My Top Reads of 2022
I at first thought I might struggle to find even ten books I’d loved this year. Reading over the last few months has, for various reasons, been minimal.
Thank goodness I’ve started keeping a record, as when I looked back I realised
that the earlier part of the year had been much more fruitful. There were in
fact lots of candidates; my initial list had eighteen contenders, though I’ve
managed to whittle it down to twelve. They were all standout reads for me. Here, in no particular order, they are:
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
This wonderful novel tells the story of Bill Furlong, an ordinary coalman in 1980s New Ross, who, on delivering coal to a convent, witnesses something that makes him realise what almost all of the townsfolk already know. The convent is one of the notorious Magdalene laundries, to which families send their unmarried, pregnant daughters. And what goes on inside the convent walls is shocking. But the best school in town is also run by nuns, and Bill has five daughters to educate. Will he keep quiet like everyone else, or will he speak out and risk his wife’s wrath and his daughters’ futures?
Keegan evokes small town Ireland of that era so well. I visited the area often around that time, and the story took me right back to those days – to a country I found such a fascinating contrast to my own life in London, but one that had some terrible secrets, many of them involving the Catholic church. But Keegan also tells the personal story of one good man’s dilemma; nothing is black and white, and we all sometimes have to make very difficult choices.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I can’t believe it took me so long to read this stunning masterpiece, but maybe I just had to be at the right place in my life to appreciate it.
Esther is a straight A student from a small town who has won a place at a prestigious college. Over the summer she is awarded an internship with a famous fashion magazine in New York City. Along with the other interns she stays in a hostel for young ladies, spends her days writing copy and attending events, and her nights partying.
Esther is clever, smart and cynical – but she’s also caught up in the American dream of needing to find the perfect husband and home. Yet at the same time she knows she doesn’t want that. Most of the men she meets are various versions of pathetic. She wants to achieve, but something stops her. She starts to fall apart, and ends up in an asylum where she is subjected to brutal electric shock therapy. She attempts suicide in all sorts of ways – indeed the book is very funny in places, as when she lists the ways in which she might kill herself and then realises why each one wouldn’t work.
Above all The Bell Jar shines a clear and penetrating light on the way in which society seeks to control, gaslight and destroy any woman who rejects its demands for compliance.
An overwhelming, breath-taking piece of writing. It was an interview with Heather Clark on the Slightly Foxed podcast that led me to The Bell Jar; I now have Clark’s new biography, Red Comet: the short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath on my Christmas wish list.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers
Sylvia arrives in East Mole as its new Children’s Librarian. It is 1958; the library has been neglected for decades, and her stuffy manager would rather only a few selected children (or better still, none) were allowed in.
With the aid of her assistant, Sylvia starts to reinvigorate the library and encourages all children to join. She befriends her neighbours and their children, and the granddaughter of her landlady, a girl who wants more than to be pigeonholed into the secondary modern school purely on grounds of class (these were the days of the 11 Plus exam, by which children were tested in the last year of primary school and assigned to a grammar school or a secondary modern.)
But another neighbour loathes Sylvia, as does the head librarian, and when she begins an ill-advised affair with the married village doctor, things start to go badly wrong.
I loved this book, from the author of the brilliant Miss Garnett’s Angel. Vickers is an extremely versatile author, and another writer who knows that in life nothing is ever 100% right or wrong; her handling of the contradictions with which we all struggle is masterly. I look forward to reading more of her work.
The Otterbury Incident by C Day Lewis
In a post war country town, two schoolboy gangs who normally fight mock battles on old bombsites join forces to raise money to pay for a window inadvertently broken by one of their members.
When the cash they’ve collected disappears, Ted, the leader of one of the gangs, is blamed. His friends are sure he is innocent and set out to prove that a couple of local spivs are the real culprits. In doing so they uncover far more serious crimes, clear Ted’s name, and after lots of exciting adventures, enjoy a happy ending.
This children’s book was first published in 1948. Its themes of friendship, loyalty, honour and perseverance come wrapped in a fast paced, gripping story, very funny in places, with well-developed characters and no waffle. The plot flies along, and Edward Ardizzone’s evocative illustrations add even more interest and enjoyment to a brilliant little book, one that is still enjoyable and relevant over seventy years later. A classic.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
‘(this) novel sympathetically satirises the complicated landscape of contemporary feminism.’ (Eva Wiseman: The Guardian.)
Greer is at a lesser-known college because her parents messed up her funding application. Her boyfriend from home, Cory, has a scholarship to Princeton. Greer is persuaded by her friend Zee to attend a talk by Faith, an established feminist leader; as a result Greer finds her ‘outdoor voice’, and eventually goes to work for Faith. Cory, meanwhile, takes a job ‘just for a year’ in a highly paid banking role in Manila.
