You don’t need reminding that 2021 was not a great year, but ever the Pollyanna I can pick out many great books that I read in the last 12 months. I offer you five posts about them, with a bonus sixth. When choosing these I noticed a bit of a historical theme. Enjoy!
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes
This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946, in southern England. The ‘long nightmare’ of the Second World War is over but everything is changed. This had direct relevance when I read and blogged about it in July; we were seeing the relaxation of restrictions and worry about the Covid pandemic.
Laura and her family have been through separation, and now must manage the social and economic changes brought by the war to their world. During a summer’s afternoon she climbs up Barrow Down and finds hope and peace in the landscape below.
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp
Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.
I enjoyed reading her two novels. Clash (1932) is set during the General Strike of 1926; it captures the heady excitement and drama of political activism.
The Division Bell Mystery is a whodunnit set in the Palace of Westminster, written while she was temporarily out of parliament.
Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp
The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp
You can find the post about Ellen Wilkinson’s novels here.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
I loved reading this book for all the reasons that fiction is so powerful: it takes you to new places and shows you the world in a new light. I have been to Ethiopia, where this novel is set. The history of the war against the invading Italians is not fiction. But Maaza Mengiste has fictionalised the events, revealing some of the brutality of the failed Italian colonial exercise.
It’s vivid in its retelling of the unequal struggle. The main character is Hirut, an ignorant young girl at the start of the novel, but a proud bodyguard of the Shadow King during the struggle. And this novel is very poignant given the troubles that erupted in Tigray province in November 2020 and have worsened this year.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp. Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I had read this novel before, but in the light of Black Lives Matter and all that has been happening recently in the United States relevant to racism, and in the UK, it seemed to be the right time to reread it. I was struck by the strength of this book in demonstrating the reverberations of evil that spread out from the enslavement of Africans and the trading of enslaved people across the Atlantic. Toni Morrison describes the book as inviting the reader ‘to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts’.
Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp
Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus
As the title suggests, this is the 4th book in a series. I have read and reviewed them all. I have walked with Refugee Tales. I found myself reading this collection with a mounting sense of outrage. ‘How can we still be here, after 70 years?’ I asked on Bookword Blog. In particular how can we still be detaining people seeking refuge in our country, and detaining them indefinitely. I remain outraged. The stories told in Refugee Tales are not easy and remind us of the human tragedies that are produced by world events.
I was grateful to the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group Autumn newsletter for reprinting my post. Please do not be silent on this issue.
Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp
More Gallimaufry by the Totnes Library Writers Group
This is the bonus book I mentioned at the top of this piece. For me, much of 2021 has been spent in co-editing a collection of writing by my local writing group. We emerged from lockdowns with a determination to produce our second collection of writing. We have done it and the book is an object of pride, especially to the 21 contributors. I wrote about editing it in the post called More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group.
It would take a great deal to limit my reading, whatever the pandemic lands us with. I am looking forward to more in 2022: more Elizabeth Strout, more women in translation, more older women, and more set in the 1940s. I might even get to more writing next year.