New to me
The First Woman, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi from 2020 was a stunning read, a brilliant novel about modern Ugandan history and social change. When Kirabo is in her teens, her father decides that she will come to live with him in the city, and Kirabo is wildly excited because her father is rich, successful and wears very smart western clothes. They go to Kampala, and Kirabo discovers that her father is married to a woman and has two small children, and all three of them, not unreasonably, dislike Kirabo on sight, because Kirabo is the daughter of the first wife, who left when Kirabo was born. This is a novel about women and their relationships with other women, and the complex connections between mothers, grandmothers and best friends. It’s about traditional Ugandan clan culture in the 1970s and 1980s, under threat from western citification but still essential to the fabric of society. Its about three pairs of women who have children with the same three men, and how not enough information is given to the children to help them make sense of it all. It’s completely brilliant and is the most exciting and accomplished novel I’ve read all year.
J D Beresford’s A World of Women from 1913 is a novel about a world pandemic that kills mainly men. Its original British title was Goslings, the family name of the lead characters but the American title A World of Women is much better. It’s a pretty good read, influenced by the Wellsian scientific romance and shares similarities of style and plot detail with The War of the Worlds (1898). It reads more lightly and less painfully than Wells’s cringemaking social comedies like Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910), while sharing their engaging focus on domestic concerns. A World of Women also borrows from Ernest Bramah’s bravura set-piece adventures in his What Might Have Been (1907). This is a thoroughly Edwardian novel, which sets up the conditions to generate a feminist utopia and then shows how human failings don’t allow the ideal to survive.
Una McCormack’s The Greatest Story Ever Told from 2018 is one of a trilogy from NewCon Press of novels about a populated Mars. McCormack’s story is about a household slave who takes the long way back after an errand in the town to find herself in the middle of an insurrection. The bonded dance-fighters training at the house have decided to rebel and strike out for freedom, and they’re taking any of the hands with them who want to come. The rebellion swells, but it wasn’t until the description of crucifixion as a punishment that I realised that this is Spartacus retold. McCormack also slips a radical setting past our notice: this is an all-woman society, and what a difference this makes. No-one is raped, for a start. An excellent SF novella, compulsive to read.
Colm Toíbín’s The Master from 2004 is a retelling of the life of Henry James, and it’s a beautiful piece of work. I spent a lot of time marvelling at Toíbín’s sparse use of dialogue, how he placed his characters’ development almost wholly in the narrative description, which I am sure is something MFA writers are told not to do. Thank heavens for this masterclass of showing by telling. It’s a perfect match of style and subject, since James too was a genius at showing the reader what they should think by telling them other things, obliquely and meanderingly. Like Toíbín’s Nora Webster, which is propelled by the slow release of information that changes our perspective, The Master also unfolds secrets and lies, careful refusals and opportunities not taken, which did damage and wasted lives. Henry James doesn’t come out of this novel as well as he might have wanted to.
Ferdinand Mount’s Kiss Myself Goodbye from 2020 is simply astonishing. A detective memoir about a few unanswered questions from his Aunt Munca’s history, in which skeletons coming pouring out of the closet at barely any prompting. If you enjoy unearthing family history this book will rivet you to the sofa.
Cat Jarman’s River Kings from 2021 is a solid, expertly told story of archaeology and history and geography, tracing the history of Vikings across Europe, starting with a tiny red bead found in an Viking mass burial site in England and ends with graffiti in Constantinople. Both these end points have been known about for a while, but the middle bits that join them are what’s new here: it’s all very persuasive.
Ruth Pavey’s A Wood of One’s Own from 2017 was both inspirational (buy a wood as an escape from London!) and a fearsome warning (you’re not local, are you?). The planning authority detail is as fascinating as her observations of the trees, plants and animals who populate her acre of abandoned orchard in Somerset above the Levels. Who knew that water had so many habits? There’s now a sequel, Deeper Into The Wood, which I’ve got my eye on.
Becky Chambers’ The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, also from 2021, was a delightful treat, one to go back and pore over for sheer enjoyment. Her new novellas A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy in a new series called Monk and Robot are very Chambers, but also a little irritating, since the society she depicts is supposed to be on a moon of a large planet, but is really not much more than what foreigners might imagine a Utopia set in rural North America to be. The philosophical and existential questions try to take over the narrative, so the fun parts – Pangan society and how it works, the delightful invention of practical solutions, the attentiveness of the tea consultation – have even more value.
