The Best Books of 2019 so far.jpg

The year is zipping by fast and there are plenty of books I’ve still been meaning to read, but here are some favourites that I’ve read so far. I seem to be reading more memoirs recently or, at least, books that are heavily inspired by autobiographical experience. Several of these books fall into that category while being a hybrid of different kinds of books. But, of course, there are some novels I’ve loved and a poetry collection as well. It felt especially poignant to me how some of these books felt like they were in conversation with each other because they touched on similar subjects or events. Maybe that’s just me seeing connections since I read them close together. Whatever the case, these books had a big impact on me and I highly recommend all them! You can also watch a video of me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUjR0M_yrOE

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I read this wonderful book at the very beginning of the year. Of course, this isn't a memoir per say – although it does include personal details about how much libraries meant to the author when growing up. It's more a piece of journalistic nonfiction where Orlean considers the case of a horrific fire in the Los Angeles Central library in 1986. She covers the history of this library and the very curious man who was strongly suspected of starting the fire. But it's also an ode to libraries in general and contains so many fascinating facts about libraries and librarians.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is a novel but draws heavily on Li's own life because her son sadly committed suicide and this book is an imagined conversation between a mother and son – after the son took his own life. That sounds incredibly depressing and it is an intense experience. But the way their conversation plays out is very touching because when the mother thoughts become too lofty the son brings her back to reality. So it's alternately playful and profound how she considers life, language, motivation and grief.

Kill the Black One First by Michael Fuller

This is a straightforward but very moving memoir. It has a very startling title – and it's meant to be because this was something which was shouted from an angry mob as Fuller stood in a line of police officers during the Brixton riots in 1981. This was an infamous confrontation in London between the police force and members of a predominantly black neighbourhood. At the time, Fuller was one of the few black policemen in London and he found himself caught in the middle of this skirmish when someone in the crowd shouted “kill the black one first” and he knew it was aimed at him. So this memoir is about Fuller's life as a black man who was dedicated to his police work – he became Britain's very first black chief constable – and the work he did to try to bridge the gap between England's racially divided society. It's such a moving and inspiring story. And it's so heartening to know there are honestly good people out there like Michael Fuller.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

This is a novel set in South Africa in two parts which are bridged together. The first part concerns a woman named Susan who is forcibly put into a British concentration camp during the Second Boer Wars in 1901 after the British army burned her farm. And yes, this is something the British really did in South Africa; they ran multiple concentration camps during this war. The second half of the novel concerns a teenage boy named Willem who is taken by his parents to a sinister training camp to toughen him up and make him more masculine. Willem just wants to be left alone with his books but his parents are determined to make a man out of him. And this camp is also based on actual training camps which are meant to toughen boys. So both stories poignantly consider institutions and camps which are intended to keep people safe but really destroy their identity and their lives. It's so artfully and beautifully done.

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

These autobiographical essays follow the trajectory of Gleeson's life from a girl in Ireland where she suffers from multiple medical difficulties and her journey to becoming a great feminist, journalist, wife, mother and writer. The way she writes about illness in this book is so poignant and she draws upon many references from art and literature to reflect about her condition and life in general. It's a stunning book. It just floored me.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This autobiographically-inspired novel was first published in English last year but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It's an incredible look at the past several decades in France through one woman's eyes but is narrated in this unique collective voice which captures the mood and sensibility of a whole community. It's ingenious and inventive and moving and brilliant. It's essentially a woman looking through a photo album but it also contains a whole society. It's amazing.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

This is a historical novel which is so clever and gripping. It's the story of a woman in the mid-1800s in London who works in a laborious job making dolls, but she aspires to be an artist. So she agrees to become an artist's model as long as she's also given lessons. It's also about a sinister man who becomes infatuated with her. And it's also about the artist's pet wombat (which is my favourite animal.) But this novel is truly excellent in what it says about art, obsession and history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This is touted as the year's most mind-expanding love story and it really is that. It begins as a normal modern day love story where Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York City. But Kate has very vivid dreams where she slips back into a past life embodying the real historical figure of Emilia Lanier who was an Elizabethan poet believed to have been the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. She finds that in these dreams she's able to alter history. It's honestly so wild, but also makes you think about destiny and ambition and the meaning of reality. It is unlike anything I've read before.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

This is a novel I just read recently and concerns a group of drag house mothers who sit in silent protest in front of New York's city hall. For years children they've taken into their drag houses have gone missing and after the repeated indifference and harassment from the authorities they feel they are past words. It's also the story of Teddy, a child of these drag houses who now works in city hall so is very much caught between two worlds. Niven invokes the feeling and spirit of drag balls in this beautiful book, but he also presents the voices of different groups who are locked in opposition to one another. It's poignant, funny and fierce.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This is a startlingly powerful book of poetry. Jay spent a lot of time in an archive researching and thinking about the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre. This was a fire that occurred in the early morning amidst a teenage girl's birthday party killing 13 young people and injuring 27 others. Many believed this was a racist attack. The authorities' investigation into the fire was handled horribly and the case was never resolved. It led to protests and an outcry from the black communities in London and was one of the incidents which led up to the Brixton riots (as discussed in Michael Fuller’s memoir). This is a complex subject but Jay so artfully considers the weight of history in these poems, how we memorialize those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known. Some of these poems are also very personal reflecting on gender, national and racial identity. I don't often read a lot of poetry but these are poems that made me sit up and listen closely and I love this book.

A book I haven’t listed is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James which is another book I loved very much and I made a whole video gushing about it. But I read this at the end of last year rather than this year.

Let me know if you've read any of these books or want to read them now. What are some of your favourite reads from 2019 so far? Give me some good tips!

You Will be Safe Here Damian Barr.jpeg

It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm. 

So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)

A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity. 

Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr