Jean’s favourite books of 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist writing back to Jane Eyre, telling Rochester’s mad wife’s story from before Brontë’s novel begins. It is a frequent re-read for me and I am always freshly struck by the vivid tropical world, the depth of character portrayal and the emotional and psychological insights packed into such a small volume (192pp). It is a finely faceted jewel of a book, cool and polished on the outside but with smouldering fires flashing beneath the surface. Its structure and restraint make it perhaps as close to perfect as it’s possible for a novel to be. (Read my full review here.)

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

This is another book I re-read often. It’s more like a caged tiger than a jewel, always threatening to break out and go on the rampage. Somehow the bars hold, and what could have been a sprawling failure is what I consider to be one of the greatest novels written in English. Layer upon layer of narrative reveal the doomed passion of Cathy and Heathcliff, always through the eyes of others. And around and beneath the story is the Gothic atmosphere of the moors, bleak and wild, reflecting and enlarging the characters’ emotions and experiences. (Read my full review here.)

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

A Twitter conversation prompted me to return to this comedic gem.

After the deaths of her parents, Flora Poste, a capable and pragmatic young woman, comes to live at Cold Comfort Farm in the village of Howling among long-alienated relatives (the Starkadders). Here she finds old grudges and traumas festering away in a mess of emotion and impending doom (in fact there is an Aunt Ada Doom). Commonsensical Flora decides to sweep away the cobwebs from the dark and haunted corners and the resulting clash between unbridled ignorance and modernity is hilarious.

Written in satiric reaction to the romantic and portentous novels of rural life popular in the early 20th century (including those of modernists like DH Lawrence) as well as to Hardy’s rural realism and the Gothic romances of the Brontës, and casting an evil squint towards whimsical fantasists like Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, Cold Comfort Farm is, simply, extremely funny and clever and a must-read for anyone who hasn’t.

The Bird Tribunal
, Agnes Ravatn

Allis Hagtorn flees her life as a TV presenter and takes a job as housekeeper for the enigmatic and morose Sigurd Bagge, who lives way out on an isolated Norwegian fjord. Gradually, as Allis discovers a love of gardening and begins to make herself a new life, Sigurd thaws from his frosty silence and their relationship develops – in strange ways. The claustrophobic and threatening atmosphere builds like a storm cloud, alleviated only by the harmonious descriptions of domesticity and gardening. Is Sigurd’s wife really travelling? What is Allis trying to escape? Secrets are gradually revealed as they both tell their stories in carefully rationed segments that keep the tension building, and the final revelation, though not entirely unexpected, leads to a violent and dramatic ending.

It’s a gripping psychological thriller, as they say, but don’t expect lots of murder and detection. The suspense lies in the characterisation, the brooding landscape, the hints of the supernatural, and the cryptic mysteries that gradually unfold.

I read a lot of Nordic noir, and The Bird Tribunal has been a stand-out for me this year. I’ll be watching avidly for more of Ravatn’s books to be translated.

From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it, Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes (eds)

And on another note entirely, I really enjoyed this book about the only game – AFL – that, as its title implies, canvasses previously unheard perspectives on footy. Of the book’s 31 contributors, 22 are women, several are gay or lesbian, Indigenous, migrants, from ethnically ‘other’ backgrounds, or a combination of the above. Not the usual demographic for public commentary about AFL.

Complexity is the name of the game here, and ambiguity of response. How can feminists and LGBT people relate to this sport that is all about men (mostly white, mostly heterosexual)? The essays in this collection go a long way to explaining, or at least illuminating, the apparent paradoxes, with lots of fun along the way. (Read my full review here.)

This was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 December 2016.