Reads of the year: 2023
We rounded up a bunch of book lovers to ask what their favourite reads of 2023 were
Lost Property by Megan Choritz swept me into its pages and didn’t let me go until the final word was read. The gorgeous prose and imagery create a melancholy lyricism. Interviewing the author earlier this year for the Sunday Times was a privilege. Her tale will stay with me for a long, long time.
Finding Endurance: Shackleton, my father and a world without end by Darrel Bristow-Bovey (Jonathan Ball Publishers). A black-painted sailing ship minus her masts, sitting on the seabed just so, discovered 2km beneath the icy seas off Antarctica. After Endurance sank, crushed by the ice, it took 106 years to find her. And Ernest Shackleton’s heroic legend only grew bigger. Darrel Bristow-Bovey had dreamt of Endurance since he was six. And so we embark on a magical journey of wonderment, then and now, memoir and myth enmeshed in a literary passage every bit as memorable as Shackleton’s. If the lyricism of the writing doesn’t enthrall you, nothing will. Oh yes. This is my book of 2023. Easily.
Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. The release of a Zadie Smith book is an anticipated occasion for me. Having read all six of her novels, one feels oneself to be in an author-reader relationship: a lovely, albeit fragile thing. The stakes are high. Disappointment, after all, is possible. There was none of that with The Fraud. Journeying with Smith from her debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000, with its clever, luminous sentences and irreverent plot when she was only 25 years old — upending the literary industry — to the current historical novel with its heart and depth and humour is a small joy in a troubled world. The Fraud is the best of Smith: ironic, sharp in prose and observation, and continues ongoing themes around the novel and its uses, race (and its enduring legacy) and power (ditto). The novel follows the life of Eliza Touchet and notable men of the early 19th century, author William Ainsworth and Andrew Bogle — a black Jamaican, once enslaved, and unusually pivotal to a sensational fraud trial of that day. Charles Dickens’ influence (he makes a cameo appearance) in writing character and the episodic structure used here, is clearly rendered.
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono. Bono has always been a polarising personality — brilliant if you’re a fan, brash (at best) if you’re not — but he is certainly not boring. Coming from a man and an artist who has never seemed to accept that there is only one way to do things, it’s unsurprising that Surrender is an unconventional memoir, as much philosophy and affecting introspection as it is a revisiting and explanation of many of the highlights and challenges experienced by the A-list singer and activist and his band, U2. Here are gathered the musings and insights of a brain both acute and constantly curious, often seeing the potential in some new creation or cause before really understanding what it is or how it works. Like the best of U2’s songs, this is a hit that makes you think.
Shaun de Waal
The volume to which I’ve returned most often this past year is PR Anderson’s poetry collection Night Transit (Dryad Press). Anderson is one of those poets whose work has the richness, density and mystery that repay repeated rereading; the poems often seen to reconfigure themselves when revisited. Night Transit is more public-facing than his previous collection, In a Free State, a work that felt as though it were more dreamed than written. These are poems of journeys and places, and being in-between places, intertwined with personal and communal histories that inhabit their very landscapes.
Yet another book on Nelson Mandela, I thought, holding the 550 page Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage. But! by Jonny Steinberg — that wizard with the written word. I was hooked. Years of meticulous research, with hundreds of interviews with those closest to this tragic, unique and historic couple, have resulted in the finest book yet on the Mandelas — it won’t be bettered. Steinberg takes us deep into the Eastern Cape princess’s young life, the gorgeous yet forceful young woman’s arrival in turbulent Joburg and, when they met, the instant allure she exerted on the then dandyish, handsome Mandela. One of the most compelling, and saddest insights into their doomed marriage is Steinberg’s assertion that both Winnie and Nelson, post the latter’s release, wore masks. Nelson hid his wounds, his doubts about sacrificing his life and marriage to the woman he adored. An intensely human book about an inhumane time.
The Lion’s Historian: Africa’s Animal Past is a unique book by exuberant environmental historian Professor Sandra Swart, which I found captivating. She looks at centuries of history through the eyes of animals, an original lens that casts ancient stories in a new light. Twenty years of meticulous research informs the chapters, but her style is unlike that of a stuffy academic. Take the opening paragraph: “We are haunted by ghosts. But, as any good exorcist — or historian — will tell you, the trouble does not come from the spirits of the past but from the phantoms of the present. One of them lives deep in the Knysna forest… She is perhaps the only truly wild elephant at the southern tip of the continent. She is also the loneliest.” The content veers wildly from elephant to ants, to vicious police dogs and horses, and San communities who lived peacefully with lions to humans who clash with the baboons who taught them plant lore over millennia. But the book is about more than the past; it’s about the future: about humans honouring animals as agents in history and the need to protect them and the natural world, in an era when the planet is tipping towards disaster. A historian is more like a baboon than a lion, says Swart. “We are the strangers on the rocks… the sentinels on the wall. We see and remember.”
