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Kamila Shamsie

A year in books

4 January 2019

In December everyone was posting their yearly reading wrap-ups but I couldn’t bear to post mine until I’d squeezed every last reading minute out of the year.

My 2017 wrap-up was rather ad hoc because my phone failed me and I lost several years worth of reading records. Thankfully this year there has been no calamity. So I can confidently tell you that I read a total of 99 books. Can’t believe I didn’t crack the hundo! That said, the lines are rather blurred as I also read many literary journals and all manner of books with my children — neither of which are included in that figure. Plus I spend my days reading and editing manuscripts, so the real count is far higher.

Nevertheless, it’s the number of books that I’ve read for pleasure, and there were some damn fine books among them. Fifty-seven of them were by women and 42 by men. I’d say this split is generally reflective of my reading in any given year, though I have no data to back it up (I am still cursing what shall be known as The Great Phone Fail of 2017).

In 2018, as in all years, the majority of books that I read were by Australian authors (53%). I read equivalent numbers from the United States (13%), United Kingdom (14%) and Africa (15%). In 2017, I read many books from Asia but in 2018 they made up only 5% of my reading. I intend to remedy this in 2019.

Throughout this year I’ve been recording a Book of the Month, and if you’re interested you can find links to them in my quarterly wrap-ups. But today I thought I’d pick a favourite book from each different region.

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Australia — The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
To pick just one book when more than half of my reading came from Australia, especially when there were so many crackers among them, seems unfair. But I’m forcing myself to meet my own challenge! The White Earth is a book that I read right near the beginning of 2018, in fact it was my fourth book, but it has stuck with me. In my quarterly wrap-up I rightly called it a ‘masterpiece’. Sadly Andrew McGahan has terminal cancer but he has continued working on another book which is due out later this year. It’s on my must-read list for 2019.

United States — An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I was tempted to pick Lincoln in the Bardo but since I wrote about it recently I’m going to instead pick An American Marriage, which I devoured. The story centres on Celeste and Roy, a black, middle-class, newlywed couple whose lives are bursting with promise and possibility. That is until Roy is falsely arrested and sentenced to 12 years for rape. The book is intimate and nuanced as it deals with the slow but devasting changes that occur within the family. It is also inextricably bound up with racial issues in America, making it a quiet but powerful political novel.

I want to also mention Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, which I adored. It is a comic novel that is genuinely funny (let’s face it, plenty aren’t) that follows struggling mid-list author Arthur Less around the globe from one literary event to the next. It won the Pulitzer Prize which surprised me because it doesn’t fit the mould of the ‘serious’ books that the Pulitzer usually awards. But perhaps they couldn’t resist being charmed by the familiar world of publishing that it explores. (And now I have definitely broken my own rule and snuck in two extras!)

United Kingdom — Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I wrestled over whether to place this one under Asia, since so much of the book focuses on Pakistan, but as Shamsie resides in the UK, and much of the novel is set in London, I decided to include it here. Whatever, this novel is brilliant. Like all the books listed here is has remained vivid in my mind. It made my second wrap-up if you’d like to read a little more about it.

Africa — Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel also resists categorisation. Adichie is a Nigerian, living in both Nigeria and America. The book is also set in both countries, but as it details the Nigerian experience in America I decided to include it in my African reading. You can read my brief review here.

I want to also mention Red Dust by Gillian Slovo which is much less troubling in terms of categorisation. It exposes the flawed process of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the fictional case of Alex Mpondo who has been tortured and killed by the police. It is beautifully written with the pace of a crime novel. Ultimately, it painfully concludes that the truth is a slippery beast and may never be pinned down.

Asia — Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I’ve picked up a couple of Murakami books over the years and never been able to get into them. I have felt this as a failing on my part; afterall many of my reading friends adore his work. Norwegian Wood was given to me by a dear friend and it is apparently the ‘straightest’ of his novels. Perhaps this is why I loved it so. It focuses on 30-something Toru Watanabe and is a coming-of-age story that deals with the agonies of life, love and death. I’ve been advised by several excellent readers that Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle should be next in line.

