Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss
The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Collected Stories by Grace Paley
Pop! by Jude Rogers and Alex Farebrother-Naylor
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwall
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
To the River by Olivia Laing
Life Drawing by Robin Black
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
The Past by Tessa Hadley
The Trip to Echo Spring – On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing
The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene
A Cleaning Manual for Women by Lucia Berlin
The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter
A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill
It’s been well documented that 2016 was a fucker of a year, taking some of the best from the world of the arts. For me, the first death of note wasn’t Bowie (although that hit me hard), but my friend Isabelle. The cancer that had been diagnosed in September 2014 let her see in the New Year with her husband, twin daughters, and her parents, and then took her on 3 January.
I’d already started the final of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley quintet, and I threw myself into it, following it up with a doorstop of a novel – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. I needed something to get lost in, and I always find it easy to immerse myself in Atkinson’s narratives, as they move between times and characters. It was just what I needed.
In February, as I set about my second, slender Highsmith of the year, I realised that I’d only read women writers and I decided to keep that up for the entire year. It wasn’t some kind of Bechdel Test,* as my penchant for Highsmith testifies. I wasn’t against that, of course, but this was just about reading more women writers, by deliberately keeping up with something that had started by accident.
I closed down my Highsmith obsession (for now) with a proof copy of Jill Dawson’s Highsmith novel, The Crime Writer, which reimagines Highsmith as a character from one of her own novels, a cunning killer, loose in the English countryside. Another ending came for me with the final three novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I read the penultimate book – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – whilst on holiday in Split, alternating between that, the news reports coming in from the UK, and the despair shown by many of my friends on social media as the referendum results showed that a slim majority of the country had voted to leave the European Union. The irony of the book title and the place in which I was reading it, was not lost on me.
Several new writers came my way this year, all of them women introduced to me by women. Amanda suggested Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would be perfect for the airport, and she was right. As I waited for my delayed early morning flight, the book was the ideal travelling companion – undemanding but oddly gripping, a useful distraction from the delay. Sarah loaned me her copy of Sarah Moss’s haunting Bodies of Light; one of my writing group friends, Kirsten, gifted me Lucia Berlin and Louise Levene, the latter offering a sharp evocation of a certain 1960s’ experience, and the former a collection of sharp, insightful prose. Kathy brooked convention by giving me a present when she left the company that we both worked for, the wonderful Olive Kitteridge. And as Jane prepared to return to Australia, she left me with Tessa Hadley’s The Past, and with a novel by a woman I’d never heard of – Dorothy B. Hughes. Hughes’ The Expendable Man is a taut, twisty noir, and this hidden gem was one of the highlights of my reading year.
I’d read Elaine Showalter’s criticism in the past, but her fascinating and comprehensive journey into American writers was new to me. I found it on my desk when I first went into work after my birthday; a gift from my friend John (a man! I know!). I’m sure it is designed to be dipped in and out of, in between other books, but I couldn’t bear to put it down.
The Bricks That Built the House, Kate Tempest’s debut novel, was also a gift, from Daisy and Gavin. It seemed like it would be perfect for me, but I didn’t love it. There’s a poetic, ‘needs to be spoken aloud’ quality to some of the writing, which swept me up, but ultimately I just felt that I wasn’t the audience. Maybe if I was thirty years younger, and into performance poetry, I’d have felt differently. But the plot felt like someone writing with one eye on the TV adaptation. It didn’t ring quite true for me. It also made me wonder if I’m just getting old.
I took the opportunity to revisit women that I had read before. I won Robin Black’s Life Drawing at the Liars’ League interval quiz at their Work and Play event in August. I’d loved Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, back in 2012, but this book was a huge disappointment for me: cliche-ridden, plodding prose; lacking the insight it so clearly thought it was conveying through its thin characterisation and plot. It did, however, serve to remind me that not everyone has a novel in them, and that’s ok. I finally got around to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (having read and loved On Beauty a couple of years ago), and was as dazzled by it as everyone else had been when it was first published. I hadn’t much liked the TV adaptation. I just thought it wasn’t for me, even though it was about class and gender and London. Things I Am Interested In. It turns out that the book was very much for me. Late to the Smith party, but glad to have arrived. Having been bored senseless by Mansfield Park during my A Levels, I finally pulled Sense and Sensibility off my shelf, and devoured its wit and truthfulness. I hadn’t expected to laugh out loud, or to think ‘I’ve felt exactly that way about a boy.’ And as much as I had loved The Lacuna, I had always thought that The Poisonwood Bible sounded like a bore. My friend Kathy insisted I was wrong, and loaned me her copy. I loved proving her right as I adored another of Barbara Kingsolver’s sweeping yet intimate narratives, populated by characters that seem to be like real people, funny and heartbreaking. Perfect. A long read that didn’t seem like it.
The book that took me the shortest time to read was written by friends – Pop! is a children’s book about pop music, and one Saturday morning I read through my hangover to the son of one of the authors.
I discovered Olivia Laing this year. I never expected to be quite so beguiled by a memoir of a recently heartbroken woman walking the length of the River Ouse. I knew I’d be interested in a book about writers and alcoholism, and again, Laing’s style made me love every word on the page, every story she had to tell.
As I decided that 2017 would be the year of re-reading fiction and balancing that out with new non-fiction, Diana Athill’s joyous and sensible memoir, Alive, Alive Oh!, provided me with the perfect bridge from women writers to the realm of non-fiction and the vibrancy of true stories.
* The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.