6 Bedside Table Books for 2019
By all 6 Harpies
Betwixtmas is over, New Year has come and gone and we’re all finally running out of Christmas chocolate. As we muddle our way through the first week back at work, it’s comforting to know that there’s a pile of delicious books waiting for us by the bed, to sink into the moment we get home. So, if you need a little reading list inspiration for 2019, here are some of our favourites to get you started:
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
From the first page, Perry's gorgeous storytelling invokes nineteenth-century English countryside with a quasi-fantastical feel, driven by rumoured sightings of a dangerous sea serpent in the coastal village of Aldwinter. The novel renders a fraught atmosphere of emerging Victorian modernity, as various characters grapple with faith, science and cynicism as a means to explain the natural world.
The novel’s heroine, Cora Seaborne, is liberated from a coercive and violent marriage by her husband's death. She roams the coast in men's boots and ugly coats combing the beaches for fossils - and evidence of the much-feared Essex serpent. Cora's refusal to censor herself, her "masculine" scientific curiosity, and close female friendship with companion Martha make her a neo-Victorian feminist icon capable of reinvigorating the genre. This novel is a consuming read; pairing a rich foundation of folklore with thrilling descriptions of medical procedures, nuanced characters and an underlying shiver of magical realism.
Nobody Told Me, by Hollie McNish
This spectacular collection comprises poems and stories taken from McNish’s diary, kept during the first few years of parenthood. It is a wonderfully successful attempt to provide a holistic insight into motherhood, warts and all. McNish’s poetry is powerful and engaging because it is so easily accessible. The poems and stories contained in Nobody Told Me are all drawn from ordinary life, and manage to pack a political punch which elicits a genuine emotional response in the reader.
By consistently posing pertinent questions about how our society perceives motherhood, and whether these projections of morality are fair or even useful, McNish highlights how ridiculous, cruel and damaging these cultural assumptions can be. Why, when women become mothers, do they so often lose their sense of identity? Why is breast-feeding still sexualised and demonised? Often silly and funny, but also frequently poignant, this collection is unique in its ability to provide a genuine and beautiful perspective on motherhood that everyone, mother or not, should read.
How Do You Like Me Now, by Holly Bourne
This painfully accurate portrayal of millennial womanhood is Bourne’s first foray into adult fiction, and it taps into something truly extraordinary. Our protagonist is Tori Bailey, the author of a quarter-life crisis self-help memoir which inspired a generation. While her shiny exterior is Instagram perfect, her personal life is quietly falling apart, and she’s desperately trying to keep this from her fans.
Bourne explores heavy subject matters with a realism which eventually gives way to hope. As you read, you’ll watch gaslighting through splayed fingers, cringe at Tori’s oh-so-familiar dedication to social media, and recognise the strange and inevitable distance which inserts itself in a friendship, when one party becomes a spouse or a parent, and the other remains single. If you’re in your twenties and feeling a little lost, prepare to feel seen.
Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
“On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light.”
Colton Whitehead’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel takes you along on the long road to freedom. It tells the harrowing story of those who battled to escape the American slave trade. Written in second person narrative, you can’t help but devour the books from a compassionate position, as the ripe history is retold and punctuated by personal anecdotes.
What makes this novel stand apart from other narratives of slavery is the meta-literary comment it makes on the power of language. Against all odds, Whitehead’s characters find redemption through language and literature: a hidden book that provides hope; language lessons that initiate the potential to work; and “the shaky footing of every new word [forms] an unknown territory to struggle through letter by letter”.
Join Cora, Caesar and their ancestors on a fast-paced journey of self-discovery, frustration and strength in the face of abhorrent villainy.
Milkman, by Anna Burns
Anna Burns’ Milkman is more than just the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018. Though thoroughly deserving of the prestigious prize, its haunting meaningfulness will last far longer than a year’s worth of fiction accolades. Following the life of an eighteen-year-old girl in Ireland during the Troubles, Milkman never reveals our protagonist’s name. This continues throughout the book- characters are referred to via their relationship to others, rather than by their names: we have mother, sister’s husband, maybe-boyfriend and teacher.
Detachment is very much the name of the game here – indeed, Milkman has been described as what Beckett would have produced had he ‘written a prose poem about the Troubles’. At once uplifting, eerie, frightening and joyful, Milkman is the perfect read if you want to experience a truly innovative and original take on Ireland at this time. A book that will stay with you not just long after the last page has been turned, but as soon as the first has been opened.
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
A 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Plague of Doves is a slow climb up a gnarled and knotted family tree and is best read at no faster than breathing pace. At the start of the twentieth century in the small town of Pluto, North Dakota, a white family is murdered. The townsfolk pin the blame on a group of Native Americans and lynch them before evidence can be given to the contrary. Decades pass, bedevilled by such violent acts, in which Erdrich knits together the relationships between the descendants of all involved parties.
Using a polyphonic narrative, Erdrich presents a motley cast who tell their stories and navigate their generational binds. Tinging the mundane with the surreal, The Plague of Doves is at once thrilling, peculiar, and moving – and filled to the brim with dark wit.
Happy reading, everyone!
Cover art by Ilse Valfré.