2018 was a marathon reading year for me. I finished the year having read 118 books, smashing my previous record of 86 in 2013. 71 of these were in translation. I also added just shy of 30 countries to my reading map – more about that in a later post.
This means that choosing my top 10 books of the year has been a significantly harder task than in previous years! However, I’ve managed it, and trends are similar to previous years – a majority of women in the top 10 and a particularly strong showing this year from women of colour, and I think this year everything in the list was published in 2017 or 2018 as I continue moving away from classics and things I feel like I ought to have read and towards new releases. Most of the world’s continents are also represented as I continue my read the world challenge.
Before I kick off, a few honourable mentions to those who didn’t quite make it – Girl At War by Sara Nović; When We Speak Of Nothing by Olumide Popoola; Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney; Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated by Jordan Stump); and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All excellent books that are very much worth your time, but just didn’t quite make the top 10!
10. Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire (Pakistan/UK)
There’s a tendency sometimes to forget books you read earlier in the year when making these kinds of list, and this is the first book I actually finished reading last year. However it’s stuck with me because it was such a powerful story. A re-telling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is centred around a British Muslim family torn apart by love and politics, leading up to an explosive ending – completely unputdownable.
9. Margarita García Robayo – Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe, Colombia)
Charco Press are one of my favourite publishers at the moment, bringing into English a range of Latin American literature with eye-catching cover design. This for me is the cream of their crop from last year, a collection which includes 2 novellas and some short stories. The prose is raw and compelling, exploring a range of themes including sex education, the desire to escape from one’s family, and taboos. I’m looking forward to reading more from this writer in English.
8. Lesley Nneka Arimah – What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky (South Africa)
Another reading trend for me in recent years is that I’ve been increasingly reading and enjoying a lot more short stories. This was one of the best collections I’ve read this year. The stories are great from the get go, then after the first couple, an element of speculative fiction starts to creep in making them even more exciting. This is a debut collection and I’ll be really excited to see what she does next.
7. Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (India)
Not for the faint-hearted, this is a raw and emotional account of a young woman who falls in love with a university professor and becomes trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who seeks to break her. Reading this had me feeling like I was being repeatedly punched in the stomach.
6. Bandi – The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith, North Korea)
Bandi is a pseudonym for the writer of these 7 short pieces which were smuggled out of North Korea to give us perhaps the first realistic portrayal of what real life looks like in contemporary North Korea written by someone who still lives there. What’s perhaps most shocking is the level of oppression and indoctrination which is just accepted as ordinary by the characters. An important read which sheds some light on a brutal regime.
5. Svetlana Alexievich – Second-Hand Time (translated by Bela Shayevich, Belarus)
Speaking of brutal regimes… Second-Hand Time is a collection of oral histories of the collapse of the USSR, charting the disappearance of the old regime and the emergence of the new. Using a broad range of voices, she creates a rich picture of a changing world. What’s particularly impressive is that this monolith of a work was Bela Shayevich’s first full-length translation, and that she won the inaugural TA First Translation Award for her efforts.
4. Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing (USA)
I’m not going to spoil the ending of this book for anyone but suffice to say the thing I most remember is being caught by surprise at a plot twist with maybe 30 pages to go, sitting up in bed, gasping and bursting into tears, much to the confusion of M. who was on the phone to his mum at the time. This is a family story, but maybe not the first thing you’d expect from a story of that description. Powerful and gripping.
3. Hamid Ismailov – The Devil’s Dance (translated by Donald Ryfeld, Uzbekistan)
This is the first of Ismailov’s Uzbek novels to be translated into English and it’s an incredibly ambitious work, weaving together the story of the the writer Abdulla Qodiriy and his imprisonment at the hands of the Soviet secret police, and the novel he was writing at the time of his imprisonment – so really it’s two stories for the price of one. It’s an extraordinary depiction of two cultures which could not be more different, and yet it really works. I can’t wait to read his next novel, The Language of Bees, which is due to be published by Tilted Axis Press this year.
2. Preti Taneja – We That Are Young (India)
This is another re-telling of a classic story, this time of King Lear, transplanting the story to modern India and to a billionaire family dynasty, which begins to fragment as the founder of the Devraj Corporation ages and his health deteriorates. A struggle for power and wealth starts amongst his heirs, and people already familiar with King Lear will know that it’s only downhill from here. It’s a stunning novel which takes the original story to new heights, and the level of ambition is incredible from a debut novelist.
1. Olga Tokarczuk – Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Poland)
I said at the time of reading this that I’d be stunned if I read anything better this year, and lo and behold, here it is sitting firmly in the number one spot. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Tokarczuk previously but something about this one really hit the spot. This bit, for example:
You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.
…I think it tallies with one of my Theories – my belief that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brain are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.
The whole novel is like this. It’s fundamentally a whodunnit, which will please readers who prefer a bit of plot, and yet it’s still peppered with these wonderful philosophical insights which for me characterise Tokarczuk’s writing and say more about the nature of humanity in the 2000s than anything else I’ve ever read.
So, it’s been a pretty awesome year! Reading goals for the year ahead include reaching 150 countries read, to continue to read more diversely in general and maybe, just maybe, to get that TBR down just a little.