Here are my favourite ten books of 2013, selected from about 100 books that I added to the collection and read for the first time. It happens that I've concentrated on Australian novels this year.
I've read some good non-fiction that hasn’t made it to the top ten, such as Simon Winchester's Krakatoa, an in-depth study of the violent eruptions in 1883, and Winchester's superbly accessible writing led me on to The Professor and the Madman about an incarcerated killer who spent his days compiling entries for the first Oxford Dictionary. Other non-fiction books I was impressed by were Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, about the history of telegraph; The Secret of Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay, about WWII code-breaking; and Lawrence Krauss's A Universe from Nothing—I liked his theory but had trouble with the detail!
The short-list included some beaut books like Shearing in the Riverina by Rolf Boldrewood, A Happy Death by Albert Camus, two from Peter Carey—His Illegal Self and Chemistry of Tears, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Graham Greene's The Man Within. I was also impressed by Alice Munroe's Short Stories.
But the following books rated in my top ten for 2013 so let's go…
* * * * *
1. Patrick White - Happy Valley 1939
Possibly a strange choice for number one but I've gone for the novelty value that I got out of it. I read a lot of White this year—all the short stories, I re-read Voss, finally after 30 years I read A Fringe of Leaves and Riders in the Chariot from front cover to back. And now White's first novel Happy Valley.
White was in his twenties when he wrote Happy Valley and had been living the life of a jackaroo in the Monaro country. He obviously knew a fetlock from a forelock. It is obvious too, that he enjoyed writing this book and was pleased with the outcome. His powers of observation and his ability to express what he experienced were incredible, and on show in this first work. Imagine if I'd set out to write a book about Muloorina, and then read Happy Valley!
To me the interplay between the characters of different class reflected in the small-town pecking order show understanding and maturity well developed already in this first book. The pace of the novel is varied and reflects the moods of non-urban living.
It was no longer winter at Happy Valley. You began to wonder if it could ever be anything else, and there was really no reason why it should, why Happy Valley should take part in the inevitable time process rather than stay concealed in some channel up which either time or circumstance had forgotten to press. Then it happened when you forgot to wonder.
* * * * *
2. Alexis Wright - Carpentaria 2006
This book won the Miles Franklin award in 2007 and I should have read it sooner. There is no doubt Wright is a major writer with much to offer from an Indigenous perspective.
This book is set in her country in fictional Desperance on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where inevitable conflict occurs between white residents, two separate fringe camps, a mining development and the forces of law and order. The overall physical environment is so strong in Wright's writing I could feel the dust in my eyes, and several of the themes, particularly fish and fishing, are unforgettably treated. This is not the tropics of New Guinea or Bali, but the tropics of the Top End—dry, sparse and hot, no shade but plenty of dust, every footfall is an effort and there's always sweat. Will Phantom and the other fishermen have intimate knowledge of tradition; the estuaries, creeks and gulf; tides, the wind and weather; and the myriad varieties of sea-life and habitats.
I love the colloquialisms and nicknames, even place names, that Wright invents or uses. The main character is Normal Phantom, the policeman is Truthful and a religious zealot is Mozzie Fishman; the "suburb" of the Phantom family is Pricklebush, the mine is Gurrfurit. Wright's knowledge of the idioms and language are impressive.
…government people, important people, money people, nuisance bugger people, anyone who can take your thoughts away on pieces of paper, just like that, and put it, wherever they like, inside white man’s technology in whatchayougoinama call it? Computers. Yes, that’s the one the old blackfella man had been tinking about, racking his brains for it: ‘It come to my head for a look around.’ Yeah! Alright. ‘They lock em up all the information inside for them own eyes only.’
* * * * *
3. Thea Astley - The Well Dressed Explorer 1962
Another one of my favourite Australian authors where I went searching during the year to see what I'd overlooked in the past. I found this.
Astley's first novel and her first Miles Franklin winner turned up, but only just—I could only acquire a second-hand copy on eBay which I scanned to make an e-book in case anyone wants a copy. It was worth the effort.
George Brewster is the central character and his life from childhood until death is portrayed. He was never able to overcome the lost love of his childhood, but spent his life trying, and giving up, and moving on, from the Darling Downs of Queensland to Sydney. He became a journalist and we follow not only his career, but the language development, and the clichés of the trade, that changed as George aged. Mix in all the religious uncertainties, the infidelities, the striving for self-delusion, and we begin to understand the term "explorer" in the title.
The twenty-five-year-old heart discovers in the glass the fifty-seven-year-old face with all the mutilations and barbaric developments of five decades. The mottled hand trembles some mornings as it draws razor along a pleasingly clean path of skin through the lather. Hairs tuft from ears and on the end of nose, and, captured in the morning sun’s cruelty, grey ones shock the dark. The white sagging face is sick, is elderly, is cheerfully insolent about it all, purses its lips and whistles corn.
* * * * *
4. Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip 2006
I loved this book. My favourite Dickens is Great Expectations, and of course the setting of a village school in New Guinea is familiar to me. Mr Watts lives in a remote village on Bougainville during the 1990's mining conflict when the village school put out of action by rebels. He volunteers to keep the school open using the one text still available, Great Expectations. The novel is narrated by Matilda who uses Dickens in her growing up, working out relations with her separated mother and father, comparing the old village with the "new" world of Dickens' London and her relations with Mr Pip, aka Mr Watts. On top of all this the village copes with depradations of rebels and rambos.
