This was the year I reimmersed myself in fiction. My night stand used to be full of non-fiction books, although most of them had a narrative bent. During 2018, I decided to concentrate on novels.
This was a year I met new writers (to me): William Boyd, Annie Tyler, Rachel Kushner, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith, Alison Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dave Eggers (although I’ve read a bit of his journalism), Wallace Stegner and Jeffrey Eugenides.
I also got back to some authors I first read many years ago: Julian Barnes, Michael Ondaatje, Olivia Laing (although I first read her two years ago).
Understanding life was my goal in fiction. I pored through these books like they were codebooks, looking for life lessons, clues on handling the process of growing older, coming to grips with my history and getting to know and understand the people around me.
As a reader, I used to concentrate on the narrative, the arc of the story, the broad brush strokes of a book. I spent a lot of time working through detective books and spy thrillers. But in 2018 I became interested in watching how other characters reacted to events, like the death of loved ones, medical issues, heartbreak and loss. How truthful did they feel to me? These are the details that separate good writers from great ones.
Living overseas for so long it seemed natural for me to wonder if peoples’ reactions to big life events are universal: do people from East Africa react the same way to a first love as they would in the East Coast of the US? Or, do other people raised in different cultures rate certain experiences higher than others? Is death of a loved one felt the same around the world?
Novels are powerful because they deal simultaneously with the external and internal. And that’s what I am looking for: Proof that my reactions are sincere and within some bounds of normal. And, secondly, an interesting story that makes me want to push further.
All the authors I’ve listed above helped me better understand my place in the world. Some more, some less. Below is a list of novels that may have done that, but whose characters, plot or atmospherics keep me thinking about them weeks or months after I’ve read them.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson — After about a 50 or so pages, this became a chore to read. There was a lot there to take in: sisters with big personalities, wacky neighbors, a mother straight out of central casting. Something about this narrative was off. A strange half ending about 10 pages before the book finished brought that into focus. Somehow, the book still haunts me. I see why it’s still read nearly two and half decades after it was published.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith — It flagged a little in the middle, but this book was chock full of memorable characters and events. Two men — a Pakistani and Englishman — meet during World War II, and their families are forever linked. My favorite books are those that interweave personal lives into great events, especially when those characters provide a different perspective or completely new point of view. White Teeth brought this and more.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — atmospheric and strange, as the name suggests. A boy who looks back on his early teens spent in London during World War II as both his parents go off to “work” and leave he and his sister with a man named “The Moth.” This book also falls into my love of personal narratives fitting into and reforming grand events. Michael Ondaatje plays with this so much, I was left wondering: Could this story be true? And what if it was?