Best Books of 2017 #2

Bernard MacLaverty is an author who refuses to reserve the glories of his prose only for dramatic subjects or events. A trip to the toilet, a sip of whisky, airport departure lounges: everything is noticed, respected, attended to. The local result is a transformation of the ordinary; the cumulative one, a literary career of uncommon grace and insight. His first novel in just over a decade-and-a-half, Midwinter Break is a portrait of marriage and late-life coupledom as it unfolds during a holiday in Amsterdam.

Gerry is a retired architect and a furtive alcoholic; Stella is a tightwad of religious bent. They’re both (like the author) Northern Irish but long resident in Scotland. They’ve been together for decades and fit like comfortable shoes. And yet. The shift out of the domestic round reveals something of what each has hidden from the other. After all these years, the possibility of rift remains. MacLaverty’s achievement is to find, in the ongoing sense of mysteriousness that exists between husband and wife, father and mother to a son, both the sadness of human isolation and the potential for renewal such isolation retains. A beautiful, melancholy summation of major concerns – politics, history, intimacy, women and men – that plays out in a resolutely minor key.

The American editor, critic and author John Freeman recently visited the doyenne of United States nature writers, Annie Dillard. In the interview that resulted, one line caught my eye. Freeman and his travelling companion are attempting to gauge her interest in a big-name author of the moment, only to have her scoff and counter: “Have we heard of Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell, the Australian writer? Now that is a masterpiece.”

She’s right: it is a masterpiece. And the book that followed it this year – six uncategorisable essays welded together by the author’s inimitable prose style and enduring fascination with Australia’s top end and desert country – is equally deserving of that overused term. Quicksilver opens with a trip undertaken by the author to the Oakover River, an oasis in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. There he encounters a perentie lizard, and the memory of another lizard encounter occurs to him – that between Leo Tolstoy and a Black Sea gecko during a visit by the Russian author to Yalta.

So it is that the narrative slips through a wormhole and out into the Crimea, a century and more beforehand. The many stories that follow work by this random, hyperlink process – between Europe and Russia, Australia and its outback, and writers, explorers and sundry eccentrics, past and present – all in the hope of illuminating relationships that exist among them. This is a signal instance of the southern latitudes writing back against the totalising narratives of the global north: showing how Australia helped shape the world’s imagination, as we were shaped by it in turn.

When I read the eponymous opening short story of Sarah Hall’s collection Madame Zero, I thought, simply: Jesus! It relates the complacent, sexy, bourgeois existence of a handsome young English couple. But when the young wife falls pregnant, a transformation occurs that is literal, a feral Metamorphosis. She becomes a vixen, and raises her cubs in a set in a near-suburban nature reserve. Every other story in the volume hews to this take-no-prisoners vision of female sexuality, or else deconstructs ideal notions of maternal behaviour in some primeval, matter-of-fact kind of way, or else takes some other middle-class night terror and brings it blinking, trembling, into full daylight.

Hall has the delicacy and verbal tact of a poet, the acuity of an analyst, and the eviscerative instincts of some forest creature. These are easy stories to read – they proceed so cleanly, elegantly, and with such neat narrative momentum – but they are well nigh impossible to absorb. And it’s in this disjunction where the author’s genius lies. 

Best New Talent

Claire Aman’s warm and tough debut collection Bird Country carries such technical command that Aman is already an established hand at the form.

Guilty Pleasure

Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure, since he’s a genius – literate, ferociously intelligent and animated by care for the underdog everywhere – but it will equally be embraced by kids smarter and more ethically centred than you.  

Most Overrated

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn

Essayistic forays into life’s minutiae, opining on the beauty of plastic bags, among other things. It feels a bit of a jumped shark.

Most Disappointing

None – literary fiction is so underloved these days, there’s no overselling it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Books 2017 #2". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: AF

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