Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift
Mothering Sunday is a beautifully structured short novel with clout and heart. Jane Fairchild is an orphaned housemaid working at a stately home in 1924. This Sunday is a watershed day – the last she will spend with her lover, the heir of another upper-class family, who is shortly to be married. It is a day that will change both their lives, a day she will never forget. It is a day with a story that she will never tell, even in later life when she has become a famous novelist. Swift describes the novel as a fairytale, because it is the day when Jane starts to take control of her life. If you liked Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, this one is certainly for you.
The Return, Hisham Matar
Jaballa Matar, the father of Libyan novelist Hisham, author of In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, was a leading figure in the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi who was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990. His fate is a mystery and Hisham has spent the subsequent years trying to uncover what happened. All that is chronicled in this thought-provoking account as he gathers information from sources ranging from other family members who were jailed by the dictator to bizarre encounters with Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam. You hope that writing the book has been some sort of catharsis for Matar, but he has also given the reader a profound and tender meditation on grief, guilt, love and exile.
Music and Freedom, Zoe Morrison
Alice is an exile – from her home, her family, her art, quite possibly love. She is packed off to boarding school in England, excels at music and has a promising career as a concert pianist until she falls in love with an Oxford economics professor who turns out be some sort of domestic fascist. Written in two timelines, we meet Alice as an old woman, alone and unmoored in her home, obsessed with the music she hears from next door, and flit back to the days that led to her predicament. Deftly done and one of several impressive debuts by Australian women writers.
Days without End, Sebastian Barry
Fleeing poverty in Ireland, Thomas McNulty and "handsome" John Cole find each other in the US in a saloon act that sees McNulty, the narrator, in drag. The men are lovers and when the Civil War breaks out they fight on the Union side and then in the federal army during the Indian Wars. You will be struck by the voice the Booker-shortlisted Barry creates, the wonderful vernacular – when did you last encounter the word gossoon? – he gives to his narrator, McNulty, the bravura with which he delivers several set pieces of action, and the tenderness between the two men.
The Underground Railway, Colson Whitehead
It's been quite a year for novels by African-Americans – think of The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, The Mothers by Brit Bennett and The Sellout by Paul Beatty, who won the Man Booker prize. Whitehead's novel won the National Book Award in the US and creates a literal and figurative railway as Cora, a young slave, attempts to flee to freedom in the north while being pursued by a vicious slave catcher, Ridgeway. It's a powerful novel, a great idea to give life to the railway, and reminds you forcibly in this year of #blacklivesmatter of the enduring legacy of slavery in the US. Oh, it's a great read as well.
The North Water, Ian McGuire
The British writer's first book was a campus satire set; his second, 10 years later, is this brilliant novel of blood and gore set on a whaling ship heading towards Greenland in the mid-19th century. Drax is the novel's amoral dark heart who murders and buggers his way into life in the first pages; Sumner, the ship's surgeon with a taste for laudanum who has survived the Indian Mutiny, is the ultimate target of his implacable hatred. Existentialism meets Moby-Dick, Cormac McCarthy and a touch of Quentin Tarantino and that's this astonishing creation packed with stenches, filth and foul deeds. Plenty of death, but every word McGuire employs is alive and kicking.
Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
James Wood's assessment of Helen Garner's writing appeared in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago under the headline "savage self-scrutiny". There's a lot of self-scrutiny in this wonderful collection of non-fiction from the past 15 years or so. There are personal recollections, extracts from her diaries, portraits of friends, and so much more. All written in her clear-eyed prose littered with self-deprecation and common sense. Look out for her tender piece about one of her earliest teachers, Mrs Dunkley, and her insightful, compassionate look back at her relationship with her mother. You can't not read Garner.
An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire
You might pick up this novel and think you've got one of those pyschological crime novels that have been so successful over recent years; you'd be mistaken. Yes, there's been a murder, the victim a sweet girl called Bella. But what Emily Maguire is really interested in is how this affects her sister, Chris, a good-time barmaid who has had a tempestuous relationship with her ex, and how female victims of crime and their loved ones are treated by the media and the police. It's a powerful argument against misogyny and a brave novel, but no one has ever accused Maguire of not being prepared to take a risk.
The Easy Way Out, Steven Amsterdam
The main character of Steven Amsterdam's third novel is a nurse who provides the assistance in assisted suicides. It's all legal so the book is set some time – perhaps not that far off? – in the future. Evan is OK about what he does; as he sees it, he plays a crucial, caring role. But there's a problem with his infirm mother whose prospects – initially, at least – aren't rosy and Evan gets entangled with a radical group that has a different perspective on what he does. Gradually things coalesce to provide moral and ethical challenges for him – and the reader. It's a serious, thought-provoking novel that is handled with a lightness of touch and great skill.
Hide, Matthew Griffin
Frank Clifton has had a stroke and is found by Wendell Wilson, prostrate in the tomato plants. But that's not the only problem. Frank and Wendell are a couple, both in their eighties, living in a rural town in North Carolina. They have kept their relationship secret since just after World War II - very different days. "We're not together in any of the photographs. It was reckless enough just to walk out in the open and the sun like that without going and asking some stranger, who might not turn out to be one after all when you got close enough, to take our picture." But increasing poor health means their rigidly maintained privacy is under threat. Matthew Griffin's first novel is a love story, a tragic one that reflects deftly on the way things have changed in the past decades, and very moving.