Looking for an escape from reality is a primary reason why many people read: to forget the worries of the world, the stresses of work, the demands of family and to take a moment to indulge in a fantastical world that stretches and opens the mind.
Our books choices for 2023 seem to be a telling sign of how we all felt about 2022, for there is little that resembles the reality we once knew. Instead there is a selection of magical realism, horror, dystopian, mythical, psychological fiction, and absurbism. There are asylum residents, zombies, talking magpies, mysterious aliments and cannibals.
There are realms where realities and personalities alter, revealing other sides of ourselves as a humanity. This seems to be the most alternative selection of settings, plots and genres in all our bookclub years, though it will be interesting to see if these radical worlds remain escapism attempts or if we find connections amongst the strange and the imagined that link us right back to actuality.
We circumnavigate the globe too, reading literature from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US, Japan, Argentina and China.
Here’s the reading list:
Lessons – Ian McEwen
The Axeman’s Carnival – Catherine Chidgey
The Girl WIth All The Gifts – M R Carey
The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
The Foundling – Ann Leary
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
Sorrow & Bliss – Meg Mason
Tender Is The Flesh – Agustina Bazterrica
Dairy Of A Void – Emi Yagi
The Last White Man – Mohsin Hamid
Cocoon – Zhang Yueran
The Rabbits – Sophie Overett
2022 was the year of adverse reactions to strong sentiment. Covid and its consequences may have been the catalyst but the effects reached all facets of the world.
In literary circles, 2022 saw a hark to the mid 20th century with the banning and condemning of books that dared to raise controversial subject matter or challenge censorship. Even classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale became questioned or unobtainable in certain places this year – books that were available and widely considered masterpieces prior.
Authors and literary greats around the world began campaigning against the control of speech and thought, advocating that the way to counter undesirable speech is with more speech and more freedoms, not less.
Margaret Atwood and her publishers were so concerned about the trend to ban books they produced a fireproof copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The special edition was printed on heat-resistant aluminium material, bound with nickel wire and stainless steel, and printed with ink that can’t be destroyed or degraded even at extreme temperatures.
There was even a You Tube clip of Margaret Atwood proving its indestructibility by turning a flame thrower on to it! The book ended up selling at auction for $130,000 with all proceeds going to a fund to fight literary censorship.
Free speech came to the fore again when literary great and freedom of speech advocate Salman Rushdie was attacked, stabbed on stage at a literary event. Rushdie has been under threat of attack for decades and lived in hiding for long portions of time because of his bravery to speak and write honestly.
What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
The defence of free speech comes when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech.Salman Rushdie
As these events took place throughout the year, we freerangers realised more the value and importance of everything we were reading, not wanting to take for granted our ability to read about controversial subject matter. Will what we now consider a standard or expected read one day be considered reprehensible?
As we met via Zoom for our end of year bookclub (Covid striking again) we relished characters both appealing and offensive, with villains in our favourites list and wholesome characters appearing in our least favourite list. We appreciated plots both inspiring and challenging and settings both magical and oppressive. A time to treasure them all for who knows when any of these components may be unavailable as writing devices in the future.
There some commonalities in our favourites: Celie and Shug were a great couple, Charlotte Grimshaw and Elena Ferrante had fascinating bios, A Color Purple had a satisfying ending and The Dictionary of Lost Words‘ ending was a bit too predictable, but we many differing thoughts too:
Jo: Celie from A Color Purple
Suzy: Alfa from At Night All Blood is Black
Jodie: Aunt Vittoria from The Lying Life of Adults
Rach: Aunt Vittoria from The Lying Life of Adults
Jo: Celie’s stepfather in A Color Purple
Suzy: Nathan & Stingo from Sophie’s Choice
Jodie: Russ from Crossroads
Rach: Russ from Crossroads
Most vivid setting:
Jo: The trenches in At Night All Blood is Black
Suzy: The underground world in Halfmen Of O
Jodie: The scriptorium in The Dictionary of Lost Words
Rach: Saint Malo in All The Light We Cannot See
Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.Jo’s most memorable quote of the year: A Color Purple
Most shocking moment (spoiler alert!)
