FICTION: Home by Marilynne Robinson
I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year and I didn’t come to my favourite until late in the year, and not with high expectations either for that matter. And that’s despite the fact that Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping won my book of the year prize twenty years ago, in 1988, and it’s a book I’ve never stopped liking. That book won prizes galore, became a good film and Robinson didn’t write another book for twenty-four years. That was Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson is not prolific, but it’s a track record any writer would relish.
Now comes Home, a beautiful, slow, sad meditation on three people in a house; all disappointed, all finding themselves together at home, the interdependence of family, the return of the prodigal son, the possibilities. It’s beautifully written, poignant and moving and in the end it became one of those rare books I couldn’t put down, but didn’t want to finish. It’s set in the town of Gilead but you don’t need to have read that book to enjoy this. Robinson is hard to define; for a long time I thought she was Canadian for some reason, the non-urbane voice maybe or those isolated landscapes. But she’s from Iowa, and if she reminds me of anyone it’s maybe William Maxwell, whose book So Long, See you Tomorrow, also elegantly told and also set in small town America was another book of the year for me a long time ago. The Times called Robinson ‘the world’s best writer of prose’ and she’s certainly up there, along with some other North American women like Alice Munro. Not a lot happens, be warned, and I got plenty of flak for my choice of John Banville’s The Sea in 2006 as my fiction favourite, for that very reason. Before journeying home, you might want to read the Guardian review, which tells more about it than I want to here.
NON-FICTION: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
I read mostly non-fiction again this year and it was a hard call to come up with one book above all the others. In the end, the combination of the search for the wild in the local, the emphasis on walking in the landscape, and the writing itself drew me to Macfarlane as the choice. The Wild Places is an exploration of the wild, but not the wild as found in the jungles of Africa or the heights of mountains (Macfarlane wrote a wonderful earlier book called Mountains of the Mind, which traces the changing image of mountains in western culture, from things to be feared, to things of beauty and the sublime) but wild in English terms. Are there still places in England where a person can feel isolated and alone in the landscape or can be in a place that seems to have resisted thousands of years of the close proximity of humans? Macfarlane’s books consists of a series of meditative journeys into English place, beginning with a park in his home town and leading into reflections of what wilderness really means. It’s a book that owes a lot, and talks a lot about the late Roger Deakin, whose book Wildwood I love last year. And, in a Guardian review Andrew Motion says this book calls to mind the walking meditations of Sebald. Sebald is a big favourite of mine. These things connect up. Reading one leads to another and another.
In the realm of non-fiction I also liked Tom Griffiths’ Forests of Ash, his history of the ash ranges of south-eastern Australia, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘biography’ of the Thames, Thames, Sacred River, Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s classic Reveries of the Solitary Walker, which I read for the first time this year as much influenced by the title as anything else, and Rebecca Solnit’s, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which begins a little alarmingly like a PHD thesis on walking but relaxes and detours into a wonderful section on the history of walking ‘in nature’, featuring Wordsworth, Coleridge et .al.
Not everything was about walking around in nature though. Graham Robb’s short history of France from the revolution to the World War I, The Discovery of France, reviewed here in the NY Times argues that France is not a united culture but “a vast encyclopedia of micro-civilizations, each with its own long history, intricate belief systems and singular customs”. The fact that Robb cycled across much of the landscape of France researching this book didn’t hurt its appeal for me either. And on that cycling connection I read Tim Krabbe’s classic cycling book The Rider, a n account of a one day race from the rider’s perspective, and loved it.
POETRY: Navigation by Judy Johnson
I didn’t love this book at first, and there are still sections that don’t work for me, but in the end the bits that did won me over. I reviewed this book for Famous Reporter magazine, and perhaps the act of reviewing does serve to concentrate the mind more, to make you really think about what it is that the writer is trying to achieve here, and how well is it going. I also enjoyed Diane Fahey’s book The Mystery of Rosa Morland. Finally, In the week I was putting this list together came the sad news that Australian poet Dorothy Porter had died, much too young. She was a powerful influence on many young Australian poets and had a lot more still to offer. We should all go back to her work and look at it again.
This post can also be found on my poetry website; along with all the previous winners of my book of the year. Click on the link to READING