Yesterday’s post saw me take another look at my monthly selections from January to June, with a few other recommendations for good measure, so to finish off the year, it’s only fair to, well, finish off the year. Yes, today we’re looking at the cream of the crop from the second half of 2020, the outstanding books reviewed between July and December. Without further ado, let’s see what they are – and whether any of them will be good enough to take out the main prize tomorrow 🙂
July – Die Kunde von den Bäumen (The Tidings of the Trees) by Wolfgang Hilbig
Hilbig’s books are generally there or thereabouts when it comes to my monthly choices, and this wonderful novella is probably close to my favourite. Again, we have a meandering, mesmerising tale spun by a writer fascinated by his little part of East Germany, but where Old Rendering Plant had us taking a walk by the river to an old abandoned factory, this time we’re following a road to the local tip, where a group of outcasts live, far away from the town. In a bleak allegory of the failing communist state, Hilbig positively relishes wallowing in the dust and dirt, watching as his town threatens to disappear into its own garbage. It may not sound that appetising (and probably wouldn’t be if you actually had to spend any time there), but Hilbig’s struggle to write about the tip, and the trees lining the road along the way, makes for another enthralling read.
Fracture by Andrés Neuman
(tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia: Granta Books)
August – The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
(tr. John Bester: Vintage Classics)
While I’m able to read Hilbig’s work in German, I’m beholden to other people for Fumiko Enchi’s books, and sadly not that many have actually made it into English. Luckily, The Waiting Years, the story of a woman enduring through the decades at the side of a rather unpleasant husband, is one that has been translated, and it’s another superb tale worthy of a higher profile. Poor Tomo, the wife in question, not only has to suffer her husband taking a concubine, but she’s the one (knowing his tastes) who has to travel to Tokyo to find one. That’s just the start of her troubles, but Japanese women are made of firm stuff, and she has no intention of giving up her man, and her status, even if she has to wait decades to get the respect she’s owed…
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea
(tr. JaHyun Kim Haboush: University of California Press)
September – The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
(tr. Ann Goldstein: Europa Editions)
I’m sure it would have been hard for the reclusive Ferrante to set about following up the success of her Neapolitan Novels, but The Lying Life of Adults does so successfully by staying close to what made the series so enjoyable while providing enough of a twist to avoid repetition. Here we have Giovanna, a young girl from a middle-class family, discovering that there are dark secrets lurking beneath the surface of her happy existence, in the form of her father’s family and his sexual activities. The discovery of a slightly seedier side to life leads her to break out of her confined role as a good little girl and explore just what life is all about, learning to exploit the feminine charms that she develops during her teen years. It’s another engrossing tale, and I can’t be the only reader wondering whether the novel may actually kick-start a new series – which would be most welcome 🙂
October – Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
(Le Livre de Poche)
You may have seen the musical, or watched Hugh Jackman pitting his wits against Russell Crowe, but actually reading the ‘brick’ is another matter entirely. I was inspired to finally take up the challenge when my daughter, Emily, read and reviewed it in 2019, but given that I decided to try it in French, the project took up a fair chunk of my 2020 reading. Hugo’s not one for brevity, and there are times when you’re wading through the lengthy back-story of a minor character (or literally wading through the filth of the Parisian sewers) when you wonder if you’ll ever make it to the end. However, it all comes together eventually to create an absorbing work, a look back into the past and a fascinating attempt by Hugo to show his readers just who, and what, these ‘misérables’ really are, and how they live in the shadows of the city of light.
November – Simultan (Three Paths to the Lake) by Ingeborg Bachmann
Bachmann just missed out on getting the August nomination for her only novel, Malina, but this collection of stories, capped off by the novella Three Paths to the Lake, was worthy of selection as November’s winner. Whether flitting around Vienna or sunning themselves in Italy, Bachmann’s protagonists generally seem to be strong women enjoying their lives until a sudden revelation brings them, temporarily at least, to their knees. The final piece, which lends its title to the English-language version of the book, has the main character coming back to her family home in the Austrian provinces, in part to work through her issues. It’s here that the three paths take on a metaphorical sense as each time she attempts to reach the lake she loved to swim in as a child, she finds her way blocked. No, it seems the past is something you can’t return to…
Sommerstück (Summer Play) by Christa Wolf
December – One Left by Kim Soom
(tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton: University of Washington Press)
My list wouldn’t be complete without a Korean book, and Kim’s superb look at the ‘comfort women’ issue was my final pick for the year. The writer researched the topic thoroughly before taking what she learned and using the numerous first-person accounts to create her protagonist, a woman who, despite suffering at the hands of the Japanese during WWII, never came forward. The novel takes us back and forth between the woman’s ordeals at the ‘comfort station’ and her present-day life, living alone in a suburb slated for demolition, shunning human contact for fear of tainting those she comes into contact with – and from a desire to avoid that contact herself. One Left may be a novel, but the writer makes sure we know this all really happened. The many footnotes point you in the direction of the actual accounts, meaning the old woman’s pain hits home even harder.
And that’s my best of 2020 – twelve monthly winners and around twenty honourable mentions. However, there are a few more posts to go before I’m ready to give up on the year completely. The first of those will appear tomorrow in the form of my traditional awards ‘ceremony’, in which I look at some interesting stats, show which writers, and countries, dominated my reading this year, and (most importantly) hand out prizes to the best and worst books of 2020. Who will they go to? Come back tomorrow and find out 🙂