These are my top 10 fiction reads from 2022, in the order I read them.
After Story, Larissa Behrendt
Della’s daughter Jasmine left their Australian country town to become the first in the family to go to uni and her relationship with her roots is complicated. One day she asks her mum to go on a literary walking tour with her… in England. Della is surprised and it’s not her thing but she accepts. As they go on this tour, we as the reader see how they misread each other but as they reflect on the classics from their different educational backgrounds, Della and Jasmine draw on a much older tradition they have in common: the Aboriginal cultural stories handed down to them from their elder, Aunty Elaine.
I loved this book but also felt conflicted about its elitist elements, in that its target audience is highly educated people like me who are familiar with the classics from the walking tour. While that might be the hook, I hope it gets a wider readership because, the real power of this book is in the exploration of what we say, and especially what we don’t say, in families, what we admit and what we conceal.
CW for sexual abuse, substance abuse, racism, and family trauma
The Good Wife of Bath, Karen Brooks
I came to this novel knowing very little of Chaucer’s Good Wife from the Canterbury Tales other than that she had many husbands and was somewhat bawdy, in part in defiance of men’s control of her. I wondered what this book would do with her. The opening chapters worried me. Our protagonist is blamed for her own attempted rape and then married off at age 12 to a man of ill-repute. Was this to be a pattern for her life? But Brooks’ Good Wife, is neither merely a victim nor seeking power over others. It’s power over her own fate she seeks, at times in wise ways, other times recklessly. She’s complicated, both learning from her mistakes and repeating them. Meanwhile, though her marriages form the framework for the narrative, the real story of her life is in the (mainly) women she gathers to her, adding to this family with each marriage and extending to them the autonomy she seeks.
This is also an amusing read because of clangers like, “Satan’s tits! It’s colder than a duck’s arse in December!”
The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah
Vianne and Isabelle are French sisters but not close. Their father came home from the Great War a changed man and, after the death of their mother, is incapable of love and their family falls apart. Vianne withdraws physically and emotionally; headstrong Isabelle becomes desperate for their father’s presence and love. We pick up the story as war is upon them again.
At uni I studied the history of the French resistance and collaborators (and the many degrees in between) and this novel brings that to life in vivid and agonising detail. Amidst all that, there’s an exploration of different types of love: between parent and child, lovers, sisters, countryfolk, friends, even enemies.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
In The House there are many enormous rooms and vestibules filled with huge Statues. Piranesi explores them, learning the Tides that flood and recede, and at regular periods, meeting with The Other, the only other inhabitant. He’s the one who gave Piranesi his name and he calls The House a labyrinth. As the reader, you want to know where these characters have come from and why they are there but Piranesi is not interested in these details. You wonder why not. You have no way of knowing beyond what Piranesi and The Other say but you also suspect they are not reliable.
This book is both a meditation and a psychological thriller, genres significantly different from my normal reads. (I didn’t know what it was when I started it.) The slow burn effect meant it took me a while to get into but it was absolutely worth it. Works on cosmic, societal and personal levels
No Hearts of Gold, Jackie French
In the late 1840s three English women of different classes forge a friendship on their Sydney-bound ship. A mystery is teased in the prologue and becomes the fulcrum upon which the plot turns but it was the least compelling part of the novel to me. Far more interesting was how the women forged new lives in the colony, re-making not only themselves but also the moral landscape of their world.
No Hearts of Gold includes all the usual delights of French’s writing like the detailed historical descriptions (especially of food!) and references to wombats. It also complicates narratives of colonial Sydney, not by rehabilitating or reimagining historical figures (a la Kate Grenville) but by including characters of diverse backgrounds. I was especially interested in her depiction of the gold rush as an ecological and social disaster.
CW: sexual violence
Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao
In this Asian steampunk fantasy, Zetian’s land Huaxia was invaded by the alien Hundun two millennia ago. Eventually the gods took pity on them and taught them how to re-purpose Hundun aircraft to fight back against the occupation, yet these same gods remain distant. Meanwhile, each ‘chrysalis’ aircraft is piloted by a male-female pair, yin and yang. He is the pilot, she the concubine, as he draws on her qi to power the chrysalis. Many concubines are drained completely and die but, very rarely, a pilot will find his Best Match so the two fight in sync, a hope to which every concubine clings. Zetian’s family sold her sister to the war effort and she died. With Zetian about to follow in her footsteps, she is set on taking revenge on the star pilot responsible.
A feature of this story is the relative distance of the enemy. We know almost nothing about them. Meanwhile, evil has multiple faces within Huaxia itself, much of which is justified by the need to be single-minded in battling the Hundun. This novel complicates the idea of evil by exposing the oppressive systems at work and the impossible choices they force. If that sounds depressing, it’s not. It is a bit didactic but it’s also a ripping good yarn.