My read of the year is Mme Ruth Mompati: A Life of Courage and Service, written by novelist and poet laureate Dr Wally Serote, published by Seriti Sa Sechaba earlier this year. Being someone that enjoys nonfiction and memoirs, this book left an indelible mark on me. It’s written based on a series of interviews by the author with Mme Ruth in her later years as a resident of Vryburg in the North West. The book writes her life beautifully back into history, from her days as a young girl raised in the village of Ganyesa, 10 km from Vryburg, to her schooling years at Tiger Kloof and then her later years rising through the ranks of the ANC. The book shines a light on the role of women in the liberation struggle. It does not only refer to the life of Mme Ruth but that of her peers like Albertina Sisulu, Sophie du Bruyn, Getrude Shope, Angie Msimang, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Ruth First, Amina Cachalia, Dorothy Nyembe, Florence Mkhize and many others. The book highlights the roles she played within the ANC in exile and after 1994, the sacrifices she and others endured for liberation — like being separated from loved ones for years. True to her second name, Segomotsi — meaning the one who comforts others — Mme Ruth truly lived a life of courage and service.
The standout work of fiction, for me, has to be Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time. It deals with themes of grief, loss and the erosive power of secrets, but particularly about the fickleness and unreliability of memory. Barry is a master storyteller who never fails to deliver. My second choice is a local book, and a gem of a memoir — Hot Tea & Apricots by Kim Ballantine. Kim was struck down on her 40th birthday by a rare and unusual medical condition, about which little was known and for which there was no cure. She lost her voice, literally. From then on, this industrial psychologist and mother of three young children was unable to speak or even make a sound. The book is a demonstration of courage under fire as Ballantine grapples with this devastating turn her life has taken. Written with candid honesty and peppered with dark humour, the book is an account of how a bewildered mother’s determination to parent through trauma, while coming to terms with a disability, took her to the brink. It is a truly inspiring book and one I recommend highly.
In Maame, meaning “woman” in Twi, Jessica George weaves a poignant tale with Maddie at its heart. Juggling her father’s Parkinson’s and a distant mother, Maddie yearns for change as the sole Black face in work meetings. Embracing “firsts”, she finds a flat, tackles after-work socials, and delves into online dating. George addresses contemporary issues with humour and sincerity, from familial duty to love’s complexities. The narrative beautiful captures the struggle between two homes and cultures, celebrating the journey of belonging. Smart, funny, and deeply moving, Maame feels like a big warm hug; and tenderly explores grief, family, and friendship.
Finding Endurance by Darrel Bristow-Bovey. DBB takes the wreck of Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, frozen at the bottom of the ocean, and conjures out of it a story of boundless grit and flawed heroism, wrapped in a helix of the loss of his father. It’s full of hope and awing descriptions of the Antarctic, and bursts with miracles past and present.
One of my 2023 literary highlights was the eagerly awaited return of Angela Makholwa with The Reed Dance Stalker, a sequel to her 2007 debut novel Red Ink. In her first work, Makholwa crafted a gripping crime thriller about a former journalist and PR specialist, Lucy Khambule, who is entangled with a convicted serial killer after she decided to document his life story. In her latest offering, Makholwa introduces a spin that keeps readers perched on the edge of their seats while flipping through 300 pages. From the very prologue, we are exposed to Napoleon Dingiswayo’s suicide note, which turns out to have been a decoy for his prison escape. The novel has resonances of the Thabo Bester epic prison escape, except that Napoleon’s escape was conceived before the other story broke, and Makholwa’s vivid imagery is hauntingly beautiful. This epic crime thriller, set against the backdrop of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, explores different locations beyond Joburg. In this novel we see Makholwa as a more mature and experimental storyteller, seamlessly interweaving a transnational narrative that extends to our Swati neighbours, creating multicultural and multifaceted connections. The fact that Red Ink was inspired by real life events, from when Makholwa was working as a journalist — and Lucy seems like the author’s alter ego — makes this thrilling crime thriller real and palpable. Makholwa’s writing has such a chilling effect that you forget your surroundings and become fully immersed in the world of her characters.
