As all feminists know, finding things we can enjoy, without reservations, can feel like a nigh impossible task. Once your eyes have been opened to the workings of the patriarchy, all TV shows, video games, films and books seem tarnished. Everyone loves Game of Thrones, but you hate the endless gratuitous violence against women that appears to be there for titillation purposes; you’re a long-time fan of the Harry Potter books, but are bored by yet another incarnation of the white-male-lead-as-the-chosen-one plot device.
Thankfully, it does sometimes happen that we come across a book that privileges the stories of women, that gives us well-developed female protagonists, with themes and messages that we are excited to get on board with. I scour the Kindle store constantly for these gems, and am happy to share my list of the top ten books I’ve read this year.
- The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Narrated by the sole Malaysian survivor of a Japanese war-camp, Tan Twan Eng paints a picture of post-war Malaysia that is both haunting and atmospheric, as our heroine comes to terms with her traumatic past. I do have one quibble though — a lot of it felt like it was written specifically for a Western audience, which hurts the book’s authenticity.
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
If you love historical fiction, but hate the way women are often erased, denied credit for their work, and de-centred from their own stories, then Remarkable Creatures will come as a breath of fresh air. Tracy Chevalier fleshes out the story of Mary Anning, a fossil collector and palaeontologist who discovered the first ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur skeletons. Despite her momentous contributions, she was excluded from scientific inner circles during her lifetime, so reading a book that places her back in the spotlight feels deeply satisfying.
- The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson
A light-hearted, entertaining, and very funny read. Nombeko is a latrine emptier in Soweto; she is also a genius who can do huge mathematical calculations in her head and learn new languages at lightning speed. Somehow she gets involved in a top-secret nuclear weapons project, and, well, complications ensue. Great quirky little book!
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Written from the point of view of the mother of a boy who commits mass murder in his school, the premise of this book is pretty well-known. So I was pleasantly surprised when, instead of the Jodi Picoult-type moral quandary I had been expecting, I was met with a brutally honest, unflinching look at Eva’s experience of and feelings towards motherhood, and the unreasonable expectations that society places on mothers. Eva’s bitter reflections on the total self-abnegation she is pressured into reminded me somewhat of Amy’s feminist diatribes in Gone Girl, but while Amy’s character is ultimately betrayed and discredited, Eva is not.
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Most people have seen the film (I haven’t), but I’ve heard that it doesn’t quite live up to the intricacies of the novel. Given the depth and complexity of the book as it follows the lives of three characters during the events of the Biafran war, I’m not surprised. Adichie is fast becoming one of my favourite writers (another Adichie book appears later on this list); not only does she skillfully weave her narrative to draw you in, she also says things that urgently need to be said — the effects of white supremacy on a post-colonial world, whose deaths seem to matter more (hint: white people’s), and who should (and who should not) be writing the stories of Nigeria.
- Sula by Toni Morrison
I read this book for my degree during my undergrad days, and recently revisited it. It is just as rich as I remembered, and the multilayered, social-convention-flouting Sula remains one of my favourite literary characters. Her biting critique of conventional romantic relationships is particularly worth reading.
- Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
I really love Laura’s writing, I find it clear, concise, and very very persuasive. The stories of countless women sharing their experiences with the Everyday Sexism project will break your heart and fill you with rage, but also a sense of unity, and most importantly, hope. I was going to keep this list fiction-only, but when I am quoted in it, from a piece I wrote for Media Diversified, how could I help myself from including this book?!
- Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
The narrator, Maud, is a narrator like no other. 82 years old and suffering from dementia, she believes her friend Elizabeth to be missing, and attempts to find her. Unfortunately, this task is complicated by the fact that she cannot remember events from one moment to the next, and no one seems to take her seriously. Emma Healey treads the line between tragedy and comedy (veering more towards tragedy in the end), and her exploration of dementia’s effects on Maud’s relationship with her daughter may bring tears at several points.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Female solidarity is one of the bigger themes in this novel, and I found myself gleefully breaking out the highlighters for some delightfully explicit feminist sentiments. After all, I too have dreamed of “a place in which the dominant paradigm was female, [where] all those things that coded here in our world as female would represent power and politics. Female would be the norm.”
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An absolute tour de force (I know book reviewers throw this phrase around a lot, but I don’t use it lightly), it is relentless in its truths about race, immigration, and colonialism. The snippets from Ifemelu’s blog will make you stand up and cheer, or fill you with a burning desire to read it out loud to anyone who will listen. And if you do find yourself with this desire (say, on the tube during rush hour) you should of course give in to it.
Happy holidays, and may 2015 be filled with more literary goodness!
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Joy Goh-Mah is based in London and writes about feminism at Crates and Ribbons. She has a background in management and human resources and is passionate about equality and diversity. Joy is a triple threat ‘WOC, a threat to patriarchy & all forms of oppression’ Read her first Telegraph article Why are black female victims seemingly invisible? Find her on Twitter @CratesNRibbons
- Book list for black girls: promoting self-love and empowering young black women (mediadiversified.org)