Books of the Year
Books of the year. Technically, novels of the year. I was going to do lists for poetry and non-fiction, as well as fiction, but I read about a dozen poetry collections, and about ten non-fiction books that I enjoyed, so it wouldn’t really be a “best of” list, just a summary. You can revisit my monthly round-ups if you’re curious. However, I read a veritable cart-load of novels this year and here’s the top ten, in roughly chronological order (only because I used my Goodreads list to remind me, and that’s chronological). These aren’t the best novels of 2022, they are the best novels I read in 2022. Some are new; others are new to me. I heartily recommend them all.
Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
To quote from my Japan Times article: “There's something of a 21st century Canterbury Tales about this novel, as Hiruko collects a band of lost souls each with a story to tell… The voices are all those of young people, comfortable with the idea of fluid identity, of being rootless, of being multiple at the same time… It is an incredibly positive, optimistic book, one that looks at contemporary identity politics as a revolution that can bring people together, a potential way out of the hideous mess we've made of the world. Seen from this perspective it seems strange, then, that the novel - the first part of a mooted trilogy - has been described as dystopian. It is anything but dystopian…. The dystopia, for Hiruko and her friends, is behind them. Now they are rebuilding a new, better world severed from the binaries, the assumptions, the demands of their parents’ generation. In actuality, this novel is supremely utopian.”
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
This is brilliant, and confirms Burnet as a talented writer of many types of literary fiction and not to be pigeonholed into crime, as reviews of His Bloody Project threatened. Funny, intelligent, structurally ingenious, and although I bought this not long after release last year, I’m glad I waited until I had time to lose myself in the novel and not read it in snatches.
Tokyo Redux by David Peace
David Peace’s Tokyo Redux had been on my shelf since the day of publication but as with so many books I buy, I waited until I could take a clear run at it. I am a huge fan of David Peace and when he’s at this best I don’t want to look up from the page, however he can also be a difficult writer and at those moments being interrupted every few pages doesn’t help. Fortunately this is one of his best and easiest to read. The third part of his Tokyo trilogy (only a trilogy in that it’s the third book he’s written set during the US occupation of Japan) based on a true crime, in this case the Shimoyama murder. It’s truly excellent, all the things I love most about Peace and none of the stuff that turns me off, and a perfect example of how foreigners can write about Japan while avoiding all the cliched nonsense that usually hitches a ride.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Another one long on the shelf was The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quến Mai, the story of three generations of a family surviving Vietnam’s horrific 20th century. I came across this via a tweet by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose books I adore, and it didn’t disappoint. By page 50 I was crying, and by the end I was a mess, yet given the subject matter and story it is strangely uplifting, a book that quietly extolls the virtues of forgiveness, a quality all too lacking in today’s discourse.
Hex by Jenni Fagan
I pre-ordered Hex by Jenni Fagan months before it was published and had to wait more than a month after it came out thanks to Brexit screwing everything up, but it was totally worth it. Fagan’s Luckenbooth was one of my favourite books last year, so I would have bought this anyway, but the reasons just kept coming. Polygon (my publisher for Only Gaijin) are doing a series called Dark Tales, where Scottish authors write novellas around key moments in Scottish history, of which this is the second (the first being Rizzio by Denise Mina). I love the authors, I love the concept, and I love the novella form, so this was a guaranteed winner for me.
Inlands by Elin Willows (translated by Duncan J. Lewis)
It was just about perfect in every way. My gods. Sparse, barren, powerful. Storytelling at its best, inviting the reader inside the world, treating the reader as an intelligent being with life experience who doesn’t need motivations, emotion or reaction explained to them. A young woman leaves Stockholm for rural Sweden to live with her boyfriend, but the relationship ends almost as soon as she arrives. She decides to stay anyway and begins building a new life for herself. Those are the facts but really it’s a portrait of loneliness, of depression, a true existentialist exploration that trusts you to fill in the blanks yourself. I enjoyed this so much I immediately bought everything else Nordisk have put out (having already bought half of their output last time). I cannot recommend this enough.
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
Another book that came my way via Viet Thanh Nguyen (after The Mountain Sings by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai) is The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour. She wrote a stunning essay in The Displaced: Refugee Writers of Refugee Lives which Nguyen edited, and I immediately went out and bought this novel off the back of it. There’s something of the Salman Rushdie about this story of a feral boy raised amongst birds, particularly in the opening section, but if you aren’t a Rushdie fan (as I know many aren’t, but I am) then don’t let that comparison put you off. Khakpour has a style unlike anything I’ve encountered, absolutely contemporary in its mix of intellectual clarity, smart-casual register and confident, almost fashionable lilt. The narrative voice is compulsive, impossible not to like, inviting you in to see wonders. I’ve never read anything like this before, and I’ll be buying everything Khakpour has published as soon as is humanly possible. (Note, I did).
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was the last-but-one on my Kindle tbr backlog, but one of the best. I’m obviously very late to the party on this one but I’m really glad I arrived at all. This ticks so many boxes for me, from the politics, through the differing perspectives on immigrant experiences, to a plot that covers an entire lifespan without dragging or jumping too much. Lahiri is another author whose back catalogue is getting added to the shopping list.
The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla
Muggles (non-publishing people) often underestimate the power of word of mouth and simple reader to reader recommendations either in person or online. Nothing - literally nothing - sells more books than a quick tweet, a casual mention, or a good old chat about recent reads. Let me use Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist to illustrate. Rachelle wrote a screenplay for a short film that a friend of mine directed (Trifle, fact fans). He tweeted that her debut novel was coming out and that it was good. On the back of that, without any idea what the book was about, I ordered my copy. Got it. Read it. Loved it. Now I’m on here passing on the word again. You want to help a writer out? Post about their books - you cannot buy that kind of publicity. The novel itself is an original take on the post-apocalyptic sci-fi trope. Wolfe is the titular drug dispenser trapped underground after an unnamed disaster befell the world. Her job brings her into contact with the entire population, as fighting illness is a huge part of their ongoing survival. This puts her in prime position to witness the slow unravelling of the community but also brings her unwanted attention.
Kraken by China Mieville
Usually when I go hiking and camping I take something appropriate - Gary Snyder, maybe, Linda Cracknell or Robert MacFarlane. Not this time. People and creatures with magical ability charging all over London trying to avert the apocalypse and find a missing pickled giant squid isn’t the easiest mesh with relaxed surroundings but I picked up Kraken while in Tokyo, was hooked from chapter one and couldn’t leave it behind. The sheer number of ideas contained within this book is unfathomable, and this is just one in a career of astounding books. I’ve only scratched the surface of Mieville’s oeuvre (The City and the City is still my favourite) so I’ll be stocking up on more soon.
Note: the Tawada and Lahiri books were electronic copies, so they aren’t in the photo.
Tokyo redux and the Tawada book have been on my nightstand for months. I definitely need to get to them. I also have a copy of the mountains sing, which I bought in early 2021 but I wasn’t able to really read it because it was so sad. Anyway this was a great list. And I would love to read your article About scattered all over the earth.