When tragedy strikes Cory’s family he is forced to return home, and Greer and Cory’s relationship ends. Greer discovers
that money given to Faith’s feminist charity has been misused; disillusioned,
she sets up a new project and her life moves on.
This is such a perceptive, well written novel about third wave feminism, compromise, morals, forgiveness and love. The ending doesn’t ignore the fact that so much still needs to change.
An interesting companion read to The Bell Jar; both also made me think of the TV series Mad Men, and the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile.
The Alice B Toklas Cookbook
Toklas’s extravagant, indulgent recipes will be made by few people nowadays;
butter, cream and alcohol are the main ingredients of every lavish dish, and
quite honestly it’s a wonder that Gertrude Stein – the main consumer of Alice’s
cooking (Alice herself ate practically nothing) even lasted to the age of 72,
considering the amount of cholesterol that went down her throat on a daily
basis. But this book – which Alice only wrote after Gertrude’s death, to raise
money so that she didn’t have to sell Gertrude’s extensive art collection – is
also a record of Alice’s life with Gertrude, from the day they first met in
September 1907 to Gertrude’s death thirty-nine years later.
It takes place mostly in Paris, where the women held regular soirées attended by the likes of Hemingway. Scott Fitzgerald. Ezra Pound, Matisse and Picasso; they knew everyone worth knowing and were central to the artistic life of the Left Bank. But the book also includes the seven months they spent in the US just before the Second World War, their visits to affluent friends all over France and Spain, and their time spent delivering supplies for the American Fund for the French Wounded during the First World War.
Every chapter is eccentric, interesting and absolutely wonderful. I was constantly off down rabbit holes, looking up the artists, socialites , authors and bon viveurs of the era whose names Alice so casually drops. I loved this book, and learned so much from it (even if not much about cooking…) Full review here.
These Days by Lucy Caldwell
At the beginning of World War Two, the daughters of a middle class Belfast
family are living conventional lives; Audrey is engaged to a highly respectable
doctor, Emma has a steady job in the tax office. At first the city thinks it
won’t be much affected by the war – but then the bombing starts, with raids
almost every night.
As daily life becomes less and less predictable, the girls start to challenge the conventions of their class and family. Audrey begins to question whether she wants to be married at all, especially after she befriends an English woman seconded to her office who seems to live a far more sophisticated life, full of culture and travel. Meanwhile Emma volunteers at a first aid post and begins a very clandestine affair. Eventually the war inflicts personal loss on one of the girls; this causes their mother to look back on her own life, particularly thinking of the man she has long wished she had married; she makes a pact with God to accept her very comfortable but somewhat dull lot if he will spare her family any more pain.
This is such a subtle and touching story, full of vivid detail about life in a city under bombardment, and with nuanced, engaging characters. As in some of my other choices this year, this author understands that we are all complicated people, and that although we try, none of us always does the right thing.
Why Did You Stay? by Rebecca Humphries
Humphries, an actor, was the partner of a well known comedian, Seann Walsh. Their relationship had always been somewhat volatile, and Humphries – a strong character herself – had almost unconsciously started to try to change her behaviour to be what she thought the unreliable and critical Walsh wanted. She began to avoid any friends who were less than enthusiastic about her choice of boyfriend.
Then she found out, in the most public and humiliating way possible, that Walsh was cheating on her (& indeed it soon became clear that this wasn’t the first time.) Her world imploded. But after a while (and, it must be said, some extremely generous help from those formerly side-lined friends) she started to look at things differently. A tweet she wrote that concluded ‘My name is Rebecca Humphries and I am not a victim’ had over 9,000 replies in 24 hours, almost all from women who identified with her experience. But one said ‘if it was so bad for so long, why did you stay?’ She decided to examine this question, both in the light of her own relationship and in the wider context of women’s – and men’s – behaviour in general.
She ended up speaking in Parliament about gaslighting, and she wrote this book. It’s very easy to read, and will resonate with any woman who’s ever been in anything like this situation. It raises some vital questions about conditioning, people-pleasing and self-worth. My daughter liked it as much as I did.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
Another brilliant interrogation of a woman’s breakdown – but unlike Plath’s Esther, Mortimer’s Mrs Armitage (most likely based the author’s own life with the author John Mortimer) has been married several times, and had many children, before the story begins.
Her latest husband is the serial cheater Jake; he’s become successful and wealthy, and his job as a screenwriter gives him plenty of opportunity to bed young women. John Mortimer was also a screenwriter.
