Best books of 2019 #1
When it comes to Australian literature, I have already raved about Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, but Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View is shockingly good. It’s the kind of book that has an uncanny somatic legacy; it gets under your skin and stays there. It also gets inside the skin of the novel itself, defamiliarising and renewing fiction through a subtle formal inventiveness.
The narrator, a girl oppressed by a stepfather and alienated from an inattentive mother, finds solace and self-empowerment in a mechanic’s manual, which features “exploded views” illustrating car parts and how they fit together. Those exploded views provide a kind of psychological map through which the girl comes to understand her place in the family unit and her unexpected agency within it.
Tiffany’s work is distinctive in Australian literature for its innovative incorporation of non-literary texts but also for its striking poetry. When the girl’s family undertakes a road trip across Australia, her meditations on road surfaces are unsettling and unforgettable: “Skid-marked roads where tyres have gripped and screamed, then fled. / Roads where one surface is in conflict with the others. / Roads with corroded edges like old ladies’ lips.”
Working in a similarly uncanny and powerful vein is Space Invaders by the Chilean writer and actor Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer. This novella is about a group of children who grew up during the Pinochet regime and who later reflect on their troubled memories of a particular classmate. Those memories are akin to dreams in their uncertain and haunted qualities, but their ambiguity is evidence of their legitimacy, because it is evidence of their freedom from totalitarianism: “there’s no way to agree, because in dreams, as in memory, there is no agreement, nor should there be”.
As in Tiffany’s novel, Space Invaders makes use of a surprising intertext – the classic arcade video game of the novel’s title – in a surprising way. While one might view the Pinochet dictatorship as akin to an alien invasion, the children here are the ones inexorably descending upon the gunfire, intent on forging a better future. Read this – perhaps with Alejandro Zambra’s earlier Multiple Choice – to get a sense of this devastating period of Chilean history but also of the continuing exhilaration afforded by Latin American fiction.
Exhilaration can also be found in the New Zealander Amy Brown’s poetry collection Neon Daze, a formally exciting but nevertheless supremely composed meditation on childbirth. The poems take the form of journal entries, but these are supplemented by philosophical footnotes written later in time. Often these footnotes provide rich etymological reflections, showing how Brown takes nothing for granted when it comes to her art or the truth of the experience she is trying to convey. One of my favourite footnotes goes like this: “Common truth (a parental version of the seven-year itch) states that it is three years before the sense of duty and courtesy to the other parent of your child returns.”
This is poetry that communicates with an honesty and intelligence that feels astonishing. It’s about what happens when you’re “halved like any leggy assistant about to be sawn” and then leave hospital “with a whole new person”. Brown attends to the magic and trauma of childbirth, but also to the ethics of the intimate spectacle she offers her reader. “Is it right,” she wonders, “to include this private piece of writing, whose audience was at the time two months old?” Yet these poems are, as Brown herself hopes, “alive with a crucial value” – for other new parents but also for poetry.
Best new talent
Elizabeth Bryer, From Here On, Monsters
This Australian debut has it all: formal ambition, an appreciation of the power of enigma, and heart.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again
Who else does melodrama this beautifully? Like settling down in front of a favourite TV show.
Max Porter, Lanny
A fairytale ready-made for a twee CGI film. Modernist pyrotechnics do not disguise the patriarchal mythopoeia. So bad it makes me feel hoodwinked by Porter’s debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth
The disappointment lies in the evil, complacency and stupidity that are destroying our children’s future.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Best books of 2019 #1". Subscribe here.