Jo: Sophie’s choice about which child to keep in the camp – Sophie’s Choice
Suzy: The overnight attack – The Matriarch
Jodie: Alfa taunting the Germans with severed hands – At Night All Blood is Black
Rach: Mademba stuffing his bowels back into his severed guts – At Night All Blood is Black
Runner up best book:
Jo: All The Light We Cannot See
Suzy: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Jodie: A Color Purple
Rach: At Night All Blood is Black
Book of the year:
Jo: A Color Purple
Jodie: All The Light We Cannot See
Rach: Sophie’s Choice
Chosen by Suzy
Potiki tells the story of land developers who have their eye on coastal Māori land for commercial development with no understanding of the community’s needs or of their strong connection to the land.
The multi-narrator tale details the growing concerns of Māori and their attempts to quietly refuse the developers. Several sets of eyes offer different perspectives, from a jobless man who trusts in the land to provide all he needs, and his spiritually connected and disabled son, but mainly via his wife Roimata who documents events in a calm and reasoned manner.
This family is just one part of the loving and supportive community that is the crux of the book. Whatever their skills or status, strengths or weaknesses, no one in this extended whanau is insignificant; everyone is valued.
The book’s power in relating myths of generations past to modern political realities still resonants with readers today. Yet when released in the 1980s the book was considered controversial, in part because of its unashamed and untranslated use of Te Reo.
Potiki won the NZ Book Awards prize in 1987, the same year Te Reo Māori became an official language of New Zealand.
We have known what it is to have had a gift, and have not ever questioned from where the gift came, only sometimes wondered. The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies, that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours. The gift we were given is with us still.
❝ Potiki was a beautifully written novel and while it had a gentle rhythm that really pulled me in, there were acts of extreme violence amongst the depictions of family unity and community togetherness. It was a very grounding read and somewhat of a balm amongst the pre-Christmas busyness. – Suzy.
❝ Our painful racist history is a theme in Potiki but it’s the strength, resilience and aroha of the whanau that is heart warming and inspiring in this story of a seaside community and their strong connection to their land and determination to keep it. I was reminded once again about the importance of land to Māori. The spiritual aspect was interesting with Toko being a sort of prophet for the group. Patricia Grace has a way of making you feel like you are there in the garden, by the sea and in the wharenui which provides a nice bit of escapism when you can transport yourself to another place. Hard to believe it was so controversial when it was released as it seems to tell an important story related to common events of the time. – Jo
❝ Potiki is an attractive book to read because of its power of connection, to whanau and friends, to the spiritual world but in particular to the whenua. It’s a very New Zealand book in terms of its relationships and calm considerations to hierarchy and power. Rather than have a focus on appointing blame, Grace instead gives affected parties a voice and encourages the reader to determine their own position on a topic that has and will continue to make headlines, for connection with and ownership of land is a powerful force. Potiki is a timeless tale and should have been required reading in secondary schools from the time it was written, as far as I’m concerned. – Rachel
READ FOR BOOKCLUB
Chosen by Jo
The lives of two African-American sisters growing up in rural Georgia in the early to mid 20th Century are detailed in The Color Purple. Celie is raped by her stepfather and bears two children to him who are sent away. Celie writes letters to God outlining her fate and questioning the injustices in her life.
Nellie, with Celie’s help, manages to flee to Africa with a missionary group, however their father hides her letters to Celie. Once discovered they are found to detail her African experiences, discovering her family’s connections to the past.
There is a cast of other characters in the sisters’ lives whose fates showcase the brutality and degradation they experience at the hands of the men.
During the course of the novel Celie manages to free herself from her husband’s control. Supported by her female friends Celie eventually finds the empowerment to push back and to forge her own life, and as such gains some respect from the men who treated her so poorly.
Thematically the book details the sexism and prejudice that was common at that time, especially for people like Celie being both a woman and a person of colour. However transformation is also a key message. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983.
All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.
