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2 January 2019

Back to the future: what to read in 2019

A planet in crisis, Orwell’s legacy and the art of doing nothing – plus new fiction by Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith and John Le Carré.

By Tom Gatti

Where is David Cameron right now? In his £25,000 shepherd’s hut, beavering away on his book, or somewhere sunny with – in Danny Dyer’s immortal words – “his trotters up”? It feels like we have been waiting for the former PM’s memoir almost as long as we have been waiting for Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, or for the Smiths to reform. Harper-Collins has slated it for the autumn, but if Brexit is delayed then it may be bumped on again: Cameron wants the book to appear after the smoke has cleared, in the hope that everyone forgets who started the fire.

Meanwhile, after eight years of Conservative government, publishers are looking to the left for attention-grabbing new ideas. In Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being (Allen Lane, May) Paul Mason, who writes for the NS, tackles a new world order characterised by authoritarian regimes and increasing intolerance, in which the very idea of universal human rights is under threat. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media, coined the phrase “fully automated luxury communism” a few years ago: now it is a manifesto, coming from Verso in June, outlining how new technologies could liberate us from work and therefore capitalism.

As Brexit continues to dominate politics, Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (Profile, February) is timely, though in a country bruised by years of austerity, writers are still exploring class and inequality. Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (Chatto & Windus, May); Who Owns England? (William Collins, May), Guy Shrubsole’s history of how England’s elite came to own our land; and Not Working: Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone? by the economist David Blanchflower (Princeton, June) all arrive with a sense of urgency. (An argument against urgency can be found in Josh Cohen’s Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (Granta, January), a defence of the vanishing art of doing nothing.)

In today’s political climate, we don’t need much encouragement to retreat to the past. Half a century ago it was 1969, the year of Woodstock, Portnoy’s Complaint, Monty Python’s debut, Abbey Road and, of course, mankind’s giant leap. Chasing the Moon by Robert Stone and Alan Andres (William Collins, June) and Escape from Earth by Fraser MacDonald (Profile, June) tell the story, with the latter exploring the darker corners of America’s first space programme, which was apparently riddled with communism, drugs and occult sex.

A further 20 years back takes us to 1949 and the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel that has returned to the bestseller lists in the era of Trump and Brexit. Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth (Picador, May) explores both the book’s roots and its long shadow. Orwell was born in India, but was installed at Eton by 1919, when in Amritsar troops fired into a crowd, killing hundreds of civilians. The centenary of the massacre is marked by Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin (Simon & Schuster, April), which uncovers the fascinating story of an Indian survivor who vowed to kill those responsible. The crimes of the coloniser are also explored in William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, October), detailing the rise of the notorious East India Company.

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Grand historical narratives of East and West are supplied by Tim Mackintosh-Smith in Arabs: A 3,000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires (Yale, March) and Tom Holland in Dominion (Little, Brown, September), which explains the role of Christianity in shaping “the Western mind”, from Nebuchadnezzar to the Beatles.

Epic lives come to light this year. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J Evans (Little, Brown, February) will frame the great historian (and NS jazz critic) as a participant in his own times (he acted as an interpreter for Che Guevara in Cuba) as well as a chronicler of the past. Hobsbawm’s near-contemporary Lucian Freud died in 2011: much has been written about him since, but this year brings the first volume of a landmark biography (Bloomsbury, September) by William Feaver, who spoke to Freud on the phone for at least an hour a day for almost 40 years. Do we need another life of Hitler? If it’s written by Brendan Simms, a historian and NS contributing writer with an appetite for the big questions, then the answer is yes: his Only the World Was Enough (Allen Lane, August) digs deep to discover the origins of Hitler’s ideas.

The most epic narrative of our time may turn out to be climate change, and writers are finally – too late, perhaps – working out a way to tell its story. Based on a piece published in the New York Times magazine, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth (Picador, April) looks at the decade spanning 1979-89, when the science of global warming was settled and we could have stopped it – but didn’t. Rich asks what that failure means for us today. See also: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane, February). We can but hope there are some lessons for our damaged planet in Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change (Allen Lane, May). The crown prince of nature writing, Robert Macfarlane, returns with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (Hamish Hamilton, May), exploring the worlds beneath our feet. A watery world is navigated by Caroline Crampton, former NS digital editor, in The Way to the Sea (Granta, June), which investigates the human and natural histories of the Thames Estuary.


