I always pay attention to what Sean Kinch – an extraordinary English teacher, by all reports – is reading. He agreed to share his Top Five Reads of 2019.
“I really enjoyed putting this together, finding ways to tout novels I loved,” he told me. “I kept my top five to 2019 releases but couldn’t resist the chance to advocate for a Billy Lee Brammer novel. My father, a political journalist, and mother knew Brammer and many of the people who appear (in slightly modified form) in this roman a clef. Reading it, I burned with remorse that I didn’t read it while my folks were still alive. The consolation was that reading it brought their world back to me.”
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In recent years literary headlines on both sides of the Atlantic have been dominated by young women. Early works from writers such as Sally Rooney, Otessa Mossfegh, Sophie Mackintosh, Valerie Luiselli, and Kristen Roupenian have won praise and broad readerships for fiction that offers new voices and narrative forms. Given that recent trend, I am pleased to discover that, on looking back over the most enjoyable books of 2019, many were written by veterans, women in mid-career who have produced novels of profound resonance and nuanced emotion.
My top two picks for 2019, especially, exhibit all the hallmarks of quality fiction: well crafted characters, palpably real settings, absorbing plots, and resolutions that satisfy Aristotle’s precept that endings should be simultaneously surprisingly and inevitable. As soon as you read the first pages of Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted or Julie Orringer’s The Flight Protocol, you know that you are in good hands. You immediately care about the protagonists (respectively, a theoretical physicist in contemporary Boston and an American diplomat in Vichy France) and sense that they have arduous trials ahead before they find peace.
Freudenberger’s novel is remarkable for the way it weaves concepts from quantum physics into the fabric of its plot without misconstruing the scientific ideas or belaboring the analogies. (Having studied the use of quantum mechanics in contemporary fiction, I can attest that Freudenberger’s achievement in this regard is notable, if not singular.) Orringer similarly finds ways to integrate into her fictional narrative the real history of the attempt by U.S. envoys to smuggle artists and writers out of Nazi Germany. Her cast includes a number of household names—Andre Gide, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall—but finally we care more about her troubled hero, Varian Fry, and his struggles to live honestly in a hostile world.
The brilliance and human warmth of Lost and Wanted and The Flight Portfolio earn this reader’s highest form of praise: I want to explore the back catalogues of Freudenberger and Orringer, and I look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when my memory of these two novels has faded, so that I can have the pleasure of reading them again.
Third on my list is Unquiet, by the Norwegian novelist Linn Ullman. It’s autoficiton with a twist: Ullman is the daughter of legendary film director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullman, so her life (in outline, at least) is already well known. Unquiet takes the form of memories and reflections, building from her first memories visiting Bergman on his island estate to his funeral in 2007, interspersed with tales of living with her mother in New York. “I’m trying to understand something about love here,” writes Ullman, “and about my parents, and why solitude played such a significant role in their lives.”
Louisa Hall’s Trinity, number four on my list, takes risks with narrative structure, re-telling the life of a famous man, Robert Oppenheimer, from the perspectives of seven people tangentially connected to him. The title, Oppenheimer’s name for the atomic bomb test, evokes theological mystery, which Hall connects to the mystifying ways that our lives accrue meaning, and the excruciating ways they fall apart. Though Oppenheimer centers this ambitious novel, we learn little about him, a lot about the varieties of absence and emptiness. Like Freudenberger, Hall uses concepts from physics to explain the limits of human understanding. “You never know, absolutely, what another person was feeling,” Oppenheimer says, “just as we never know the velocity and the position of a particle at any one moment.”
Finally, Téa Obreht’s Inland confirms the promise of her 2011 debut, The Tiger’s Wife. Set in the American West (Arizona, primarily) of the late-nineteenth century, Inland is a novel of porous borders. Property lines are in dispute, claims of possession challenged, the dead re-appear, past and present collide, and the future unfurls like images repeating in facing mirrors. Obreht plays with time like a Christopher Nolan movie but fills the story with humor and love, balancing life’s inevitable suffering with intermittent joys. Plus, there’s a camel.
One final category, favorite old novel that I read this year: Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place (1961), billed as “three related novels” about Texas politics in the 1950s. Touted as the successor to All the King’s Men, and doomed by a title (drawn from an F. Scott Fitzgerald poem) that quickly became dated, The Gay Place features a governor, Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, who bears a close resemblance to L.B.J., and three young politicos who face life-defining dilemmas. Verbally inventive, outrageously funny, deeply moving—Brammer creates a fictional version of Austin (my hometown) that I would trade just about anything to visit.
Nickolas Butler, Little Faith
Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day
Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School
Michael Knight, At Briarwood School for Girls
Tim Johnston, The Current
Sam Lipsyte, Hark
Valerie Luiselli, Lost Children Archive
Richard Russo, Chances Are …