Our nameless narrator’s husband has just announced he is leaving her. Adrift with a three-year old daughter she attempts to rebuild a life, but 1970s Japan is an unforgiving place for divorced women and shame, sadness and responsibility weigh heavily on her. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima is a strange little book; its quietly powerful, sparse language perfectly captures despair and isolation in the wake of separation.
Bart van Es grew up with the knowledge that his grandparents had sheltered a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands during the war. As a middle-aged Oxford don he decides the time has come to find out more. This Costa Book of the Year winning book is the result: a remarkable blend of family history, wartime record and investigative journalism, where the secrets and lies of a family and a country are unearthed. The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is an astonishing piece of multi-layered historical writing in which we make the author’s discoveries alongside him, where artefacts and public records are examined alongside an old lady’s memories, and in which we learn anew about both the horrors and the sacrifices that humans are capable of.
Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho in a deeply dysfunctional Mormon family. Her fanatical father believed the End of Days was fast approaching, so she and her six older siblings spent every summer bottling hundreds of peaches and every winter rotating emergency supplies in the belief that when the end came her family would survive. Prevented by her parents from attending school, Tara has no birth certificate. She also has no medical records, due to her authoritarian father’s extreme aversion to hospitals and doctors of any kind. As far as the state is concerned, she doesn’t exist. Educated by Tara Westover is the remarkable story of her struggle for self-invention.
Twenty-one-year-old Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes had a game changing idea for the health care industry, a steely determination and seductive powers of persuasion; she also had an execution problem and questionable ethics. In Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, an investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal, we get the shocking story of Theranos, the largest health care start-up fraud in recent history. A page turning real-life thriller.
In 2014, when Unquiet by Linn Ullmann was still in the process of being written, the Norwegian writer and journalist was asked by Vogue what she was currently working on. ‘I am writing a memoir’, she replied, ‘or at least I thought it was a memoir. But since my memory is both very vivid and not entirely reliable, it could just as well be a novel.’ At the time, Ullmann was promoting her book Det dyrebare (The Cold Song) in America. The ‘memoir’ she described became the 2015 sensation De urolige, which was recently published in English as Unquiet in a translation by Thilo Reinhard.
What really happened in the 1938 meeting when Hitler told the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to roll over or be rolled over? Or during the dinner at 10 Downing Street where Foreign Minister Ribbentropp waxed lyrical about macaroons while watching Chamberlain receive the news that Germany had invaded Austria? In The Order of the Day by Eric Vulliard, the author has pieced together the facts, filled in the gaps and created a fascinating and frightening account of a sleepwalk into disaster.
I was inspired to pick up The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 a while ago, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s biography of the author – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.
A respected clansman – the strongest, fiercest and proudest – Okonkwo is the very symbol of masculinity and power in his Nigerian clan. Enter the British colonialists, waving their God and Queen and, within a few years, both Okonkwo and his Igbo village Umoufia are crushed. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, published in 1959, was the first account of colonialism from the perspective of the colonised. It was written in English and widely published in the West and is an arresting portrayal of the destruction of an indigenous community.
A short novel that delivers a big punch, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss takes an unusual premise – a students’ archaeological trip – to expose the seam of violence underpinning our modern lives, and to draw chilling parallels between ancient worlds and our own. The disturbing prologue in which an iron age girl is sacrificed in front of her family and friends sets the tone for this unsettling novel which raises themes of gender equality, nationalism, misogyny and domestic violence.
While a snow storm rages, Tom sets off from Belfast by car to collect his sick son at Sunderland University. All flights are cancelled and driving is perilous, but Tom doesn’t have a choice, his son needs help. On his journey through the deserted, snow covered landscape, he reflects on some uncomfortable truths about his family and parenting. Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park, one of Ireland’s most prominent contemporary writers, is a tender, atmospheric read which I highly recommend.