As the year comes to a close, John Lavin maps out his picks for the best works of fiction to come out of the past year.
Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) is clearly the work of an artist at the height of her powers. It is a novel about family and the passing of time, but above all it is a novel about what it is to be alive. The first half of the novel is divided between the perspectives of an ageing mother and her adult children, all of whom have gone on to lead very different lives. Enright switches between different time periods, situations and locations with nonchalant ease, while her ability to render the inner workings of human consciousness calls to mind the sensibilities of both Woolf and Munro. There are several passages where the narrative breaks down because a character is stricken by fear or confused because of their age, or both, and Enright takes us right there with the character, both textually and poetically.
The second half of the novel brings the family back together for Christmas and voices that have each had a separate chapter up until this point become knitted together within each new chapter, as they increasingly return to their old roles within the family group. While the fraught drama that might be expected from such a construct does indeed take place, it is really in the observation of character rather than in the advancement of plot that Enright is interested, and it is here that she triumphs, producing a profoundly philosophical and poetical meditation on family relationships and mortality that is almost certainly the best book that this critic has read all year.
Max Porter’s stylistically daring exploration of the grieving process, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber), deserves mention for the boldness of its central conceit alone. A newly widowed father and his two sons are visited by the titular anti-hero of Ted Hughes’ Crow (the father is a Hughes scholar and like Porter something of an obsessive when it comes to that particular collection), who works the same kind of gut-wrenching primal therapy on the small beleaguered family as he perhaps did on Hughes in the years following Assia Wevill’s suicide. The book is maybe not quite as cumulatively successful as some reviewers have been saying; however, it is without question a deeply original debut and one that fuses fiction, poetry and drama into a persuasive whole. Porter’s willingness to admit and explore the almost hallucinatory qualities of grief, alongside his willingness to attempt to bend one of the great poetic works of the last century to his will in order to facilitate this, suggests that he is a writer of considerable promise.
The year in the Welsh short story, while notable for many strong collections including Mark Blayney’s darkly humorous, subtly nuanced Dopplegangers and Carole Burns’ minutely observed The Missing Woman (both Parthian), was dominated by two particularly impressive debuts: Thomas Morris’ We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber) and Rebecca John’s Clown’s Shoes (Parthian). As I wrote in these pages at the time, ‘Fugue’ – in which Morris creates a perfect fusion of the misanthropic, the comedic and the poetic – may well be the best individual short story published anywhere this year. However, that being said, several of John’s works would run it close. Expertly constructed, psychologically complex pieces such as ‘Salting Home’, reveal a writer with an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of the short story form, who is also fully engaged with all of the myriad possibilities that the form has to offer. Both writers are young and the future of the Welsh Short Story continues to look increasingly rosy. Indeed coming just a year after Carys Davies’ peerless Galen Pike collection (which deservedly won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize this year), it really is beginning to feel as though the Welsh Short Story is a force that can stand head and shoulders alongside more traditional overachievers in the form.
Away from Wales, one of the standout short story collections of the year was once again from Ireland’s indispensable Stinging Fly Press. Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets is an immaculate work of lucid observation that is propelled along by an evident devotion to the craft of whittling sentences down to the point of perfection. Take, for instance, this example from ‘Silhouette’, a combination of tar black observational humour and human truth delivered with both brevity and élan:
Her mother’s problems, being terminal, were far beyond the reach of podiatry, but still, she debated the subject of calluses with an intensity that was unsettling.
Staying with The Stinging Fly, their other short story collection this year was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond – an idiosyncratic and self-assured debut from a marvellously unfettered writer. In a sense the collection feels just as much like an experimental novel as it does a short story collection and this blurring of boundaries is certainly appropriate for a book that specialises in describing the amorphous ooze of too much time spent in one’s own company. There is a hermetic, subterranean quality to the atmosphere of the book, coupled with a quirky, melancholic sensibility and gift for sporadic poetic flourishes that more immediately calls to mind the music of Robert Wyatt than the work of other writers, although Beckett and Brautigan feel like relatively evident touchstones.
