Current Issue #488

Summer reading:
essential books of 2019

There are few better ways to see out the year than by escaping into a book – but where to start? We asked some of Adelaide’s most prominent bookworms to look back on the year in literature and share their highlights of 2019.

Jessica Alice, Writers SA Director
Jessica Alice
Director, Writers SA

Archival-Poetics 1, Natalie Harkin (Text Publishing)
Exploded View, Carrie Tiffany (Vagabond Press)

2019 has been a huge year for poetry, particularly Aboriginal women poets, with the finest writing coming from South Australia’s Natalie Harkin and her new, seminal collection Archival-Poetics, an aesthetically stunning suite of books that disrupt the falsehoods written in Australian history, and BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, a bold, ambitious and unrelenting critique of the ongoing violence of colonisation, written in innovative and often very humorous verse.

In fiction I was captivated by Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View, a novel about the complex mechanisms of family, adolescence, trauma and neglect. It’s an unsettling book but a gift to its readers, who are treated to Tiffany’s evocative and elegant storytelling. And this year I was delighted by Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the eight sentence, 1,000-page experimental epic that changes the way you think about narrative and the activity of reading. 

Jo Dyer
Director, Adelaide Writers’ Week

Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips (Simon & Schuster)
Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Subanthad (Hachette)

American author Julia Phillips spent a year in Kamchatka on a Fulbright scholarship and the result is Disappearing Earth.  Her stunning debut novel is set in the Kamchatkan peninsula – a former closed Soviet military zone and a landscape utterly unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers, cut off from the world by its geography and history, imbued simultaneously with a bleak vastness and a claustrophobic sense of isolation.

Disappearing Earth is a kind of literary thriller, opening with the abduction of two little white girls.  But it’s told a series of connected short stories, with almost as many protagonists as it has characters – a cast of complex women who each represent something of the cultural and ethnic differences of the region.  Their stories range from the banal to the tragic, with the girls’ abduction echoing across each of their lives in different ways, highlighting the many ways in which it is dangerous to be a woman in Russia today, and ultimately drawn deftly together in a wholly satisfying if almost unnecessary conclusion.  It’s a compelling, fascinating book by a great new talent.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain is another polyphonic book that gives great insight into the megacity of Bangkok told by an author who grew up there.  It is a story that flows skilfully between different characters and different centuries, swirling around a grand home built by the son of a labourer who founded a trading company.  As characters come and go, the house too is transformed, from a luxury home, to high rise apartment development to a building submerged as the waters rise across the city, threatening the lives of its inhabitants.  It is a book about what endures, and what is erased, highlighting dark histories that refuse to be buried and stark futures that refuse to be ignored.

Margot Lloyd, Wakefield Press Publisher
Margot Lloyd
Editor, Wakefield Press

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, Felicity McLean (HarperCollins)

The word ‘essential’ makes me feel like I should be recommending a sobering run-down on climate change, or a treatise on how to overthrow ineffective governments. But I’m going to recommend a different type of essential book: something lush, absorbing, and very nostalgic. Felicity McLean’s The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone follows Tikka Malloy’s return to Australia in her 30s, after years abroad.

Ostensibly she’s back to help her sister after a cancer diagnosis, but she’s still plagued by the disappearance of their neighbourhood friends twenty years before. McLean recreates a long slow childhood summer, all backyard pools and dripping ice cream, suburban secrets and budding sexuality, with not a word out of place. This book might not save the world, but good fiction reminds us why the world is worth saving – and this is Australian fiction at its very best.

Greg Mackie, History Trust of South Australia CEO
Greg Mackie
CEO, History Trust of South Australia

Long Flight Home, Lainie Anderson (Wakefield Press)

Adelaide writer and journo Lainie Anderson’s fictional re-telling of the first ever trans-planet flight – it made history exactly 100 years ago – and it was South Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith and their ever-resourceful mechanics Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett who were the first crew ever to fly from England to Australia.

Their Vickers Vimy aeroplane lives at Adelaide Airport – a neglected icon of world aviation. Part boys-own adventure and part love story the novel is the epic flight through the eyes of mechanic Wally Shiers. Perfect holiday reading! 

Jo Case
Author and Imprints bookseller

Late in the Day, Tessa Hadley (Penguin)

For pure reading pleasure and the thrill of discovering a new favourite writer, my best book of 2019 was Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley, a longtime quiet achiever with a growing fan base (that includes Zadie Smith). Set in art-world contemporary London, it’s the story of two couples, best friends since their university days, whose foundations are shattered when one of them – gallery owner Zac, the one most beloved by them all – dies.

His wife Lydia, a legendary beauty, moves in with Christine, an artist (as composed as Lydia is erratic) and her husband Alec, an acerbic poet turned teacher … and Lydia’s long-ago crush.

In flashbacks, we see how they all became who they are, and in the present, watch as these relationships are tested. It’s a gorgeous, psychologically astute portrait of both marriage and friendship, richly seeded with references to books, music and art.

2019 in review:

Additionally, here’s a collection of highlights from our Books pages over the past 12 months.

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox