Favourite books of 2017

As I was one of the judges for the Ned Kelly Awards this year, I read a lot of wonderful Australian crime fiction and some of this has made it onto the list below.

Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness

I reviewed this last week so it’s very fresh in my memory. This posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, some previously published in the New York Review of Books, displays the amazing breadth of his knowledge and interests, as well as his charming, lucid and poetic writing. From the mental life of earthworms to Freud as a neurologist and Darwin as a botanist, with many fascinating diversions along the way, all of these essays completely captivated my attention and, as always with Sacks, enriched my perceptions of the world and other people.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

This is the sixth book in the Sean Duffy series, and possibly the best of them, though they are all terrific. It won the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction this year – the second time in a row for McKinty – and sees Duffy in all sorts of his usual trouble, but this time with a partner and a baby to worry about as well. The set-up behind this series provides lots of texture: Duffy is a Catholic in the Protestant police force of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, with both sides of the law often gunning for him. He’s also a maverick with a chip on his shoulder, not surprisingly, who checks his car automatically for bombs every morning.

The historical setting is fascinating; the writing is a dream, with great characterisation and plenty of dour humour; the plot, as always, is convoluted and convincing. (You can read Karen Chisholm’s excellent round-up of the series and full review of Police at the Station here.)

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

A devastating book about the repercussions of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in a country town, the loss and grief of those left behind, and the appropriation of that loss and grief by others. Maguire tells the story largely from the point of view of the victim’s sister, Chris, whose voice is completely distinctive and convincing, and the setting vividly lifts off the page.

It’s a terrific crime novel, beautifully written, but it is also an examination of the devastation of people affected by a brutal murder, and of the way women can be subjugated and abused. (Read Linda’s full review here.)

Wendy James The Golden Child

This is a fascinating novel with an absolutely original take on the online world of blogs and cyber-bullying (as well as bullying face-to-face). It is beautifully written and cleverly constructed, with smooth segues among several voices, both adult and adolescent, social media outlets and points of view. The characters are extremely well-drawn (and it takes a lot to win me over with adolescent characters), the use of social media as a plot device is very sophisticated, and the subtle setting up of the plot through the various points of view, mostly of mothers and daughters, leads to a genuinely surprising resolution. ‘… domestic noir at its most intelligent and sharp.’ – Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald

Emma Ångström The Man in the Wall

Only one Nordic Noir made it onto the list, though I’ve read what seems like dozens this year. A lot of not-so-good stuff is being translated and published, unfortunately, trying to cash in on the recent popularity of the genre and some usually fabulous series writers have produced disappointing books – I suspect being urged into publishing the magical ‘book a year’.

Anyway, the discovery of a terrific new Nordic writer is a wonderful thing. The Man in the Wallis a Swedish psychological thriller with a difference. It has a genuinely original plot and characters and is not so much a whodunit as a creepy exploration of isolation and its consequences. One of the two main characters is an unhappy child, Alva, whose father is in prison, and who has moved with her mother and her two older (actively hostile) sisters to a new apartment building, where a bizarre murder occurs. Other disturbing things start to happen and we get both Alva’s point of view and that of the killer, who can come and go throughout the building unseen. She gets drawn into the killer’s games and we know it can’t end well. Just how badly it does end is an unexpected shock.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.  

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Gibbons’s parody is a masterpiece of comedy in its own right.

Cold Comfort Farm was first published in 1932. Gibbons says at the beginning of the novel that it is set in the ‘near future’ though this only seems to manifest itself in television-phones and the preponderance of private aeroplanes.

The novel was written in reaction to the rural romances popular in the 1930s, particularly those of Mary Webb, whose work Gibbons, a journalist, had had to summarise for a magazine. It was also aimed at the excesses of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy in their morbid romanticising and exaggeration of rural life, and there is a definite tilt at the Gothic in the form of the Brontës as well. In a 1981 article in the Listener, Libby Purves quotes Gibbons as saying:

‘I think, quite without meaning to, I presented a kind of weapon to people, against melodrama and the over-emphasising of disorder and disharmony.’ 

And the epigraph that begins the book is from Jane Austen: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Nineteen-year-old Flora Poste needs to find somewhere to live after the death of her parents, as she ‘is possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living’.

She writes around to various relatives, since, as she tells her friend Mary, living off them seems the best option. She has a long-term plan, and it doesn’t include taking a job:

‘When I have found a relative who is willing to have me, I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his or her character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then when it pleases me, I shall marry.’

