Five books that unsettled me in 2013
Elena Ferrante is my favourite literary discovery of 2013 and the first book of hers I read, The Days of Abandonment, has permanently lodged itself under my skin. Even though I also love Ferrante’s other books (you can read my review of My Brilliant Friend here), this title wins ‘most distressing book I read this year’ hands down.
Narrated by Olga, a woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her, Ferrante’s novel investigates her thoughts and emotions in those early ‘days of abandonment’, questioning how our identities are formed by our relations to others. Throughout the book, Olga' mental states flips dramatically, from despair to anger to nostalgia – she develops feelings of hatred for her children only to be consumed by love for them.
Ferrante offers a stunningly acute portrayal of the fallout after a relationship ends. For me, this novel raised the dulled memories surrounding my own breakups to the surface; no other book I’ve read has ever captured the experience of a relationship’s conclusion with such frightening intensity as this one.
This year I also feel a little in love with Heidi Julavits' books including The Vanishers. Julia Severn is a talented student at an elite institute for psychics but when Julia’s mentor, the legendary Madame Ackerman, grows jealous of her protégée’s talents, she forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide and then launches a psychic attack. Julia retreats to a faceless job in Manhattan where she is recruited to help track down a missing person under what I can only describe as Highly Suspicious Circumstances.
While the plot is convoluted, the writing is so smart and funny – and Julia such a very enjoyable heroine to follow – that I can easily forgive this flaw. I particularly loved the way Julavits looks at the relationships between mothers and daughters (or substitute mothers and daughters) and I found myself thinking about this aspect of the book for days. Was Julia’s mother’s suicide an act of selfishness or love? Does a daughter’s existence in some way damage the mother? In The Vanishers mothers are often spiteful and daughters are often vengeful, and the dynamics that spring from these interactions are completely absorbing.
Sheila Heti’s How should a person be? held a particular challenge for me in that I found the protagonist irritating, kind of grotesque and overwhelmingly familiar. She was me and in the worst possible way.
Much like the first two books in this list, this ‘novel from life’ is about identity. Part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse, at the centre of the book lies a friendship between two girls: Sheila and Margaux. Through them this book asks questions like, should art always be an extension of an unquestioned project to make oneself and one’s world beautiful? What is the most noble way to love? How do you create beauty? Yet, parts of the book feels trite, ugly. Typed transcripts of banal conversations are included. Sheila and Margaux have a falling out when Sheila buys the same yellow dress as Margaux on a holiday, leading to a serious and philosophical email exchanged. There’s an ‘Interlude for Fucking’ tucked in there somewhere where Heti describes the sadomasochistic antics of Sheila and her lover in explicit detail.
I’m not sure if I’m really doing a great job of explaining what this book is and perhaps that’s the point. The whole novel is a mass of contradictions and this seems to be Heti’s intention, to create a novel about art that is an art project in itself. It’s a fascinating book.
Beautiful and dreamlilke, French artist Marion Fayolle’s In Pieces is a collection of wordless comics that explore relationships. Fayolle’s style is meticulous, a mix of printmaking and fine-hatching across a subdued colour palette, and intricately nostalgic – she references antique illustrations and engravings, and taps into ancient myths and legends.
Reading In Pieces feels like falling inside a dream. Characters are shoeless and aloof, sometimes portrayed as hybrid animal-humans. Removed from any context, they’re placed against empty backdrops with absurd props such as masks or toys and the feel of the book is unmistakably theatrical. There’s something a little bit twee at play but underpinning each story is a naive cruelness that prevents this from being fully realised. In the introduction, Paul Gravett writes, ‘A recurring question haunts these pages about the meaning of human relationships – what do men and woman do to each other, or dream of doing?’
Fayolle’s answers are delightfully unsettling.
Unlike the first four books, this one is non-fiction and something I never would’ve picked up had it not been for overwhelming recommendations from others. I’d initially imagined Far From The Tree was pretty much just for parents and now can say this is most definitely not true! In this massive almost 1000 page tome, Andrew Solomon has given us an astonishingly moving and confronting book.
Far From The Tree shares stories of families living with exceptional and out-of-the-ordinary children and each new chapter focuses on a particular ‘issue’, taking us from deafness to dwarfism, from children who are prodigies to those who are born from rape. These stories have been gathered by Solomon from his interviews over the past ten years, with more than 300 families. Every single new chapter made me cry and challenged my ideas of the world in some way. For example, before this book I’d had no knowledge of deaf culture, or that many people in this community saw the idea of cochlear implants a form of ethnic ‘genocide’. Now I’ve felt really compelled to examine my own beliefs. If you were only going to read one non-fiction book this year, this would be my pick.