THE ENDS OF years always force a reckoning; what did we see, what have we learnt and what can we expect next. And nothing captures the spirit of a year quite as well as books and cinema. Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.’ True to his time, he did not factor in women leaving their homes. But if we were to add all genders to the original, his quote would still hold true.
Our list of Best Books of 2019 covers 70-plus books, including crime fiction, political thrillers and personal choices by a range of authors and essayists. The diversity in the list is particularly noteworthy. Only two books occur more than once: the Nobel-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
The lack of repetition tells us that 2019 was not the year of the big book. Instead, it was a year of many small and meaningful books. Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning The Testaments has not made it to our list, and I wonder if that is a terrible oversight, or if it tells us that the book did not resonate with readers in India. 2019 saw releases from some of our most beloved authors such as Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer and Salman Rushdie, but the books they wrote this year weren’t the best of their oeuvre.
Here are a few books which I feel rose to the top. The Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel so packed with voice and life that you read it in a breathless rush. It is a book of Britain—set in Newcastle, Cornwall, London and Oxford—but the voices of the 12 very different protagonists give us a new kind of history. Deborah Levy is another novelist who plays with both time and history in her wonderfully clever work The Man Who Saw Everything, which switches between London today and Communist East Germany in 1988. Levy’s seventh novel casts a steely gaze at the messiness of human relationships, especially when it involves love and sex. It reveals both the unreliable nature of our memories and our perceptions. We build our pasts from fragments, but how authentic are they? Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything is another novel that grapples with an unreliable narrator—and if we can believe what he is telling us. It has a simple but disconcerting premise: good people do evil acts. And evil is not always the act of a sledgehammer; instead it is more often than not the insidious, even routine, tightening of screws. The novel is a ‘rehearsal’ of a conversation that Dr K has with his absent daughter as he tries to explain to her why he did what he did as a surgeon, at the behest of his superiors.
Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is a work of memoir and journalism that every leader and politician should read, as it makes for a watertight case for the breaking down of walls. Today as the definitions of immigrant/citizen/infiltrator roil legislatures from the US to India, Mehta’s book reminds us we are all migrants. The fear of immigrants is only stoked by politicians to earn votes, make money and vilify the ‘other’.
I recently read A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed about Love Whilst Dying by Joe Hammond on a single, short-duration flight. Reminiscent of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, this is also a memoir written by a man who knows he is dying. Hammond, a father to two young sons, chronicles the shredding of his bodily strength from motor neuron disease in a memoir that is both tragic and uplifting. As he writes, ‘This book is everything—the experience of my body as it changes and declines. The experience of saying goodbye to those I love. I’m scared—I know I am. But it feels strangely OK. And surprising too. I’m going to tell you about it.’