Birds, apes and aliens: The best reads of 2014

Having served as book reviewer for the MaltaToday distributed VIDA Magazine, TEODOR RELJIC looks back at some of the literary highlights of the past year

Immanuel Mifsud: “We run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing”
Immanuel Mifsud: “We run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing”

Though technically released in 2013, Donna Tartt’s much talked about tome The Goldfinch riveted the public’s attention almost completely this year, after it secured the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A self-consciously Dickensian story of a boy who steals the titular Flemish painting after his mother dies in a terrorist attack of a New York museum, Tartt’s third novel – the 51-year-old American author is most famous for her equally lauded debut, The Secret History – is a triumphant page-turner, stuffed to the brim with plot twists and quirky, memorable characters.

It’s also very much a coming-of-age story for our protagonist Theo Decker, and its recognisable beats will no doubt transfer well to the planned (and inevitable) TV mini-series adaptation, announced a couple of months ago. Tartt is also very good on the intricacies of long-term friendship, and the character of Boris – a kind of Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist – is a memorable eccentric whose charms neither Theo nor the reader will be able to resist throughout this 700-page picaresque behemoth.

Though it may not have the thematic or sub-textual girth to justify its otherwise impressive size, and remains something of a story-for-story’s-sake, The Goldfinch is a timely reminder that a good story that relies on plot mechanics doesn’t have to be entirely devoid of intelligence and artfulness. There’s a bristling wit animating the work, and Tartt continues to be an excellent observer of the human condition, draping her observations in highly quotable turns of phrase.

The other heartfelt, joyously dynamic novel of the year was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a sort of inter-species comedy of errors that embeds a twist right at the tail end of its first act, the end result serving as a funny-sad reflection on our relationship with animals and how we negotiate both the natural and the social worlds.

Delivered in motormouthed first-person narration by Rosemary, a woman whose unconventional upbringing by a pair of scientists has key psychological repercussions on her adult life, the book is deceptively fast-paced. Jumping across key moments in Rosemary’s life, it finds plenty of time to discuss and problematize not just human-animal relations (with a focus on apes in particular), but also parenthood and our persistent ability to deceive ourselves in the face of traumatic events.

Like The Goldfinch, Fowler’s novel is an interesting example of how literary fiction is potentially adapting to the attention-deficit-disorder era. Notably, it is also the very first American novel to be shortlisted for the British Commonwealth-focused Man Booker Prize, after the prestigious award opened its doors to the US this year. Though it was hardly a shocking choice – Fowler’s novel was already a healthy seller and awards-magnet by the time the Booker shortlist was announced – many had figured The Goldfinch to be a shoo-in instead.

On the genre fiction front – or at least, shades thereof – Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy, encompassing the novels Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, towered mightily over the literary landscape: a not-bad feat considering its left-field make-up and VanderMeer’s pedigree within the largely ghettoised field of genre fiction.

But VanderMeer, a champion of the cross-genre potpourri loosely referred to as ‘weird fiction’ was never one to be easily categorised, and this hybrid trilogy is well written enough to transcend all market-dictated borders either way.

With each instalment of the trilogy delivered in a distinct literary style, VanderMeer creates a beguiling and immersive experience that may, however, disappoint readers who want all their narrative loose ends tied up. But its aura of mystery is justified, given that the job of the titular ‘Southern Reach’ is to monitor the encroaching mysterious entity that appears to be taking over a large swathe of rural land in America’s south.

Like a more surreal, literary take on both JJ Abrams’s Lost and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, The Southern Reach trilogy sees VanderMeer work hard to communicate a sense of the unknown, or of the truly alien, without resorting to stock movie-monster clichés. Above all though, it’s a reconfiguration of the anthropocentric notion of human hero narratives, when offset by a natural environment that has been on this earth for far longer than we have.

In the realm of non-fiction, I found myself captivated by cabaret-punk musician and crowdfunding pioneer Amanda Palmer’s long-awaited memoir, The Art of Asking. Effectively an expansion of her viral TED Talk of the same name, Palmer’s book – part artistic manifesto, part coming-of-age story of sorts – is a jolt of hard-won optimism in a dark world. Subtitled ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help’, the book is not only a rallying call for would-be musicians to embrace crowdfunding as a democratising alternative to the standard trappings of the industry; it’s also a reminder to be a bit easier on ourselves and to ask for help whenever we need it. In a post-recession world, it’s useful to be reminded that payment in kind – be it a free cup of coffee or a place to crash in times of need – should not be sniffed at.

In the realm of comic books, Bryan K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga continued to be a heartfelt rough diamond. A sort of Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars, with an added wash of gore and adult language that wouldn’t be out of place in an HBO drama, Saga is a punk rock space opera, but one that also finds time to say poignant things about the nature of family; and how the personal can, in fact, be very political indeed – particularly when pig-headed tribal politics are the matter at hand. The latest batch of issues has just been collected for the series’ fourth volume from Image Comics. Clever, compulsive and acerbic: Saga scratches a particular itch.

Local focus: Jutta Heim by Immanuel Mifsud

Immanuel Mifsud returned to the frontlines of Maltese literature with a haunting novella about unrequited love this year: Jutta Heim, in which a philandering local actor, Erik Xerri, falls hopelessly in love with the titular woman after spending just one night with her in a then-divided Berlin.

Unsurprisingly, the ensuing back-and-forth narrative – which has the 80s as its temporal centre but liberally jumps back in time to the 60s, to ultimately culminate with the Labour Party’s triumphant 2013 election victory – strives for a parallel between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and post-Mintoff Malta.

So yes, here’s another book that wrings drama out of the fraught political situation during 1980s Malta. Hot off the heels of both Alex Vella Gera’s acclaimed Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi and, more recently, Mark Vella’s X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? – both of whom shined an idiosyncratic light on the 80s milieu – at first glance, it’s tempting to slot Jutta Heim as simply another manifestation of a current literary trend.

“On the one hand it’s good that Maltese authors are tackling the 80s head-on and without any apparent self-censorship. But on the other, we run the risk of encouraging a perception that it’s only the 80s that are worth discussing. There’s a dearth of fiction about Malta during the Second World War, for example… you’ll find plenty of memoirs and non-fiction narratives, but not all that much fiction. And I find this pretty surprising, considering what rich dramatic fodder it is,” Mifsud had told MaltaToday, while expressing the hope that he would one day be able to leave the 80s behind and concentrate on other historical eras in his fiction.