CWs for gendered violence, DFV, sexual assault, drug abuse
One Hundred Days, Alice Pung
Set in Melbourne in the 1980s, 100 Days refers to the isolation period of new mothers which 16 year old Karuna’s Filipina mum forces on her. Her white dad left them a while back and is not around much. Neither is anyone else, her mum’s way of protecting her, but to Karuna it is stifling. Along with the social and physical isolation come a stack of cultural practices and beliefs that seem odd, backward and even dangerous to Karuna but upon which her mother insists. What choice does Karuna have but to submit herself and her baby to them? However when her mum becomes determined to raise the baby as hers and tell the baby Karuna is her sister, Karuna writes to her baby to set the record straight. The novel is that story, written to her child.
100 Days explores the relationship between love and control, with added complications of economic disadvantage and culture clash. Alice Pung is a gorgeous writer and this is quite different in tone to her other work – it almost reads as a psychological thriller.
The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman
This story is told in four parts, each narrated by one of the women who work in the dovecote at the Masada where Jewish rebels fled after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD and were besieged by the Romans. Each woman picks up where the last left off and her story sheds further light and shade on what has come before. Historical fiction, we know what is fated for this community – by the time the Romans reached them, they were dead by their own hands. But this story plays with the idea of destiny. What can be manipulated or changed and by what power? Can you become someone else? By what means can you conceal yourself?
This is a women’s world, liminal to the Judaism of priests, Temples, scripture and sacrifices; a world of demons, charms, angels and spells dealing with love, birth, death and revenge. This was a brutal period in history so content warnings abound but it is deftly told and I loved each of the women.
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
Gifty is a neuroscientist working on her PhD when her mum comes to stay. Gifty’s seen her like this once before – uncommunicative, unable to get out bed – when she was 11. Gifty’s migrant Ghanaian family is not one that values talking about feelings and her mother’s committed Pentecostal faith only reinforces that practice. Now as Gifty shifts between her lab and caring for her mother, her thoughts traverse the past and present.
Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s second book and it’s really different in content, genre and narrative structure to her debut, Homegoing. I enjoyed that one too but Transcendent Kingdom levels up, retaining Gyasi’s episodic, elegant writing style but more even in pacing. It’s kind of an extended reflection on faith and science in the context of a migrant family and mental illness. There’s a lot going on and Gyasi somehow writes with warmth and sophistication about these deep and sometimes painful things.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, Anita Heiss
This historical novel opens during the great flood in Gundagai in 1852. Wagadhaany (pronounced Wogadine) is stranded on the roof of the home of the white family she works for. Her Wiradjuri fellows are safe on high ground but choose to come rescue those too foolish or stubborn to do likewise, like the Bradleys. In the wake of the disaster, the young Mr Bradley decides to move the family to Wagga Wagga and Wagadhaany learns about the white man’s Master and Servants law which gives her no choice but to go with them. Mr Bradley has married a Quaker woman, Louisa, who believes in the equality of all people but can an authentic friendship between the two women exist in such a climate? And how can Wagadhaany survive far from her land and clan?
Heiss’ writing in Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (2021) is much more mature than in Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2016). There is less exposition in the storytelling and she also skilfully weaves in Wiradjuri words in a way that makes a reader slow down to understand but without interrupting the flow. Bila is the word for river and the title means ‘river of dreams’. We the readers are positioned to see things from the perspective of the Wiradjury protagonist, growing our empathy and understanding of the losses and injustices of that period, which reverberate today. Yet, there is also love and joy in Wagadhaany’s life. I also appreciated the exploration of the nuances of Louisa and Wagadhaany’s relationship; some of the complications are familiar to me in my cross-cultural, postcolonial / neo-colonial context.
The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna
The Gilded Ones is YA fantasy set in a deeply patriarchal world. Raised to be quiet, demure and helpful, at 16 girls go through the Ritual of Purity in which they are bled, and, if proven pure, awarded a mask which they wear from that time onward. Our protagonist Deka, despite scrupulous attention to her purity, bleeds not pure red but impure gold. Branded a demon, she is subjected to the Death Mandate, except every time they kill her, she resurrects, until one day a mysterious woman with white gauntlets rescues her and gives her the opportunity to become a warrior.
Namina Forna grew up in Sierra Leone and has lived in the US. Forna’s deft handling of Deka’s awakening to the world around her comes from the insights gained from her cross-cultural experience. This novel will help the reader reflect on their own world while enjoying a story of action, mystery, betrayal, a mild romance, awesome friendships and a host of compelling, three-dimensional male and female characters.
CW for torture scenes and references to sexual assault
Categories: Written by Tamie
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.