Best fiction of 2015

For my favourite non-fiction books of 2015, go here.

At the start of this year, I aimed to read at least 60 books (a goal I reached in October). Looking back on my reading choices for 2015, I meandered through several genres, including science fiction, mysteries, political thrillers, historical fiction and contemporary fiction. In no particular order, here are five books I enjoyed reading in 2015. Don’t worry, no spoilers!

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S.  Tepper
The Wide World Trilogy by Robert Goddard
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited by Helon Habila
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

“Honour is only a label [the warriors] use for what they want you to do. They want you to stay, so they call staying honourable.”Tepper

I am not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy novels (although I like them as films). It is not that I dislike those genres. Rather, I can’t seem to connect to the characters since their world seems too far removed from my own. The Gate to Women’s Country, however, reminds me of the work of Margaret Atwood, particularly The Handmaid’s Tale: in both novels, the experiences of the women are familiar enough that I can identify with the characters and their struggles, and so I can overlook the fact that the worlds they inhabit are – on the surface – very different from my own.

Tepper’s book is set several hundred years in the future, after some catastrophic event that has resulted in a complete transformation of the way society is structured. Most of the women and girls live in small towns or eco-villages, where education and hard work are valued, and where skills such as agriculture, medicine and self-defence are taught. Most men and boys live in garrisons outside the towns, with no access to the skills and knowledge that form part of town life. The men are regarded as warriors and they wage war, ostensibly to protect the women.

Twice a year, the warriors are permitted into the town during a festival, and can form relationships with women. Sex is permitted and during the festival, women can conceive. If the child is a boy, he is raised in the town until he is 5, after which he is sent to live with his father and the other warriors. At age 15, boys can choose to return to the town and live among women, but they must reject war and violence. Men who return to the town are mocked and despised by the warriors, and most opt to remain in the garrisons and wage war.

Some critics have argued that the book promotes gender essentialism. However, I don’t think Tepper is arguing that men are inherently violent and women are inherently peaceful. In fact, the towns and the women who run them and the decisions they make are not presented as unproblematic. Rather, I think that Tepper is using the most extreme gender stereotypes to encourage us to challenge the hyper-masculinity defined in the book. Many of the male characters exemplify the worst of a particular kind of masculinity: dominating, vindictive, and prone to using intimidation and violence when threatened. The world Tepper has created is one possible outcome in a society that lets this kind of masculinity remain unchecked for too long, resulting in catastrophe and then the rise of a new society that resorts to extremes to ensure that the remains of civilisation won’t again devolve into anarchy and violence.

This is an interesting and compelling book, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in utopian/dystopian novels and speculative fiction.

The Wide World Trilogy by Robert Goddard

“The truth is terrible. But the truth is also freedom. Do not turn away from it.”

Robert Goddard is one of my favourite authors, and I have been reading his books since I was in my early teens. I own every book he Ways of the Worldhas published, and when I stumble across a new book in the shops, I don’t bother even reading the synopsis before buying it. I know I’m going to enjoy it and I have yet to be disappointed.  Goddard writes convoluted mysteries which are carefully crafted and bursting with colourful characters. Some find his plots a little too elaborate and unbelievable, but I don’t think plausibility should stand in the way of a good mystery.

The Wide World trilogy is set at the end of the Great War (WWI), during the peace talks in Paris, 1919. A British diplomat, Sir Henry Maxted, has died under suspicious circumstances while participating in the Paris Peace Conference. Almost everyone wants to avoid any investigation: his family, to avoid the scandal bound to result after it is revealed that he died while visiting his mistress; his colleagues, as his death may have political ramifications; and the local police who want to wrap things up as quickly as possible. However, his youngest son, James Maxted, is determined to find out what really happened. His search leads him all around the world, as he begins to uncover decades of family secrets while facing danger, uncertainty and betrayal, and gets sucked into a world of political intrigue and mystery. A central question of this story is whether the truth is worth pursuing if it comes at a great cost.

