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It has been a tough year and as usual books have saved the day – on a number of occasions I’ve found myself clutching my latest read to my chest, as though it was a hot-water bottle or a long-lost friend.

Here are a few that got me through.

Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) is Bernadine Evaristo’s playful yet punchy joint-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. The novel explores the power and politics of race and love and art, among many other things, doing it in a way that verges on poetry. Adding to the beguiling mix is the fact that this is a collection of interlinked short stories. Despite all that, it hangs together so beautifully – it is peopled with characters who are fighting against the system, sometimes winning, sometimes not. To my mind this novel deserves all the accolades it has received. I have held it to my chest more than any other this year.

Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me (Penguin), as translated by Molly Ringwald, takes a familiar story – a man remembers a high-school love – and mines it for considerable emotional resonance. I have read a number of Besson novels and he is a master of conviction and brevity. With this latest work, he is devastating in the way he explores the trials and tribulations of love, especially gay love, and the final paragraph is one of the most powerful I have read in years. A book to read in one sitting, and be blown away.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Originals) was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and I can see why: this is a novel that, like Girl, Woman, Other, powerfully explores and expresses the dynamics of race, this time on an American campus. It is truly heart-breaking; Taylor is a courageous writer – he is especially good at bringing to examining relationships between men, in terms of both sex and friendship. I read the novel across three days and I could not stop thinking about it, and I will not stop thinking about it.

Speaking of examining relationships between men, I read two novels by Garth Greenwell this year: What Belongs to You and Cleanness (Picador), both of which I found to be stunning to the point where I almost hurt physically. In a way both novels contain loosely connected stories, but the overall impact is truly stunning. Greenwell has an ability to start with the simplest of propositions – receiving an email from a father, who is unwell and will die soon – and the riff on it for pages, sometimes without any paragraph breaks; it is as though he just lets himself go – he is finding out what he thinks as he writes, and his readers are swept along in the process. Breathtaking.

Karen Wyld’s debut novel, Where the Fruit Falls (UWAP), is a multi-generational Indigenous epic that cuts to the core of the Australian psyche. This is essentially a realist work, but Wyld brings to it elements of magic realism as she tracks the impact of colonialism on First Nations people. By the end I cared deeply about the people of this story and was once again reminded that Australia as a country has so much work to do in terms of rebuilding a most equitable nation, one that values all life. Here’s hoping we hear much more from Wyld.

Speaking of debuts, Sam Coley’s State Highway One (Hachette) is a moving tale about returning to New Zealand to put together the pieces of a young life. Coley is a writer who brings a delicious sense of humour to his characters and their dialogue. He is terrifically good at bringing to life the sometimes fraught relationship between siblings. What is especially appealing about this particular novel is the novel can – and probably should – be read twice, because there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber) is one of the best novels about male friendship and music I have read in years. In the first section of the novel a group of friends celebrate finishing school by going on a series of benders, taking drugs and seeing bands – in a way it is familiar territory, but O’Hagan’s characters are intelligent and culturally and political aware, so their banter is hugely entertaining. In the second section, we have moved on thirty years and one of the friends is now dying of cancer, meaning the tone of the novel changes significantly. O’Hagan’s rendering of the conclusion – that true friends will be supportive, no matter what – will stick in my mind for years.

In terms of non-fiction, Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography (4th Estate) by Helen Ennis is a masterclass in compassionate biography. Cotton was once married to Max Dupain, arguably Australia’s most famous photographer, giving us the iconic ‘Sunbaker’ image. Cotton and Dupain were teenage sweethearts but their marriage took a toll on Cotton’s own photographic practice, as was common at the time (and no doubt still is). The marriage failed and Cotton left Sydney to start a new life, in the country with a new man. Due to the depth of Ennis’s research and the warmth of her writing, Cotton well and truly comes to life and I was deeply moved by the end.

Tegan Bennet Daylight’s The Details (Scribner) is a collection of essays about writing, parenting, and death – I read some essays twice and will no doubt read them again. Daylight writes with extraordinary precision and, at times, a confronting honesty. There is so much skill in every sentence: nothing is overwritten; the meaning is crystal clear. The Details, I think, compares with the best of Helen Garner’s work.

I also loved Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (UQP), which explores the devastating impact of industrial agriculture on Australia’s landscapes and their ecologies. This is a brick of a book and it is filled with science and philosophy, but Massey writes in an accessible and engaging way. As someone who spends so much time driving through farmland, I now can’t stop looking at what is growing in the paddocks and what isn’t, and I also can’t stop imagining what might have been if the British colonisers had been more open to appreciating the existing systems and cultures rather than imposing one from the other side of the world.

For the poetry lovers, Melinda Smith brings misogyny to its knees in Man-handled (Recent Work Press). This collection is necessarily angry, but as always with Smith the skill is evident in every line – she is a poet who knows exactly what she is doing, and there are frequent fireworks. What I love most about her collections is the terrific variety, especially in terms of accessibility: one poem will stretch me as a reader (a good thing), the next will open out immediately and delight within seconds.

In The Other Flesh (UWAP) Robbie Coburn reveals the loneliness and isolation he has experienced in regional Australia. Despite being still in his twenties, Coburn has been writing and publishing poetry for some years. He is especially good in writing about mental illness. This is very fine poetry, and Coburn asks you to sit within him as he shares his experiences. Yes, this is emotionally raw, but every line has been worked and worked some more until there are depths and layers, encouraging slow reading, and re-reading. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more from Robbie Coburn.

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word, edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (UQP) is an extensive and timely collection of poetry written for the stage (rather than for the page). The editors have a longstanding commitment to holding space for writers from diverse backgrounds who have a diverse range of subject matter. I was incredibly moved by the work in Solid Air and my being has been exposed to issues and predicaments that have otherwise passed me by. Highly recommended.

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