From The Testaments to a tale of British imperial looting, the winners and runners-up of this year’s most coveted literary awards pick their three favourite titles of 2019
I often find it hard to remember what I’ve read, but Three omen by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, £16.99) scorched its way into my consciousness. A journalistic deep dive into the desires and love lives of three women over eight years, it turns on its head much of what you think about how we learn to love.
Kate Weinberg’s debut, The Truants (Bloomsbury, £8.99), took eight years to write, and it shows in the multilayered characters and plot. It contains an image, a hearse in a wood, that stayed with me. If you’ve ever wanted to disappear from your own life, this book will speak to you. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is another debut, but you’d never know it from the lean, beautiful prose. I was afraid this novel about violence through generations in South Africa would be too dark, but it pulls you in, breaks your heart and then ultimately repairs it.
Joint winner of the Booker prize for Girl, Woman, Other
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (Merky Books, £12.99) by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi is a groundbreaking and essential book about how it feels to be a young black woman studying in Britain’s white academic institutions. Zawe Ashton’s entertaining, fictionalised account of her life as an actor in Character Breakdown (Vintage, £16.99) is funny, revealing, shocking and inventively structured with conversations presented in script form. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta, £8.99) is a slim novel about an iron age-obsessed man who takes his wife and daughter on a re-enaction holiday. It begins weirdly, ends badly and I loved it.
Shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
I visited New Orleans for the first time on my book tour and was so grateful to have Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House (Little, Brown, £14.99) with me for the journey. It’s such a beautiful memoir, and it gives you a rich and complex portrait of the city. Her book, which will be published in the UK next year, has something in common with another nonfiction book I loved this year: Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing (HarperCollins, £9.99), which also uses one family’s story to tell a broader history – in this case, of the Troubles and all the disappeared. One of Keefe’s gifts is dramatising the individual decisions that collectively shape global history. I admired that same gift in Miriam Toews’s extraordinary Women Talking (Faber, £8.99), which is a fictional treatment of a horrific series of sexual crimes in a remote religious community. The novel is an understated but powerful look at how everyday people make sense of evil and violence – a truly beautiful, challenging portrait of moral discernment.
Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize for The Porpoise
Friday Black, a collection of short stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Quercus, £8.99), has the thrilling strangeness of George Saunders but driven by a deep and justified anger about the racism and violence that constitute the bedrock of American society. That makes it sound worthy. It isn’t. It’s a rollercoaster ride. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press, £13.99) is usually described as “eight sentences of 1,000 pages”, which conjures an image of a forbidding avant garde doorstop in the manner of Thomas Bernhard. On the contrary, it is very funny, very readable and one of those novels that expand the possibilities of what a novel can be and do. Chris Ware is one of the great writers of our generation whose graphic novels make most novels (both the graphic and the regular kind) seem thin and simplistic. I spent 20 minutes reading the cover of Rusty Brown (Cape, £25). Buy it. Buy all his work. Make your life larger.
Winner of the Rathbones Folio prize for The Perseverance
Choosing three books from such a great year, particularly for poetry collections, is hard but there are three politically and lyrically compelling books that I think will remain relevant in the years ahead. The first is Surge by Jay Bernard (Chatto & Windus, £10). Partly influenced by dub poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jean “Binta” Breeze, it is a book for the air and the page, speculating on the complicated history of the New Cross fire and Grenfell.Advertisement
The next is Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Faber, £10.99), a book for our times and all times. A high lyric cautionary tale of fascism, which is part poetry, part fable, part play. Finally, After the Formalities by Anthony Anaxagorou (Penned in the Margins, £9.99), which speculates on race, family and immigration.
Shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth 1922-1968
William Dalrymple’s stupendous The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, £30) propels into focus the story of the East India Company’s takeover of Mughal India, an exercise of opportunism, violence, shamelessness and, at times, heroic greed. More immediate is Edna O’Brien’s Girl (Faber, £16.99), an unflinching parable: Heart of Darkness revisited with Boko Haram horrors recounted as incipient legend. For me, Michael Bird’s Artists’ Letters (White Lion Publishing, £20) has proved ideal dipping. Letters reproduced, transcribed and annotated yield rare insights: Leonardo (“I will assemble catapults”) with (Edward) Lear’s spelling (“fewcher thyme”) and Mondrian’s sore tooth.
