Last week saw my look at several books which just missed out on being my book of the month (and clinching a place in my annual awards post), but today I’m looking at some of the titles that did top their class in the monthly wrap-up posts. Of the twelve chosen, six are fairly old (one more than a thousand years old…) and hardly need the publicity. For that reason, I thought it would be nice to highlight the six newer titles on the list, each of which appeared in English for the first time either this year or in the past few years. Do any of these books appeal to you?
February – One of my most-anticipated books for this year was the concluding part of Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s trilogy, and luckily The Heart of Man (translated by Philip Roughton; MacLehose Press) lived up to those expectations. Where Heaven and Hell and The Sorrow of Angels took place amidst the cold and darkness of a never-ending Icelandic winter, the final chapter of the saga sees the Boy emerge, blinking, into a brief Arctic summer. While the weather is more favourable, though, society is not, and the small band of outcasts are forced to fight harder than ever to keep their heads up in the face of overwhelming opposition from the local community.
March – By contrast, the next monthly pick was a book which was never on my radar at all. Tomas Bannerhed’s debut novel The Ravens (tr. Sarah Death; The Clerkenwell Press) is a coming-of-age tale set in rural Sweden, in which a young boy spends a long, hot summer longing for the company of a girl who has recently arrived from the big city. While he enjoys life in the great outdoors, the home front is more disturbing, with his father acting rather strangely, eventually breaking down in a frightening manner. This was one of the finds of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and if you’re a fan of measured, descriptive prose, this may be one for you.
April – Another book plucked from the IFFP longlist will be a little more familiar to most readers. Although Can Xue’s The Last Lover (tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; Yale University Press) didn’t make it to the shortlist, it fared much better across the pond, taking out the Best Translated Book Award. A bizarre, utterly confusing story of a group of people walking in and out of each other’s lives (and dreams), The Last Lover is the kind of book which you might finish without being any the wiser as to the writer’s intentions – which, in this case, is a *good* thing. Have you been yearning for a Kafkaesque novel with an Asian twist, but more confusing? Here you go 😉
May – In terms of literary translation, one of the success stories of the year has undoubtedly been the rise of Dallas-based publisher Deep Vellum Press, the brainchild of the magnificently-moustachioed Will Evans, and among the many excellent books they have released this year, one stands out. Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (tr. Emma Ramadan) is a dark, absorbing love story, in which two young people fall in love against the backdrop of a slightly sinister Parisian underworld. Surprisingly tender and achingly sad in parts, Sphinx also has clear links with the work of Camus, both in its confessional tone and its abrupt end. Oh, and I almost forgot. We never actually find out the gender of the two lovers – well played, Garréta (and Ramadan!).
August – Karl Ove Knausgaard has become known for painstaking accounts of his younger years, but before the release of the My Struggle series of books, he was already well regarded as a fiction writer. A Time for Everything (tr. James Anderson; Portobello Books) is a rerelease of perhaps his best work, a mesmerising, complex examination of the role of angels in human history and a novel in which he shows certain crucial biblical events in a rather unique light. A Time for Everything is absorbing reading, with Knausgaard carefully building up to a terrifying (and rather unorthodox) conclusion. This is the book he was writing during the time described in My Struggle 2: A Man in Love, and the last section in particular sows the seeds of what was to come in his more personal writing.
September – And speaking of personal multi-volume epics, the year wouldn’t be complete without a look at the elusive Elena Ferrante’s latest novel. This year saw the concluding volume of her Neapolitan Novels hit bookshops, and it’s fair to say that if the #FerranteFever hashtag seemed a little overdone previously, it’s actually a fair reflection of the success her books have had this year. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I was slightly disappointed by the third part of the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, but The Story of the Lost Child (tr. Ann Goldstein; Europa Editions) is a far better novel, providing a worthy conclusion to an excellent series of novels. While Ferrante has received recognition from the BTBA, the UK equivalent has ignored her thus far; I wonder if the new Man Booker International Prize will finally give her work the recognition it deserves. Believe me – I’ve seen many weaker titles make it onto the longlists over the past few years…
So, there you have it – six recent releases which I’d recommend to anyone interested in great fiction in translation. Of course, the big question is whether any of them will take out my main prize on New Year’s Day – while it’s possible, there are some wonderful older books in contention too…
…I suppose you’ll just have to wait and see 😉