‘What’s the best book you ever read?’ I’m in a bookshop surrounded by a Christmas crush of ardent buyers and I look around and then down to find a young girl of perhaps eight or nine gazing up at me. I had been reaching for Joan London’s The Golden Age, the only copy left on the shelf, so my hand hovers close while my mind twists and tangles in an effort to switch my concentration to this ostensibly simple question that could stretch a response through to next Christmas.
A similar question from an adult is easy: ‘The book I’ve just read.’ Flippant, maybe, but true. Particularly over the last couple of years that has produced some astounding books from writers around the world. And then my mind flicks to less recent reads like Wolf Hall, Atonement, Autumn Laing, A History of Loneliness . . .
But now I bend down, my hands on my knees, so I can speak to the child directly. ‘Black Beauty,’ I say. ‘I think that’s my favourite. I read it when I was a bit older than you and I still remember it.’ I am waiting for her to ask what it’s about when, to my surprise, she nods. ‘I liked it too. But it was sad. Did you find it sad?’ ‘Very sad indeed,’ I agree. ‘People can do some beastly things, but the good part about it is hope.’ ‘Yes, hope. That’s true.’ She smiles and nods. I am just about to ask her for her own favourite when her mother calls and she high-fives me and skips off.
I look up. Apart from the fact there is an empty space where The Golden Age was shelved a moment ago, nothing has changed. I’m in the same bookshop with the same milling crowd and the same level of noise, but it feels different. I feel different. I’ve been given a real gift of Christmas where a young girl in the closing weeks of 2015 has actually read – and understood – a book written by Anna Sewell nearly 150 years ago. Interestingly, the final line of that classic feeds into something that stirs me as much to me today as it did when I was a nine-year-old: “. . . there is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham . . .” Was it my ‘best read’ of all time? Maybe. I still remember it with great affection, horror . . . and hope.
Meanwhile, in no particular order and among many many others, these are some of my memorable reads – and re-reads – of 2015.
- Pulitzer prize-winning author Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate) – a beautiful and unusual story. I didn’t want it to end.
- Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower (Text) – I have been trying to get hold of this book for some time, so I’m grateful Text Publishing for their re-printing of the classics. For those who enjoy psychological drama – as I do – it is gripping.
- Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister (Bloomsbury Circus) – a sort of ficto-biography of the Stephen sisters with Vanessa’s letters interspersed. Fascinating portrayal of the times and an interesting perspective on Virginia Woolf.
- In the Light of What We Know by Zia Hader Rahman (Picador) – This beautifully written and intelligent book was recommended to me in line at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year and it is yet another book I am the richer for reading. It has been called ‘an intellectual banquet’ – read it for its sorties and investigations into all manner of different things – war, exile, maths and philosophy. I had to put the book down every few pages to think through one hypothesis or another. Amazing. Loved it.
- I am a great fan of Alex Miller’s much-awarded writing with his latest work the simplest words (Allen & Unwin) no exception. This is a collection of stories, excerpts and commentary through which Miller accounts for his own storytelling journey. ‘It is through the poetics of my fiction that I have sought my personal truth.’ I love that line because I can empathise with it and I guess I love his writing for the same reason.
- Kate Williams’ England’s Mistress (Arrow Books) – a sparkling biography that traces the ups and downs in the life of Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton. A fascinating story of an extraordinary woman.
- The Mind’s Own Place (UWAP) by Ian Reid – another work of historical fiction that threads fact and fiction with poetic skill.
- For me, the short story of this decade so far is Rob Magnuson Smith’s “The Elector of Nossnearly”, winner of the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. I forgot to breathe from beginning to end.
Of the books I have read more than once over the last couple of years, the standouts are
- Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (Atlantic Books) – a collection of three novellas. But – in particular – it is the first of these “The Follower” that captures me. The lightness of touch, the spare and elegant prose, the rhythm of the writing that falls into step with the long-distance walkers – love it.
- Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Virago) – another fictional biography written in the first person from the point-of-view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley.
- A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle – one of the best books I’ve come across for strategies to cope with life’s kinks, to help re-balance and enjoy the moment.
For other potential titles for your Christmas wish list, I suggest ABR’s December issue where the journal’s reviewers list their favourite reads for the year – close to a hundred titles in all. You can subscribe to the Australian Book Review here https://www.australianbookreview.com.au
I’d like to thank those of you who have taken the time to comment online and those who have preferred to email or phone me with your lovely messages throughout the year. My wishes for a happy festive season and a safe and healthy year to come. And, lastly, I’d love to know your favourite book of all time or, for that matter, your most enjoyable read this year.
Happy reading and writing meanwhile!
With thanks to Wikipedia for the information on Anna Sewell – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Beauty