I suggest you read these books immediately after each other – if you don’t move on to the next book quite quickly, you’re going to forget who everyone is and what exactly happened.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

“Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”Verghese

Cutting for Stone is the debut novel of Abraham Verghese, a doctor born in Ethiopia to Indian parents. Set primarily in Ethiopia, Cutting for Stone tells the story of brothers Marion and Shiva Stone, conjoined twins separated at birth. Their mother – a Carmelite nun and nursing aide – dies during childbirth and their presumed father, a doctor, abandons them.

At the heart of the novel are family relationships, which are complex, variable, and both fragile and strong at the same time. Marion and Shiva are raised by two doctors who work at the hospital they were born in, in Addis Ababa: Kalpana Hemlatha and Abhi Ghosh, both immigrants from India. Initially, the twins are very close but begin to grow apart in their early teens, and go in different directions. Political unrest in Ethiopia forms the backdrop for this story of family, love and betrayal, and this turmoil reflects the changes and struggles in the relationship between the brothers, and throughout their extended family.

The protagonist, Marion Stone, is not exactly a hero and sometimes is even a villain, and more than once I wanted to throw him through a wall. This is still an interesting read, however, if you don’t find the numerous tragedies and violent events too difficult to read. This novel deals with difficult topics including sexual violence and female circumcision, so tread with caution. In addition, Verghese is a doctor, and the novel is full of lengthy descriptions of medical procedures and complications, which may not be enjoyable to the squeamish reader. However, the prose is really quite beautiful, and this lengthy book is worth the time investment.

The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited by Helon Habila
Habila.jpg

“I often attend lectures and conferences where some distinguished speaker will give a talk on African literature that, to my disappointment, if not surprise, begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958.” (Habila in the Introduction)

This is a wonderful collection of short stories written by authors from across the African continent, with a particular emphasis on those writing from the 1980s onwards. Many authors publishing in the prior three to four decades were writing from a postcolonial perspective, and took much of their inspiration from anti-colonialism and nationalism. The subsequent generation, what Habila calls the “post-nationalist generation”, has expanded its focus from national politics to take on socio-cultural issues like gender and sexuality, as well as racism and the experience of immigration for Africans in Europe and the United States. In the introduction, Habila quotes Paul Zeleza, a Malawian writer and literary critic, who has written about this generation of authors:

“This generation incorporated in their literary imaginations disdain for colonialism and distrust of nationalism that had animated earlier generations of writers who bemoaned the cultural agonies of colonialism and the aborted dreams of uhuru. The new generation had decidedly more cosmopolitan visions of the African condition, cultural production, and the subjectivities of gender, class, and sexuality” (PDF link to article).

This anthology features 29 stories from different authors, including Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi (Nigeria), Camara Laye (Guinea), Alex La Guma (South Africa), Mansoura Ez-Eldin (Egypt) and Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya). Most of the stories are enjoyable to read, and the collection introduced me to several authors I had never heard of and am now eager to read more of.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

“Sometimes life turns out hard. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.”Stedman

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is also a divisive book. The story is built around a decision made by the main protagonists that you will either find shockingly immoral and will therefore feel nothing but disdain for them for the rest of the book, or you will find the decision morally complex and feel sympathetic when everything begins to unravel for them. I am in the latter camp, and therefore found this to be a beautiful and challenging book to read.

The novel begins shortly after the end of World War I. Tom and Isabel Sherbourne are lighthouse keepers on the fictional island of Janus Rock, off the coast of Australia. They live in isolation with monthly visits from the supply boat. After several years, two miscarriages and one stillbirth, they are unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to expand their family when a boat washes up on the shore carrying a dead man and a live baby. They decide to keep the baby and raise her as their own. When their (informally) adopted daughter is two, they visit family on the mainland and discover that their decision has had devastating consequences for other people, and their fateful decision begins to bring their life down around them.

If you prefer heroes and protagonists to be morally uncomplicated and/or uncompromising, then this is not likely to be enjoyable. Personally, I find characters who are ethically conflicted to be more interesting, so for me this was a marvellous read.

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