❝ I was reluctant to read this book as the blurb made it sound as if it would be incredibly traumatic. It does contain disturbing themes but on the whole is an uplifting story of female support and friendship. It is formatted as letters, and I found myself engrossed in Celie’s side of the tale so much so that whenever I was reading Nettie’s letters I just wanted to get back to Celie. The characters grew and changed for the better as the pages went by and it was satisfying when Celie rose up and took control over her own life and finally spoke the truth. I loved this book. – Jo
❝ I have to admit I was apprehensive to read The Color Purple as it has been portrayed as a violent and sad novel. Yes it is a heart-wrenching portrayal of African American woman in the 1930s . But it is also an inspiring journey of the protagonist Celie from the abuse she endured to self-discovery and independence. I found it a powerful story that has a rich, dynamic cast. Walker suffered criticism for her portrayal of African American men – it was a brave novel to write and one that was important for its honesty. It studies humanity and suffering but has a powerful message of redemption and hope. A must read! – Jodie
❝ This novel was made up of many truly awful moments, but was somehow able to maintain a thread of hope among the grim reality of living as a black woman in America in the early-mid 1900s. I enjoyed so much about The Color Purple, including the matter-of-fact way Celie’s same-sex relationship with Shug was conveyed, her wavering connection to religion, and how several characters were able to find a sense of peace despite their challenging situations. I haven’t seen the movie but after hearing a bit about it from Jo I will happily just stick with this amazing book. – Suzy
❝ I started The Color Purple decades okay but the grim content on the opening page made me put it down and I was apprehensive to pick it up again. However, anyone who feels this way should know the book is actually full of hope and redemption and taking back control of one’s life. Yes the female characters suffer but they also rise up, and it is quite an empowering read without being over the top and moralistic. It is written as Southern folk speak and this, as well as the directness and honesty of the narrative brings the settings and characters to life more than many books I’ve read. I’m so pleased I’ve read it now and I would recommend it widely. – Rachel
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
❝ The announcement of the long list was an impressive start to the 2022 Booker season. Strong contenders from around the world covered off important real life events or offered evocative interpretations of them. We had already read some of the books and were immediately drawn to others, so continued reading eagerly.
The shortlist was not exactly as either of us would have guessed but we still had some of the final six to go and were intrigued to discover why some of our favourites were omitted from the finalists’ schedule.
What we did find were recurring themes and ideas that suggested to us that events of the world in recent years are really causing us to examine more closely what it means to be a part of humanity and community and what our obligations are to both preserving the past and bettering the future.
As Mama Z in The Trees demonstrates by chronicling the names of the lynched and predicting one character’s death, it is knowledge of the past that allows us to make sense of the present and foresee the future.
While we experienced a range of emotions from delight and intoxication to confusion over the individual titles, the essence of the collection was resounding and affecting.
There were other commonalities amongst the group too, especially in the thematic and structural presentations employed to represent concerns about the past and the future. Satire, politics, history, folklore, ghost stories and religion were present in multiple works. Even Trump appeared more than once! Plus, unlike Bookers of the past, three of the novels were not lengthly, with two of them seeking word perfection with absolute minimal word counts.
Words not only mattered but they were power. Words were muti. Words were weapons. Words were magic. Words were church. Words were wealth. Words were life.Glory – NoViolet Bulawayo
The Trees, as mentioned, examines historical lynching and modern day racism. The lynched rising from the dead was perhaps the most overt example of the past coming back to haunt us.
Treacle Walker is very short, using folklore, religion and ethereal figures to produce a pure form of literature which examines the fluidity of the various realities that exist for different people.
The Seven Moons of Maali Ameida is a satire set in the Sri Lankan civil war, featuring a recently passed figure trying to make sense of and clear up his past so that he can pass through into the afterlife.
Glory is also satirical and set in another conflict, that of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Its recent historical events calls for closer inspection of what is happening for everyday people under the current regime.
Small Things Like These recalls Ireland’s religious history in a short, word perfect novel. We loved the main character who only wanted to pass on the love he had had as a child to someone else in need.
Oh William! features the well known character Lucy Barton scrutinising her first husband William, and therefore avoiding self examination, and how this extrapolates into their current friendship and her own present.
Many of these books also highlighted the position of individuals to identify injustices and to speak out. As a community it is easy to not be the one who makes a fuss, but as a collective, that transcends into acceptance and as we have seen from history and from this collection of books, complicity can lead to the most horrendous of acts.
Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These has the moral courage to affect change without fuss, and if everyone had the bravery to quietly stand up for their beliefs, perhaps some of our histories wouldn’t be quite so worth writing about.
And as Mama Z asks three times near the end of the The Trees, “Shall I make him stop?” indicating we can stop injustices, the choice to stop exists and each of us as individuals need to make that decision rather than be part of the complicit collective.
Suffice to say, the short list this year was quite an emotive ordeal. It feels like fiction for fiction’s sake is a thing a of the past and the authors of today are maximising this incredible platform to inform, inspire as well entertain. As Suzy says, it was a privilege to be accepted into these worlds and to hear these messages.
❝ I so enjoyed this shortlist. Even the impenetrable mayhem of Treacle Walker had its place as yet another whacky shortlister to add to a long list of whacky shortlisters we have come across over the years.
