Books 2016 #2
The books that most left their mark on me in 2016, I realise when I line them up, share qualities devalued in this year of rift and rancour. Generous, compassionate, wise: all three reach for points of commonality rather than difference.
Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays and vignettes spanning more than two decades, is plain proof of why she was awarded this year’s prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize for her nonfiction oeuvre in its entirety. Acuteness of observation, as this book’s title suggests, is the key to Garner’s writing. She has an unrivalled eye and ear for the fleeting, the furtive, the beautiful and the ridiculous. But her work owes its brilliancy less to sharpness than to the many-faceted consideration with which she treats the people, things and situations that come within her view.
Her omnivorous gift for noticing encompasses, in this collection, friends, family, fellow writers, strangers, dogs. There are fragments from her diary – crammed with observation in the raw – as well as snatches of memoir, tributes to the dead and the living, and rollicking appreciations of cultural entities as diverse as Russell Crowe and Pride and Prejudice. “Dreams of Her Real Self”, Garner’s tender memoir of her mother, stands out in a book full of standouts. By turns wry, hilarious and full of grace, Everywhere I Look doesn’t just showcase Garner’s talent, but makes a case for being a grown-up.
In Tom Griffiths’ telling, the writing of history is bound up with personality and personal history, with cultural shifts and schools of thought, with politics, and with the passing of time.
To illustrate, The Art of Time Travel considers the approaches of 14 Australian historians (including a couple of prehistorians, a novelist and others who cross disciplines). While the selection is unapologetically personal – Manning Clark is a notable absentee – the book is no group hagiography. Griffiths seeks, for example, to illuminate the source of Geoffrey Blainey’s stubborn imperialism and rejection of “the new”. But, if he finds fault with Blainey for privileging humans at the expense of nature, he also rejects histories that disregard people in favour of ecology. And in the course of surveying approaches to Australian history, the book presents an entirely fresh, if contingent, framing of the history itself.
Tom Griffiths is a fine advocate for history, both as a subject and a profession. His book extols and exemplifies the values of imagination and collaboration, and reminds us that history is personal – and mutable.
Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name Is Lucy Barton is a taut meditation on family and forgiveness. Ill in hospital, Lucy wakes to find her mother by her bed. The two have been estranged for 10 years or more, ever since Lucy married and moved to New York. But straightaway they slip into an odd, weightless companionship, like a half-awake dream. Her mother’s presence at her sickbed makes Lucy feel safer, more mothered than through all her troubled, dirt-poor childhood in rural Illinois. They gossip about small-town acquaintances, while scarcely mentioned is Lucy’s father, waiting back home. Memories of menace heave close to the surface of the narrative, but never quite break through.
Lucy narrates the novel from a distance of 30 years after her hospital stay. Her marriage has since ended, her children are grown, her parents both dead. But those few days with her mother in the dim of a hospital room stand as an interlude outside of time, through which she can refract memories too painful to look at directly. Of a writer she admires, Lucy observes, with something like recognition, “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something”. So it is with Elizabeth Strout. And, after the blatancy of 2016, that’s a gift. FL
Best New Talent
In The Promise of Things Ruth Quibell explores our relationships with cherished possessions – that velvet jacket, Ikea chair, bicycle. Their promise wears off, but we just can’t part with them.
Clive James, Play All
The veteran critic discovers the DVD boxed set. His gleeful (and adoring) take on Game of Thrones beats watching it.
Charles Foster, Being a Beast
Another man returns to the wild. This one tries living as a badger – in part, to learn how to love his children “less doubtfully”. Good grief.
MUP, for tarnishing The Promise of Things. It’s an editor’s job to know bikes don’t have “peddles”, and it’s a sliver not a “slither” of fondness.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "Books 2016 #2". Subscribe here.