A Year in Reading: A Reviewer’s Favorites from 2019

I read some exceptionally fine books this year, among them memoirs and biographies, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Laura Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race, and Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path; Josh Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Mark Kram, Jr.’s Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier; and Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. All are first rate, but novels are my retreat from what currently presents itself as the real world. I was happy to find that John lé Carre had returned to top form with Agent Running in the Field—a thoroughly entertaining comeback after A Legacy of Spies, his previous work which, in adding to the story that was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and exhuming George Smiley for a cameo performance, smacked of desperation. I zipped through the 700-plus pages of Don Winslow’s The Border which (presumably) concludes his blood-soaked Cartel trilogy. Both novels, like many others this year, displayed an obsession with the current—as of this writing—president, which is understandable, but not what I call an escape. So here are my absolute favorite novels of 2019.

The most effervescent of the lot is Joe Country, Mick Herron’s sixth novel-length installment in his chronicle of the renegade doings of the so-called Slow Horses, members of a unit of Britain’s domestic secret service (MI-5) with offices at Slough House. The building’s decrepitude and air of despair reflect the states of mind of the screw-ups, mental cases, and personae non gratae who have been relegated to it. (“In Slough House, you’re always guilty of something. Of being in Slough House, if nothing else.”) The unfestive group includes Roddy Ho, computer geek and hero of his own fantasies; Catherine Standish, recovering dipsomaniac; Louisa Guy, kindly sex addict; J. K. Coe, silent enigma; Shirley Dander, speed-freak with anger-management issues; River Cartwright, melancholy scion of spooks; and, now Lech Wicinski, new boy who did an acquaintance a favor which blew up in his face. At their head is the deeply cynical Jackson Lamb, foul-mouthed bully and spymaster with a well-hidden streak of loyalty to his minions—a man whose repulsive personal habits would bring joy to the heart of any nine-year-old boy. The plot is, as usual, vastly exciting with numerous twists, but the true excellence of these books lies in their nimble prose, dark wit, and the carnival of inner monologues running in the Slow Horses’ heads.

I do gravitate toward espionage and Lauren Wilkinson’s remarkable debut, American Spy, is both a thrilling adventure and a novel of literary excellence. Marie Mitchell, born of a Martiniquan mother and a cop from Queens, joined the FBI in the 1980s. She is a black woman in a milieu of white men who have no inclination to treat her as an equal. Seconded to the CIA, she is sent off to Burkina Faso in West Africa to seduce the country’s leftist leader and bring down his government. It is an ugly mission—but one which she does not fulfill faithfully. Consequences arrive years later in the shape of an assassin in the Connecticut home she shares with her four-year-old twin boys. As this is the first scene, it will spoil nothing to tell you that Marie, though hampered by a painful encounter with a Duplo block, dispatches him handily and escapes with the children to Martinique. From there she writes a letter to her sons unfolding the complex story of how this all came to be. The novel is a successful hybrid of thriller, moving family drama, and riff on our country’s unsavory meddling in the fate of other nations.

This year saw the publication of another first-rate debut: Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing which is told in the first person from the point of view of ten-year-old Gavin as recalled by his adult self. He is one of the four children of immigrants from Taiwan, now living in Alaska. It is January, 1986 and Gavin is eagerly awaiting the launch of the space shuttle Challenger with his hero, Christa McAuliffe aboard. Before the launch, however, he contracts meningitis and is unconscious for days. Recovering, he learns of shuttle’s explosion and McAuliffe’s death, and, worse, discovers that his four-year-old sister has died from the disease. Suffused with sorrow and guilt for having infected her, he is filled with dread and consumed with longing that what has passed might be undone. It is a frame of mind that is amplified by the family’s precarious, cobbled-together existence, one which becomes more and more peculiar and further pervaded by a toxic atmosphere as Gavin’s mother, a practical woman to the point of ruthlessness, seethes with rage at her husband’s bad judgement and incompetence. Just exactly how the family came to this pass is gradually revealed—another tragedy with resonance, in its own way, with that of the Challenger. The book is heartbreaking, but deeply rewarding thanks to the skill with which the story is constructed in subtle parallels and the genius with which it is filtered through a perfectly captured young mind.

In The Redeemed, English novelist Tim Pears, finishes off his marvelous West Country Trilogy, an excursion into England’s rural past and a vanished way of life. It is the story of Leopold, a boy, then man, born in 1900 on an estate in Somerset where feudal social and economic relationships still linger. He has a gift for horses and out this forms a (forbidden) friendship with the other central character, Charlotte, daughter of the estate owner. The first volume, The Horseman, begins in 1912, and ends with Leopold’s expulsion and exile into the wide world. The second, The Wanderers, traces his passage from enslavement by gypsies to farm worker, miner, and companion to a recluse traumatized by experiences in the Boer War. The present novel opens in 1916 with Leopold at war as a deckhand aboard HMS Queen Mary as she sets out for what became the Battle of Jutland. Elsewhere, Charlotte pursues her calling as a veterinarian—an occupation almost unheard of for a woman. All three novels move slowly, building a rich sense of nature, of her creatures and their ways, and the cycle of the seasons. Amid this, the routines, tools and esoterica of labor are set before us, often couched in dialog that is rich in dialect and arcane terminology. These immensely evocative novels build slowly and to appreciate them fully, to feel their power, one should read them in order as they amount to one very great book.

Facing stiff competition, the very best and most accomplished novel I read this year is the Canadian writer Michael Crummey’s The Innocents. Set in the first half of the nineteenth century on an isolated cove in Newfoundland, it is the story of Evered and Ada Best who are orphaned at only eleven and nine years old. They manage to survive as their parents did, though far more meagerly, by exchanging the codfish—which they catch, salt, and dry—for supplies from the fish dealer who appears by ship twice a year. As months and years pass they have further contact with the outside world from passing ships, gaining hints in snippets of why their parents chose to live in this godforsaken place and of the incomprehensible hugeness of the world. Hunger, illness, injury, and loneliness are the children’s lot, but most menacing is the turbulence of sexual feeling which begins to manifest itself as they grow older. The tension is tremendous for characters and reader alike, but is buffered by the extraordinary beauty of Crummey’s prose, by his deft insertion of archaic Newfoundland speech into the fabric of the story, and by his gift of conveying the bewildered, mercurial feelings of these young people.