My traditional annual wrap-up post will appear on New Year’s Day, full of statistics of the year that was, at the same time rewarding the best reads of 2015 (and mocking a few turkeys too). However, as regular readers may know, my method of choosing the pick of the bunch, the harsh, Darwinian monthly contests, means that some wonderful books don’t even make it to the end-of-year extravaganza – which seems rather unfair. So this time around I’ve decided to write a post highlighting a few books which, despite not being best in class in the month I read them, deserve a little praise. Here are just over a dozen of the (next-) best reads of the year – I wonder if you’ll agree with my choices…
The year started in Japan, as has been the custom for a while now, and while some J-Lit classics have made the end-of-year list, there were a couple of others which also warrant a mention. The first is Natsume Sōseki’s Grass on the Wayside (translated by Edwin McClellan), one of the Japanese master’s later works. I’m a big fan of his books, and this serialised psychological novel about a man trapped by circumstance is up there with my favourites. The other choice is by a writer no less accomplished, but one whose work I had only sampled before in the form of short stories. Fumiko Enchi’s Masks (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is a story of betrayal, seduction and polite manners concealing deep passions – with a link to The Tale of Genji thrown in for good measure – and is highly recommended 🙂
Let’s head across the sea to Korea next, where we’ll find three interesting books waiting for us. I haven’t always liked what I’ve read by Kim Young-ha, but I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (tr. Chi-Young Kim), a dark, atmospheric tale of suicide, is one I did enjoy. Another fascinating novel was Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet (tr. Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé), a historical tale in which the narrator imagines the experiences of a real-life poet who lived centuries ago. Finally, we come to a book which is on most best-of lists (and was unlucky not to make mine…), Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith). With her next novel, Human Acts, out soon in the UK, this is one writer whose star is sure to shine even more brightly in 2016…
While it’s not one of my main focuses, Spanish-language literature often makes its way into my list of favourites, and this year is no exception. I finally managed to explore the work of Javier Marías a little more, with two of his more popular novels, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and Your Face Tomorrow Part I: Fever and Spear (both tr. Margaret Jull Costa), just missing out for best-in-month honours. Ironically, All Souls, the weakest of the three I read this year, was the only one of his books which did make it to my final list – which perhaps suggests I should change the system for next year 😉
But that’s not all for Spanish-language literature. Commendations must also go to Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (tr. Megan McDowell), a great collection of stories which was the catalyst for a whole Zambra week on the blog earlier in the year. And then there’s Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Spanish Civil War epic, In the Night of Time (tr. Edith Grossman), a monumental achievement and an excellent novel to lose yourself in.
While we’re speaking of big books, I have a couple more to add to the list. This year saw my first forays into Indonesian literature, with six books read by the end of the year, and the first (and best) of these was Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (tr. Annie Tucker), a rambling, entertaining history of a country and a family, with several nods in the direction of Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. Meanwhile, over in Belgium, the writing is a little more restrained; however, Erwin Mortier’s While the Gods Were Sleeping (tr. Paul Vincent) was one of the discoveries of this year’s IFFP reading, and with plenty of his work in translation from Pushkin Press, I’m sure I’ll be trying more in the near future.
Attentive readers may have noticed that the list so far is slightly weighted towards male writers, and while I can’t promise a complete gender balance (although my real list is equally split), I do have a few books by female writers to round off the selection. Naja Marie Aidt has had a big year in the US, and while Baboon (tr. Denise Newman) is an interesting collection, it’s her novel Rock, Paper, Scissors (tr. K.E. Semmel), a story spent in the company of a rather disturbed businessman, that really impressed. A writer who perhaps hasn’t had the same level of success is a young Italian author, Viola di Grado. That’s a shame because Hollow Heart (tr. Antony Shuugar), a novel exploring what really happens when people die, deserves far more attention than it has received.
To wrap this list up, though, I’ll talk about two writers who have all the attention they need. Tove Jansson’s fame continues to grow posthumously, and The True Deceiver (tr. Thomas Teal), which I read for Women in Translation Month, is another excellent, chilling novel. Then, of course, there is the biggest female writer in current translated fiction, Elena Ferrante. The final part of The Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child (tr. Ann Goldstein), is in contention for my major prize, but Troubling Love, recognisably from the same writer, is another work I can heartily recommend 🙂
Well, that’s quite a list, and those are just the books that *didn’t* make it into my highly competitive final dozen. Come back next week to see a few of those that did – see you then 🙂