The best new books to read in November as selected by avid readers and critics
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Welcome to ABC Arts' monthly book column. Each month, we'll present a shortlist of new releases read and recommended by The Bookshelf's Kate Evans and The Book Show's Claire Nichols and Sarah L'Estrange — alongside freelance writers and book reviewers. This month, we're thrilled to present recommendations from Declan Fry and Khalid Warsame.
All five read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we gave them were: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.
Once a month The Bookshelf turns into The Book Club.
The resulting list features Helen Garner’s riveting, better-than-fiction diaries; Hannah Kent’s highly anticipated queer historical fiction; a dystopian thriller set in Australia; a perceptive debut; and “the best book of 2021” (!).
First up, a confession: historical fiction – especially historical fiction that includes a long boat trip – is not my favourite genre of writing. So, who would have guessed that this historical novel, which centres on a long boat journey from Prussia to South Australia, would be one of my favourite reads of the year?
Hannah Kent's sumptuous novel opens in Kay, in Prussia, in 1836. The community of Old Lutherans holds secret church services in the forest, and dreams of a life free from religious persecution. Eventually, they are offered the chance of a new life in Australia – but to get there they'll need to travel for six months on board a cramped and disease-ridden ship.
This migration story will be especially familiar to South Australian readers, as Kent's boatload of religious refugees is closely modelled on the group of German settlers who established Hahndorf, now a popular tourist village, in the Adelaide Hills.
But at its heart, Devotion is not really about history. It's a love story. Our heroine is Hanne, the teenage daughter of one of the community elders. Tall and awkward, she describes herself as "the cuckoo born to a songbird. The odd, unbeautiful daughter". She doesn't have a friend – until a new family arrives in Kay. Their daughter Thea is a kindred spirit for Hanne, and their friendship soon blossoms into something more – something that the teenagers are initially unable to name.
As Thea and Hanne make the dangerous journey to Australia, their connection deepens. And when they arrive in their new home, it blooms into something greater than them both. Within the wondrous Australian landscape, Hanne and Thea's love becomes something mythic and eternal.
Hannah Kent is known for her dark historical novels Burial Rites and The Good People. And while there is great sadness and hardship here, this surprising novel is ultimately about beauty, nature and an epic love. I adored it. CN
Not all diaries are as riveting as this, surely? Fragments, observations, acute detail; conversations shared or overheard; moments of work and reading and agonising; a marriage coming to an end.
But these diary moments are pared back, chosen; they move forward with a momentum that is as much "What is going to happen?" as it is "Oh for god's sake, truly?!", interspersed with internal shouts of "Run away! Leave him! Get. Out. Now." And the occasional cackle.
These are the diaries of a writer who has been crafting her sentences beautifully for decades now: Helen Garner, author of novels, non-fiction, essays and screenplays. Filler of notebooks, writer of diaries.
And now she has shared them, and this is her third. They have been shaved – and we don't know what we've missed. Which means they have been shaped, of course, and what's left is three years of this Melbourne writer in Sydney, describing golden light and aching for a lost garden, family, friends.
Revelling in moments – but so strongly hemmed in; eggshell walking, gasping with suppressed rage.
Because she is married to a writer (who is only ever referred to as V), and that marriage is coming apart. We see the terrible tension of two working lives at odds with each other, the divisions of space, the casual (and really, not that casual) misogyny. Who cleans the dunny, looks after old friends, gives feedback, and who has a secret affair. It's all there.
Amidst the glee and the pleasure, the humour and cleverness, and the sense that we're inside this intense, emotional moment – we are also complicit in a strange unease, knowing this is A Diary, one person's take, and knowing that the book is full of Real People. Some of them have only initials, some are given epithets; some we can 'discover', others we can't. So we come face to face with the ethics of entering into other people's lives, with all the pleasure of fiction, but with the artifice skinned off. KE
I have some good news: the best book of 2021 just arrived. Search no further. All the other contenders tapped out while this masterpiece was being completed.
Poet, translator, essayist, literary critic: Uruguayan author Ida Vitale, to paraphrase the esteemed scholar Ron Burgundy, is kind of a big deal. She celebrated her 98th birthday this month and was 80 when El ABC de Byobu was first published in 2004. She has more than 20 books to her name, including memoirs of her years spent in exile in Mexico, titled Shakespeare Palace.
Byobu is her first prose work to appear in English.
The titular narrator is a man possessed by the urge to notice, a "knack for stopping to look at minuscule things lacking in importance, things with no need for anyone's attention".
