The best books of 2019
Bestselling authors and celebrities share their favourite books of the year, including fiction, poetry, cookbooks and more.
Afropean (Penguin) by Johny Pitts is such an important, groundbreaking book because it turns our gaze towards Europe’s black communities in unprecedented ways. Pitts spent years getting to know Europe’s black populations. The result, part memoir, documentary and travelogue, is a work that reframes Europe from a black perspective.
Irenosen Okojie is one of our finest short story writers. Nudibranch(Dialogue) is her second collection and in it her imagination runs riot. Linguistically inventive and always unpredictable, there is an emotional intensity and weirdness to her storytelling that haunts and lingers.
In The Confessions of Frannie Langton (Penguin), debut novelist Sara Collins takes the gothic genre by the scruff of the neck and boldly positions a black Jamaican woman as the protagonist in London 200 years ago. It’s a triumph of powerful characterisation melded with suspenseful plotting while also breaking new ground in subverting a familiar genre.
In The Brothers York (Allen Lane), Thomas Penn has tracked backwards in time from The Winter King, his glowing biography of the first Tudor king, to Henry VII’s 15th-century predecessors, tackling the grim triangular conflict between Edward IV, his brother the Duke of Clarence and the younger brother who would become Richard III. I admire Penn’s ability to cut through complication while preserving complexity, and deliver to the reader a narrative that is pacey and full of insight. My favourite novel this year is Olive, Again (Viking), by Elizabeth Strout, which follows her spiky heroine into old age. There is nothing cosy about Strout’s books, though they focus on home and family. She is domestic in the way Jane Austen is domestic, and shares much of her wit and grace.
Now on the Costa prize shortlist Surge (Chatto) by Jay Bernard is a radical hybrid, a painfully beautiful multigenerational ghost story, a social document, and a hugely important work of political archaeology. It is a raging indictment of this country’s systemic hostility to its black, Asian and ethnic minority population, and the scandalous lack of accountability when this system claims lives. It is a heartbreaking and brilliant book about an ongoing tragedy.
In Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope for the Best (Bloomsbury Circus) the protagonist becomes a widow in a moment, a moment that I cannot get out of my head. I feel tremulous admiration for how a work of beauty can exist within a well of violent pain. We should read to explore the width of our humanity. And ultimately, how to expand it.
Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism (Allen Lane) is a history of our collective ignorance of the depths of racism; an exploration of how and why so very many people continue to ignore it – or downright propagate it; and a primer on how we can, as a species, end it. Weiss writes with clarity and candour. The text is simple and yet powerful.
No one needs another recommendation forThe Testaments (Chatto) and still I have to say how thrilling it is when a bookmanages to exceed all expectations. How did she manage to make darkness feel so effortless? How did she think to inject humour where no humour should exist? Because she’s Margaret Atwood, and she can do anything.
Kevin Wilson’s new novel Nothing to See Here (Ecco) is about 10-year-old twins who burst into flames whenever they become anxious or angry. The fire doesn’t hurt them, but it burns down everything else. The adults who made these children want nothing to do with them, and so a governess is brought in to keep them hidden away. What starts off as an outrageous premise soon feels uncomfortably realistic.
I spent the summer marvelling at Linn Ullmann’s Unquiet (WW Norton, translated by Thilo Reinhard) then the rest of the year giving people copies of it. Ullmann, a novelist well known across Scandinavia and still too underrated here, also happens to be the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, and this “novel” (she calls it a novel because she knows the slippery border between autobiography and fiction) is a narration of childhood and its aftermath under the spell and the pressure of parents in thrall to their own brilliance. It’s a brilliant book in so many ways, and not just about family, age, youth, change; in a time of such national and international fanfaring of lies it becomes a book about what we make of our life and times, how to narrate truthfully and why truth matters. A read so clear and so still on its surface, one that goes so deep: I found it unputdownable.
