A Reading Round Up of 2018
The last half of 2018 has been a good one for fiction reading. Perhaps it’s because I’m on sabbatical, or because I find sleep increasingly elusive, but I’ve managed to get quite a lot of reading done in the last few months. So, having been inspired by friends and colleagues who have sent me their round ups of 2018 in books, here’s a short list of mine.
Michelle de Kretser, The Life To Come. I have loved, and read, de Kretser’s work for several years now. She has an incredible eye, and her novels compel you to look at the world anew. In this novel, set mostly in Sydney but also in Paris and Colombo, she returns to familiar themes - travel, cultural translation, memory and writing itself - with a finely honed sense of detail. Each page seems three-dimensional, with places and people materializing into shape like they were paintings. Given that this is a novel in parts, loosely connected, and told through the experiences of several different individuals, this heightened characterization means that each segment is also like a novella and the protagonists, remain embedded in your memory long after the book is finished. What de Kretser does in this book is turn observation - or description - into narrative, she gives meaning to perceptions and feelings and small gestures. This was exhilarating - I am an art historian so in a way I was being taught my craft. But it was the yearning - not anticipation - and the possibilities that such feeling brings that have remained with me.
Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. There is a pattern here … both of my top of the list books are by Australians (I am returning to Australian fiction after a hiatus), but what was surprising to me was that they were both so, well, art historical. This book, written in 2016, spans three continents and moves between multiple chronologies: from the 1600s, to the 1950s to the early 2000s. This is another book in which detail is so richly textured that the world starts to look different afterwards. It is a riveting story bringing together the lives of a Dutch seventeenth-century painter - Sara de Vos - a brilliant art historian who was once a forger - Ellie - and Marty art collector weighed down by the stuffiness of family privilege. There’s deception, theft, the plague and gorgeous, ebullient, description that rises from each page like impasto (the thick, layers of paint). Smith’s writing reminds me of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, with their precision, high definition and glorious color. His superb depictions of an artist’s craft, or Ellie’s deep knowledge of conservation (boiling rabbit pelts) were never dry or technical but always animated: and in a way this is what the book does through its description, which is to bring a thing - a painting, a time, an encounter - to life, so that it is so entwined with reality you can hardly pick them apart. I read this book on planes, and trains, and in a jet-lagged haze because I could not put it down. It was suspenseful, layered and concerned with the smallest of gestures, which of course often reveal the most significant details of ourselves.
Louise Erdrich, The Round House. Set on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, this novel tells the story of an Ojibwe boy’s experience of dealing with his mother’s brutal rape. While the narrative is harrowing, it is also powerfully moving as it works through the trauma of the event for Geraldine Coutts - Joe’s mother - and her family. It works on several levels. It is a kind of mystery/thriller as Joe and his friends’ attempt to find and punish the rapist. But this becomes the backdrop for its exploration of the aftermath of violence. Quiet in tone, the novel is a reflection on the legacies of US colonial history and its effects on Indigenous communities (here, the failure of the judicial system) alongside the rituals and traditions by which communities continue to be sustained.
Nell Painter, Old in Art School. Nell Painter is a historian whose work I have read since I was studying for my BA. When I arrived in the US to complete my PhD at Yale, I first met her when she was an Artist in Residence at the Yale School of Art, and it was here that I also first saw her wonderful mixed media collages that often reworked historical tropes. Nell’s memoir is, like her art work, a fascinating layering of history, art history and a painterly attention to detail. Her chapters take us through her decision to return to art school, first to gain a BFA and then to complete an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. While they are anecdotal, they also move us from the minute to the large scale: a particularly gorgeous example is a description of Nell’s daily commute to school, where we see her story narrated amidst a backdrop of commuters, the train station and Newark itself. It is both a meditation on place, and one’s attachment to it, and also on a growing sense of definition. This sense of definition - like the careful lines in a drawing - is constantly attenuated throughout the book, even as Nell describes with rawness the difficulties of being seen and taken seriously as an artist, her own understanding of who she is becomes clear and it is this, perhaps, that makes the book so inspiring. The book is an astute reflection on many things that we must all face up to, aging, gender, self-belief, but it is also a clever, witty and joyful meditation on the significance and centrality of art, both in one woman’s extraordinary life, and to the communities we create.
David Whish-Wilson, Line of Sight. I love detective novels. And this one is a corker. The first in the author’s Frank Swann series, it is set in Perth in the 1970s and follows detective Frank Swann as he investigates the murder of a brothel owner. The investigation takes place alongside his own personal and professional problems: his daughter has disappeared and his anti-corruption stance has alienated him in the police force and brought him under public scrutiny. The narrative is pacy, and the characters are well developed which alongside the atmospheric backdrop of the backstreets and dingy bars of Perth make for a very pleasing, cinematic sort of novel.