Everyman, comic, humourist, philosopher, punk, poet, Byobu struggles to make sense of the mundane world, a confrontation in which we all share. "The sum of the angles I long for is undoubtedly greater than 360," he tells us; and, poignantly: "No loss is more irreparable than that of mystery, which has vanished for the benefit of no one."
So, yes, echoes of Italo Calvino, especially Mr Palomar; but also the thoughtful seriousness animating Xavier de Maistre's Voyage Around My Room. Sean Manning, Byobu's translator, describes the experience of encountering Vitale's prose well: "[T]o read her work is to feel the beauty and power of precision, of sentences and verses that place you in nuances, not generalities."
Byobu's world is beautiful and endlessly surprising, suffused with joy and high-mindedness in equal measure — joy especially at the textures and quotidian multitudes that attend our smallest actions and experiences: stopping at a traffic light, being bored to tears at a conference, home renovations. I couldn't stop smiling during chapters like Oral Frustrations.
Intense, graceful, impossibly thrilling: Ida, thank you for Byobu. You may not know it yet, but it's the best book of 2021. DF
As we're breaking out of lockdown in Melbourne and leaning into summer, I didn't think my heart or mind would cope with reading a dystopian thriller about a bushfire- and pandemic-ravaged Australia. But it turns out I was wrong.
The Last Woman in the World is Australian author Inga Simpson's fourth novel. It is about Rachel, a glass artist who has cut herself off from a world afflicted by disease and drought, living in idyllic bushland near the rural NSW town of Nimmitabel and protected by a wall she built around her property.
But then a woman, Hannah, with a sick baby knocks on Rachel's door, destroying her illusion of peace. Hannah's on the run from a strange presence sweeping the world that is causing people to drop dead in terror: there's no warning or symptoms but images of the zombie apocalypse come to mind (although there are no zombies).
Rachel must choose whether to help the woman or stay a recluse. Of course, being a hermit doesn't provide much narrative momentum — so you know what she chooses. Together, they trek across the countryside seeking safety and answers, while trying to avoid people (living and dead) and the horrifying presence that's tearing at society.
Rachel is proud, anti-authoritarian and self-sufficient and her character fits into the literary trope of fiercely independent women that have populated recent Australian dystopian fiction — in Laura Jean McKay's The Animals in That Country, Lucy Treloar's Wolfe Island, Robbie Arnott's The Rain Heron and Charlotte McConaghy's Once There Were Wolves. These novels lament the environmental destruction that our society seems intent to fulfill.
This novel is fast-paced, adrenalin-fuelled — and different enough from present circumstances to shuttle me from the bleakness of enduring Melbourne's second winter lockdown, and dramatic enough to keep me reading into the night. SL
Mina Seçkin's charming debut novel, The Four Humors, introduces us to 20-year-old Turkish-American student Sibel. Visiting her parents' homeland of Turkey following her father's unexpected death, she watches soap operas with her grandmother and follows the political unrest in the country on television and Twitter — avoiding visiting his grave.
She is troubled by a persistent headache, which her boyfriend Cooper, who has travelled with her to Istanbul, believes is caused by grief.
Sibel is not so sure. Researching treatment options, she becomes obsessed with an ancient and discredited medical theory practiced by the likes of Galen and Hippocrates — the titular 'Four Humors' theory — and becomes convinced that her bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) have become imbalanced.
At a dinner at a kebap shop, Sibel's grief is obvious to her family, who walk on eggshells around her, even amidst their own mourning. "They're afraid of me, and the shape my grief has taken," she observes.
Midway through the novel, Sibel makes a breakthrough and begins to unravel the complicated truth of her father's past, a story that belongs to her grandmother and another woman who has her own connection to Sibel's father.
Sibel's sense of herself as a tragic figure from a long line of tragic figures isn't far off from the truth: her mother tells her "that as the daughter of an unhappy mother, you will always know that your mother is unhappy, and knowing this will make you try to change something, anything, about yourself".
At one point Sibel, attempting to translate the Turkish word hüzün, describes a collective state of suffering shared amongst the people of Istanbul, a city which we grow to love through Seçkin's characters.
"The ideal is not to escape this suffering, but to carry this suffering. It is possessing the weight of the city as you wade through its past and present and, by doing so, you dissolve among many," she says.
Her perceptiveness is beautiful and a little tragic: it is when she is talking about Istanbul that she comes closest to describing herself. KW
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The best new books to read in November as selected by avid readers and critics