Winner of the Goldsmiths prize for Ducks, Newburyport
Three Muslim women have surreal adventures in Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, Bird Summons (W&N, £16.99), her wildest yet, full of her own take on myth, religion and womanhood. Aboulela, based in Aberdeen, deserves as big a following here as she has in Africa. Or bigger. Not strictly new, perhaps, but still terrific: Faber & Faber has republished five Thomas Bernhard novels, shamefully out of print in the UK for 20 years. If you haven’t read Bernhard, you will not know of the most radical advance in fiction since Joyce. Bernhard’s influence is pervasive and his style riskily contagious. My advice: dive in. As for my third choice, am I allowed to choose a book I guest edited this year? It is the fourth and final volume of The Evergreen, a beautifully designed anthology of poetry and prose published by the Word Bank (£15), an indie based in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The latest issue, dedicated to the “future”, is devoted solely to writing by women and is international in flavour. Suzy Romer discusses the vital role of grandmothers in Spain, Kylie Grant revels in Glasgow’s litter and, in Monica Datta’s astounding Zus!, three young Dutch sisters decide to rustle up a canal system for the US.
Winner of the James Tait Black memorial prize for fiction for Crudo
Being increasingly future-averse, I was gripped by the title of I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going by Peter McGough before I tracked down a copy (it’s only published in the US), but this memoir is truly fascinating; a rags-to-riches rollercoaster about the 1980s art boom in downtown New York. McGough wanted to escape the ugliness of the 20th century by retreating to the past; meanwhile, in Mother Ship (Vintage, £14.99), novelist Francesca Segal celebrates the technological innovations that kept her twins, born 10 weeks prematurely, alive. It’s a song of praise to the beleaguered, indomitable NHS, with writing at such a pitch that it lingered with me all year. Speaking of enviable phrase-making, I was also smitten by music critic par excellence Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track (Fitzcarraldo, £12.99), a collection of dazzling, singular essays on Prince, James Brown, Sinatra, Elvis that gets to the heart of why music exerts such a strange power in our lives.
Winner of the Costa children’s book award for The Skylarks’ War
For me, 2019 has been a year of fantasy and folk tales, both new and retold, in every age group. For children, Lampie and the Children of the Sea (Pushkin Press, £12.99) by Annet Schaap stood out. Lampie, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, is a girl of great and grumpy courage, with a salty way with words. One day she forgets to buy matches and the lighthouse lantern doesn’t shine. So begins a dark-and-stormy-night of a fairytale that I absolutely loved.
For adults, my choice is poetry: The Women Left Behind (Dempsey & Windle, £10) by Imogen Russell Williams. Rapunzel’s witch; Blodeuwedd, who was shaped from flowers; and Romeo’s Rosaline, among many others – English literature forgot them, closed the door and turned away. Now at last we have their voices: wry, lamenting, vengeful, witty, bright, magnificent. Last, a book for everyone: Deeplight (Pan Macmillan, £9.99) by Frances Hardinge. A stunning new ocean mythology of friendship and lost gods, it’s complex, engrossing and gorgeously written, and kept me reading until past 3am but was worth it, over and over.
Winner of the European Union prize for literature for All Among the Barley
I was dazzled by Sandra Newman’s The Heavens (Granta, £12.99), which had a time-travel premise (and a noteworthy cameo) that really shouldn’t have worked but absolutely did. How she pulled it off is anyone’s guess, but it left me hugely envious of her confidence and skill. Into a stagnating UK marketplace for memoirs about place came Jessica J Lee’s beautiful Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan (Little, Brown, £16.99).
Lee is editor of the Willowherb Review, publishing nature writing by writers of colour, including Nina Mingya Powles, winner of the inaugural Nan Shepherd prize. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women (Bloomsbury, £16.99) dives deep into the erotic lives of three women, using source material collected over hundreds of hours of interviews. The resulting account of the awakening, distortion and expression of desire in three very different lives is insightful, devastating and utterly unforgettable.