A Year in Review Told Through Books

I am finding it more difficult to write without baring my soul so completely. And I’m not sure how vulnerable I am willing to be just yet as a writer. When I reflect on the year that has just passed, I think about the many seasons we have all lived through – beyond the blurred four seasons in England, I find myself remembering the sounds that accompanied a particular season, the walking routes of that season, and the books I read. The words that I can always find solace in; the words that keep my pieces together. I find that my best writing and best reading, actually happens in those seasons of chaos and moments of internal turmoil. Writing seems to ground me, it makes me feel rooted, and reading provides me solace; home in the form of perfect words and sentences when all else seems to fail.

So, I sat down to write about my year and write about the words that have kept me afloat this year. Here is an extended review of a few books that have stuck with me this year, not in chronological order but written about in relation to some of my personal thoughts and experiences this year.

I. I did not start the year reading Tahmina Anam’s The Start-up Wife but I wish I had as I too, found myself at the beginning of 2022 at a start-up. Anam writes on the perils of a start-up. One that mixes faithless spirituality, tech and a married couple. Need I say more? Anam’s novel made me feel seen as a woman working in male dominated environments, her commentary on work and office culture made me laugh. The relationship between Asha and Cyrus made me think about the ways in which the ego triumphs even amongst such great love. What is at risk when you are building something? What moral boundaries can be crossed and at what point have you gone too far? It is both a condemnation of technology, a mockery of ‘decks’ and a deeply introspective read.

II. There were some lighter moments this year too. From being romanced by a man telling me about his opinion on Andrew Tate as if that wouldn’t make me run for the hills to my grandmother telling my unmarried cousin and I that we aren’t that pretty and should really get a move on. Tasneem Abdur-Rashid’s Finding Mr Perfectly Fine set in North London affirmed everything I know to be wrong about the way Bengali communities (and I’m sure others) have approached marriage, from colourism to the right age. And her ending is complete, liberating and incomplete in its own way, refusing to succumb to the stereotypical and happy ending. Rashid writes with wit, a lightness that is refreshing, and captures being Bengali, Muslim and living in London really well.

III. This year, I really enjoyed reading novels that were set in London it reminded me of reading Selvon or Woolf as a student and added to my sense of the many Londons or a version of a city that always seems to appear as a centre. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts has been the perfect accompaniment for quiet mornings and evenings of solitude. Lahiri writes about the ‘small pleasures of solitude’; the people watching, the reflection that solitude offers; the importance of white space. The clarity from being alone and being an observer. It’s not clear what city Lahiri’s protagonist is in, or what her name is, or who her family or friends are. We are simply accompanying Lahiri’s protagonist around her city, in making dinner, trips to the grocery shop, dinners out and dinners with friends and their families. Although we are not sure of who the protagonist is, it is certain that she knows herself. It is the kind of deeply introspective writing I can only aspire to. Lahiri made me treasure my moments of solitude; appreciate the freedom of being free from responsibilities that compound with age. Whereabouts is one I’ll have to read again and pick up again when the moment calls for it.

IV. Bolu Babalola’s Honey and Spice is the summer read; it is full of hope, for the romantics, the ones who love love. And since reading it, I have begun my own love affair with Bolu Babalola and everything she writes. It is the book you read in long summer days into the office or coming home, trying to escape the mundane of repetitive days and 9-5s when the sun is shining outside, of which I have had many this year. The book you read on the plane on a girl’s trip, and the book you wind down with in the evenings and savour from beginning to end.

V. And what would a good reading list and summary of the year be without some ugly cries? Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage is a profound exploration of the complicated and deeply rooted family relations that create both beginnings and ends and make it difficult to decipher where one begins and ends. Tahir has sensitively written about what it is like to live with looming socioeconomic conditions that have made decisions for you and created inherent triggers in you. Situations that take away some choices from you all while living with an illusive sense of so much choice. This year, I have had to take myself out of survival mode, make more choices and realise that the best way in which I can honour my grandparents’ and parents’ sacrifices and hard work is to bet on myself, take the risks and remember all of the things and choices I have, whatever that looks like in each season of life. Tahir made me reflect on the impact of hating the circumstances you grew up in. Can hating your circumstances paralyse you from making the best decisions, from taking risks that you think are not possible for people like you – can it be more limiting and stop serving you? Tahir made me think about the paradoxes of love; the messiness; of being between empathy and rage; of family; from blood and without any blood tying you together, of conditional and unconditional love, what constitutes enough? How do we build relationships that feel safe?

There is a moment in the novel when a parent says (or thinks), it’s not clear:

In America, on some days the dream feels so close you can taste it. And children, my putar? Children are the greatest dream of all. A dream manifest – walking, talking, venturing into the wide world, open to success and joy and greatness. Open to wild, spectacular possibility. But open to destruction, also”. 

It is safe to say Tahir is responsible for a fair bit of crying in 2022 and so much solace. Tahir’s lines made me think about the children of immigrants who live knowing they are their parents’ greatest dream; a communities dream manifest; a product of survival and simultaneously, a means of ambition. How do they live the dreams of so many? Where do they begin, where does survival end and dreaming begin? The line is so fine, but it feels like the line we are meant to cross and figure out. I have many favourite moments from All My Rage, for children of immigrants, for those being the first in their families and communities, for those who are brave enough to be almost something, to almost love, to almost make decisions, to choose and turn back or change their minds, these are questions we will probably forever contend with. Tahir’s words and heart wrenching story is full of cathartic moments and beautiful wisdom that I think I’ll turn to again. I’ll leave you with a few of her words that seem apt and have accompanied me this year: “If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot”.

These end of year posts should end with a lesson learned, a note of positivity, something conclusive right? I hope you weren’t expecting that from me. I will probably read some of these same chapters and storylines again in 2023 and add some new chapters; and lose others. And things will continue, to take shape and begin, or as Anam put it: “I [will] gather my coat and lace up my shoe, close the door behind me, and move toward a future – uncertain and unknown – and of my own making”.

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