It’s hard not to sound hyperbolic about Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury Circus), but it has the formidable magnitude of the work of Danielle McLaughlin and Claire-Louise Bennett, no higher praise. A book inspiring deepest gratitude and admiration was Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay (Chatto & Windus), whose immaculate sentences were engines of the sometimes strange inner and outer reality of Bram Stoker and Henry Irving. Two books just read in proof: Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel, a load-bearing beam of a book carrying a whole mansion (or possibly hotel) of meaning. It gives you the almost eerie sense of reading a future classic, but is also a novel reaching back into many byways and private roads of world literature. And the overwhelming Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, a young Polish author who writes rather miraculously in English, of which he has magisterial and frankly, Conradian command.
This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail), is a perfectly weighted, impeccable novella about the fallout of the #MeToo movement. She is so smart. Gaitskill perfectly captures the seductive narcissism and unthinking creepiness of the male character who loses his job and reputation, but does she make him too nice, not powerful enough? Does she fail to describe why the women he angered felt so trapped? Is her female narrator a little masochistic? These are the questions she sets running in your head. It’s not very long. Buy it as a Christmas present for someone you are in love with and you can have a big fight before the pudding is lit.
Meanwhile, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta) makes me sad for English nationalism – the good sort, I mean. This is a story about a man trying to find his place in a history from which he feels excluded, and the damage he does to those around him. Necessary, timely stuff.
Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), the 2019 Booker prize-winning novel and the eighth by Bernardine Evaristo, is not just one of my favourite books of this year, but one of the most insightful books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Each chapter tells the tale of 12 vivid and authentic characters, as they navigate life in different eras, while their lives interconnect in numerous ways – through friends and relatives to chance encounters. Many themes are explored through these women’s stories, including feminism, patriarchy, politics, relationships, sexuality and success. In this inspired piece of writing, Evaristo examines the realities and complexities of womanhood in the UK.
Yuval Noah Harari
Assad Or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher (Little, Brown) is a moving and insightful account of the Syrian civil war – a conflict that has destroyed a country, reshaped the Middle East and destabilised the entire global order. In its quest to survive at all costs, the Assad regime has been willing to devastate its own country and murder hundreds of thousands of its own people. Long before the rise of Isis, when they were faced only by peaceful demonstrators, the Assad family ordered the massacre and destruction of entire towns. The Russians and Iranians were also happy to see Syria burn rather than allow it to escape their clutches. The only ones who could perhaps have put out the flames – the western powers – had already had their fingers burned in Iraq and Libya, and therefore refrained from taking decisive action.
The question that was raised in Aleppo and Homs will continue to haunt all of humanity in the coming decades. How to deal with a regime that holds its own people hostage, and cares about nothing except itself? When the Soviet regime faced collapse in the 1980s, the world was saved because the Soviets – despite all their lies and propaganda – still had a residual moral commitment to humanity. In the future we might not be so lucky.
Joseph Kanon is not exactly America’s John le Carré, in that he prefers more intimate moral dilemmas rather than the majesty of the grand game of espionage, but le Carré’s audience will surely appreciate him. He has an astonishing talent for revealing character, age, type and even appearance through dialogue alone. The Accomplice (Simon & Schuster) concerns the hunt for a Nazi hiding in Argentina – and what to do with him when captured.
The Source of Self-Regard (Alfred Knopf) by Toni Morrison. We lost this literary and cultural titan in August, but she left us with this final non-fiction missive in February (did she know the end was coming? She must have). It’s a rumination on history, black culture and her own work, and a fitting epilogue to her extraordinary life.