In a year awash with marvellous debuts, Sara Baume’s inventive, even startling spill simmer falter wither (Tramp Press), was a particular favourite here at Wales Arts Review with our reviewer Emma Schofield noting that:
It is not often that a novel brings me close to tears by the end of the first page, but the opening… makes for emotional reading. Starting with the image of a dog ‘running, running, running’, the Prologue goes on to reveal how ‘One Eye’ acquired his name. It is an apt beginning for a novel which is constantly moving, taking in a breathtaking array of scenery as it does so…. As mesmerising as its unusual title, spill simmer falter wither is a lithe novel which dances through the passing seasons, defying its readers not to be drawn into the striking world it reveals.
Returning to Wales and this time to the realm of the novel, Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber) and Gary Raymond’s For Those Who Come After (Parthian) were two refreshingly ambitious debuts that, for all their literary credentials, did not shy away from the old-fashioned virtue of providing a gripping plot. As I wrote of The Girl at the time of its publication:
It… exhibits a lucid, poetic prose style that teems with penetrating observation, but it is also one of the most compulsively readable books that will be published all year.
Meanwhile Raymond’s almost cinematic prose-scapes have something of the same sense of the sweep of history as a movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And in the way that films from that era are addictively watchable FTWCA is a most addictive read. The author takes us from the Bloomsbury era to the unflinchingly described horrors of the Spanish Civil War and then right up to the present day. However, for all the pure page-turning pleasure that the book provides, For Those Who Come After is at heart a deeply serious, philosophical novel concerned with the repugnant politics that lie at the root of all war.
The repugnance of war is also a central theme of Northern Irish author, Paul McVeigh’s superb novel about a young boy living through The Troubles, The Good Son (Salt). McVeigh uses the intensely likeable Mickey as a lens through which to show the barbarous nature of the conflict and to illustrate the extreme hardships that the Catholic citizens of central Belfast had to go through on a day-to-day basis. Mickey is a masterly creation, lending a book that deals in some very hard truths, a gentle and even charming character.
Ada Concannon, the narrator of Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily (Sandstone Press) is a similarly beguiling narrator, and one that the author skilfully uses to show the reader the character of Emily Dickinson from a different perspective. Indeed it is Concannon that really brings this novel to life, allowing the author to not only show Dickinson in a different light but also to write about a Nineteenth-Century Irish woman adapting to life in America – something that she does with a great deal of aplomb. The narrative switches between the viewpoint of the two central protagonists, a device which facilitates plot and character development with a good deal of success, while also allowing ample opportunity for dramatic irony. O’Connor is excellent, for instance, at showing each character’s particular quality of naivety, i.e. Ada has no inkling at all as to why Dickinson is furious with her when she walks in on the poet and her sister-in-law embracing after Christmas lunch (O’Connor hints at the poet’s sexual orientation with subtlety throughout the book). Meanwhile Dickinson, so often lost in her own worldview, is equally – at least, at first – uncomprehending of Ada’s blossoming romance with her fellow countryman, Daniel Byrne. As such Miss Emily pulls off the difficult balancing act of being both an immensely enjoyable romantic novel, as well as a work of some considerable psychological profundity.
Robert Minhinnick is one of Wales’ finest authors, both of poetry and prose, and in his second novel, Limestone Man, he continues to explore the poetic possibilities of the long fiction form. Like Joyce or Beckett, he approaches the novel from an outsider’s perspective and as a result he doesn’t show too much slavish respect for the form. He is intent, rather, on using it for his own ends. Minhinnick writes so well that the book could be made up of a series of shopping lists and you suspect that it would make for an entrancing read but Limestone Man is, of course, made up of very much more profound stuff than that, as our critic, Valerie Sirr, succinctly put it earlier in the year:
Limestone Man is a very fine novel written with a hypnotic style that at times makes one almost doubt one’s own memory of earlier passages of text, strangely heightening the vicarious experience of Parry’s imperiled consciousness, as it circles back to repeated obsessions. It’s a weird experience, but one worth having. As Parry himself says about Hey Bulldog: ‘…try some of this weird stuff...try it, For all that ailed you. For any gutrot. For any worldwarp. For any soulache. For the migraine where your soul should be.’