Here we are! At the time I’m writing this I’ve read 110 books this year, though I’m hoping to finish a few more before the new year. In any case, it’s not a record number of books read for me – in fact, it’s something like 20 fewer than last year – and quality, as always, varied. I didn’t feel like I was having a particularly stellar reading year, but when it came down to the wire of putting this list together, there were about 15 books that I realized I was willing to go to war for, so even if there were a lot of duds for me this year, there were also a lot of stand-outs.
Honorable mentions to: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (this one in particular – I had a crisis about my last slot but refused to expand this list to 11), Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović, and Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer (incidentally, this one was a 4 star read for me at the time, but in hindsight it looks like I need to bump up its rating).
A few stats about this year’s final list:
4 are nonfiction (a record!)
4 are Irish/Northern Irish/about Ireland/Northern Ireland
2 are translated, both translated by women
7 are by women
1 is by an author of color (do better, me)
So, here we go!
10. Know My Name by Chanel Miller
“In fact I need you to know it was all true. The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.”
Chanel Miller’s account of being sexually assaulted while unconscious by Brock Turner was always going to be an impactful and harrowing read, but it would do Miller a disservice to imply that the subject matter and cultural conversation surrounding this book are the only reasons why it’s appearing on so many best-of-year lists. This book has been such a commercial and word-of-mouth success because Miller is an extraordinary writer, end of story. This memoir is bold, righteous, angry; but it’s also thoughtfully structured and elegantly written. I oppose the concept of ‘required reading’ for a lot of reasons, but I can highly recommend that everyone read this who is able to.
9. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
“‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’
‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’”
This was my first Deborah Levy so it’s probably too soon to proclaim myself her number one fan, but my god was this a brilliant place for me to start. I was riveted by this book; I found it so intellectually stimulating with its impeccably bizarre structure and its clever trail of bread crumbs that Levy leaves the reader before you’re fully aware of what she’s doing, but I also found it so full of heart. I was expecting to be challenged by this book, but I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it. And no, I’m not saying anything about the plot as I’d implore you to go in blind.
8. The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger
“A more dependable person, that’s what I had to become, a woman in possession of a firmer character. If not now, then when? Out here I had what little I needed: solitude, long days at my disposal, a small number of predictable duties. I was liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat, and I had a garden all of my own.”
I made it a priority to read more women in translation this year, and this odd little novella was the highlight for me. Set in an isolated fjord town, it follows a woman who’s recently quit her job to become a caretaker for a reticent and sullen man who draws her into his life while keeping her at a firm distance. I hesitate to categorize it as a thriller in the American marketing use of the word, but I was beyond thrilled by this book, staying up late into the night so I could see how this train wreck was going to end. A brilliant gothic and atmospheric story that reads like a modernized classic.
7. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
“‘I saw an arm fall off a man once,’ said Kate.”
This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me, which I only picked up as a part of a long-term goal I’m working toward of having read all of the Women’s Prize winners. It’s not that I expected to dislike it, but reviews are a bit middling, and I think I was expecting it to be fine, but not a stand out. But my god, did it ever stand out. A Spell of Winter is a devastating gothic tragedy, subversive and unexpected and harrowing and twisted and just fucking brilliant. This single book made such an impression on me that it left me wanting to read Dunmore’s entire (extensive) catalog.
6. Maus by Art Spiegelman
“I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”
I believe this gets the distinction of being the only book to make me cry this year – and I didn’t just cry, I bawled. I won’t get into the plot because I feel like everyone on earth had already read this before I did, but if by some miracle you haven’t yet, read it. This is one of the most disturbing yet beautifully composed things I’ve ever read. The interplay between Spiegelman’s text and illustrations is just masterful. It’s a modern classic for a reason.
5. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
“Leaving the home on that last night, I kiss her hands. You were so important, I tell her. You were so loved.”
This is one of those books that broke my heart and then managed to mend it again. It’s usually the case with essay collections that some are notably weaker than others, but I didn’t think a single one of Gleeson’s essays was out of place in this collection. All of these threads about death and illness and the female body and the lack of autonomy given to the female body in Ireland all dovetail into a singular, sensational book that has stayed with me ever since finishing it. An absolute must-read for fans of feminist nonfiction and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
4. Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”
This book is like an alternate history story told as a fever dream and I loved every bizarre second of it. Énard imagines that Michelangelo accepted an invitation to travel to Constantinople and design a bridge for the Sultan Bayezid II, and the result is a sort of East-meets-West fable, brought to life by Charlotte Mandell’s stunning, lyrical translation and Énard’s lush and evocative setting. I have never felt more immersed in a novella and I have never been sadder for one to end.
3. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”
This wasn’t my introduction to McBride, having read and felt rather mixed about The Lesser Bohemians. But there is nothing mixed in my feelings about her debut, the single most depressing thing I’ve ever read after A Little Life, and one of the best meditations on trauma that I’ve ever read. McBride’s singular, fragmentary style works so well in this book that it’s one of the best cases of harmony between style and content that I can think of. Major trigger warnings for just about everything, particularly sexual assault, so I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. But god it’s good.
2. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
“The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month. It is not a violent word. Surely we have earnt ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid.’ Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural. The Troubles is/was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.”
In the biggest plot twist of the century, my favorite novel of the year belongs to my least favorite genre, magical realism. That just goes to show Jan Carson’s power. This is a sharp and funny and piercing story about a near-future resurgence of the Troubles, in which someone in Belfast has begun to light a series of fires around the city. It also follows two men, an older man and former paramilitary, and a young doctor who fears that his newborn daughter might be a Siren. Like a lot of Northern Irish lit, this is a book about how terror starts at home, about how you never know who you can trust, about how a legacy of violence leaves lasting scars on a community. It’s also written with wit and warmth and a compelling sort of unease. Please read it.
1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”
Speaking of the Troubles. On February 27, I wrote in my review: “I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go.” Well, we made it, Patrick. December 29 and this is my book of the year – in fact, it never had any real competition. This is a nonfiction true crime account of the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1970s Belfast; a story which Radden Keefe weaves together with a relatively comprehensive history of the Troubles, all while also investigating an effort made by Boston College in the twenty-first century to curate an oral history of the Troubles. This book has everything – it’s engaging, heart-wrenching, informative, thoughtful, measured, compassionate, brilliant. Nothing I read this year left a stronger impression on me.
So there we have it, my best books of 2019. What were yours?