For me the standout was Glory which was incredibly impactful and so intelligently written. I am truly in awe of NoViolet Bulawayo and what she has done.
The next four books were also stunning and so affecting, and they have sat with me for days after finishing them. The authors have all written with such grace and skill – it has been a privilege to be able to immerse myself in their worlds. – Suzy
❝ I almost want to choose a four way tie for first: Small Things Like These, Glory, The Trees and Oh William! To have Oh William! fourth on my list is not an accurate portrayal of how much I liked it, nor how likely I think it is to win.
In the end I have picked Small Things Like These for the gong. While it offers so much, as the others do, Claire Keegan has shown great restraint to get her message across. Not only in the total word count, but to finish the book at a spot where most would consider it was just getting good. To raise the topic of shameful Irish history without drowning the reader in horrid details and moralistic sentiment, and to use so few words to produce such a huge effect, I think, should be recognised over other important stories that use ten times as many words.
I wouldn’t be unhappy if Glory, The Trees or Oh William won. And even though The Seven Moons of Maali Amedia wasn’t one of my favourites I could understand if it beat the rest. However, I think Treacle Walker winning will be a disservice to the half of the reading population who had no idea what was going on. (That includes me). – Rachel
The Seven Moons of Maali Ameida
Small Things Like These
Small Things Like These
The Seven Moons of Maali Ameida
READ FOR BOOKERTHON
❝ I was reading The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida while struggling night after night with very little sleep – awake for hours at a time in the early hours of the morning while endeavouring to get through a book about a soul caught ‘In Between’. Well let’s just say everything was starting to feel quite tangled and confused.
The struggle in getting through this book sat entirely with me and my sleep-deprived brain and is not a reflection of what is a completing engaging, yet devastating, storyline.
There is something extremely powerful about a book written about war where humour is used so adroitly and regularly. It gives the reader breathing room and space and makes the interspersion of extreme cruelty and suffering even more shocking.
All of the characters, whether alive or dead, are imperfect. Some are evil with no redeeming features and others are just regular and flawed, but doing the best they can in what feels like a time of very little hope.
There is one particular moment where the narrator directly addressed me as a reader and my own world. It was unsettling and effective and added to my sense of confusion and blurriness while reading this book.
As I journeyed through the In Between with Maali Almeida I felt sadness and I was entertained. Overwhelmingly it is the sense of the hopelessness of war that has sat with me upon completion of this book. Shehan Karunatilaka has done a stunning job and I would be delighted if this one took out the Booker. – Suzy
In all this madness, there is only one beast whose existence you doubt. And you are not thinking of God, also known as Whoever. You are thinking of that most impossible of all mythical creatures: the Honest Politician.
❝ A war photographer dies in 1990 during the Sri Lankan civil war and is caught inbetween life and the afterlife. He has seven days, or seven moons, to discover who killed him, ensure a series of important photographs he has taken are discovered, and to reach ‘the light’. A ghostly guide assists him in connecting with the living as he pursues his answers.
The narrative uses a second person POV, with Maali Ameida’s ghost reminding himself of what his life entailed, which was mainly photographing war scenes ‘burned homes, dead children”, gambling and sexual encounters.
This book is serious, ghostly and satirically funny. It covers off war, murder, art, politics, sexuality, and justice. It is a big book full of big ideas and takes you on a journey through Sri Lanka’s history and colourful landscape of people.
I did like it, but there are so many characters and so many events and I was in a Bookerthon reading rush. I think if I had read this first and slowed up a bit I might have gleaned more from it, but instead it was last off the rank for me. So, in the end, it turns out I’m not as enamoured with it as I know so many other readers and bloggers are.
Sort of Books
READ FOR BOOKERTHON
❝ I will admit that I struggled to understand the meaning or plot of Treacle Walker. It is a novella with very few words, some of which are old-fashioned, nonsense, rhyme and riddles, only a few characters and a fragile plot.
I had to resort to Google searches to understand it better 😦 It is about a boy named Joe whose lazy eye and eye patch symbolise his innocence, youthfulness and his pure outlook on life. He wants to get his vision fixed but a peddler, Treacle Walker, appears as his spirit guide, apprehensive of him establishing a more advanced outlook on reality. Comic characters come to life; a second version of Joe lives in a dream world; a figure named Thin Amren lives in a bog and calls to Joe encouraging him to ‘see’.
