It’s quite natural that I should feel a bit embarrassed about my reading tally for the year since I probably managed under 30 books in 2008. There was the small matter of a Master’s thesis to finish and also a few freelance articles to write in addition to my day-job so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad. But it was still a very good reading year, thanks in large part to the wonderful suggestions from my book-blogging friends. So thanks to you all, and here’s to a richly rewarding 2009.
Best South African fiction
Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk
Algeria’s Way by Alex Smith
Agaat is a massive plaasroman (farm novel) with draws richly from farming, religion, literature, poetry, history, medicine and psychology. At its essence it’s the story of Milla and Agaat, a white madam and her coloured maid in apartheid South Africa. A young wife (Milla) takes in a badly-abused abused child (Agaat) and restores her to health. Agaat becomes Milla’s domestic servant on the farm and acts as nursemaid to her beloved son. As Milla grows older and her husband dies and her son leaves for Canada, the roles become reversed. Milla suffers from a debilitating muscle-degenerative disease and is completely dependent on Agaat. The relationship between the two is fascinating and the descriptions of how the paralysed Milla has to communicate with Agaat using only her eyes are some of the best descriptions I’ve read. The hope, frustration, joy, irritation and then despair of communication. The interplay of words, eyes and body. Utterly brilliant.
The book is too long by about 200 pages (and I skipped some of the waffly stream of consciousness bits) but it’s probably the best example of South African fiction in the past few years. If I was going to suggest a South African book to read, skip right past Gordimer and Coetzee and start instead perhaps with Agaat. At a broader level it’s a wonderful portrayal of the relationship between colonisers and colonised and then, with the ending of apartheid, how the wheel has turned. It sounds serious but it’s also full of laughter and light.
Best African fiction
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is a Nigerian author who’s lived her adult life in the US. This is a wonderfully evocative coming-of-age story which draws on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The themes of the personal and the political, tradition versus progress, dictatorship versus freedom are explored through the eyes of 15-year old Kambili, who grows up with a tyrant of a father at a time of political upheaval in Nigeria.
Best general fiction
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’ Farrell
The Other Side of You (Sally Vickers)
Breath by Tim Winton
As I’m sure you know, these first two explore the interaction of psychology and personal narratives in a powerful way. What stayed with me most from Maggie O’ Farrell’s book was how psychology and psychiatry can so easily disempower women within a broader culture of gender inequality. Sally Vickers’ book was particularly interesting from a literature and psychology perspective. As a psychologist-turned-writer, she provides wonderful insights into the power of narrative and the way that people are both undone by their subjectivities as well as how they can find themselves again through stories.
Best psychology-related non-fiction
Going Sane by Adam Phillips
Winnicott by Adam Phillips
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (neuropsychology)
Best collection of short stories
Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin
Best psychology-related short stories
How People Change by Bill Tucker
Lost in America by Sherwin Nuland
Best crime / mystery novel
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
Blood Rose by Margie Orford