Normal People – Sally Rooney

This is a superbly-written relationship book. The story covers four years in the lives of Connell and Marianne, one year at high school in the west of Ireland followed by University at Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney’s writing illustrates perfectly that relationships are complicated even between two people with undeniable chemistry, complications by miscommunication and misperception of feelings. There is also emotional paralysis by expectations of inadequacy and not belonging. Connell and Marianne are very different people from different backgrounds, resulting in feelings of isolation and disconnection. This is a great book, better than her first book Conversations With Friends.

Patsy – Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy is a single mother adrift in Jamaica in 1998. When she gets a visa to visit America, she grasps the opportunity to choose herself first, to pursue her dreams and aspirations. However this means abandoning her 5 year-old daughter Tru. Over the next decade, Patsy has to endure the scary realty of being an undocumented individual in Brooklyn. And finally, to paraphrase a statement in the recent Mr. Roger’s movie, it is often tremendously hard to forgive those who you love but have disappointed you. Excellent dramatic writing.

Reproduction – Ian Williams

This is a very interesting first novel that is a Giller finalist. The story is about family, but family that is invented by mostly non-biological relationships. There is much dysfunction, some of it quite hilarious. The two adult men, Edgar and Oliver, are particularly reprehensible. The form if the writing is original and works very well until the final section where the literal subtext becomes annoying. Still, this is an insightful story about unconventional people.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

This is a deceptively simple and subtle book about family. The key characters are siblings, Danny and Maeve. There are some astonishing acts of cruelty in their early life but also acts of transcendent kindness. Danny is someone who lacks introspection – he commits to a task like learning chemistry with dogged determination; liking the subject is irrelevant. Unfortunately, he applies the same approach to his relationships, i.e. his wife, so love and happiness are non-factors in his relationships. His true happiness is only expressed to and with Maeve. Consequently, forgiveness is difficult for him, a fact that will complicate his life. Like most of Patchett’s writing, this is very fine story-telling.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club – Megan Gail Coles

A remarkable first novel that is a Giller finalist. The title page has the following warning: “Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence”, so reader be warned – this is not an easy read. The book is a gritty unforgiving character study of people in St. John’s Newfoundland, in part during a bitter February blizzard. There are lies and violence and much deception. The main charactes are for the most part completely unhappy. So this is a bleak look at a subset of contemporary society lonely despondent people without much hoe or optimism. I suggest that readers be aware of their own psychological mindset before embarking on this book; it is a rewarding story notwithstanding  these limitations.

Split Tooth – Tanya Tagaq

Ms. Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer and Polaris Prize winner in 2014. She can now add author to her artistic gifts. This is a remarkable first novel. There is the often difficult reality of living in Nunavut as a young person: endless summer sunshine, the dark and brutally cold winter, and human difficulties like substance and sexual abuse. And there is a magical imaginary component, sometimes based on dreams. Ms. Tagaq’s prose is accompanied by graphic poems and a few illustrations. Highly imaginative writing.