I read lots of good books last year and have gushed about many of them to lots of people – most notably The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. Rather than beat the same drum again however, I thought I’d talk about another of my favourites from 2020: the recently translated Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. These were originally two stories written about the same set of characters, and have now been combined into a single novel for an English audience.
In the first half of the story, Natsuko receives her sister, Makiko, and her teenage niece, Midoriko, into her small Tokyo apartment. The tensions of class, age and gendered expectation weigh heavily on all three of the women as they swelter through a cramped weekend together – Makiko is trying to arrange a breast enhancement and her daughter is refusing to speak to her.
Ten years later, we again meet Natsuko, now a successful author, as she tries to navigate a path to motherhood that doesn’t necessitate a partner. I loved the fresh feeling of the writing, the in-depth look at a different side of Japan and the knotty questions these women pose themselves which ultimately boil down to how do you live a good life inside the circumstances you have been given?
I had great success with my reading in 2020- so many good books! When I try to choose a favourite Real Life by Brandon Taylor rises to the top. Real Life is set over one weekend in the life of Wallace, a queer black man studying nematodes in biochemistry graduate school in the American Midwest. Like the microscopic worms he studies, Wallace observes the interactions with his predominantly white friends and colleagues, with an attention to the significance hidden in microscopic moments. Tensions rise over the weekend as Wallace yearns for connection and the people around him continually misunderstand him. With a tender and nuanced voice, Taylor beautifully examines blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire and trauma. It is also charged with secrecy and eroticism that builds to create an unputdownable reading experience!
Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge
The author explores the importance of discovering and tapping into inner silence from his experiences as a solo modern day explorer through Antarctica and also how we, as a society, relate and react to silence. Do we find it in a painting or nature? Are we afraid to venture in to silence one on one? Exquisitely expressed, along with sublime photographs, this tiny book strips to the core the relationship of humans and silence and how we can grow if we just allow ourselves to become one with it.
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird
This book inspired me to dive into cold ocean waters again- a ritual my family used to do all year round. Phosphorescence is about seeking out and being fully aware of all the wonderful offerings life presents us and then embracing them. The utmost of simple opportunities … most of which do not cost us anything but give great rewards to our own comfort and happiness … diving into the ocean. A book which I return to often for the sobering messages and ones which offer comfort, hope and inspiration.
Swimming by Roger Deakin
This is another tiny book. Selected from writings of Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog.
I am once again drawn to water – my relationship with it. Roger Deakin’s story is one of swimming through the British Isles; whether it be in rivers, rock pools, lakes, ponds, lochs and sea. The exquisite imagery carries me through these waterways and once again, I am immersed in a silent, watery world, calmed by nature.
After Writers’ Week 2020, I read White Tears, Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad. This book stayed with me all year, the sense of urgency around its themes only cemented by unfolding political events.
Using images familiar to us all, from the Hunger Games films to colonial myths, Hamad draws attention to experiences of those at the intersections of racism and sexism. Women of colour face violence everywhere from classrooms to courtrooms, and most distressingly and unrecognised of all, often at the hands of white women.
Hamad accessibly presents a complicated history to guide us through the biggest questions; What does intent count for? What might we hope for? And how do we change?