Five books I couldn’t get out of my head in 2017
Doncaster bookseller Ellen Cregan shares five books that she read this year – and still can’t get out of her head.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
This is a tough book to read. Turtle is 14 and lives in rural California with her doomsday prepping father from which she suffers sexual abuse and terrifying mood swings, often escaping into the woods to avoid him. She is an outcast at school, and beyond a few concerned teachers and unwelcome peers, most people avoid her.
There are so many things about this novel that had me enraptured. Firstly, Tallent’s descriptions of the California wilderness are absolutely stunning, and so evocative you can almost smell the landscape as you read. There is also a relentless pace to this novel – in this sense, it’s reminiscent of a thriller. The most striking thing about this novel, though, is Turtle. She is such a memorable character, and in my opinion, reads as a very real teenage girl. While this book is excellent the whole way through, the final 100 pages had me on the edge of my seat. This is an absorbing read that will wind itself around every emotion you have.
The Life to Come by Michelle de Krester
The latest offering from the legendary Michelle de Krester is another book that made a big impact on me this year. Her protagonist, Pippa, is brilliantly flawed. I hated her so much, but also felt bucketloads of sympathy for her. At first I was peeved about the way she treats the people around her, but the bad things Pippa does are the sorts of things that we all do, whether we’re aware of it or not. Reading this novel felt a bit like being sucked into a black hole. I mean this in a positive way – once you hit your stride with this book, it is really hard to stop reading.
Beyond her brilliant crafting of the her protagonist,my favourite aspect of this book is the way de Krester writes about loneliness. It totally floored me. It made me want to be a more empathetic person. One of the most special things about books for me is that they are objects that can make you feel emotions that are entirely real. Some are better than others at this, and The Life to Come is one of those books that achieves this with ease.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This is the ultimate ‘what if’ book of the year. What if women could cause excruciating pain to men with a single touch? What would happen to gendered violence? Condescending explanations? Feminism?
With this novel, this year’s Bailey’s Prize winner, Naomi Alderman speculates on these questions and many more. In the world of The Power, young girls suddenly develop a new, electrified organ, one that they can use to administer shocks of varying strength to the people around them. After centuries of oppression, women are suddenly dominant. The result is astounding – patriarchal societies all over the world are turned totally upside down. Girl gangs roam the streets. Young boys are advised to get home before dark and keep a low profile at school.
Alderman reminds me a bit of Margaret Atwood – like many of Atwood’s books, The Power uses elements of literary fiction with those of sci-fi, and has a touch of political thriller added in. This is definitely the novel I recommended to the most people this year, and I think everyone should read it ASAP.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The aspect of this book that I can’t get out of my head is a single image. Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone. The retelling of Greek myths has been a trend in literary fiction over the past few years, but Kamila Shamsie’s impressive offering feels entirely new and fresh. She builds up the ideas within the myth, ideas that have endured centuries of storytelling, and makes them relevant to our context.
In this retelling, twins Paraviz and Aneeka are at the crossroads of adolescence and adulthood, and are taking very different directions – Aneeka is pursuing a career as a lawyer, while her brother works at a greengrocers and spends his free time on complex sound experiments. Paraviz is floundering, and is seduced by ISIS recruiters. Aneeka must go to any length to save her brother, and it is from this pure love that a great tragedy unfolds. Shamsie’s ability to articulate the experience of this migrant family living in a place that is simultaneously their home and a very foreign place.
Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
I feel very comfortable saying that Jennifer Down is going to be a major part of the future of Australian literature. The quality of her writing, as well as her ability to tap into the loves, fears and anxieties many of us experience guarantee this.
I typically have a weird desire when it comes to short story collections – I want the stories to feel like a collection of small, beautiful shells that I can metaphorically line up and display in my mind. I want them to feel like they match each other, but are able to stand on their own. Pulse Points definitely fits this bill. Each of its stories is clearly defined, but they also work well together as a suite.
The titular story is the one that particularly burned itself into my brain. Couple Henry and Ramesh are going through the difficult process of moving Henry’s elderly father, Gerry, into a residential care home. As they drive home from visiting Gerry one afternoon, they witness the death of a young man from a horrific traffic accident. It isn’t so much the imagery that struck me down so completely with this one, it was more the way Down is able to capture the rippling emotions that are borne from situations like this.