Cartoonist Kim Deitch all but invented literary comic fiction more than 50 years ago. Before the term “graphic novel” existed, he set forth on a concerted series of interconnected stories and books that joyfully strain time, space and the reader’s credulity. His grab-you-by-the-shoulders yarns glow on the page, patiently laid down with a steady brush and a monkish dedication to “time served” – hours that he’s regularly noted in the margins of his original art, clocking in at least 40 a week since the Nixon administration. His dedication shows; he has created one of the most complex, sprawling, strange and great ongoing works of American art – in any medium – of the last century. The latest volume in his universe is Reincarnation Stories (Fantagraphics), and it’s one of his very best, connecting (among others) Jesus, the Felix-like critical cartoon cat “Waldo” he’s been drawing for decades, forgotten western film actors to, somehow, “Kim Deitch” himself. At 75 years old, that he’s able to make the unimaginable seeable is only slightly more impressive than the fact he works harder and is creating more vibrant and exciting work than other graphic novelists half his age.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
In children’s and YA books, Bearmouth by Liz Hyder (Pushkin) has remained with me since I read it almost a year ago. A strange, uncompromising and innovative novel written in dialect, set in a mine where workers are promised riches in the next life. It put me in mind of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factorywith its unnerving otherworldliness, but is its own thing entirely.
In adult fiction, highlights were Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, an earthy, folkloric debut that slips through genres like a snake shedding its skin and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Written in economical yet vivid prose, this is a brutal and beautiful account of boys living, and dying, in a reform school in the 60s. It speaks absolutely to the moment and is a lesson in restraint.
I loved George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Cape). Fiction can inhabit people, give the out-from-the-eyes view, because it’s made up. With non-fiction it’s harder. Rarely in recent years has a work of non-fiction so clearly, ruthlessly, compassionately shown such a prominent person’s life from the inside out. It is a masterwork about diplomacy, government and the world, but it is mostly a chance, as Packer writes, to “ogle ambition in the nude”.
Jia Tolentino, meanwhile, was on the money with Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (4th Estate). The book isn’t framed this way, but to me it was one of the best looks at capitalism I’ve read in years. Tolentino doesn’t analyse capitalism-as-capitalism. She investigates questions such as why chopped-salad chains are spreading, and comes to insightful conclusions such as that chopped salad is the perfect optimised food for people driven to ever-accelerating productivity, because you can eat it without looking down from your computer, fork to leaf to mouth, fork to leaf to mouth. She is funny, wise and well on her way to being one of our best chroniclers.
This has been a year of marvels for poetry. Debuts have been magnificent, from the poised and poignant coming-of-age poems in Mary Jean Chan’sFlèche (Faber) to Jay Bernard’s raging, grieving Surge (Chatto).
Game-changers have included the always revolutionary Kei Miller’s unsettling fourth collection, In Nearby Bushes (Carcanet), which inscribes the liminal, dangerous night space of “nearby bushes / nearby bruises”. Layered with Jamaican folk etymologies, erasures and palimpsests of violence, this book is a radical excavation of vulnerability and the unseen.
I loved Julia Copus’s blue jewel of a book Girlhood (Faber), which conjures a terrifying, wolfish stepfather, the cock-profanities of a wire-bearded, lecherous classics tutor, and mornings spent shoplifting in a glossy department store with Copus’s hallucinogenically forensic attention to detail.
Lastly, I fell hard for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic(Faber). Part folklore, fable, war story and love poem, it imagines an occupied town falling deaf in response to the shooting of a child. Often devastating, always humane, this is a book of the century, let alone this year. And top of my Christmas list? Sharon Olds’s Arias (Cape Poetry). Olds is a supreme poet of the body and the intimate, loving, suffering, human life; I will be reading her (and wishing I could write like her) till I die.
Assuming you read Surge by Jay Bernard, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky andAfter the Formalities by Anthony Anaxagorou (Penned in the Margins), here are three books you may have missed – Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati, an entire book of sonnets. So much fine-tuned mastery from Khalvati really deserves more attention from us. Epiphaneia by Richard Georges, at a time when we can’t ignore our changing climate, what better voices to reach for than the survivors of natural disasters? Georges and his family survived Hurricane Irma when it hit their home in the British Virgin Islands, there’s a lot of turbulence and precision in Georges’s stanzas. Lastly,Witch by Rebecca Tamás (Penned in the Margins) takes place in a Victorian courtroom and is witty, daring and viscerally lyrical.