The best books I’ve read 2019

I read 38 books in 2019, less than last year, mainly because I spent six months travelling, and reading is harder when everything around you is interesting.

That being said I hugely enjoyed delving into some of the books relevant to places I was visiting: The Leopard, Reeds in the Wind, Caravaggio: a life sacred and profane, and The Private Lives of the Impressionists.

Unusually for me no really old works have made it onto my favourites for the year. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Patrick White’s Voss came closest.

In 2019 I gravitated to stories of radical, political change (can you blame me?), and there seemed to be a surplus available. So this is my most thematically cohesive list of favourites in a few years.

A few honourable mentions first: Rachel Cusk’s Outline (I get what the fuss is about and can’t wait to continue the trilogy), Ling Ma’s Severance (for its terrifyingly realistic depiction of a world sleep-walking into apocalypse), Carys Davies’ West (stunning narrative economy), Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (bringing modern military expertise to the oldest war story of all) and Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie (pulling the narrative rug out from under us yet again).

In no particular order then, my favourite books were:

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko – it operates as a soap opera centred on an Aboriginal family – think Neighbours if the main character was a queer Indigenous woman. It’s funny, sexy, and tremendously entertaining. But all the while it scratches away at devastating national and family secrets. The book I’m recommending to absolutely everyone.

The Overstory by Richard Powers – an ecological book about the ecological crisis. At its best does something thrillingly strange with the relationship between humans and other species (in this case trees). It begins with the most stunning piece of nature writing I’ve ever read, which it never really matches (it would be exhausting if it did). It may be overlong, but it’s deeply unsettling ‘solutions’ for ending the war between people and nature continue to sink into me.

Spring by Ali Smith – with the third book in her Seasons quartet, Ali Smith shows that her greatest achievement is mood. Spring is a novel that is hardly set in that season, yet absolutely pulses with the possibilities of new life, just waiting to burst forth when the air warms. That doesn’t necessarily mean nice and hopeful though. This is a book that combines fairytale, what feels like reportage on the UK’s detention system, and a very angry planet to talk directly to us now.

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo – just why this quiet book resonated with me so much remains a bit of a mystery – and isn’t that the sign of a great book? Linking two Melbourne bridge tragedies forty years apart, I continue to ponder this book’s precise sense of time and place, and its lessons about grief, justice and intergenerational trauma.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo – quite academic at times, its lessons on understanding and taking racism apart continue to rewire my brain.

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright – I didn’t necessarily totally enjoy this book while reading it – even on a sentence level it’s quite a bit of work. It is a mythological history of a town on Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria, divided between white settlers and Aboriginal people. But whenever I think back to its torrent of language and story I long for the places it took me to.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – a warm and heartfelt tale of 12 British people, mostly black, female and queer. A gentle satire and celebration of identity politics. I loved this book’s attention to over a hundred years of hidden Black British history and domestic life.

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