100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

2019 – What I Should Have Read

Here’s something that I did last year which I feel is worth revisiting.  My post 2018 – What I Should Have Read  highlighted ten publications that I felt I had missed out on by not reading.  Looking back on these now I see I actually read 5 out of those 10 this year which was a pretty good success rate.  Here are this year’s 10 books which I just haven’t got round to but feel as if I should and which I will hopefully put right in the first few months of 2020.

We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – Louise Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

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Completely passed  me by until I saw it placed at number 39 in the Telegraph’s Top 50 Books Of The Year.  I was fascinated by the description of it as ” a garrulous, magical-realist and Brexit-tinged comedy about a pair of trans migrants working at a “no star” hotel on the Isle Of Wight”.  Being an ex-hotel owner on the Isle Of Wight myself this sounded a perfect match (although we had plenty of stars, thank you) so found myself clicking the Buy It Now button on Amazon to get this book from a small publishing company I had also not heard of until now.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’Connor   (Harvill Secker)

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I haven’t read any Joseph O’Connor to date although I’m a little surprised that I have never got round to his most celebrated “Star Of The Sea” but this book has also got a good smattering of critical acclaim this year and has been shortlisted for Best Novel at The Costa Book Awards where the judges have praised it as exploring “the danger and complexity of unconventional love, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to the creation of the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”  That tale is “Dracula” as this novel features Bram Stoker alongside actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.  This kind of rich, historical novel is right up my street and often features on my end of Best of Year lists.  I have a copy out from the library so should get round to finding out if this will be the case.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker)

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I’ve been reading about this book for some time now, in pieces about translations it gets a mention because it is a big Japanese seller that is making its English language debut this year after 25 years.  Translated by Stephen Snyder, The Guardian describes it as “the story of an island where both objects and memories are “disappeared” by shadowy totalitarian forces” and that “this timeless fable of control and loss feels more timely than ever.”  Not the sort of thing I read often (I have never read a translated Japanese novel) I was  fascinated enough to also pick up a library copy the other day and am waiting to begin this.

The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet)

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Another book I hadn’t heard of until my workmate Louise mentioned that she had bought it for herself for Christmas hoping it was going to be this year’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies“.  You don’t need to be that regular a visitor to this site to know how much I love that book and after about five seconds perusing her copy I ordered this for myself.  It has made more of a splash so far in the US where it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction beating strong finalists Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” (how many times am I going to mention this title before reading it!) and Tommy Orange’s “There There”, it has been a New York Times Top 10 Bestseller and scooped The Stonewall Prize as well as being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and a US National Book Award.  Although it first appeared in 2018 the paperback came out this summer and it has been picking up 2019 awards so thought I should include this tale set in Chicago and Paris at the time of the first years of the AIDS crisis.  I know I’m going to need tissues for this one.  Can’t tell you more about it as my copy is in my Amazon parcel which I’m not opening until Christmas Day.

Leading Men – Christopher Castellani (W&N)

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Also in that Amazon parcel is this book described by Celeste Ng as “a timeless and heart-breaking love story”, a fictional account of the relationship between Tennesee Williams and his long term partner Frank Merlo, this sounds like it can be 2019’s “Swan Song”.  Reviewers are talking about Castellani’s recreation of the glamour of 1950’s Italy, which sounds ideal for discovering  during the post-New Year slump when short days and short-lived diets feel as if they will go on forever!

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan 

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I’ve also got a copy of this already sat on my shelves and feel like I should have read it.  I can absolutely love Ian McEwan “Atonement“, his early short story collections, and “Enduring Love” have all embedded themselves in my psyche.  I can also just really enjoy him as in “Innocent” “Saturday” and his most recent pre 2019 publication, the clever “Nutshell“.  He can also leave me unimpressed as in his Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam”.  He put out two books this year and this seems to be the one worth bothering with, but with its themes of Artificial Intelligence I’m not absolutely convinced I am going to love it- but I do hope to get round to finding out.

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books)

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This year I caught up with Lyra’s adventures in “La Belle Sauvage” just as this second in the “Book Of Dust” sequence was published.  I reserved a copy from the library but the reservation list grew too long and I doubted whether I’d be able to finish it within three weeks so I cancelled my reservation until the demand dropped.  But with the TV adaptation of “His Dark Materials” (which I started off loving, then wasn’t sure but am enjoying again now) doing so well I’m sure I’m going to have to wait some time for the demand to drop.  The Guardian in their round up of the year describes it as a “huge, challenging novel (which) asks the reader more questions than it answers”.  Am I ready for this yet?

Me- Elton John (Macmillan)

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I’m not a massive Elton fan but he has been around so long that you just can’t ignore him.  I have seen him perform live (with George Michael) although I think his glory days as a performer are probably now behind him.  This year I watched “Rocketman” which I felt was okay as a film, although did very much admire Taron Egerton’s portrayal (more so than the Oscar winning Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but Elton knows everything about everybody so this autobiography seems like a must.  The Guardian felt that it might very well be the celebrity memoir of the decade and the Telegraph had it at number 8 in their books of the year describing it as “gossipy”, “self-aware” and “as eye-popping as his wardrobe”.  I enjoyed his interview with Graham Norton on TV recently and want to read his revelations before they become common knowledge.

Chinglish – Sue Cheung (Andersen)

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I seem to make this reading resolution every year.  I must read more Young Adult Fiction.  I have missed out this year on this 1980’s Coventry set account of a teen living over her parent’s Chinese takeaway restaurant.  The Guardian feels that “it will resonate with any teenage reader who feels alien or left out.”  Apparently funny and moving in equal measures this is a title I am determined to seek out.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton)

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One of the big hitters of the year which made headlines when jointly awarded the Booker Prize.  In the furore of the judges not being able to make up their minds between this and Margaret Attwood’s best-selling follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale” “The Testaments” it was this title which seemed to be winning the hearts of critics.  Described as “innovative”, “fresh”, “life-affirming”, brimming with “heart and humour”, it’s the title on what felt like an underwhelming shortlist that I would have been most likely to have wanted to read.  I’m a bit put off by it being a verse poem which explains why I’ve not placed it higher on this list but I do very often read the Booker winning titles so feel I should at least give it a go.

Which books did you not get round to reading this year?