These are books I've read in 2014, not necessarily published this year. I read 47 books this year, of which 16 were by Australian authors.
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis. A successful and revered Israeli government minister flees with his young mistress when their affair is uncovered. They return to Russia where each grew up and land by chance in the household of the man who betrayed him to the KGB 40 years before, resulting in 13 years in a gulag. The betrayer has a miserable life, had only bad choices at the time of the betrayal, and pointed out the betrayed now is rich and has a young mistress. The humanity of all, betrayer and betrayed is lovingly explored.
Lila by Marilynn Robinson. This is the beautifully written story of the young wife of the preacher of Gilead. Despite the misery of her youth, she is able to come to appreciate the elderly preacher and he finds her questions about religious matters to be ones he thinks about and has few answers for. Made me want to read Gilead again. Nate Silver notes this was on more "best" lists than any other novel, so I'm in step here.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. Nora is a recent widow who moves about her life as if she is walking under water. She is isolated and can hardly bear the presence of those who want to help her. Over time she returns to life and learns to make her way in the world. The story is set in the late 60s and 70s and refers to the moon landing and the beginning of The Troubles in Ireland. You come to love the various characters, like the woman who appears at first to be proper and think herself better than others and ends getting good and drunk in the pub with everyone else.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan. The main character is Fiona, a 59-year-old judge in a family court who makes life and death decisions about children. Several wrenching situations are described, along with her decisions. I found the intelligence and reason she brought to bear to be reassuring, as if rationality can be found in all situations. Just at the time she has one of her most difficult cases, her husband becomes restive in their marriage. I saw this one on someone's "worst" list, but I loved it.
Someone by Alice McDermott. Through the life of Marie, the author tells a story of the Irish in Brooklyn beginning in the 1920s. Throughout the telling of Marie’s story, you know the unsurprising arc of her life. It’s the kindly but clear-eyed vision of the elderly ladies who visit her employer’s mother, it’s the revelations she has about her own life when she experiences great disappointment that leads her to see others have those disappointments too, and it’s the understanding that it was not saintliness that made her brother leave the priesthood. These are the aspects of Marie’s life that bring Marie and her community to life.
Eyrie by Tim Winton. As always with Tim Winton’s books, the story is king. The main character is a well-known environmentalist who has imploded in the last year. A public rant has ended his career, his marriage has ended, and his health is impaired by an unidentified malady. He becomes involved with a woman his father had rescued as a child who is now a grandmother caring for the son of her drug addicted daughter. He struggles to repeat his father’s rescue. At the same time he copes with the corrosive effects of the mining boom on society that is drunk on the boom times.
The Langton Quartet By Martin Boyd. I’m counting these four (The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love, and When Blackbirds Sing as one book as it is hard to separate them and I loved them all. The impetus for the story of the Langton family was to create a fictional account of Boyd’s own family. He had served in Britain during World War I and had published a novel that was successful there. Several years after the war he returned to Australia, planning to revive the family’s fortunes. He discovered his grandmother’s 50-volume diary and wrote these novels using her diaries, his recollections, and memories of elderly family members. The narrator, Guy Langton, tells the stories conversationally and with great wit.
The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay. A beautifully crafted book set in a small Australian town near Sydney after World War II, this book tells of the recovery from the tragic death of the railwayman, Mac Lachlan. His life is recreated in flashbacks as his wife and daughter learn to cope with his death. Three friends band together with his wife Ani in their sadness about Mac as well as the horrors of war. For all its sadness, it is a tender and sweet story.
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. It was a real treat to live through the creation of this beloved painting by way of this novel. The painting (shown here) is at the Phillips Collection in Washington. One of its great charms is that the models were an interesting group in their own right, especially the fellow in the middle with the tall hat, Charles Ephrussi, who figures in the much loved book The Hare with Amber Eyes.
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. As I predicted when I read it in February, this memoir by a well-known Israeli novelist is my favorite for the year. It mixes the dramatic story of his family, the tragedies of Jewish life in the 20th century, and precise, beautiful and sometimes light-hearted descriptions. His family moved from Russia to Israel in the late 1930s. His account of the creation of Israel is wrenching but matched by his revelations about his family.