She finally decides to stay with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in the village of Howling in deepest Sussex, as the invitations from other relations sound either boring or uncomfortable in prospect. But the reply from her cousin Judith Starkadder is too intriguing to pass up:

‘So you are after your rights at last … Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed … Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.’

Flora is sensible, modern, rational, unshockable and very organised. She comes to a place that is none of these things. Aunt Ada Doom, the matriarch of the farm, once saw ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ (the origin of this phrase) and has never got over it. Ada’s grandson, Seth Starkadder, is a parody of the Lawrentian male principle, his phallocentrism mitigated by his passion for movies. Elfine, a cousin, is away with the fairies, but she is also somewhat grounded by being in love with the local squire, Richard Hawk-Monitor. Adam Lambsbreath is the ancient retainer, 90 years old, who adores Elfine, as well as his cows, Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless (some of whom casually shed various limbs as the story progresses).

There is also Judith Starkadder, Flora’s cousin, consumed by guilt for some unnamed offence, who obsessively and rather perversely, in the Freudian sense, idolises her son, Seth, and is married to Amos, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Reuben, their other son, wants only to have control of his beloved farm, which his father cruelly denies him. There are numerous other Starkadders and minor characters, including a Mr Mybug, engaged in writing a book that proves Branwell wrote all the Brontë books and that his sisters were the alcoholics, and Meriam, the maid, fecund and bursting with the female principle (full of Lawrence’s ‘blood consciousness’), who bears children (Seth’s) every year until Flora decides to have a quiet word with her.

A sense of brooding doom, connected to rancid secrets, lies over Cold Comfort Farm and Flora soon realises that it has no real basis. She briskly goes about sweeping away the cobwebs and shining the light of clear and sensible thought into the miasma of gloom and despair that envelops the inhabitants:

‘I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are very uncivilized’ …

… ‘If you ask me,’ continued Flora, ‘I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her, and so do I.’

Meriam’s mother, Mrs Beetle, proves a surprisingly competent ally in Flora’s further machinations as she determines that ’something must be done’ about the various Starkadders and their associates.

She begins tentatively with Adam, buying him a small dish mop so that he doesn’t have to ‘cletter’ the dishes with blackthorn twigs. This rather misfires, as no one has ever given him anything before and it becomes his ‘liddle mop’, too precious to be dipped into greasy washing-up water. The blackthorn continues to be used for the clettering.

Amos seems an intractable problem until Flora works on his undoubted charisma as a preacher and his suppressed ambitions. Seth, the local Lothario, is simpler:

… a tall young man whose riding-boots were splashed with mud to the thigh, and whose coarse linen shirt was open to his waist. The firelight lit up his diaphragm muscles as they heaved slowly in rough rhythm with the porridge.

And Elfine, elusive and sickeningly whimsical as she first appears, proves simpler still.

But Judith and Aunt Ada are the real stumbling blocks. Ada, particularly, as she rules the family with the threat of her madness, keeps them short of money and forbids them to leave. ‘There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm’ is the tenet they are all forced to live by.

The humour of Cold Comfort Farm lies very strongly in the collision of rational modernity with melodramatic primitivism. Flora is an expert at deflating the overblown and allusive, as when Adam is explaining how wild and shy Elfine is:

‘Why, Robert Poste’s child, ye might as soon send the white hawthorn or the yellow daffydowndilly to school as my Elfine. She learns from the skies and the wild march-tiggets, not out o’ books.’

‘How trying,’ observed Flora …

Gibbons’s writing is fresh, precise and illuminating. Her descriptive passages, consciously exaggerated as they are, even when deliberately parodic, are evocative and often beautiful:

The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.

But it is the humour, light, quick and wise, that makes this book a small masterpiece. Particularly the dialogue, which often uses pseudo dialect:

After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence: ‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply.

Gibbons’s scorn is saved for the writers she sends up, seldom aimed at the characters, whom she humanises and releases from their masks of literary hyperbole to reveal the ordinary people underneath, with normal aspirations and dreams. Flora becomes fond of many of them, so that her reformist zeal in tidying up the messes is transformed by genuine concern. Some of the resolutions are predictable and satisfying, a couple are a bit absurd and seem slightly rushed, but the strength of the comedic voice carries us through.

In the end, though she returns to her other life and her own romantic comedy, Flora has become personally involved with Cold Comfort Farm and its inhabitants. She has changed things, but she has also been changed slightly, and she is able to calmly let go of the mysteries she has not managed to solve.

(Gibbons revisited the Starkadders in Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Other Stories and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, 1949.)

Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm Penguin 2009 PB 264pp $12.99

This review first appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 21 February 2017.