The book contains references to ghostly worlds, comic book history, quantum physics, folklore and fairies, innocence and many other features. Yet Garner has included all this and stripped away the words until the purity of only the essential ones remain.
I have come to realise how much meaning there is behind every word in this book and what an incredible job Garner has done has at creating a pure form of literature. I’m sure Garner fans and literati would be awe-struck with what he has achieved, but I maintain this is not a book that would have wide appeal due to its complexities. – Rachel
“Treacle Walker?” said Thin Amren. “Treacle Walker? Me know that pickthank psychopomp? I know him, so I do. I know him. Him with his pots for rags and his bag and bone and his doddering nag, and nookshotten cart and catchpenny oddments. Treacle Walker? I’d not trust that one’s arse with a fart.”
❝ I was completely flummoxed by this book. Rag and bone man, marbles, poor eyesight, cuckoo. That pretty much covers it. For it to be a Booker shortlister there’s an audience out there who ‘gets it’. Needless to say I am not part of that audience.
Following Rachel’s research I have come to believe Treacle Walker is undoubtedly a masterpiece, however without her assiduous investigation of what on earth Alan Garner was talking about this book surely remains impenetrable to most readers. – Suzy
READ FOR BOOKERTHON
❝ Oh, William! is a story about Lucy Barton’s relationships, especially her time with her ex-husband William. While they are no longer together as a couple they still see each other regularly and often reflect on their shared experiences.
The triumph of this book is the very real way Elizabeth Strout is able to convey the immense comfort and intimacy that comes from having loved someone for such a long time, while so accurately portraying the small irritations and ‘ugh’ moments that emerge within a relationship too.
Amongst some very heavy-hitting books on the shortlist this year, it was nice to read a novel that felt quite nuanced and subtle by comparison. – Suzy
There was something about her that seemed deeply—almost fundamentally—comfortable inside herself, the way I think a person is when they have been loved by their parents.
❝ Oh William! is the third book in the Lucy Barton series, but holds its own as a stand alone read, too. In the first book, My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout examines Lucy’s childhood and relationship with her mother. I have not read the second book but this, the third, is an analysis of her first husband William, but set later in life when both Lucy and William are in their 60s/70s, partnerless and finding both comfort and frustration in each other.
Reading this amongst the other Booker shortlisters, which rely on fables and real events for impact, helped highlight Oh William!’s good old-fashioned story telling techniques and character study mastery. Lucy constantly analyses herself and those around her, though the support characters fill in the gaps with their opinions and commentaries when Lucy fails to. There is a nice plot but the characters are the book’s standout feature.
I really do enjoy character studies and Strout certainly has done an amazing job with Lucy Barton and her husband. They seem like real people to me, complex, clever, flawed and interesting. I know there is another Lucy Barton book on the horizon and I’m already looking forward to that. – Rachel
READ FOR BOOKERTHON
❝ The Trees is set in Money, Mississippi and is full of characters with names like Junior Junior, Hot Mama Yeller and Reverend Fondle. The white folk of the town suddenly start turning up dead, savagely beaten and with a black man’s body present, cradling the dead’s severed testicles.
Local and federal authorities get involved unsure if they are dealing with a serial killer or a haunting or someone seeking revenge for historical lynchings that make up a grim part of the State’s history.
The book reminded me of both Catch-22, with its absurdity and The Sellout, with its high level of satirical narrative that made me unsure if I should be laughing or cringing or crying. But what The Trees does do is absolutely lay bare the history of racism and racial violence in the US, with a reminder that issues remain today.
The book starts like a whodunnit, but don’t be fooled, this is not a murder mystery, this is a book where you need to look deeper than the plot. I enjoyed the techniques employed to reinforce the seriousness of the themes. Even the somewhat repetitive nature of the plot highlighted the relentlessness of racial abuse. – Rachel
Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices.
❝ The Trees delivered sucker-punch after sucker-punch leaving me feeling almost worn out with the relentlessness of violence that got close to slapstick at times. What started as a humourous observation of redneck America soon descended into mysterious deaths involving mutilation and gore. But why was the horror I was reading about sometimes comical and nearly always rollicking?
The short sharp interspersion of historical lynching was shocking and provided the context of retribution as a possible reason why so many people were being targeted and killed.
I think when reading a satirical novel there is a risk that the humour can distract the reader from the issue the author is endeavouring to highlight. This was not the case with The Trees – Percival’s Everett’s message is very clearly received. – Suzy