The 5 best novels I read this year are…
Charlotte: People have been telling me about this novel for decades, yet I only just read it this year. As soon as I did I wanted to shout Why did nobody tell me about this? It is completely dazzling, daring, stupefyingly good writing.
Blurb: Caro, gallant and adventurous, is one of two Australian sisters who have come to post-war England to seek their fortunes. Courted long and hopelessly by young scientist, Ted Tice, she is to find that love brings passion, sorrow, betrayal and finally hope.
The milder Grace seeks fulfilment in an apparently happy marriage. But as the decades pass and the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, love, death and two slow-burning secrets wait in ambush for them.
Charlotte: The voice of this novel is a pearler – wild, loose and exhilarating. I reckon it’s Knox’s best work to date, and is to be lauded for returning the magnificent word ‘brang’ to the Australian idiom.
Blurb: Daring, dazzling, funny and heartbreaking, this is a story about fame and ambition, surfing and pine-lime Splices … a superbly written and ambitious novel by one of Australia’s rising stars. The Life will simply blow you away.
He looked into the Pacific and the Pacific looked back into him.
The Life tells the story of former-world-champion Australian surfer, Dennis Keith, from inside the very heart of the fame and madness that is ‘The Life’.
Now bloated and paranoid, former Australian surfing legend Dennis Keith is holed up in his mother’s retirement village, shuffling to the shop for a Pine-Lime Splice every day, barely existing behind his aviator sunnies and crazy OCD rules, and trying not to think about the waves he’d made his own and the breaks he once ruled like a god. Years before he’d been robbed of the world title that had his name on it – and then drugs, his brother, and the disappearance and murder of his girlfriend and had done the rest. Out of the blue, a young would-be biographer comes knocking and stirs up memories Dennis thought he’d buried. It takes Dennis a while to realise that she’s not there to write his story at all.
Daring, ambitious, dazzling, The Life is also as real as it gets – a searing, beautiful novel about fame and ambition and the price that must sometimes be paid for reaching too high.
Charlotte: Enright’s writing is so sharp it hurts – I was overwhelmed by the truth and clarity of this book about a woman’s extramarital affair. Enright refuses easy answers – a very gutsy book.
Blurb:Anne Enright’s tour de force, a novel of intelligence, passion and real distinction
The Forgotten Waltz is a memory of desire: a recollection of the bewildering speed of attraction, the irreparable slip into longing. In Terenure, a pleasant suburb of Dublin, in the winter of 2009,it has snowed. Gina Moynihan, girl about town, recalls the trail of lust and happenstance that brought her to fall for ‘the love of her life’, Seán Vallely. As the city outside comes to a halt, Gina remembers the days of their affair in one hotel room or another: long afternoons made blank by bliss and denial. Now, as the silent streets and the stillness and vertigo of the falling snow make the day luminous and full of possibility, Gina waits the arrival on her doorstep of Seán’s fragile, twelve-year-old daughter, Evie – the complication, and gravity, of this second life.
In this extraordinary novel, this opening book of secrets, Anne Enright speaks directly to the readers she won with the success of The Gathering. Here, again, is the sudden, momentous drama of everyday life, the volatile connections between people; that fresh eye for each flinch and gesture; the wry, accurate take on families, marriage, brittle middle age. The same verve and humour and breathtaking control are evident; the ability to merge the ordinary and the beautiful.
With The Forgotten Waltz Enright turns her attention fully to love – you might even call it romance – as she follows another flawed and unforgettable heroine on a journey of the heart. Writing at the height of her powers, this is Anne Enright’s tour de force, a novel of intelligence, passion and real distinction.
Charlotte: Don’t be put off by how many prizes this novel has won (I always am). It is a masterpiece of storytelling, humour, optimism, lyricism, joy in the use of language and a deep humanity. I utterly loved it.
Blurb: Big-hearted, moving and richly rewarding, That Deadman Dance is set in the first decades of the 19th century in the area around what is now Albany, Western Australia. In playful, musical prose, the book explores the early contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the first European settlers.
The novel’s hero is a young Noongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy. Clever, resourceful and eager to please, Bobby befriends the new arrivals, joining them hunting whales, tilling the land, exploring the hinterland and establishing the fledgling colony. He is even welcomed into a prosperous local white family where he falls for the daughter, Christine, a beautiful young woman who sees no harm in a liaison with a native.
But slowly – by design and by accident – things begin to change. Not everyone is happy with how the colony is developing. Stock mysteriously start to disappear; crops are destroyed; there are “accidents” and injuries on both sides. As the Europeans impose ever stricter rules and regulations in order to keep the peace, Bobby’s Elders decide they must respond in kind. A friend to everyone, Bobby is forced to take sides: he must choose between the old world and the new, his ancestors and his new friends. Inexorably, he is drawn into a series of events that will forever change not just the colony but the future of Australia…
Charlotte: I re-read this gorgeous novel this year – it was deplorably overlooked when published a couple of years ago. Hastrich is one of the most beautiful writers Australia has, and this portrait of a blundering rector and his enduring passion for the engineering of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of my favourite books ever. Arch, witty, poignant, with writing that will take your breath away.
Blurb: In 1924 the planned and long-awaited Sydney Harbour Bridge represents an impossible ideal – to span the great waters of the harbour and take a war-scarred nation into a dazzling future. No one is more enthusiastic than Reverend Ralph Anderson Cage of Lavender Bay, whose imagination is seized by the scale of this thoroughly modern vision.
Ralph is a grand dreamer with all-too-human failings and in the Bridge, which he can see under construction from his Rectory verandah, he finds an obsession to last a lifetime. Sermons become paeans to the creative will of God – and the beauty of girders and pylons – and his parish papers wax lyrical about rivets and granite. But as he urges his long-suffering wife Stella, his children, his parishioners and the phlegmatic housekeeper Mrs Pessey to dream as big as he does, Ralph fails to notice those left behind by the bridge: the dispossessed families whose houses are destroyed in its path and the workers who lose their lives in accidents on its precarious heights.
The Great Depression wears on, and the Bridge becomes a bitter reminder to his hungry parishioners of a promised prosperity that never comes. As Ralph invests everything in his obsession, the great arch he so loves and admires threatens to become his undoing.
Inspired by true people and events, and as open and colossal as the bridge itself, Vicki Hastrich’s deeply moving novel links two centuries, two world wars and two generations. By turns wickedly funny and breathtakingly poetic, this is the story of an ordinary man, and an ordinary life, made grand.
By the way, did you know Charlotte’s new novel Animal People was one of my personal picks for 2011:
Animal People by Charlotte Wood
I read Charlotte Wood’s novel Animal People twice. I think it’s one of the best contemporary novels I have read. But I cannot review it. I tried a number of times and failed each time. I only recently realised why this is. I don’t want to review Animal People. I want to recommend it.
The trouble is, I can’t recommend it to just anybody.
Sure, some part of me wants to help encourage complacent book club readers the world over to read it. I would like to think it would do them good (and Charlotte Wood’s bank balance good). But, if the truth be told, I don’t want them to.
If they read it they may want to discuss it, as few people these days can understand a book without first discussing it with their peers. They may take the central character of Animal People, Stephen, and compare him with people they know. They may debate whether he is a sympathetic character or not. They may ask what the significance of the dog might be, what the title means, what the ending means. I don’t want them to do any of these things. I want them to wander away from the safety of the group. I want them to let their guard down. I want them to be smacked in the face by Animal People. If they’re not willing to take a few hits, I don’t think they deserve to read Animal People.
So who can I recommend it to? Read the full review here…
Who can you buy it for…? Hmmm… Someone who needs a helpful kick up the bum.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.