I borrowed Helen Waddell’s Beasts and Saints from 1934, illustrated by Robert Gibbings, from the library after reading Gibbings’ last memoir, Till I End My Song (also rather good) because I was curious about the saint who summoned crocodiles to help him cross rivers. Wouldn’t you be? Reading Waddell’s long introduction is like listening to the best kind of scholarly lecture given at the end of term, all entertainment and fun facts. The stories, all translated by Waddell from Latin, are very short as most as are brief extracts from saints’ lives, early medieval histories and legend: a kind of Early Patristic Fables. Many lions and dragons are subdued, there are two interesting crocodilian taxi episodes and St Colman’s studies were helped by a fly that sat on the word he stopped reading until he returned to continue his work.
The World of Stonehenge by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin was one of two massive, heavy British Museum books I lugged home on the train in 2022 after seeing the exhibitions. The Stonehenge exhibition itself was really too crowded with people and objects for me to understand what it was telling me. I definitely needed the book to read the story (well, yes) of how we now understand the evolution of Stonehenge as a monument built by communities and what else was going on at the same time in northern Europe and northern Britain. A very well-told story, and a book to reread, since it’s all set out so beautifully. All my other books about Stonehenge have been outdated by this masterful synthesis of the newest findings.
On the other hand, the exhibition Feminine Power. The divine to the demonic was a fabulous British Museum exhibition, and its book, by Belinda Crerar is a huge, extended commentary on all the exhibits, explaining and contextualising with quite stunning and unexpected illustrations. I was particularly taken by its focus on the African religion of Oshun, which features in some of the modern African novels I’ve been reading and about which I definitely needed educating. I think the difference between the two is that while the Stonehenge book is essential to understand the exhibition, and the subject, the Feminine Power book is essential to understand the subject, which is illustrated by the exhibition, a mere peek under the surface of this colossal subject.
Rereading old favourites
Dorothy L Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (1926) is her one Wimsey novel for which I always remember the crux of the plot, but it’s still a stunner when it happens. Tremendous 1920s setting, absolutely ludicrous behaviour formed by a social code so encrusted in a carapace of the English class system that no common sense could ever enter. And Lord Peter Wimsey is delightful. Not yet mature and tragic, this is peak floppy silly Peter, for those who enjoy him in that mode.
I hadn’t read Willa Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop for years. While listening to a podcast about her companion Edith Lewis I was powerfully struck by a need to start reading Cather again. This one is from 1927, and I love its non-sequential episodic form, all the tail-ends of stories and the beginnings of others that the Archbishop witnesses before he has to move on. This time round I was more aware of the Catholic setting and culture, exclusive and excluding of anyone who wasn’t of that faith.
Margery Allingham’s Black Plumes (1940) is one of her darkest and most claustrophobic non-Campion novels, with all her richest components: the rich and haughty London art dealer’s family, the terrifying matriarch, the vulnerable and desirable young girl, the entitled men and the inexplicably complicated house. And the seething, raging emotion barely held down. Marvellous stuff.
Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (1958): my favourite Pym which never fails, and was as glorious as ever. This time I noticed the unmistakeable misogyny of her gay male characters, with smug cattiness and a desire to get one over whoever they’re talking to, subtle indicators in speech and action of social gradations. I rejoiced in her superb juxtapositions: Professor Root waving expansively with a lobster pick, the large deaconess crouched over a large plate of sandwiches. This time I also began to wonder: what is Wilmet for? To wear beautiful clothes and hats? To insist that Mr Bason returns the Faberge egg. To prepare Mary for her new life in the world with proper clothes. To add distinction and aspiration to the society of men who admire her. To make us laugh out loud with her searingly honest reflections about herself.
You can read earlier year-end reports here for 2021 and 2020.
4 thoughts on “The Good Books of 2022”
A wonderfully interesting list as usual! From your “new to me” list, the only title I know is River Kings, which made my list of favourites last years, so I have lots to add to my TBR list – starting with A World of Women, I think.
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So pleased to see Helen Waddell on your list – it’s prompted me to ask if
Handheld would consider issuing
Peter Abelard? It’s overdue a new readership and it’s SO good!
Very best wishes and thanks.
Somebody pitched Peter Abelard to me a year or so ago, and I did consider it, but decided against it. Many reasons, the main one being that I don’t think there is a big enough market to justify a new edition, with paper prices being what they are.