I’ve got a batch of books ready to kick off a new reading year. But Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been so widely and extravagantly praised by many readers whose taste I admire that I am nervous to open it. Surely it cannot live up to expectation? I think I’ll hold out a little longer until some of the hype has died down. The same goes for Milkman by Anna Burns which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It’s been receiving lots of hype post-Booker and looks like my kind of book, but I’m going to wait until I don’t have everyone’s words of praise ringing in my head.

I’m also really looking forward to reading The Girl on the Page by John Purcell, Director of Books at Booktopia. It’s set in the publishing industry with a young editor as the main protagonist. How can I not love this novel?

And I’m keen to pick up a bunch of books by South African authors when I visit the country later this month. I’ve found it very difficult getting hold of many African titles in Australia, so it’ll be a good opportunity to fill my suitcase. First on the list is a collection of stories by Niq Mhlongo, Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree.

I could go on, but I will stop there and wish you all a peaceful 2019 full of all the good things. May your reading pile be plentiful!

Reading recs

5 July 2018

In a new quarterly series, I’m sharing the books that have stood out for me each month (featured in my subscribers’ newsletter), with a bonus fourth book. I usually read a couple of novels a week, and some months I’ve read so many good books that choosing just one is almost an impossibility.

I can’t find any particular connections this time, except that they all come from different parts of the world. I predominantly read Australian writers, but this selection includes a South African (Brink), an Australian (Winton — duh!), an English–Pakistani novellist (Shamsie), and an English–Irish novellist (Kidd). Two men, two women, and four novels that cross four continents. So, here we go!

April: Thanks to a recent post by Lisa Hill, I discovered South African writer André Brink (I am slightly embarrassed that I haven’t read him before). He was twice shortlisted for the Booker and during his lifetime actively opposed apartheid. I’m now reading his memoir, A Fork in the Road, but I first came to The Blue Door. It is a philosophical novella about the different potential lives that we might lead. The prose is beautiful and I gulped this little book down in one sitting. I’m now working my way through Brink’s back catalogue.


May: I resisted making The Shepherd’s Hut my pick because I read several good books this month, and Winton hardly needs the publicity. But in the end I just couldn’t go past it. It is very, very good. I’ve always loved Winton’s prose but his endings are usually hit and miss. This one, however, hits, making it a pleasure from start to finish. The story is told through Jaxie Claxton’s distinct voice — raw, colloquial and yet also poetic. It is a brutal and visceral story of survival, and of love. At the age of just 38, Winton was named a national living treasure; this novel reminds us why.

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June: Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire won the Women’s Prize for Fiction just as I was one-third of the way through it. Great timing, or what? Home Fire is billed as a modern reworking of Antigone, which I read decades ago and barely remember. In fact as I went on I was glad of this, because I didn’t want to be constantly comparing it to another work. Having finished it, I’d love to revisit Antigone, and then Home Fire, and see how different an experience it is. All of that aside, this is a work of brilliance. It completely shook me up and turned me inside out. I may have sworn at the ending, and then just sat there, stunned. I have told you nothing of the plot but let me say this: you must read this book.

Bonus book: I’ve long been fascinated by hoarding, which is what drew me to this book, but it turns out that The Hoarder is about so much more. Described as a ‘lyrical gothic detective saga’, it had me absolutely transfixed. My local library only had it as an audiobook and in the end I was glad of this—the narrator, Aoife McMahon, was wonderful. I couldn’t wait to get in my car and listen to the next instalment. The story centres on Maud Drennan who has taken on the care of a mercurial and violent elderly hoarder, Cathal Flood. She begins to uncover unsettling clues to his past, as the tension builds to the book’s final terrifying conclusion. I bloody loved this book. Even the minor characters are complex and nuanced—with Maud’s landlady and friend, Renata, a particular favourite. The book resists categorisation, traversing a number of genres, and I’ve now ordered Kidd’s previous book (her debut, Himself). Highly recommended!

Now it’s your turn. What recent reads would you recommend?