Stephen Watts – Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds (Test Centre, 2016)
Written in the late 1980s and rediscovered in 2012, Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds is the first book-length work of prose by the London poet Stephen Watts. Structured as a dual-stranded narrative that moves between a portrayal of life on the Isle of Dogs under the mounting pressures of Thatcherite gentrification and lyrical accounts of Watt’s work as a shepherd on the Outer Hebrides, this is a stirring and poetic narrative of lives and environments at the margins, both physically and socially. Through Watt’s idiomatic turns of phrase, reported snatches of conversations and evocative descriptions of changing landscapes we are confronted with the image of an irreversible moment of change in our recent history. What’s more, from the typography to the dust jacket, Test Centre have made sure the book itself is as striking as the prose.
Han Kang – The Vegetarian. Trans. Deborah Smith. (Portobello Books, 2015)
Given that The Vegetarian, originally published in South Korea in 2007, won the Man Booker International Prize this year, it is perhaps a rather obvious choice for an end of year recommendation. Nonetheless, of all the newly published novels that I read this year, this is the one that lodged itself most firmly in my psyche. A novel of three acts, the narrative presents Yeong-hye who, suffering from ‘[d]reams of murder’ where ‘[f]amiliarity bleeds into strangeness’, gives up not only meat and dairy but the duties expected of her as a obedient wife, good sister and compliant member of society. What follows is a harrowing descent into a more-than-real world of sex, art and dead animal parts, with Deborah Smith’s translation ensuring that all the ambiguities and uncertainties of the narrative remain intact.
Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz – The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us. Trans. David Fernbach (Verso, 2016)
In a year in which election results in Britain and the USA have raised the likelihood that 2017 will be the year that right-wing governments in the West brazenly row back on climate change initiatives and seal the fate of a warming planet, I have taken refuge in a number of excellent books that have come out on the Anthropocene. Verso have put out some outstanding Anthropocene titles in the last eighteen months, notably from Jason W. Moore, Mckenzie Wark and Andreas Malm, but it is Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’s comprehensive The Shock of the Anthropocene that marks the most comprehensive historical account of the social and political causes yet. First published in France in 2015, Bonneuil and Fressoz trace the concept of the Anthropocene back through its emergence from systems theory and the environmental humanities, carefully revealing the term’s latent alliances with the militarised American political theory of the cold war, before moving onto examine the historic causes of climate change. Structured around various ‘Histories for the Anthropocene’, whose Latinate headings include ‘Capitalocene’, ‘Phronocene’, and ‘Thanatocene’, the authors deconstruct the myth that it is only now, in our contemporary moment, that we have become aware of humanity’s precarious position within (as opposed to outside of) Nature. In doing so, The Shock of the Anthropocene reveals the need for more complex historical accounts of how we got to where we are today and, perhaps most importantly, the kind of new critical thinking that this emergent epoch is going to demand of us.