Books of the decade

Here's our top ten -- now name yours

Just in case you missed it, buried in the pile of goodies that was our Review of the Decade, here is our list of the top ten books of the past ten years. But what did we miss? Have your say in the comment box below.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The definitive post-apocalyptic novel. An unspecified disaster has befallen America, and a father and son wander unconsoled and afraid through a blasted landscape. Charting the pair's peregrinations across this "cauterised terrain", McCarthy's prose achieves a pitch of poetic intensity and terrible beauty that few, if any, of his contemporaries could dream of matching.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (2009)

Sen's magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English-speaking world's pre-eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own.

Austerlitz by W G Sebald (2001)

Austerlitz was Sebald's final book; he died in a car crash shortly after it was published. Like its critically lauded predecessors, it mixes fiction and memoir in order to cast light on the darkest hours of European history in the middle of the 20th century.

The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)

The 11 September 2001 attacks may have shaped the world as we now know it, but al-Qaeda remains a mysterious and misunderstood organisation. Wright's meticulously researched account of the events leading up to the attacks shed light on Osama Bin Laden and his network of followers.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

Didion has been one of America's sharpest essayists for many decades. In The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year that followed her husband's sudden death in 2003, she turns her skill as a writer to the most profoundly personal and traumatic events. The result is an unmatched study of grief.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Anticipating the public's hunger for books that explain the world with a catchy-sounding theory, The Tipping Point told us why certain ideas catch on, and others don't. The Tipping Point, like Gladwell's subsequent books, sold millions of copies and launched an entire new genre.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

Written while Smith was still a literature student at Cambridge, White Teeth announced a major new talent. Drawing on her upbringing as a mixed-race child in north London, the novel captured a certain kind of confusion and longing at the heart of post-colonial Britain as it teetered on the edge of the 21st century.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

Wilkinson and Pickett's study gave scientific weight to a long-held claim of the left: that people are happier and healthier when they live in societies where wealth is distributed more equally. But the book's influence stretches across party lines and its findings are likely to shape political debate for many years to come.

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)

This was the work that turned Klein, a Canadian journalist, into the world's foremost critic of globalisation. An investigation into corporate branding, No Logo was a rallying call for activists across the world. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand radical politics -- including its failures -- during the past decade.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

In the vein of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust tale Maus or Joe Sacco's Palestine, Satrapi's memoir was a comic book with literary weight. A global bestseller that was then turned into a film, the book struck a chord with western readers in particular, desperate for human stories behind their countries' antagonistic relationship with Iran.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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