Publishing has been quick to embrace the #MeToo movement. The journalists who exposed Harvey Weinstein share their stories in She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Bloomsbury, November) and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow (Fleet), coming in the spring. When a group of women challenged the BBC over their gender pay gap, Carrie Gracie went one further and resigned as China editor, triggering a parliamentary inquiry. Her book Equal is published by Virago in September. Meanwhile Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (Chatto & Windus, March) highlights the “gender data gap” – the hidden ways in which women are excluded from places of power – and Women vs Capitalism by Vicky Pryce (Hurst, autumn) reveals the ways the market economy skews male.

The contemporary essay, by contrast, skews female: Constellations by the Irish critic Sinéad Gleeson (Picador, April) deals with a body going through sickness, health and motherhood, while Trick Mirror (Fourth Estate, August) is a collection from the terrific New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino about “how hard it is to see ourselves clearly in a culture that revolves around the self”. Two titans, Toni Morrison (Chatto & Windus, February) and Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, June), also have volumes of essays out, covering gender, globalisation, freedom and race.

Race is a growing concern again, in publishing as everywhere, and in 2019 writers are taking on the return of “race science” – through Angela Saini’s Superior (Fourth Estate, May) and Jennifer Eberhardt’s Biased (William Heinemann, April) – and examining 21st-century black identity, in books such as Jeffrey Boakye’s Black, Listed (Dialogue Books, April) and Johny Pitts’s Afropean (Allen Lane, June).

Memoirs can be adept at unlocking social issues. In Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me (Picador, April) Kate Clanchy draws on 30 years of teaching to produce a “revelatory picture of school life”. The proliferation of medical memoirs continues apace, but perhaps the most intriguing is Let Me Be Not Mad (Bodley Head, February), an account of a clinical neuropsychologist’s own descent into madness.

Music memoirists are heading into “difficult second album” territory: both Brett Anderson of Suede and Moby of, well, Moby, are back with sequels to acclaimed autobiographies, Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn (Little, Brown, October) and Then it Fell Apart (Faber, June) respectively. The tragedy and triumph of Joy Division and New Order are approached from different angles: by the drummer (and now tank collector) Stephen Morris in Record Play Pause (Constable, May) and by the guiding hand of Jon Savage, who has assembled an oral history entitled, appropriately grandly, This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else (Faber & Faber, March). Before she made it as a musician (or NS columnist), Tracey Thorn was a typical teenager in a “stultifying” 1970s commuter town: Another Planet (Canongate, February) is a wise and witty memoir of suburbia and how to escape it.


Last November, the news that Margaret Atwood had written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, set 15 years after the first book, was met with a mix of excitement and trepidation. In September, when The Testaments arrives (Chatto & Windus), we will find out who was right. Edging into speculative fiction alongside Atwood, Ian McEwan has set his new book Machines Like Me (Jonathan Cape, April) in an alternative 1980s where AI has rapidly advanced, and striding boldly into fantasy, the Booker winner Marlon James returns with Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Hamish Hamilton, February), the first in a trilogy drawing on African mythology. Colson Whitehead cleaves to historical truth in The Nickel Boys (Fleet, August) his brutal tale of two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

John Le Carré turned 87 and Edna O’Brien 88 in 2018: they return with, respectively, Agent Running in the Field (Viking, October) and Girl (Faber & Faber, September), about the Boko Haram abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls. Also in September, Michel Houellebecq has Serotonin (William Heinemann), about an impotent, depressed, middle-aged agricultural engineer.

There’s a trio of Goldsmiths Prize-winning authors with new work in 2019: collect the set, with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate, July), “drenched in sex, death and narcotics”; Nicola Barker’s typically disobedient novella I Am Sovereign (William Heinemann, July); and the third instalment in Ali Smith’s Seasons quartet, Spring (Hamish Hamilton, March).

Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (Hamish Hamilton, October), her first short story collection, will be a treat, but at present everyone is talking about Kristen Roupenian. When Roupenian’s story “Cat Person” – a funny and chilling tale of a bad dating experience, published in the New Yorker – went viral last year, it was a matter of days before publishers around the world got into bidding wars over the author’s debut collection. Comprising seven stories, You Know You Want This (Jonathan Cape, February) follows “women grappling with desire, punishment, guilt and anger”. And, as HBO have bought the rights, it may well be coming to a streaming service near you too. 

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