Reflecting on 2017: The stories that shaped our year

The Nether World, George Gissing

By Kleopatra Olympiou

I read The Nether World by George Gissing last August because I mistakenly thought it was on my reading list– a mistake I don’t regret. It is an incredible book published in 1889, concerning itself with the London slum-dwellers of the Victorian times. It’s also incredibly bleak, pessimistic and entirely devoid of hope, which may sound less than appealing, but remains remarkably insightful. Gissing avoids didacticism and generalisations, offering few moral judgements; he simply holds up a light to a picture of astonishing suffering. Think Dickens, minus the sentimentality.

The Nether World is a must-read for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an interesting defiance of conventions while it remains within the framework of realism. Secondly, in spite of its bleakness, it’s notable for its unwavering belief in the existence of goodness among people, which Gissing finds the world’s only, albeit sadly limited, redeeming quality.

Thirdly, it’s an intriguing picture of London in the past and an interesting take on urbanisation, as London is depicted as a place of endless suffering for the poor, in a world of poverty where the aristocracy is entirely absent. If you thought Victorian literature was all like the stereotype of Jane Austen’s work, featuring polite parlours and romantic scandals, this is a novel to entirely shake up this belief. Gissing’s novel is not one to offer you hope, but it’s a book to make you think hard about the world and how it has become today.


This Is Going To Hurt, Adam Kay

By Frances Rowbottom

Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt; Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is the book which changed my 2017. Kay balances his account of rising through the hospital ranks to the level of Senior Registrar with the no-holds- barred truth about being a medical professional.

Published by Picador in September, whilst I was interning at Pan Macmillan, I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy before it hit the shelves. As a testament to how good Kay’s writing is, I finished the book that evening. In a whirlwind of excitement, I then met Kay whilst he was signing hundreds of advance copies to send to bookstores throughout the UK, and I now have first-hand knowledge that he is even more dead-pan and witty in real life than in his book, which is a hard act to follow! This Is Going To Hurt is a truly memorable read, both for its salient message against the long working hours of medical professionals, and for its witty, funny anecdotes. For example, Kay wrote phrases such as ‘today I tipped into full-blown Stockholm Syndrome and decided to go in work on a Saturday off’, and ‘home delivery is for pizzas’.

If you have an interest in non-fiction, comedy writing, memoir novels, or the current state of the NHS, you should read this book. According to a recent YouGov survey, ‘the majority of the public (65%) believe the Government is badly managing the current pressures on the NHS.’ After reading Kay’s ‘Open Letter to the Secretary of State for Health’, addressing the recently-promoted Jeremy Hunt, it is hard to argue for any reasons against the outcome of this survey. If the healthcare situation becomes worse before it gets better, at least we will be well-informed after reading this book.


H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

By James McGurk

When Helen Macdonald’s father passed away, she tried to escape her profound grief by entering the world of a
goshawk she began training. Macdonald vividly evokes the landscapes where she hunts with Mabel the hawk: downs, farmland and patches of wilderness in the fringes of towns where passers-by slowly habituate to the huge hunting bird amongst them. We see everything through both pairs of eyes – Macdonald’s broad, grief-stained vision and Mabel’s primeval, narrow stare. Throughout the beautifully painful account of loss reshaping the world, and uplifting visions of the goshawk flourishing, another story emerges.

Macdonald comes to understand the tragedies and passions latent in T.H White’s writing as she explores his parallel tale fleeing hardships through training a goshawk. It’s a fascinating insight that resonates powerfully with Macdonald’s personal history.

I loved the originality of Helen Macdonald’s prose. She’s never afraid to expose the depth of her emotions and I empathised with her craving to bring a part of the wild into her life. H is for Hawk is brilliant, moving and fully deserving of its Costa and Samuel Johnson prizes.

Illustration: Katie Butler

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