This year has been a fantastic year for books. Published this year have been some genuine gems that I will treasure in years to come. First Cynan Jones’ The Dig - a short novel set in the countryside around Aberaeron in West Wales, where I grew up, and focusing on the hardscrabble lives of the characters who farm the land and topically, on a badger dig. To tell the story would be to give away too much of the plot but what I loved about this novella (Jones describes himself as the ‘writer of short novels’) is the economy of phrasing and the sensibility for the harshness and beauty of the landscape, the tender and lyrical use of language that gives the work a tone of mournfulness.
From there to Ireland and another book that I have been pressing on anyone who will listen, Colin Barrett’s Young Skins. Again the hard lives of the rural small town, this time Ireland, and the contrast between the natural world and those who live bored, broken lives within its confines, his subject. He does this with a clever, downbeat flourish that stays with the reader. Like his compatriot, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett is a gifted observer of the ‘new’ Ireland and a talent to get genuinely excited by.
A first novel that impressed me this year was Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out. Following the chaotic life of dropout and failure Annemarie this is a pisstake of the failures of feminism, a wry observation of hipster (non) values and a novel with a deliciously bad and hilariously fucked-up central character. For all its flaws – the pacing goes off beam a little in the second half – this book made me laugh out loud in public and is a delight for anyone looking for a book with a bad-girl heroine that we can believe in.
Finally, Ali Smith with her masterful, How to Be Both, and Lydia Davis’ new collection of stories, Can’t and Won’t – both writers who successfully play with form to encourage new ways of seeing. Davis’ short fictions leave the reader with puzzles that remain long after reading and Ali Smith’s new book – my edition had the teenager first – is one of those rare examples of a book where the formal experiment doesn’t undermine the pleasure of the text. She should have won the Booker.
2014 has also been an extraordinary year for poetry and there are three collections that have been on heavy rotation round at mine this Autumn. Firstly Rosemary Tonks’ Bedouin of the London Evening. Her work has been hidden from us for years thanks to a cataclysmic nervous breakdown that turned her away from her writing. This new collection, with a sensitive introduction by Neil Astley, returns her to the public eye. She was admired by her contemporaries, including Larkin, and you can see why – her voice is completely original: ordinary and surreal, rhythmic and dissonant and always surprising. There are some classics here which I have read and re-read with great pleasure, so fully formed and alive is the work. ‘Done For!’ and ‘Bedouin of the London Morning’ both stand out, but each one is like a jewelled present and she can now take her rightful place along with the best of our national poets.
The second from Martina Evans, Burnfort, Las Vegas, more of her narrative poetry that ranges between her childhood in West Cork and her house in Dalston. Last year’s Petrol was a prose poem memoir and this collection also contains some prose poetry but the most successful poems – the title poem, ‘Anatomy Lesson’, and a sequence of poems about her daughters’ shoes – are full of surprises, the language contemporary and exact and steeped in religious symbolism. Surely it’s time for a Collected Poems?
Finally Kate Tempest with Hold Your Own. More poems as narrative – this time taking the persona of the blind prophet Tiresias, spilt into four sections covering the ‘hoods’ of life’s stages: childhood, womanhood, manhood, as well as a fourth section ‘Blind Profit’ which is more obviously political. It’s a poetry collection to be read in a sitting as well as individually. But in a way it doesn’t need the fussy structure – because her poem ‘The Cypher’ – articulates something of the fierce burning of her creative energy and her ambitious, androgynous, powerful voice: ‘I move like the boys / I talk like the boys, / but my words are my own.’ To witness her perform her work is to see an example of an artist in the flow of a creative rapture – or jouissance – she can’t, won’t, help it and all the better for us. This collection changes the gears of contemporary poetry, brings a rhythmic intensity, inspired by hip hop as much as the Classics, to the table and I love her for it.
And a stocking filler – the handsome Notting Hill Editions have republished a selection of Woolf’s essays, craftily collected together by Joanna Kavenna under the title of Virginia Woolf: Essays on the Self – here is her famous and useful essay on ‘Character in Fiction’ and her musings about ‘Professions for Women’. Underpinning all of the essays is the question of what it means to have a sense of self. A question that, in the age of the selfie, seems utterly topical.