#4 (2020): Resin by Ane Riel

Resin by Ane Riel was definitely my favourite January read. It drew me in quietly and by the end I was simultaneously anxious to know the conclusion and sad that it would all be over.

Liv died when she was just six years old. 

Her father knew he was the only one who could keep her safe in this world. So one evening he left the isolated house his little family called home, he pushed their boat out to sea and watched it ruin on the rocks. Then he walked the long way into town to report his only child missing.

But behind the boxes and the baskets crowding her Dad’s workshop, Liv was hiding. This way her Dad had said, she’d never have to go to school; this way, she’d never have to leave her parents. 

This way, Liv would be safe.

Resin is primarily narrated by Liv, a young girl of around seven, and the prose in these sections holds a childlike quality. It’s punctuated by short sentences and a matter-of-fact tone, and is flavoured by Liv’s endearing belief that everything her father tells her is true. Sometimes her abrupt honesty is heart-wrenching and I wanted to get inside the book, bundle her up and give her a little TLC. These chapters are interspersed with letters from her mother, fragments of backstory about Liv’s family and, later, a couple of other characters.

Within the narrative, Riel deals with some weighty issues, particularly with regards to bereavement. One of the novel’s primary concerns is how loss affects individuals differently, and her carefully crafted characterisation helps to convey this in a very believable manner.

The tale is set on an island, with the family living in relative seclusion. Riel’s descriptions of the landscape are often vivid, and as someone who particularly appreciates a strong sense of place I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.

The path curved and suddenly there was noticeably more space between the trees. The white must which had lain across the forest all day had slowly drifted south. At that moment the troll trees ended completely and left the scene to the afternoon sun, which lit up the forest floor, revealing a myriad of life: glossy beetles struggling across steaming grass mounds; insects dancing in the air between the tree trunks; a shrew’s ceaseless pottering between blades of grass. (Pg. 31)

Readers who liked Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days or Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling will probably take well to this novel.

#3 (2020): The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

My third read of the year was a book I’d been wanting to read for ages: The Mars Room. Crime novels aren’t something I typically gravitate towards, but this seemed more like a post-crime narrative that posed deeper questions about a woman’s place in society, and her right to feel safe and free from harassment.

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living.

I found the book a little sluggish to begin with, which was disappointing after waiting so long to read it. The opening pages had a fragmentary quality and provided little tastes of Romy in her present state, information about her, or musings on San Francisco. This worked overall but I wanted Kushner to settle on something and drag me in a little before flitting to another perspective or topic.

However, the book was well worth persevering with and I soon felt myself immersed in Romy’s world. Over the course of the book, Kushner weaves the stories from other prisoners into the narrative, and at points the prose shifts from the first person to the third. I liked that this fleshed out the other characters, who might otherwise have lacked substance.

I found Kushner’s depictions of San Francisco vivid and believable, and the little scenic details she dropped in immediately brought vibrancy to a scene. There’s a moment when she describes Los Angeles and I was immediately transported back to my brief stay in California in early 2019.

But Los Angeles was a new planet, with Creamsicle sunsets, sandals in January, giant birds of paradise, supermarkets with gleaming rows of tropical produce. (Pg. 203)

This is a delicious contrast to her earlier description of San Fran:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. (Pg. 33)

Overall, this was an enjoyable (although sometimes unflinchingly grim) read. I suspect fans of Orange is the New Black may find something for them with Kushner’s institutional tale.

#2 (2020): Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach

My second read of the year, Confession with Blue Horses, took me Berlin and filled me with the desire to book flights and explore the city. (Fortunately or unfortunately, funds did not permit me to fulfil the impulse!)

Tobi and Ella’s childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past is full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family’s daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive. Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses?

In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession. 

When Ella is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her fate clashes with Aaron’s, and together they piece together the details of Ella’s past… and a family destroyed.

I enjoyed this a lot, partly due to my fascination with and desire to travel to Germany (Berlin in particular), partly due to how excellent the story was. Hardach’s ability to create a sense of space and to develop believable characters is to be commended. The novel made me want to research more of the history behind the Berlin Wall and finally get around to booking that trip I’ve been talking about for years.

Here’s an extract from early on in the book:

Prenzlauer Berg was looking very cheerful. Gone was the tang of coal fires and cabbage soup. The balconies were firmly attached now, and decorated with spinning pinwheel heads and anti-nuclear posters. A red sun on yellow background, clenching its fist in protest: Atomkraft Nein Danke! Fathers strapped chocolate-smeared children into buggies. Women swished past on fixed-gear bikes, reflective clips flashing from their ankles. (Pg. 114)

The story is primarily focused on Ella’s search for the truth, and Aaron’s archival work. There are also well-crafted flashbacks that provide further context to the present-day narrative. Each thread is equally stimulating and intricate in its detailing, and I found myself pondering over the characters and the tale long after I’d finished it. For anyone who enjoys fiction with a historical twist, this one may be just what you’re looking for.

#1 (2020): Shrill by Lindy West

My first read of the year was Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

The book is brilliantly written — honest, funny, and heartbreaking in parts. I found aspects of it particularly relatable, and I think that anyone who has disliked or felt betrayed their body will find themselves nodding in recognition at what West has to say.

West discusses her career as a journalist throughout the book, and frequently cites instances where she had to pull up colleagues on their double standards with regards to fat-shaming. I found it eye-opening but, at the same time, unsurprising that she encountered such intense prejudice just because of how she looked. Like Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, which I discussed here, Shrill tackles challenging — and often ‘taboo’ — issues head on. I believe that it’s vital that these discussions keep taking place and that marginalised voices are heard. Kudos to West (and Pine) for having the courage to speak out. More, please!

Lindy West’s second book The Witches Are Coming is out now (and the friend who bought me Shrill assures me that it is equally excellent).