Mrs Armitage is defined solely by marriage and motherhood. There is a shocking scene in which her father discusses her with Jake, pre-marriage and in her presence, as if she were simply an inanimate object whose ownership is being transferred. And this is 1960s London. Mrs Armitage’s father also pays to send her older children to boarding school to ‘ease Jake’s burden’, even though she does not want to them to go away.
In an effort to hang on to the increasingly wayward Jake, Mrs Armitage decides to have another baby. Jake does not want one, and ends up forcing her to have a termination and sterilisation; while she’s recovering in a nursing home he sleeps with - and impregnates - one of ‘his’ actresses.
Denied the only life roles she knows, (there’s a reason why she’s described throughout as ‘Mrs Armitage’) Mrs Armitage starts to unravel, and it is the unravelling that Mortimer describes so very well. Full review here.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler
My friend Jeff Myers recommended this book and I am so grateful to him for doing so. The eloquent and entertaining Fowler digs up all sorts of neglected authors – he even has a chapter on authors who really should remain forgotten. But the book is not just a list of names; he’s found anecdotes about the lives of almost every author, making the book a fascinating and frequently hilarious read. I had a couple of issues with his definition of ‘forgotten’ – it certainly doesn’t apply to Barbara Pym these days, but then the book isn’t new, and she was indeed forgotten until David Cecil and Philip Larkin brought her back to the recognition she deserves.
Needless to say I finished the book with a very long list of authors to investigate. But I like lists, and I loved this book. Full review here.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas
Sibyl lives in London with her boyfriend Simon and works in an esoteric department of the Institute for Prehistorical Studies. When Helen, a glamorous academic from Sibyl’s past, is appointed to the management of the institute, Sibyl’s life starts to go wrong. Helen – whom Sibyl is sure is a fraud who unfairly marked down her final grades – not only makes a beeline for Simon, but also claims ownership of research that Sibyl herself did while at university.
Helen soon gets Simon, and Sibyl is left reeling, with nowhere to live and a gaping hole in her social life. She stumbles through her days, trying all sorts of things to get over it all. But Sibyl is not the pushover Helen thought she was, and eventually she gets her revenge on her nemesis in her own quietly brilliant way.
Ruth Thomas’s writing is superlative; this story is full of nuance and subtle jokes, with such good observations of the minutiae of everyday life – and in particular the minutiae of a break up; it’s not all drama and hysterics, and much more ‘where on earth will I live?’ and one’s mother handing out books with titles likes ‘When life gives you lemons…’ The scenes at Sibyl’s parents’ house are both painful and brilliantly funny.
The eccentric, obsessive academics at the institute are reminiscent of Barbara Pym at her best (and as someone who worked in such a place for several years, I know them to be completely accurate). Raglan, Sibyl’s pensive, sad manager is a wonderfully understated character. Her new flatmate Esther is instantly recognisable; well-meaning but constantly in Sibyl’s face, with no concept of tact when speaking with a recently deserted friend – she suggests that the two of them should go to see a film called ‘Get Over It’, and when she gets a new boyfriend herself, her oversharing about sex is excruciatingly real.
I appreciated the way in which Thomas leaves the ending of the story open; we don’t know if Sibyl will find happiness with one of the characters she’s met – maybe Bill from the Brixton Library or even Dave from the institute basement – but what we do know, and rejoice for, is that she has recovered her sense of self, a sense that for some time seemed to be in free fall.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is exactly my kind of book; quiet, clever, funny and above all so well observed that I still think about the characters six months after reading the final page. My full review is here.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Graeme Macrae Burnet is such an accomplished, unpredictable writer. One minute he is writing about two people having an affair [or were they?] in provincial France (The Accident on the A35), the next about a strange young man accused of three brutal murders in a remote Highland village in 1869. Roddy Macrae has killed the girl he loved, her father and her young brother – but why? Was he insane or did he kill in cold blood? What is Roddy’s view of the truth? What is the prosecutor’s? The psychiatrist’s?
As ever Macrae Burnet tells a gripping story in a vividly imagined setting, while at the same time examining the nature of truth, and what Justine Jordan, reviewing for the Guardian, called its ‘multiple unreliable perspectives.’
The plot, which is presented as a true story (another play on the definition of ‘fact’), is fascinating, but what has also stayed with me from His Bloody Project is the unrelenting misery of life – for the poor at least – in these isolated crofting communities totally in thrall to the local laird and his henchmen. Living as I do on what is still, to a certain extent, feudal Deeside, where the estates are still major employers, I can imagine just how oppressed and hopeless many people must have felt back then.
It's no surprise that His Bloody Project was nominated for the 2015 Booker Prize. The real surprise is that it didn’t win.
So there they are, my twelve top reads. I would find it impossible to give first place to just one of them; the shortlist would, I think, consist of The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, The Alice B Toklas Cookbook and The Bell Jar. But they were all great.