Sara Foster, author of All That Is Lost Between Us, a gripping family drama, and compelling story of motherhood, marriage and the perils of adolescence, reveals the books that really got her thinking this year:
THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent. After her husband suddenly dies, Nora is left alone to care for her ailing, crippled grandson Micheal. But Nance, who has the knowledge, is sure that one of the ‘good people’ is living in the child, and sets out with her charms and rituals to oust this fairy from Micheal’s body and return Nora’s true grandchild to her.
Not only is this novel about the belief in magic and folklore in nineteenth century Ireland, the narrative seems to have been conjured from some magical realm too. How else could Hannah Kent describe the people and events of this small community with such masterful precision? Such an incredibly talented Australian writer. This book is painful to read at times, but holds important questions about the nature of belief, and where it might lead us.
THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah. An unforgettable story of two sisters caught up in World War Two, both driven into the terrible moral dilemmas that war brings with it. The novel highlights the incredible burdens and sacrifices of women in war, and this quote left me wondering about all those other untold stories:
‘Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.’
LEAVING ELVIS by Michelle Michau Crawford. A man returns from World War II and struggles to come to terms with what has happened in his absence. Almost seventy years later, his middle-aged granddaughter packs up her late grandmother’s home and discovers more than she had bargained for.
I read this at the start of the year, and Michelle’s writing and characters have stayed with me. Through a series of interconnected short stories, Leaving Elvis beautifully captures how lives are shaped through large and small moments and decisions.
LIFE LESSONS FROM THE MONK WHO SOLD HIS FERRARI by Robin Sharma. I always have a book like this on the go. Which is apt, because one of Sharma’s life lessons is to seek out books that inspire and teach you! I often look for those underpinned with Buddhism, as they invariably help me to keep my head straight when I’m focusing on lots of different things at once. This book has become a stalwart for me, offering me space to reflect and encouraging me to stay focused on the things that matter.
THE NATURAL WAY OF THINGS by Charlotte Wood. Two women wake up from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in the middle of a desert. They soon realize they are not alone, but with a group of women all held against their will, with no idea of why they are there who has put them there, and what will happen next. Only through glimpses of their previous lives do we get an insight into why they have been chosen.
This book grabs you by the scruff and doesn’t let go. Wood’s novel holds an uncompromising lens up to society, and shouts at everyone to pay more attention, and to think harder about what we take for granted. To my mind it is absolutely deserving of the many accolades it has won this year.
CLADE by James Bradley. The story of one family, told in a series of vignettes against the backdrop of a world slowly succumbing to the effects of climate change. What I love about this book are the layers of delicate subtlety that create Bradley’s complex characters and landscapes. His depiction of climate change is not as apocalyptic as other books in the cli-fi genre. Instead, it’s like watching the first rocks of a landslide tumbling down the mountainside while bracing for the inevitable; and there’s so much power in this foreshadowing. Bradley’s immutable vision is unnerving precisely because it is so believable.
THE HUMANS by Matt Haig. This one was on my ‘to read’ list for a while, and I’m so glad I picked it up. Who would have thought a novel about alien abduction and mathematics could be so compelling? The main character, a maths professor, dies at the beginning, and his body is taken over by an alien who wishes to destroy the professor’s work – in particular a breakthrough that might lead humans to discover new cosmic intelligence. However, when the alien begins to fall for the professor’s wife and son, he discovers there is much more to humankind than he first thought. With an utterly original narrative voice, this story is both amusing and enriching. I wasn’t sure that the long list towards the end was needed, I felt the narrative had already done its job, but since it gave me a little longer to linger in this story I feel slightly churlish for even mentioning it!
SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult. Ruth Jefferson has been a midwife for many years, and loves her job. Until a white supremacist family refuses to let her assist them with their son because she is African American. Ruth’s superior allows a note to be made on their file to comply with their request, so when the baby goes into cardiac arrest the following day, Ruth hesitates, and as a result is charged with a serious crime.
I know Jodi Picoult’s writing style very well by now, and she always draws me back to her work with these compelling ethical dilemmas. I would love to talk over the ‘voice’ of the white supremacist with a book group – I wasn’t sure about it at times – but I am so glad I read this. It’s an important book at the moment, with its painful and timely reminders of the deep divisions in society, and that blighted thought processes can lead to tragic consequences.
THE ROAD TO OMELAS by Ursula Le Guin. This was written over 40 years ago, and it’s not even a book but a short story. However, I have snuck it in here because I read it in 2016, and it’s a classic. If you only read one short story in the next 12 months, make it this one. I can’t begin to describe it, you have to read it. I stared at the wall for probably half an hour after I finished it, lost in thought.
THE BOOK OF JOY by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. Nothing could better underscore how vital books are to society than this, where we are all invited ‘into the room’ with these two incredible men, who have forged a unique friendship that isn’t affected by their fame or their different faiths. I felt very privileged to be able to read their conversations and reflections on the nature and importance of Joy in modern life. Their discussions don’t deny the pain and suffering that is woven through the experience of living, but still offer us all advice and encouragement to pursue Joy in a world of turmoil. If you need a book to soothe your soul, look no further.