This has, for various reasons, been a difficult year for me and, when things are hard, I tend to do a good deal of re-reading, returning to books that I have read before in the certainty that they will offer me rewards or comforts. And they did.
For example, this year I have re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels; as anticipated, they provided great riches. Jane Austen is – believe me – a seriously good writer. Someone once described her work as ‘chick-lit with good grammar’ which, is fair enough in one sense, but actually it is better than that: funny, ironic, sensitive and good grammar. She is also a useful author to read if you are a harried and weary feminist, because she shows us that we have come a long way in a hundred years. My favourite at the moment is Northanger Abbey, but I would not advise starting there, because it is based on a satire of the novels of the early 19th century. Persuasion might be a better beginning.
I have also re-read Black Juice by the Australian writer Margot Lanagan (Gollancz, 2004) because I think that ‘Singing my Sister Down’ may be the best short-story published this century (so far) – and most of the other stories in this collection are very good too. Lanagan writes a kind of magical realism which often has the flavour and depth of folk tales. ‘Singing my Sister Down’ is the story of a family, one of whom has been sentenced to death for murder in a society in which capital punishment is exercised by placing the convict in a hot clay swamp where they sink very slowly. And if that sounds pretty grotesque – it is. How Lanagan turns this into something beautiful, moving and meaningful in the present day is both a mystery and a revelation. Only short stories can deliver like this – as a writer of them I am envious and as a reader I am grateful.
My best new-to-me fiction is not a new novel: Growth of the Soil (1917) by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 and this is perhaps his best known book – it is extraordinary to me that he is not more read especially with our rising eco-consciousness because the novel is about humanity’s relationship to “nature” and particularly to agricultural labour and place and home. I cannot think of another novelist who pulls off such a dark mix of beauty, dignity and human endurance without any sentimentality or indulgence.
I have also read quite a lot of non-fiction. James Canton’s Ancient Wonderings: Journeys Into Prehistoric Britain (Collins) is wonder-full. Canton, in a series of walks and expeditions throughout the UK, tries and understand, or rather engage with, our prehistoric sites. This is not dry scholarship but rather “new nature writing” at its best – a serious attempt to feel his way into the culture and creative imagination of our Mesolithic ancestors and the extraordinary artefacts they left behind them.
And, finally, a collection of essays which properly speaking I should not be promoting because I wrote one of them! Cornerstones: Subterranean writings; from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle (Little Toller) edited by Mark Smalley. These are the pieces from the BBC Radio 3 series about geology – about quite specific rock forms all present in the UK. The writers were free to bring themselves onto the page – or the airwaves – and Smalley commissioned from a wide range of really fine writers (including me!) I would seriously challenge anyone to read these pieces and not thereafter see the scenery around them in a different light – whether or not they knew anything about geology at all.
Sara Maitland (born 27 February 1950, London) grew up in Galloway and studied at Oxford University. Her first novel, Daughters of Jerusalem, was published in 1978 and won the Somerset Maugham Award. Novels since have included Three Times Table (1990), Home Truths (1993) and Brittle Joys (1999), and one co-written with Michelene Wandor — Arky Types (1987). She is also the author of The Book of Silence (2010) and Gossip from the Forrest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairytales (2012). Her short story collections include Telling Tales (1983), A Book of Spells (1987) and On Becoming a Fairy Godmother (2003). Her short story ‘Far North’ was adapted for the screen by Asif Kapadia in 2007 and starred Sean Bean and Michelle Yeoh. Sara’s science-inspired stories have also featured in several Comma Press anthologies including The New Uncanny (2008), When It Changed (2009), Litmus (2011), Bio-Punk (2012) and Spindles (2015) as well as the collections Morphologies (2014) and Protest , in which she wrote a story inspired by the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Her full collection of science-inspired stories, Moss Witch, was published by Comma in 2013.