Interesting to see what’s happened to my reading tastes this year. I read far more children’s books – all highly regarded – than any other genre but only one stood out for me. Of my other 4 top reads, 3 are memoirs of lives, extraordinary, all of them, for very different reasons. Perhaps sometimes truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting.
Stet by Diana Athill
If I were to make one New Year’s resolution (which I don’t, being far too weak-willed), it would be to read more Diana Athill. Having read a number of her short stories, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this memoir of her long, distinguished career in publishing. She writes beautifully and sparingly, looking back with a clear, unflinching eye. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been… did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
So much praise has been heaped on this book I feared it would prove to be a disappointment – especially when the premise seemed so weird. A mystery centering on the art of making tiny pieces of furniture for doll’s houses? I dreaded another My Name is Red, which I found unreadable (fans of Orhan Pamuk, feel free to pelt me with illuminated manuscripts now).
To my joy, The Miniaturist proved very readable indeed. Inspired by a magnificent 16th century doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton has concocted a dark, gripping tale of young Petronella Oortmann leaving a poor but sun-filled childhood in the Dutch countryside for incarceration in the gloomy house of a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam. To give her something to do, her new husband tasks her with furnishing a doll’s house, as if control over an imitation of real life could compensate for none in reality. Yet even that small power is gradually eroded by the unknown miniaturist, whose exquisite creations reveal an uncanny, almost supernatural knowledge of details of the family and household and the threat hanging over them all… Brrrr.
Forever X by Geraldine McCaughrean
Not a new book – published in 1999, in fact, and possibly out of print. I hope not. Geraldine McCaughrean is a terrific children’s author who writes in a wide range of genres – historical, contemporary, fantasy, myth, literary classics – excelling in all of them. This delightful, slightly bonkers tale of a car breakdown which lands Joy and her family in a hotel that celebrates Christmas all the year round moves from surreal beginnings to a warm, funny, very human story about overcoming family difficulties.
I Will Try by Legson Kayira
Researching Malawian history, I stumbled on this extraordinary book and had to download it to my kindle. In 1958 a 16 year-old boy, inspired both by the motto of the Livingstonia Secondary School in Karonga and his own thirst to learn, decided he was going to study in America. Not having any money or other means to get there, he walked – through Nyasaland (Malawi), Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, where in the library in Khartoum, he found a directory of American universities and chose the first one to meet his eye: Skagit Valley College in Washington State. Astonished US consular officials helped him take up the scholarship that Skagit Valley, who must have been astounded by such motivation, promptly offered him, and he started his degree course a mere 2 years after setting out on his journey.
Kayira’s clear, detailed account of every step of the way is very readable, and his difficulties in adapting to American culture amusingly and touchingly drawn. A memoir added in 2012 by his widow, Julie Kayira, sketches out his subsequent life as a gifted writer and successful civil servant. An extraordinary achievement, by any measure; yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the family left behind in the village in Malawi.
Lifting the Latch
You know how, when a friend presses a book on you ‘because you’ll love it’, you almost don’t want to read it; you already have a stack of unread volumes teetering by your bedside and weren’t looking to borrow another one just now. So you put it aside and, coming across it 3 months later, open it guiltily, intending to skim it before returning it to the poor friend who by now wants it back… and then are absolutely hooked. So hooked that the last thing you want to do is read it quickly; you want to take time to absorb every tiny detail, every ring of Montgomery Abbott’s voice that Sheila Stewart has captured so beautifully.
Born in Oxford in 1902, Old Mont recounts his life growing up in a tiny cottage in Enstone before spending a long, hardworking life bound to the land, as a farm labourer and later on, shepherd. I expected a prosaic read with some interesting historical detail: what I got was a vivid, lovingly-observed memoir from a man whose greatness of soul left me with no words to describe it. Old Mont’s voice bursts from the page with such warmth, freshness and a vision frequently poetic, that I can’t tell where his account ends and Sheila Stewart’s masterful shaping of it begins. Mont’s good humour, kindness, appetite for hard manual labour (and I mean, hard) and sheer stoicism in the face of some really awful bad luck (minor setbacks and heartbreaking tragedy are met equally with his cheerful ‘Us’ll get over it’) had me often in tears. Of all the books read in 2015, this is the one that has stayed with me most and I can’t stop telling everyone about it.
Which just shows that my friend was spot on.