A lot of my 2016 reading was escapist – stories by the best sellers who’ve earned their reputations as reliable providers of thrills, suspense, twists and satisfaction and who don’t need reviews from me to confirm their excellence. On the other hand, there were others who had nothing like the exposure of these big boys and girls and yet who produced highly individual, accomplished novels which deserve a wider readership. Black Sheep Boy is one of them.
I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, otherwise I don’t think it would have registered on my radar. As the title suggests, it’s a series of episodes in a life, but a life far removed from that of a comfortable old guy living in Scotland. The first person narrator is a young boy who lives in the Louisiana bayou and, as well as sharing his personal pains and pleasures with us, he evokes this highly individual context and its customs. Throughout, the fact that he is, as the blurb warns us, ‘small, weak, effeminate’, frequently creates conditions, oppositions and alliances which set him at odds with that same culture with its fixed notions of how men and women should be.
So the exoticism of the content is already fascinating to a reader far removed from its everyday manifestations, but the main power of the book is the voice in which it’s related and the way he shares with us the discoveries his experiences bring to him. The rhythms and music of the prose, the delicacy of the images he conjures up, and the beautiful mix of ‘normal’ English and the gentle patois of the bayou are captivating. Interest never wavers, from the simplest stories he recounts to the questions of identity he asks of others and himself as he grows into and struggles to understand and withstand the dilemmas and threats posed by his sexuality and his gender. Themes of mysticism, justice, impotence and survival weave through it all, taking different guises in the various relationships he forms and experiences he enjoys and/or endures.
And, in the end, so closely do we empathise with his thoughts and feelings that the specificity of his sexual and gender-related issues broadens into reflections on identity and purpose which relate to the whole process of how we become who we are and continue to evolve through more of its iterations. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, essentially human and an excellent read.
I thoroughly enjoyed Frances Larson's Severed, a grisly but compelling history of decapitation. I also loved Peter Hill's memoirs of his time working on Scottish lighthouses, Stargazing.
But the blue rosette goes to a book I haven't reviewed - I, Partridge, by Alan Partridge. The audiobook is narrated in-character by Steve Coogan and was probably the funniest book I've ever come across. As if I needed to look any more of a lunatic on the morning commute. Eat my goal!
I had a year of big thick post-modern works and lots of non-English fiction in translation.
Most of the Po-Mo was pretty disappointing with the honourable exception of Sergio de la Pava's "A NakedSingularity", but it was the non-English fiction that blew me away this year. Valeria Luiselli's "The Story Of My Teeth" was good fun, both of Yuri Herrera's 100 page novels were very evocative and lyrical in their brevity. Both of those authors are Mexican. But the winner was Korean author Kan Hang's "The Vegetarian" which despite a completely redundant third section, parts one and two were so stunning and beautiful and haunting that the limp part 3 simply didn't matter. Highly recommended.
Worst read of the year Gillian Slovo's "Ten Days" purportedly about the London riots of 2011 in which just a single rioter makes an appearance and he's rescuing a child from a burning building. utterly misses the point.
After a lifetime spent reading whenever a spare moment presents, I’m lately in this weird bubble of book avoidance, with the excuse that I simply can’t spare the time. I didn’t read much in 2016, but even if I had, my year’s best pick would have stood out from the rest. Rebecca Lochlann’s The Sixth Labyrinth is the first book in the second Child of the Erinyes trilogy, a love triangle driven by divine destiny to be reincarnated through the ages. Great writing, highest recommendation.
My have-read list for 2016 is woefully short. I will mention HillbillyElegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. The author’s family moved from addiction-ridden Appalachia to Ohio, where he was able to overcome his inherited geography and make it to Yale Law School. Although it didn’t fully live up to my expectations, it came close.
I’m currently reading Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes, published by the newly-formed Aardvark Bureau, about South Africa’s only “ethical pest removal specialist.” So far, I’m enjoying it. Perhaps I’ll write a review when I’m finished.
I wish you all happy reading in the new year!