The first year after death
is full of stretching, where things
pull so hard your bones
break, because they were never
bones, were always solitude.
Victoria Chang, from “The Trees Witness Everything”
This has been an unusual year for Novel Readings, one in which my reading life was overtaken by my real life—or, since I firmly believe that “the world of books is still the world,” a better way to put it would be that my reading life changed because so did the rest of my life. I read a lot in 2022 about grief, and about suicide; I read a lot of poetry, or at least a lot more than I usually do; and I failed to finish a lot of novels that I started, or at least a lot more than is typical for me.
Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow was the most resonant book I read about grief. I didn’t find it so at first, but as the days after Owen’s death turned into weeks and then months, parts of it returned to me over and over, especially her observation about how “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind us in their timelessness.” (I feel this very acutely this week, as the calendar turns to the new year, the second year of his absence.) The poems in Say Something Back, in the same slim volume, have also stayed with me. “How should I take in such a bad idea?” Riley demands in “Part Song.” How indeed. William Styron’s Darkness Visible brought me greater understanding of the intensity and suffering of depression; and Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast was difficult but valuable reading about the painful truths and also the mysteries of suicide. I also found new meaning in Margaret Oliphant’s lamentations for her “dear bright child”; and in Virginia Woolf’s mourning for her nephew Julian.
It seemed for a while that this would be my year of Ali Smith, the way last year I went all in on Jo Baker. I read straight through her seasonal quartet at a time when otherwise I could hardly concentrate; I became interested enough to add her to my ongoing book project on women writers and social reform. I went on to read and enjoy Companion Piece—but then I tried How to Be Both and lost my grip.
Some standout experiences from those early months, when to read at all was a success and to read something and love it seemed almost too good to be true: Sarah Winman’s Still Life and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, neither of which got the attentive post it deserved; and Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song, which was one of the first books I blogged about ‘properly’ (meaning, as I used to do) in 2022. Quite a few other books I read with interest, appreciation, or pleasure ended up mentioned here only in round-up posts, if at all: Monica Ali’s Love Marriage; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years; Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility; Graham Macrea Burnet’s Case Study; and Damian Lanigan’s The Ghost Variations, my last book of the year and a very good one.* I did manage to write up my experience rereading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Both reading and writing about my reading did get gradually easier as time passed, and I had a run of good luck, or good choices, too, towards the end of the year: Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Ian McEwan’s Lessons, and Richard Powers’ Bewilderment—which I have since learned got quite a critical drubbing, but which for me stands out as perhaps the best novel I read in 2022.
I managed some formal reviews this year, notably Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, which I thought was smart and powerful and elegant, Emma Donoghue’s taut and graphic Haven (my review at CNQ should be available eventually!), and Sina Queyras’s Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf which gave me a lot to think about, in a good way.
All year I struggled with the possibility that books I disliked or DNF’ed were victims of my circumstances—although why I should consider my grieving brain any more unreliable in its criticism than in its praise I don’t know. In any case, with that caveat in mind, the book I liked least this year was Tessa Hadley’s Free Love, which was generally admired both by reviewers and by astute readers in my Twitter circle but which I just could not come to terms with.
On the other hand, a book I stalled out in but fully intend to try again in 2023, because even in the moment I could tell it deserved a better reading than it was getting from me, is Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I also already have a tempting stack of new (to me) books I’m looking forward to reading and blogging about in 2023, including Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast, Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness and The History of Rain, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. I’ve started the year, though, with Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, lent to me by a dear friend with a note pointing out that it is a novel about female friendship. At about 100 pages in, I’m rather hoping she doesn’t see much of us or our friendship in it—but I’ll have to see how things unfold.
Writing at Novel Readings turned out to be really important to me in 2022. At times I felt self-conscious or uncomfortable about how personal, and how mournful, my posts often were, but the simple fact was that writing them—finding the words to give shape to the ideas and feelings I otherwise found overwhelming—helped me when little else did. So I reassured myself by thinking of how many other writers have put their grief into words, often much more publicly than this, and by remembering that nobody ever has to read anything here that they don’t want to. And some of my happiest times in 2022 were actually those I spent writing here about books: to be immersed in that work always proved both intellectually invigorating and emotionally restorative—a reminder, which I sometimes really needed, of why it is I do this in the first place. I am truly grateful to everyone who kept reading and especially to those of you who have showed so much sympathy and kindness in your comments over this long, hard year.
*Lanigan’s pianist protagonist is preoccupied with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, which I have since been listening to over and over, appreciating its melancholy drifting. Here it is, in case that sounds appealing to you too.