Best Books Read in 2019 by Rachael Smart

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STORGY reviewer Rachael Smart takes us on a journey of the best books that she read in 2019, and her recommendations are something that always throw up books that we then put straight to the top of our overflowing to be read piles! So, grab yourself a coffee and some biscuits and enjoy, then you can put some of that Christmas money you got to some good use and purchase a couple of these beauties!

Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth

Notes Made While Falling excavates the primal, covert world of trauma in childbirth and human vulnerability in illness. Never have I read anything to mirror so pertinently my own birth trauma, that sense of falling in to a dark temporal suspension, dislocated from space and time and any sort of bodily possession. Resistant to generic classification, Ashworth has crafted a hybrid of stunning memoir accompanied by erudite and widely read literary analysis. Illness, writing and motherhood as ‘other’ are given full scrutiny and what emerges is a chasm in perinatal healthcare with a catastrophic reach. We find Gillian Rose, Barthes, Woolf and Derrida in these pages and moments of childhood which squeeze on the heart. Ashworth’s prose is brim full with a rare honesty. This book lent me permission for a maternal fragility I’d denied and gave me back birth memories I’d blocked out but needed to access: ‘We are distracted from the fall by our focus on the landing.’ Crucially, Ashworth offers a robust argument for quiet resilience and capacity to move forward from our most raw and powerless states. 

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is a debut collection of short stories which illuminate racism, cultural capitalism and social toxicity with stunning control and amidst the fast pulse of the reading the heart takes some wounds. Grim social reality gets coupled with the absurd in unflinching stories which explore the capacity for mob mentality and the potential for harm that all humans hold. Adjei-Brenyah makes big of the short story’s concision with an expansive range of voices which serve as an interpellation for society to take account of their actions.  We see Black Friday shoppers become commodity fetish murderers, the default nature of police violence gets pushed beyond extremes. This book scrutinises the stink of dehumanisation in all its guises and calls out the dirt. Explosive, gut wrenching. Quite simply it had me by the lapels.

Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers Edited by Kit De Waal

Common People is a collection of memoir, essays and poems which celebrate the wealth and barriers of a life lived working class. Eva Verde’s ‘I Am Not Your Tituba’ is a beautifully written reflective memoir on identity, race discrimination and the sanctuary of libraries. The skill here is in Verde’s ability to bring lightness to the most painful of matters. Identifying as a working class woman, I recognised her sheer joy of discovering wall to wall books – free to read – in an incomparable entry to new worlds which offered up more. Astra Bloom’s ‘Black Cat Dreaming’ explores, via delightful imaginative fancies, a child’s experiences of physical abuse and coping mechanisms with her sister. Spirit and intelligence penetrate this book along with rare acknowledgement of a certain sort of fluidity in identity, essential but hard to articulate, where working class writers have to act up or down, adopting different accents in case the people on the door turn them away.

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

The White Book is a meditation on an infant sister’s death via all things white. Grief is pared open with extraordinary delicacy through the study of, and not exclusive to, breath and sleet and snow and bone. Arguably prose but on the cusp of poetry, brevity is used to great effect with a satisfying white space on the page that signals pause for thought. Black and white photographs scaffold the collection with a quiet power that renders readers vulnerable. The genius of Han Kang is in her ability to distil the colours of mourning in to something so exquisite. A study that is deep and psychologically cleansing and so devastating that it stuns. 

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

As a fangirl of the spectrum of colour and a believer in the power of lapis lazuli, I fell hard for Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. This cerebral study  of the colour blue uses science and philosophy to explore facets of loss, pain and pleasure. A dear friend’s paralysis caused by an accident and the end of a highly chemical sexual relationship are told using the colour blue. Bluets is as much a poetic manual for emotional literacy as it is a collection of wisdom and memoir that lights true the colours of emotion with a beauty nothing short of quietening.  Structurally, the prose resonates with Kang’s memoir because narrative is arranged in concise bullet points with plentiful white space so that story accumulates in same-sized blue beads, necklace-style. A quote, here: ‘I am writing this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.’ 

Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

Saltwater is fiction which explores working class identities, maternal attachment and family dysfunction caused by alcoholism. Main protagonist Lucy is the first of her family to attend university and following her grandfather’s death, moves to Ireland to write and seek solace. There, she finds a more organic version of herself and meets a man. Plot is structured numerically as Andrews moves deftly between childhood memoir and present day prose, to and fro with a poetic intimacy I found shattering. Lucy speaks of ‘posh-girl skin’ which is ‘lustrous and shiny where I am mottled.’  Saltwater is fundamentally about finding space in the world. Possessing it. Occupying it. Trying to find ourselves in it.

The Crying Book by Heather Christle

The Crying Book makes seen one of the most private acts humans do. To cry is to be vulnerable, a biological phenomenon rarely talked about, that humiliation of letting go. Christle explores motherhood, relationships, infancy, the animal world, art and bereavement with her lens firmly on the salt crystal deposits from our eyes: ‘Most crying happens at night. People cry out of fatigue. But how horrible it is to hear someone say, ‘She’s just tired!’ Tired, yes, but just?’ There is nothing just about it.’ Born crying, we go out crying and Christle connects all the complex lines between these primeval drops. There is a sense of beautiful metamorphosis in this collection which examines a whole social history in tears and not only to chart sorrows and losses, but euphoric joys too.  You’ll need extra soft [woman size] tissues.

Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne

Paris Syndrome is a short story collection which chronicles one female traveller’s experiences as she seeks to find stability in a world always moving too fast. Sweeney Byrne has a sharp eye for colour and the observational in these portraits of love, casual encounters and cultural collisions. In Zeno’s Paradox the grief of a love realised too late is captured in full torment in the time it takes to journey on a train. ‘My Life as a Girl’ presents a surreal art exhibition which narrates in frames patriarchal ideals and the closed doors girls face. ‘Montparnasse’ captures our general social state of emotional dislocation with such jaded, honest accuracy that it’s impossible not to fold laughing. Humour cuts through these highly originally structured stories which nail the female traveller’s twitch in an arresting voice that readers won’t want to leave.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya Translated by Asa Yoneda

The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a stunningly surreal collection of stories which explores the patriarchal ideal in relationships with a light and satirical touch. Absurd scenarios abound such as a woman in a changing room who never comes out and a man who fails to acknowledge his wife’s vastly transformed body when she takes up bodybuilding.  Dysfunction in relationships and gender equalities get explored slant and there is a pervading illogicalness to the language that takes readers full circle. This is a golden collection which showcases how the short story’s narrative trajectories do not have to have to always echo the same rise and fall. 

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

The stories in Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow present a gothic underworld of wolves and witches, girlfriends coming back from the dead, Medusa turning her boyfriend to stone. Located in the everyday, Armfield keeps one foot firmly on the living room floor but tilts towards myth and metamorphosis to redistribute female power with an exhilarating use of language. ‘The Collectibles’ is a satisfyingly gory tale of three women who collect the trophies and body parts of men who have done them wrong in an astute paradox of the feminine ideal. ‘Formerly Feral’ sees a wolf adopted and explores sibling attachments with a darkly wry humour. Armfield subverts the patriarchal narrative and in her reimagining, makes a bright and admirable new in which the female is frontline.

Book reviews by

Rachael Smart

Rachael Smart writes essays, short fiction and poetry. Recent work has been published in The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2018 and Unthology 11. She is working on her first collection of short stories.

Cover Image by ThoughtCatalog

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