of their time. It’s a richly layered delicious feast.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most individuals born into slavery never have the opportunity to realize their intellectual abilities and artistic talents. But Edugyan’s fantastical adventure novel imagines a rare space where a boy with a passion for science and skills at drawing can travel the world experimenting with different ways of being. This is a compulsively readable wondrous novel.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

One of the most difficult challenges of adulthood is navigating our desires as we change and grow as individuals. Quatro takes a very common story about an individual who enters into an affair and draws out of it a discussion so intimate and transformative it gave me a whole new perspective on my relationships to those closest to me and how I inhabit my own mind, body and soul.  

Problems by Jade Sharma

The wilful, outrageously outspoken and deeply troubled young woman at the centre of this novel should have everything going for her, but finds she can’t get herself together. This story is a frank and darkly hilarious account of her arduous struggle with addiction and deeply-felt struggle to find the will to carry on.  

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This year included the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Virago, a publisher renowned for honouring and republishing great female authors. This beautiful new edition of Memento Mori is a synthesis of these celebrations and I loved discovering this outrageous and witty black comedy first published in 1959. It includes relentlessly entertaining characters while also conveying a profound meditation on life and death.

Circe by Madeline Miller

What would motivate an outcast nymph who resides on a remote island to turn sailors into pigs? Miller brilliantly answers this question while relating the life story of this spurned enchantress from Greek mythology. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey as Circe learns how to best harness her considerable powers and find contentment amidst immortality. This novel is so imaginative and gripping.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This new novel from America’s greatest writer is wonderfully surprising in how it presents a haunting dystopian tale while simultaneously relating a very autobiographical tale. It dynamically considers difficult questions about personal responsibility while living under questionable government and addresses some of the most pressing issues we face today. It’s a mesmerising story.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ first novel might not have won the Booker Prize this year, but it demonstrated the considerable talent of this young writer for creating a story which is deeply thoughtful, emotionally gripping and beautifully told. It inventively reaches into the past for answers to questions we hardly dare to speak aloud and reflects on potential ways of seeing.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I’m amazed how a book so compact can contain such a moving and haunting tale. This novel about a unique archaeological weekend follows the journey of a young woman trapped under the influence of her wilful reactionary father. They embark on a dangerous experiment which raises pressing questions about what being English means. It’s an incredibly timely and original tale.

 

What have been some of your favourite books this year? Let me know your top picks or your thoughts about any of the above books in the comments below.

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In 2011, news broke worldwide about eight men belonging to a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia being convicted of a series of sexual assaults committed over several years. Over 130 girls and women had been knocked unconscious using an animal tranquilizer and raped by these men. The horror of these facts were amplified by the knowledge that these women were part of a tight knit isolated community and they were made to believe the attacks were the result of ghosts or demons punishing them for their sins. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges these women faced in such a perilous position, especially because this strictly religious and remote community was all they’d ever known. But Miriam Toews has written an “imagined response” to these incidents in a novel that records several women of three different generations secretly meeting in a hayloft to decide how they will proceed. The options are to do nothing, stay and fight or leave. They only have a couple nights to come to a consensus before the men return with the perpetrators who’ve been let out of jail on bail. It’s an urgent, impassioned conversation that considers issues of faith and the meaning of community/family. I found it so bracing how this novel asks what you’d do when the only world you’ve known has betrayed you so egregiously and robbed you of your humanity.

It’s clear from reading this Guardian interview how personal this novel is for Miriam Towes. Having lived in a Mennonite community herself, she feels “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” It’s impossible to know how anyone would react to an extreme situation like this and the many women portrayed all have very different reactions. At one point a particularly strong-willed character named Salome comments “our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.” They range from violent anger to pious acceptance to self-destructive despair. It becomes clear over the course of their discussions that these conversations are as much with themselves as with each other for the way they desperately seek to understand and respond to the position they’re in. To create such a multi-layered sense of inner dialogue within such a large cast of characters in such a short novel is truly impressive.

I felt I could understand all the women’s arguments at different points as they plotted out the positive and negatives to their potential course of action. Of course, instinctively I felt the women should leave or physically overcome this male-dominated community. But reading the women’s accounts I was forced to be confronted by the fact of what an extremely isolated existence they’ve lived. They’ve been raised to only know a way of life where they are completely dependent on the men in the village. They aren’t allowed money or an education. They can’t read or write. They’ve never seen a map of the outside world or seen the ocean. They can only even speak a derivative form of Germanic which isn’t spoken by anyone any longer except for Mennonites. So this village is literally their entire world and to leave it would take unimaginable depths of bravery. I was completely captivated by their dilemma and on edge throughout the novel wondering what they’d decide. I also warmed to them as a diverse group of individuals who argue, joke and care for each other in the course of their discussions.

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It’s interesting the way Toews handles the dilemma of how to record these women’s conversations when they can’t read or write. She solves this by narrating the novel from the point of view of a man named August, a Mennonite who lived for many years in England after his parents were excommunicated from the community but he re-joined it as a teacher. He conspires with the women recording their dialogue and assisting them in their plans. His presence adds another dimension to their conversations and another plotline as he has an especially close relationship with one of the women named Ona. It also reinforces the fact that the world has no access to these women’s voices and stories without being filtered through the perspective of a man. To hear these women conversing and have their stories recorded feels like the first step towards achieving a true form of independence and asserting their right to exist apart from the men who have always dominated and controlled their lives. Ona states at one point that “We are aware of many things, instinctively… but to have them articulated in a certain narrative way is pleasing and fun.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMiriam Toews