Books read during 2020

I read the following 39 books during 2020. By ‘read’ I mean for recreational reading. Some of them have already been discussed on these pages, but I’ll outline ten further ‘favourites’ here.

Books read during 2020

Adam Roberts: H.G. Wells A Literary Life
Pat Barker: Life Class
Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come
Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook
Sophie Cunningham: City of Trees
Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré: A Genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré
Laura Thompson: The Six: the lives of the Mitford Sisters
Sulari Gentill: A Testament of Character
Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl
Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler
John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
Ed Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg: Hitler Victorious
Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Curtis Sittenfeld: Rodham
Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler:  A Spool of Blue Thread
Nicholson Baker: Substitute
Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
Mary L. Trump: Too Much and Never Enough
Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Women and Leadership
Polly Samson: A Theatre for Dreamers
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain
Kiley Reid: Such a Fun Age
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body
Jane Harper: The Survivors
Stuart Kells: The Convent
Brandon Taylor: Real Life
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Kerry Greenwood: Death in Daylesford
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
Craig Campbell & Debra Hayes: Jean Blackburn

Pat Barker: Life Class

Pat Barker writes so well about war. This is the first of the ‘Life Class’ trilogy, which also includes Toby’s Room and Noonday. A lot of books have been set in the First World War – but I haven’t tired of it yet. It was such an utterly brutal catastrophe that has shaped our modern world – and we are still learning of the reality – so much was hidden for so long in the ‘glory’ of war and celebration of victory. In Life Class we find ourselves in the world of English art students – the Slade school of Art. Artists who studied under Henry Tonks – who was also a surgeon. Many young people wanted to be in the war – to join up as soon as possible and go to the front. One young woman artist wanted to try to forget it was going on – she didn’t see the importance of painting it. Most of the novel is from the viewpoint of Paul who is unable to enlist because of his health, but works in Belgium as a nurse, then ambulance driver. Will his love for Elinor Brooke survive?  – they have such different feelings about the war.

Sophie Cunningham City of Trees

Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact –– trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but she is always drawn back to Australia. Now, in the 21st century, we are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

Bart van Es The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es was interviewed at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. Had I not heard the interview, I might have passed over this book as another Diary of Anne Frank – a Jewish child kept in hiding during WWII in the Netherlands. Quite apart from the difference that Lien, the ‘cut out girl’, is still alive – now 86, there is a connection with Bart van Es’ family. He knew that his grandparents had sheltered a girl during the war, but there was some kind of mystery and it wasn’t talked about. When, after an uncle died in 2014, van Es expressed an interest in tracking down Lien, he was warned that she might not want to talk to members of the family.

But this was not the case. They struck up a friendship which, van Es says, changed his life.

The book is well constructed, flowing from van Es’ present interviewing and researching – his meals with Lien, their walking around Amsterdam (van Es lives in England), to her accounts of her life from the time when, at the age of eight, her mother said ‘You are going to stay somewhere else for a while’ – and she never saw her mother or father again. A couple of months later, the parents were murdered at Auschwitz. 

Lien starts off staying with the van Es family – she seems to quite like it there. But inevitably she must be moved around and much of her time is with a strict protestant family who treat her as a servant and, when she is still only ten or eleven, one member regularly rapes her. Although it seems as though Lien is quite naïve about the war that is going on around her, there is a point where she seems to realise that she will never see her parents again. She lets the two rings they gave her slip through floorboards.

But of course this childhood deprived of real family – and real love – has a devastating effect, which becomes apparent in Lien the adult who can’t cope with a conventional orthodox Jewish marriage although she has children and is comfortably off. She seeks counselling, but years later the fact that she doesn’t have a past, or can’t talk about her past and that she doesn’t really belong in any family leaves her devastated. ‘I ought not to be here’, she says. ‘Ma’ van Es can’t fully comprehend this – she took in children, gave them a good, loving home – she naively can’t appreciate that there was something she could not give the ‘cut out’ Lien. And this inability to understand was the basis of the rift with the family.

Eighty-six year old Lien now seems to lead a full and fulfilling life and at the time of the book being written she had just become involved with a new relationship with a man she had known at primary school. But this book helps to show how the trauma experienced by children such as Lien can never be fully repaired.