Around dawn we heard the redskins’ helicopters pass over the village and then return. They hovered in the air like giant dragonflies, peering down at the clearing. They saw a line of abandoned houses and an empty beach because we had cleared off. Everyone. The old people. Mums and dads. The kids. And those dogs and chickens that had names.
Once again I was struck by the authenticity of the physical surroundings but more particularly the village life and relationships of the characters involved. There is no detachment in small village life but rather full engagement which Lloyd Jones understands and appreciates fully.
* * * * *
5. George Orwell - Coming up for Air 1939
If Patrick White is my favourite author it's not by much more than a whisker, and I can't believe there were books by George Orwell that I hadn't read until this year. I made amends by reading his essays and three novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, The Clergyman's Daughter and Coming up for Air.
The latter is about "mid-life crisis", the pointlessness of dead-end work and futility of trying to rediscover old haunts and times. It is not depressing but more an honest appraisal of the way things are. Set in provincial England around 1930, Orwell also has the sense that things will get worse before they get better. His writing is political simply from the choice of subject matter. The hero is an ordinary forty-five year old leading an ordinary life, but with the nous to analyse it.
When you've time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it's a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what IS a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten- pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There's a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I'm not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack?
* * * * *
6. Michelle de Kretser - Questions of Travel 2012
The 2013 Booker Prize winner is a tour de force (with the emphasis on tour?) with many levels and nuances. Laura travels extensively and lands a job in Sydney writing for a travel guide publisher, Ravi lives in strife-torn Sri Lanka and yearns to travel. I was most impressed by the descriptions of Ravi's situation in Sri Lanka, and the brutality in the midst of down-town commercial normality.
One night, a little further down the coast, the incoming tide had brought what seemed to be a collection of colossal turds. The sun, creeping up on the array, revealed bodies from which the heads and limbs had been removed.
Ravi was the kind of person whose heart contracted at the sight of a frog-shape mashed into the road. But dailiness normalises everything, even slaughter. And Ravi was young—what he feared wasn’t extinction but exclusion. He was haunted by the sense that he was witnessing the birth of a new world. A digital revolution was gathering speed. He ached to be part of it. Soon it would transform the way everyone lived, he told Malini; its power, located everywhere and nowhere, would exceed armies. He used a word that had become fashionable: global.
De Kretser asks Australians to look at asylum seeking from a broader perspective than merely political, and the local Sydney scene is portrayed. At another level, communications and global travel are explored in the internet age and the implications for humanity, bringing the haves and have-nots into ever closer relationships.
7. Carrie Tiffany - Mateship with Birds 2012
This is a beaut little book about how real people behave in real life, and kookaburras. It has teenagers in love and "mature" people, Betty and Harry, heading in the same direction, but most of all it has the wonderfully observed rural landscape of a small farm on the outskirts of a 1950s country town, with the natural rhythms and changes that occur in a year among the stock, birdlife, paddocks and daily occupations.
In dairy country it gets dark from the ground up. The pasture, the mud on the laneways, the wetness of the land, rise to meet the linen skies. The daylight fades; then it fades again. The trees drip their black leaves; the last screech of the cockatoos. Harry stayed outside as long as he could, until the ground was murky and his feet were no longer visible. He walked cautiously in case he stumbled; his weight held back at the ankle.
After four years with the alpacas at Wiseleigh, I can relate to every word.
* * * * *
8. Peter May - The Blackhouse 2011
In the detective mystery genre, this is first of the Lewis Trilogy, set on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The book is most memorable for its depiction of the island with its anachronistic customs and centuries' old traditions. I read the next two books in the trilogy and the above comment holds, but the plots are somewhat weaker or repetitive. The description of the annual guga hunt when a dozen men spend a fortnight on a remote island to kill and butcher for meat thousands of young seabirds in the traditional ways is absolutely unforgettable (and I respect those involved).
On ground as flat as they could make it, right next to the top of the chute, the two men spread out tarpaulins and laid the salted birds in a large circle, feet turned towards the centre, the outside flap of skin folded up to prevent leakage of the pickling fluids created by the salt. A second circle overlapped the first, and a third overlapped the second, moving closer to the centre until the entire first layer had been formed. A huge wheel of dead birds.
The farm crofts that are centuries old were first made of black stone and are now called blackhouses to distinguish them from the crofts that more recently used lighter stone. It is the indelible world of Lewis that makes this book unforgettable, and there's a detective in there too!
* * * * *
9. Flannery O'Connor - Wise Blood 1949
Her first novel, this is a black satirical work that draws on the propensity of Americans to believe almost anything and suffer for it. The returned war veteran, Hazel Motes, starts a street church in the mid-west to make a living, intending to preach atheistic themes. He is successful enough to provoke a rival who founds the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, and then it's no holds barred, and it turns out Hazel's head is mostly the problem.
O'Connor says in her introduction
That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to.
* * * * *
10.Markus Zusak - The Book Thief 2006
This is the moving story narrated by Death, of Liesel Meminger, a girl in Hitler's Germany involved in the protection of a Jew in the family cellar. She becomes a book thief, learns to read and become a story-teller to fill the long days and nights of seclusion. The writing is engaging and lively as Death involves the reader in his to-ings and fro-ings but it is forthright rather than morbid.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
There's an Australian connection coming from the fact that Liesel survived the war and went to live in Sydney.
* * * * *