The best books of 2019


In dark times, sometimes all you can do is switch on the reading light. Neil D.A. Stewart picks ten of the best books of the year, from pure escapism to studies in our common humanity

The best books of 2019

Another year, another clusterf––. For those of us who take solace in the arts, in its alchemy and its thoughtful, considered responses to the world, its rejection of the kneejerk reaction and the shallow analysis, however, there was much to enjoy. Whether Nick Cave’s elegant articulation of grief on Ghosteen, writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy of universal classism, Parasite, Russell T. Davies’s hysteric state-of-the-nation(s) soap saga Years & Years or, at Tate Modern, Kara Walker’s critique and celebration of the channels by which art and culture move and are moved through our world, it felt as if great art was all around in 2019; and in books, too, there is a sense that writers are pushing that little bit further, not necessarily to directly document our four-minutes-to-doomsday, but in response to it: working deeper, feeling further, making differences.

Satire is having a dark time of it: how do you satirise a world where lies are truth

Satire is having a dark time of it: how do you satirise a world where lies are truth, philanderers are allowed to project moral leadership, and corporations and politicians collaborate to bully young children who dare question them? Mark Doten has a good go in Trump Sky Alpha (Graywolf Press), which opens with the doomsday codes being set off by a beleaguered US president from his collapsing airship fleet, then turns into a post-apocalyptic thriller, and then mutates again into a kind of John Le Carré by way of Jeff Vandermeer spy chase. In its fury, and furious transmogrification of genres, the novel mimics our ever-changing responses to daily outrages, and ends on a suspended note that allows for a little hope in the darkest of days.

Light relief of a sort in Nina Léger’s The Collection (Granta; trans. Laura Francis), in which the nameless narrator conducts a series of casual affairs, keeping track of her lovers by means of a “memory palace” filled with their, well, memory-phalluses. The Collection also contains the best comic set-piece I read all year, which features our narrator encountering a baby on a train, in a scene that’s both deeply wrong and very, very funny. To read that French television was remaking Fleabag was to wish that everyone simply read this short, scabrous, but oddly touching novel instead. More twisted fables: in her new collection, Sudden Traveller (Faber) the ever-reliable Sarah Hall has gone darker than ever, in seven fantastical, allusive, oblique stories that twist and flex, constantly confounding reader expectations. And Lara Williams’s The Supper Club (Hamish Hamilton) has something of the fairytale, too, describing a secret society in which women can act out, transgress, enact their societally-suppressed desires in what is resolutely not a “safe space”.

In Mexican novelist Brenda Lozano’s aptly-named Loop (Charco Press;  trans. Annie McDermott), the best book I read this year, our central character has several preoccupations: a mysterious dwarf she sees on the street near her home, the best notebook to write in, the power of the written word to transport and transform us, whether David Bowie or Nina Simone recorded the superior version of “Wild is the Wind”. This novel in soft fragments is both charming and unnerving, its recurring motifs at times like the kinds of irresolvable puzzles that attend a fever, at other like the deeply comforting saws you might return to while you wait to fall asleep. A similar broad sweep of obsessions informs Isabelle Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoevsky Wannabe), an Isle-of-Wight set experimental novella of reeboks, lypards (sic), counterfeits and queerings, on beaches and in run-down hotels, with 1960s experimental novelist B.S. Johnson its spirit animal. Queerness and otherness – suppressed, subverted and finally gloriously acknowledged – powers Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape), a poet’s novel of beautiful prose and slowly detonating metaphors, drawing on the author’s relationship with his mother and his ambiguous status as Vietnamese-American, told in startling set-pieces that linger in the imagination, well, gloriously.

Don’t buy it – or anything else – from Amazon

In non-fiction, Shoshana Zuboff’s timely The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books) shines a light on how the commonly imagined techno-dystopian future is already with us, and likewise illuminates some courses of action by which it might be waylaid. She documents the hold that corporations have over us – exploding the myth that we users of “free” apps like Facebook and Google are ourselves the product, and revealing a stranger, more insidious truth. She also writes about class actions, protests, “the right to be forgotten” and other courses of action by which we may yet dart out of the still-tightening grip of these faceless players. Don’t buy it – or anything else – from Amazon. Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (Fitzcarraldo Editions) was many years in the making, and its long gestation shows in these wise, considered essays. Her encounters with victims, survivors, caretakers – whether she’s exploring the effects of teenage suicide on a community, or meeting an elderly woman accused of kidnapping her grandson from a household in which she suspected he was being abused – are clear-eyed and compassionate, locating glimmers of humanity and humour and optimism in some very dark places. Justifiably compared to – as well as blurbed by – Helen Garner, Tumarkin’s debut makes her a name to watch. (Garner’s own Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I, out in Australia now and published in the UK in the new year, just misses this roundup, but is one of my most anticipated titles for the new year, along with Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House.)

From looking forward to looking back, some honorary 2019 titles. Originally published in 2018 and due for paperback release in the UK in 2020, Dan Kois and Isaac Butler’s The World Only Spins Forward is the oral history of Tony Kushner’s era-defining Angels in America, an exegesis of the play’s historical and political context, writing, re- (and re-re-re-) writing, performance and reprises. Everybody involved in this play, in conception or realisation, seems to have had their life changed by it, theatregoers no less so, and to read this purely pleasurable book is to once again feel the shine of Angels’ brilliance. Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Picador) first appeared in 2017 and, having bubbled under for a couple of years as a cult favourite, broke through in 2019: a classic case of a book hanging around awaiting its cultural “moment”. Its casually gender-shifting central character is an Orlando for our time, on a picaresque adventure through modern queer America, from Provincetown to San Francisco.

The world has changed remarkably in even the two years since Paul was first published. In the UK, the skirmish over the 2019 Booker Prize – whose joint award did great disservice to Bernardine Evaristo’s fine Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) but has allowed a skilful after-the-fact positioning of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar) as a kind of underdog which may yet prove the most significant of the shortlisted titles – seems symptomatic of a fracturing and fragmentation discernible throughout the culture. By contrast, the four artists who petitioned to share this year’s Turner Prize rather than compete for it point to one way out of these schisms: collaboration, instead of competition. The best books I read this year build bridges, open themselves and their readers to unfamiliar worlds, observe and explore, and do not judge what they find. C