My book of the year is Trust by Hernan Diaz. It’s a remarkable act of invention. It is very clever, has a wonderful clarity and is a pacey and engrossing read. Firstly, the structure: a story about a very rich man and his wife, told in four parts. Each presents a radically different version and is related in different forms: memoir, novel, diary and biography. It takes on big themes — the inexorable march of capital and inherited wealth; as well as intimate personal relationships and the way allegedly self-made men soar on the stolen labour of women and the working class. It’s about the elusive nature of truth — and how every story is just a version, shaped through the lens of those who get to tell it. A word to the wise, though: you have to keep reading till the end, when all becomes clear.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
This year there has been an embarrassment of riches where books are concerned so I am going to take the coward’s way out because it is just too difficult to choose one best book of the year. Jarred Thompson’s highly imaginative debut novel, The Institute for Creative Dying, is a wonderfully compelling and challenging (in the best way) read that makes us think deeply about how we connect to ourselves, each other, our communities, our environment and the world at large. Violette Kee-Tui’s Magic and Masala, her follow up to her debut novel, Mulberry Dreams, continues the important work of telling stories of Coloureds, Indians and Muslims: communities that are woefully still marginalised in Zimbabwe. Craig Higginson’s The Ghost of Sam Webster is a hauntingly beautiful whodunit that becomes so much more than the sum of its parts as it untangles the web of history. Written in immaculate prose, this is an enriching read. A collection of short stories that evocatively depicts all that is beautiful and lost when a country begins its not so slow or gentle decline, Bryony Rheam’s Whatever Happened to Rick Astley? deserves a place on this list just for the title alone.
Morgan is My Name by Sophie Keetch is perhaps not the most impactful book I’ve read this year, but quite simply a book I enjoyed reading owing to Keetch’s moody writing. She paints a scene beautifully by transporting you to the misty cliffs and raging waters that gave birth to Arthurian legend and manages to create a character that you cannot help but like — through her slow development, her bright mind, fierce loyalty and tempestuous spirit. And simmering throughout the book there’s an ever-present love story that you cannot help but root for. Because this is the first book in a trilogy best be described as a feminist retelling of the story of Morgan le Fay, the half-sister of King Arthur, the pleasure doesn’t end when the final page is turned. Keetch sets the scene for the development of one of the most powerful sorceresses in Arthurian legend and one that I, at this stage, am rooting for entirely.
I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel (shortlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023). With unfiltered social and emotional commentary, I’m A Fan coerces you into an absorbing narrative, voiced by a nameless character who deliberates as a prophet of our zeitgeist. Enthralled by the voice as they stalk and scroll through the social media of “the woman I am obsessed with”, while engaging more hypothetically than physically in an unfulfilling affair with “the man I want to be with”, the ingeniousness of Patel’s interrogation is not just of the culture we blindly follow, but of the pendulum of sanity swinging between desire and the energy-sapping influence of the digital age. Written in a spoken word-esque manner, with chapter headings that urge your interpretation in its brilliant embodiment of internet culture (i.e. If I were a worm, would you still love me?), as the voice becomes more and more unhinged, there are lines of sadder melancholy — capturing the highs and lows of coming off of a doom-scroll. In between the voice’s obsession with the woman, and her unwavering love for the man, the breeding of toxicity — porous in nature and a conglomerate veneered with likes, either in the shape of a beating heart online, or a word of affirmation in real life — acts like a lifeline which beats rather close to home. Sheena Patel is a literary force of the future.
I hate choosing a favourite book, “You are all my favourites” I cry as I pass the piles of books that litter my house. But if I have to choose one, I would say that my book of the year is Rassie: Stories of Life and Rugby. I read this straight after we won the Rugby World Cup, which made it especially meaningful, reading about the build-up to the different World Cups, together with Rassie Erasmus’s tough personal journey, and getting a behind the scenes glimpse of the matches I’ve attended over the years (personally, I will never get over us losing to England at Twickenham in 1998). It makes a fabulous Christmas present, I highly recommend Rassie (both the book and the coach!), try to get your hands on a signed copy if possible.
The Bitterness of Olives by Andrew Brown (Karavan Press). Despite having been written way before the current crisis in the Middle East, timeous doesn’t begin to describe Andrew Brown’s The Bitterness of Olives. Treated with moving humanity and centred around the complex relationship between one-time colleagues — retired Israeli detective Avi and younger Palestinian doctor Khalid — it’s set in the seemingly eternally-troubled region of Israel and Gaza. So much divides these two men, but bringing them back together is the mystery of the body of a woman whose very existence embodied the conflict. In the first few chapters I felt I had learned more about the ancient Arab-Israeli animosity and history than in any amount of relentless television coverage.
The Plot to Save South Africa by Justice Malala (Jonathan Ball Publishers). Published on the 30th anniversary of perhaps the most seismic event in South African history, Justice Malala’s masterful reconstruction of the assassination of Chris Hani and its aftermath is a page-turning tour de force. South Africa owes so much to its journalists — as guardians of our hard-won freedom and again as the first drafters of history. It is a particular delight when the best among them re-open their old notebooks and scour their scrapbooks long after the fact to revisit times that have either been forgotten or cynically revised. The Plot to Save South Africa deservedly belongs on bookshelves alongside Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart and Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, it is generous in its quest to find and identify the heroes that pulled our country back from the edge of the abyss.
Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg. Extremely tough choice to make, but in the end I choose Steinberg’s magnum opus, Winnie & Nelson, for its scope, its breathtakingly detailed research, its extraordinary storytelling, its honesty, its remarkable insights, its relevance and always, the beauty of his writing.
I’ve loved many books this year, but none has seared itself on my consciousness with such persuasive power as Jeff Goodell’s Heat. A New York Times bestseller in the US where it goes by the title The Heat Will Kill You First, it drives home a new understanding of heat as an invisible, lethal force. A silent killer of all living things. And should you underestimate its power on a planet already more than halfway to 2°C of warming from pre-industrial temperatures, Goodell’s narrative — an eloquent blend of on-the-ground reporting and current scientific insight — illuminates its silent, lethal effects. On every conceivable thing: outdoor workers, food production, migration, microbial diseases, the air-conditioning divide and much more. If you read only one book this year, read this. It’s arguably the most honest, most terrifying, yet most optimistic guide to our future on this planet.
My standout book of the year is Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, but that’s a woefully unoriginal choice, and no doubt someone’s got there before me, so I’ll recommend The Bee Sting by Paul Murray. I loved this big, tragicomic Irish family story, told from three points of view. Cass’s story is a fresh and layered take on classic teenage fare — toxic friendships, bad kissing, disappointing parents - against the background of the 2008 financial crash. Next up, her mother Imelda, a great beauty from a chaotic upbringing, where “life just came at you like a gang of lads getting out of a van” (yes, this guy can write some absolute zingers). Finally, her father Dickie, who fills the gaps and brings fresh surprises. Murray is great on family and on social class, but he doesn’t stop there. Fresh, tender and acutely observed, it’s a real pleasure to read.
Two books, one local, one international. Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s Finding Endurance was my stand-out read of the year. The author succeeds widely in the risky high-wire act he performed — that of inserting his own life story into his own novel version of the much-told story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole. It is a profoundly moving account of Bristow-Bovey’s family history gently wrapped around this astounding and beautifully wrought account of the failed exploration. It shouldn’t work, but it soars. The second book is The Maniac by Chilean Booker-shortlisted author Benjamín Labatut. It is the true story of the famed 20th century mathematician, physicist and computer scientist Johan van Neumann, told through the device of fictional remembrances of his closest family and friends. More than a cross-bred fictional memoir, it plumbs many profound waters — how to bridge the gap between the rational and irrational, perfection and humanness and sanity and madness.
The Housekeepers by Alex Hay. Set in London’s High Society in the year 1905, a group of ladies, from under the stairs — maids to you and me — take back what is long overdue to them in the most daring manual heist led by the dynamic duo, Mrs King and Mrs Bone, who are more connected than meets the eye. What a fantastic 390-pager this is. If Audrey Hepburn were born a century later, I see her cast as Mrs King in the movie adaptation. This is the most rewarding book I have ever given 10 days of enjoyable reading to. A fantastic holiday read. My takeaway from The Housekeepers is that everything is possible if you have a little drive. A do-over. A cashmere scarf. Justice. Retribution. A sister’s love.
My Russia: War or Peace? by Mikhail Shishkin. This is the most important book I read this year. Russian-Swiss writer Shishkin outlines how Vladimir Putin’s cruel present-day dictatorship has emerged from Russia’s long history of autocracy. How, as he calls his first chapter, the Russian people have long been held hostage by the “Paradox of the Lie”. How they have always needed to believe, or pretend to believe, the lies of their leaders to survive their leaders’ uncompromising brutality. Russia, he says, has always been a tortured empire of the mind where words “describe all kinds of things, except what they actually meant”. Written by a Russian who loves his country, and not by an outside critic, this book is a powerful antidote to apologists for Putin in our own country and in the wider world.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s Finding Endurance: Shackleton, my father and a world without end (Jonathan Ball, 2023). A history, a family saga, a memoir, Finding Endurance proved to be my perfect if brief sanctuary from the worldwide tumult that was 2023. Insulated from the headlines by Bristow-Bovey’s lyrical and masterfully interwoven narrative, I found myself lodged within the nightmare of being marooned on the Antarctic ice, at the author’s elbow as he uncovered awkward family truths and bedazzled by multiple moments of crystal-clear human insight. Finding Endurance is an explorer’s exploration, and I was helplessly swept along on Bristow-Bovey’s voyage as he discovers — and rediscovers — Shackleton, family, fortitude and an almost mythical icy wasteland, so warmly. That a memoir, with a historical focus with only the most tenuous of links to the author, could blend time, place and self so poignantly and elegantly, is astonishing. Without a doubt, my read of the year.
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