Australian literature, Australian reads, best books 2013, best reads, book review, books, books 2013, Burial Rites, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton, Hannah Kent, John Harwood, kenneth Mackenzie, literature, Marisha Pessl, must reads, must reads 2013, Night Film, read, reading, The Asylum, The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, The Young Desire It, top books, top five books, top reads, top reads 2013, what to read, writing
2013 has been a year of big releases. Not only have we been wowed by new titles from some of the world’s most well-regarded authors and treated to some stellar debuts, many of the year’s biggest reads are quite literally huge (three on this list span more than 600 pages). For me, therefore, it’s been a year for reading quality over quantity, and there are many books that would doubtless be contenders for this list, if only I’d had the time to get further down the ‘to read’ pile.
If there’s a book released in 2013 that you think should have been on this list that didn’t make the cut, let me know—I want to read it.
That said, here are my top five lit pics for 2013:
Tartt kept her readers waiting eleven years for The Goldfinch, but it was worth it. Named Amazon’s Book of the Year, The Goldfinch follows the story of Theo Decker, a teenage boy who survives a terrorist attack on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Out of the rubble he smuggles Carel Fabritius’s painting, ‘The Goldfinch’. As his former life is packed away in boxes, and he is sent to live with his gambler father in the suburban fringes of Las Vegas, the painting becomes the sole source of beauty in his life.
But beauty in a Tartt novel is always dark and objects of beauty become objects of obsession, enchanting her protagonists and drawing them away from the banal into sinister underworlds.
Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, was an instant bestseller, and even today, more than twenty years after it was first published, it continues to appear on popular ‘top books’ lists. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with it and went on to write a substantial part of my PhD thesis on it. The Goldfinch leaves The Secret History for dead.
If you haven’t read Tartt yet, now is the time to start. I don’t have a full review of The Goldfinch on the blog, but I do have an article in the next issue of Kill Your Darlings about why Donna Tartt novels are worth a read, so look out for that one in January.
Speaking of Kill Your Darlings, the journal’s publishing director, Hannah Kent, released her debut novel Burial Rites this year.
Burial Rites, which Kent wrote as part of a creative writing PhD at Flinders University, won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2012. As part of her prize, Kent received a mentorship with Miles Franklin winner Geraldine Brooks and Burial Rites became an instant best seller and one of the most talked about releases of 2013.
Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. After being found guilty of a double murder she was billeted out to a farm to await her execution.
In the past Agnus has been portrayed as both an evil witch and an innocent wronged, but Burial Rites seeks out a more complex truth about an intelligent and passionate woman living in strict times in one of the world’s harshest environments.
Back in 2006 Marisha Pessl had everyone talking with her rather ambitious first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. While many found it precocious (almost every one of its 600-odd pages contains allusions to some classic text), Pessl clearly had truckloads of talent and I was very keen to see what she would come up with once she’d finished telling everyone how well read she was.
Night Film begins with the suicide of a famous film director’s daughter. While the police find no evidence of foul play, disgraced investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, believes something sinister is afoot and begins an investigation of his own. His search to find the truth about Ashley Cordova’s death leads him to a Gothic underworld deep as it is dark.
While this may not sound like an entirely original premise, Pessl’s treatment of it is. Her writing is still a tad pretentious, but she is an enchanting storyteller and Night Film is one hell of a story. If you’re not afraid of the dark, put this one on the ‘to-read’ pile.
The Young Desire It was originally released in 1937, but I’m being a bit cheeky and including it here as it was re-released as a Text Classic earlier this year.
The story itself is very simple: A teenage boy is sent away to boarding school where he unwittingly attracts the attention of a young master, and later begins a relationship with a girl he meets at home in the holidays. What is so extraordinary about this book is the intensity with which its protagonist, Charles Fox, experiences the world. Pedestrian scenes: A train ride, a stroll across a paddock, even grinding SWAT VAC sessions tremble with the unbounded vibrancy of youth. The language of The Young Desire It pulls the reader back into those wonderous and terrifying extremes of emotion that, as adults, we largely learn to temper. It is a disquieting and exhilarating feeling to regain that heightened perspective, if only for the length of the book.
The Young Desire It is one of the crown jewels of Australian literature and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
John Harwood is another Aussie literary legend. The Asylum is his third novel in what might be very loosely called a trilogy. His first two books, The Ghost Writer (2004) and The Séance (2008) are old school Gothic at its finest.
Set in Victorian England, The Asylum is more suspense than pure Gothic, though it too has its fair share of spine tingling moments. The story is that of Georgina Ferras, a young woman who wakes up in a mental asylum with no recollection of how she got there. More confusing, the staff address her as Miss Ashton and another woman claiming to be Georgina Ferras appears to be living the life ‘Miss Ashton’ believes is rightfully hers.
The Asylum is full of hairpin twists and turns, dark family secrets and the high emotion of a Victorian novel, with the pace sped up for today’s readers.
I took a bunch of notes for a review of The Asylum, butapparently never wrote the review itself, so watch this space in the new year for my full review.
It wouldn’t really be fair to include The Luminaries as one of my top books of 2013 as I’m only halfway through reading it, but it’s simply too good not to mention at all. It won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and Catton, at just 28, became the youngest author ever to receive the award.
The Luminaries is set in 1866 in a New Zealand gold rush town. A hermit is found dead and a fortune in pure gold stashed around his hut. A wife no one knew he had suddenly arrives to claim the gold, and one of the town’s richest men has disappeared. A whore is found drugged on the road with gold sewn into the seams of her gown, a sea captain is believed to be smuggling riches to Melbourne and a new arrival saw something he’s too terrified to speak on his passage from Australia. The more the townspeople learn about these mysterious happenings, the more tangled the web becomes.
I can’t say more than that, and I won’t get into any analysis until I’ve read the whole book, but this is a stellar read.
Update: I finished The Luminaries. Full review here.