E.M. Forster: A Room with a View

What great fortune to find a ‘classic’ book that I hadn’t yet read. I had seen the movie of this novel, made in the 1980s. It is a very good Merchant Ivory film, but it still doesn’t completely capture the essence that has made this one of the greatest novels in the English language. In some ways some of the characters are almost Dickensian – Mr Bebe, the clergyman, for example. The reader fears that Lucy Honeychurch is too tightly entrapped in the Edwardian society in which she lives. We first see her visiting Florence with her stuffy cousin, Charlotte as chaperone – having to behave according to the required code. And yet, the Arno gurgles freely outside Lucy’s window and a tram rushes past, Lucy wants to ride on that tram – both suggest a freedom that she has not yet acquired.

From the Merchant Ivory film

A few days later, when Charlotte has temporarily abandoned her, Lucy experiences something wonderful, yet disturbing. The carriage boy misunderstands her English and escorts her away from the picnic party, picking her a bunch of violets, ‘the world was beautiful and direct’. On a little open terrace, covered with violets – the image reminded me a bit of the birth of Venus – ‘violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue eddying round the tree stems… But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.’ And she is kissed by George – a man untrammelled by pretension – a man who genuinely loves her. Lucy doesn’t know how to cope with this and at first sees his ‘indiscretion’ as an insult. But many months later, after enduring an engagement to the ostentatious Cecil, who despises her own rural upbringing, who is stiff and judgmental, Lucy and George elope and we leave them back in Florence in a warm, golden world of love.

Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing

What a pleasure to read this autobiography where the voice of Woody Allen comes over just as we know him – putting himself down, making fun of himself – except the accusations by Mia Farrow that he ‘interfered with’ his seven-year-old daughter Dylan, which he convincingly denies. Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, has been Allen’s wife for 25 years – she was not under age, but a college student, when they started to have an affair. He convinced me of his innocence – but of course, he would. There is more name-dropping and detailed description of making some movies than I needed – but I did realise that there are still a lot of his movies I haven’t seen.  It is an account of his life, as he sees it. It would have been tempting, I expect, to make this book a protestation of his innocence in the sex scandal – but it is far more than that.

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

This is a book of historical fiction written by a social researcher – it is her debut novel. Esme Nicholls absorbs words from a very young age, sitting under a table in the Scriptorium where her father works for Sir James Murray, compiling the OUP New English dictionary with a team of lexicographers. Esme’s mother died when she was a baby – her father is loving and tries to fulfil both parental roles.

As Esme grows up she is given work – errands, and ultimately allowed to make her own contributions. We see how the words selected are those of middle class 19th century gentlemen – she starts to collect words from the lower class women at the covered market. Esme is close to Lizzie – a maid who has looked after her since her earliest days – she sees Lizzie’s perspective on life, where suffragettes are ‘just a lot of rich ladies wanting even more than they already have’.

Esme has a daughter out of wedlock – this is all discreetly handled by her intelligent and perceptive godmother. The girl is adopted by a friend of the godmother and is taken to South Australia where she ultimately continues Esme’s fascination with language.

Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves

I was sorry to finish this book – it is so beautifully written and brilliantly imagined. What if Kate Grenville had found a stash of old letters and notes hidden in the ceiling of Elizabeth Farm – the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur? John Macarthur, as all good Australian primary school children have been taught, was the ‘father’ of the Australian wool industry. Grenville argues – very reasonably – that it was Elizabeth who built up the sheep farming – a skill she had learned from her grandfather.

Macarthur was away from Parramatta for a lot of the time and when he was around he was far more interested in getting promoted than in farming sheep. Kate Grenville did have access to letters written by Elizabeth Macarthur. But in those days, and particularly with a husband like John Macarthur, she would have written them knowing that they would be scrutinised by others, particularly her husband. Elizabeth Macarthur was undoubtedly intelligent, undoubtedly unhappy in her marriage to Macarthur, but like many women of that time she was resigned to it and made the most of it.

Knowing these things, Grenville imagines that she found a box of papers and that she transcribed and edited them. No – the book is fiction. But it is utterly convincing and although it is inevitably a view of that time through 21st century eyes, it may well come close to a truer picture of the life of the early 19th century sheep farmer than the social mores of that time would allow.

