Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was a stand-out novel for me this year. After hearing a lot of praise for Australian-born, UK-resident Wyld in London (where she seems to be more well-known), I picked up a copy and read it in one sitting.
Darkly beautiful and disquieting, All the Birds, Singing is at once compelling mystery and literary wonder: its carefully wrought plot intensified by Wyld’s poetic, visceral language. A book not easily forgotten.
Hannah Kent is the author of Burial Rites (Picador), which is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
It was an excellent year for Australian fiction. Two novels stood out for me. Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda is typically red-blooded and impossible to forget, passion harnessed to intelligence.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North has Richard Flanagan bringing a lifetime’s skill, experience and wisdom together in the one novel. Like all great new novels, it left me a bit depressed at first — why should anyone read anything else when they could read this? — but, once that had blown off, I felt freshly inspired by what this artform can achieve.
Malcolm Knox’s latest book is Boom: The Underground History of Australia, From Gold Rush to GFC (Penguin). He was one of the writers to take part in our Criticism Now series, in partnership with the Melbourne Festival.
Like much of the world (and certainly most of Norway) I was mesmerised by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Even when trudging through pages of mundanity I couldn’t take my eyes away. By the end of A Death in the Family my pulse was racing: this is exhilarating, extreme realism.
The novel of my 2013 reading year that has stayed with me and has left the most powerful impression on me is Tony Birch’s Blood. The setting and structure of the story are achieved with a fine balance and the kind of perfect integrity that we usually find only in the great classic stories. It is a rare achievement and deserves to be widely celebrated. The tense narrative held me in thrall from the first page to the last. The utterly authentic voice of the young boy Jesse will remain with me for a long time. These two children, Jesse and his sister Rachel, must either find the hero within themselves, the place of their personal courage, or become absorbed into the broken shadows of their caste. It is a beautiful, tough, sincere book written in a simple direct style, its truths delivered without the distraction of either literary artifice or authorial intervention. Blood is a masterpiece of clarity by one of our greatest storytellers.
Alex Miller’s latest book, Coal Creek (A&U), is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick. I don’t read much fiction when I’m writing and I’ve been working on a sequel to The Rosie Project. But Forgive Me was so engaging and uplifting that it inspired me to read Silver Linings Playbook, which has in turn been a great reference point for discussing the adaptation of Rosie.
Graeme Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project, was the winner of last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
Anna Krien’s Night Games forensically dissects the way power plays out in the sexual and emotional lives of young men elevated to cult stardom by football. It is at once fearless, intelligent, and deeply compassionate, but for me it was Krien’s courage in revealing her own uncertainties and questions that elevated this book above the rest. Uncertainty is the writer’s constant companion - to my mind, a crucial one: it keeps us honest, and anchors not just our own empathy and humanity but the reader’s, too. Night Games is about us all.
Kristina Olsson’s memoir, Boy, Lost, is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver, and my pick of the year is her latest novel Big Brother. It’s a thrilling examination of our society’s messed up relationship with food. Pandora, Shriver’s narrator, makes the observation that ‘We no longer knew how to eat’, which perfectly sums up the situation. A moving, clever and illuminating book.
The English translation of Laurent Binet’s HHhH was published in 2012 but I’ve only just read it, and it’s so good that I’m including it on my list. In short, HHhH is about the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a man who was one of the architects of the Holocaust. Binet’s engagement with the history of this period, when fascism and terror plagued Europe, and his musings on the nature of fiction and biography, are elegant and compelling. His authorial voice is so disarming that I found myself experiencing writer’s envy.
Although that may also have something to do with the great work of Sam Taylor who translated it from the French, something I didn’t think much about until I read Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly Essay Found In Translation: In Praise of a Plural World (Number 52). This is an exhilarating and entertaining essay, which raises many important issues about linguistic imperialism, the role of the translator, and what the English-speaking world loses when we rest so lazily on our linguistic hegemony. Jaivin points out that half of the books available in the world are translated from English, but that only 6 percent are translated into English. What are we missing out on by not engaging with that other 94 percent?
On my shortlist is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, a cracker of a novel about art, anger, femininity, and frustrated ambition. David Sedaris’s latest Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, is a return to form and an absolute delight. Jo Case’s Boomer and Me resonated strongly. I think the Education Department should consider handing it out to all parents when their kids start prep.
Monica Dux’s latest book is Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting).
I had never read Michelle de Kretser, and after her robust review of my own book, Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, early in 2013, I was even less inclined to pick up her Miles Franklin winner, Questions of Travel! In the end, I figured I needed to read the woman being touted as Australian’s greatest living novelist and see for myself what the fuss was about. Questions of Travel turned out to be my favorite read of 2013, though I have stored up for the summer, the Tim Winton, the Richard Flanagan, the Alex Miller and of course the Hannah Kent. But I suspect de Kretser will stay close to the top of my list.
I loved the story and the storytelling in this novel but especially I enjoyed de Kretser’s intelligent writing. She is a great observer of modern life and its joy and sadness: again and again she nails the emotion, the psychology, the desires of her two central characters. Her genius is to make them real and individual and at the same time, universal. Now and then de Kretser’s judgments about our flawed world seem too obvious, but mostly what comes through is an immense humanity. It’s a book you want to re-read.
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes doesn’t work as a whole: I have no idea what the first two sections are doing here. But the third and final section in which Barnes talks about the grief at the death of his wife, is stunning. This is not about Pat Kavanagh’s death – it is about his response to her death. I have never read anything that so accurately talks about grief – whether provoked by loss of love, meaning or life. It’s worth the money, even if that’s the only bit you read!
DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little was published in 2003. I tried to read it that year and couldn’t get past the second page, but this year, given the opportunity of interviewing DBC Pierre for my paper, The Australian, I went back to this novel and to DBC’s other work. I guess I must have changed a lot in the last decade because I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. It seems so fresh and accurate in its rendering of contemporary culture. It’s a masterpiece really.
Elizabeth Harrower’s first novel, Down in the City (1957), was republished by Text Publishing this year, but I actually read an old library copy in 2012. It’s not her best work – that surely is The Watch Tower. It’s not even her second-best in my view – that’s The Long Prospect. But even a third-best novel by Harrower is excellent. The story is dark, the touch is light, and the Sydney of Harrower’s youth leaps off the page. I’ve just started re-reading it in the Text version and it’s a great pleasure.
Helen Trinca’s biography Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John (Text) is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
Tomorrow: Wheeler Centre staff will share their Best Books 2013.