About A Son by David Whitehouse recounts the aftermath of the murder of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir who was stabbed to death while he was on a night out in Nuneaton in Warwickshire on 31 October 2015. It’s a true crime book, but not written in the way that you might typically expect from the genre. Whitehouse has turned the Hehir family’s story into a really affecting piece of creative non-fiction. It is told in the second person from the perspective of Morgan’s father, Colin, based on his diaries and memories of the period following Morgan’s death. As well as processing grief and sitting through the trial of Morgan’s killers, the book also deals with the frustrating bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, and Colin’s attempts to persuade Apple to unlock Morgan’s phone so he could access his photos and music. ‘About A Son’ is a really exceptional portrait of an extraordinary event happening to the most ordinary of families, and it is very likely to appear on my Books of the Year list.
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker is regarded by Ali Smith as “the best least-known novel of the 20th century” and has recently been reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson as part of their W&N Essentials series. First published in 1991, it is set in a decaying castle in the north of Scotland at the end of the Second World War, and follows the bizarre chain of events leading to the murder of sixteen-year-old Janet, the eldest of five siblings and something of a misfit amongst her peers (her death is revealed on the first page, so this isn’t a spoiler). ‘O Caledonia’ was Barker’s first and only novel, and I can see why it has been compared to the work of Shirley Jackson with every carefully crafted sentence building towards the grisly conclusion.
Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott is a work of narrative non-fiction which follows the life of Dasani Coates and her extended family from 2012 when she is 10 years old, to 2021 as she enters adulthood. The book is based on Elliott’s columns for the New York Times when Dasani and her family were homeless and Elliott continued to follow them for several years afterwards. Through Dasani’s eyes, the book explores the myriad of problems of poverty in New York City, from poor housing in a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn, opioid addiction, the child protection system and the impact of structural racism. When she turns 13, Dasani is offered the chance to attend a Hershey boarding school in Pennsylvania specifically for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and presents both new opportunities and challenges for her. This is a highly detailed and powerful piece of reportage which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction this year and will hopefully reach a wider audience as a result of that. Many thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
It was announced earlier this month that The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki has won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It tells the story of thirteen-year-old Benny, whose jazz musician father Kenji died a year ago when he was hit by a truck. Benny and his mother Annabelle both struggle to process their grief. When Benny starts hearing voices from inanimate everyday objects, he eventually ends up in a children’s psychiatric ward where he finds solace in books and the library. ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ is probably the most whimsical of Ozeki’s four novels to date and presents a whirlwind of ambitious ideas. As ever, I preferred the more realist aspects of the novel and I did find myself skimming parts in the second half. While there are glimpses of Ozeki’s talent for storytelling here, I don’t think this is her best work. Many thanks to Canongate for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.