Tara June Winch: The Yield

This book won the Miles Franklin award – deservedly. You can’t get much more Australian. Tara June Winch is a First Australian woman and this novel is concerned with the reclaiming of Native Title for a property where Indigenous people have lived for centuries – it is being taken over by a tin mine. But this is far more than an account of a battle between European settlers and the First People.

The book is an intertwining of the story of August, an Indigenous woman in her late twenties who returns home for the burial of her grandfather and encounters the tin mine takeover, the story of an early 20th century missionary, involved with the grandfather’s education – who believed he was doing good. And, most importantly, a dictionary of significant words of the Wiradjuri language of the Gondiwindi people that was compiled by August’s late grandfather that shows the language to be a living language and hence a justification for the Native Title claim. The dictionary underlines the significance of language and the meaning of particular words – for example, ‘yield’ in English refers to taking things from the land, in Wiradjuri, ‘yield’ is things you give to the land.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after the death of his eleven year-old son. This novel is a re-imagining of the son’s death. Stratford and Shakespeare are rarely mentioned, the focus being, particularly Shakespeare’s wife, Anne – here called Agnes. O’Farrell deftly takes us into the Shakespearean world without the disruption that might be caused by using contemporary language. Life in the sixteenth century village of Stratford (barely named) is  convincing – we can smell it and feel it. The twins play games as twins probably do today, swapping clothes and confusing people about which one is Hamnet and which one his sister. But the book is mainly about the grief of losing a child – its impact on the father, the sisters and particularly the mother.

Ian McEwan: The Innocent

This is an early Ian McEwan novel, first published in 1990, but although he’s a favourite author of mine, I hadn’t read it. Leonard Marnham, a British technician,  25 years old in 1955, is sent to Berlin to work on a C.I.A.-M.I.6 surveillance project against the Soviet Union. He is naïve. Hasn’t been overseas before and still lives with his parents. The effects of WWII are still very evident in Berlin – the wall has yet to be constructed but the different sectors dominate life. British and American agents are building a tunnel under the eastern sector of Berlin, in order to tap into Soviet communications systems, and Leonard is engaged in this top secret work. This helps him to grow up quickly – as does his experience with Maria, whom he meets on one of his first nights in Berlin when he is invited out drinking with fellow workers. This leads to his first sexual experience.

After a few weeks of happiness, Leonard discovers that he likes the idea of dominating Maria (he sees himself reliving England’s victory over Germany in the war) and the lovers have a brief separation. Maria has been married before and the drunken, jealous former husband, Otto, hovers at the edge of their relationship. On the night of Leonard and Maria’s engagement party, Otto lets himself into Maria’s flat with his key and hides in the wardrobe of her bedroom. He threatens Maria – almost strangles her. Leonard is not a fighter, but he tackles Otto. In the end, Otto is mortally injured. What to do with the body? The couple end up cutting up the body, wrapping up the pieces and putting them in two suitcases, which Leonard is supposed to take to a locker in a railway station (but the cases don’t quite fit). The detailed description of mutilating the body took up several paragraphs. It reminded me of McEwan’s writing in The Cement Garden. I must confess I had to skip over bits – rather like a gory movie when you look away from the screen. There is the drama of whether Leonard will be discovered – asked to open the suitcases, perhaps. They are cases attached to the surveillance project and, when Leonard is seen by his superior lugging them out to the street, he must accept a lift with them to the project site. They manage to get through security without being opened, although the reader is on tenterhooks that this will happen. Leonard is desperate. The body will start to smell soon. He will be discovered. He decides to divulge the existence of the tunnel project to the Russians. If they attack the project, a dead, mutilated body in suitcases will be of minor interest. In fact, unknown to Leonard, there is another traitor and the Russians invade, but not because of Leonard’s betrayal. Having taken part in the gruesome disposal of Otto, Leonard in particular feels cool towards Maria. He leaves promptly for London and although there is talk of Maria joining him, this never happens. There is hope, at the very end of the book, that in their fifties Leonard and Maria may get together, both now being widowed and having grown-up children.

This book was a gripping read. A well-crafted plot. And the pace, except for dwelling perhaps a little too long on the hacked up dead body, was good.