A Portable Paradise (Peepal Tree Press) is the fourth poetry collection by Trinidadian-British poet Roger Robinson. It’s also his finest, ranging from the most breath-taking poems about the Grenfell Tower fire to the most exquisitely moving poems about the premature birth of his son, who had to fight for his life in an incubator. His poems are deep, mature, moving and inventive.
Surge (Chatto & Windus) is the first full poetry collection by Jay Bernard. It takes the New Cross fire of 1981 as its main thesis, where 13 black youngsters died in a house fire that might have been a hate crime. Government silence and police ineptitude subsequently sparked mass uprisings all over London. Haunting, historical, archival and imaginative, it’s a stunning debut.
It has been a very good year for biographies, and for lots of people Charles Moore’s third volume of his Margaret Thatcher biography will be the book of 2019. For me, it was pipped by William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth (Bloomsbury) – not just a great art biography, but wonderful social commentary about London in particular and Britain in general in the postwar period.
In fiction, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) was beautifully clever and light-spirited, reminding me of Ali Smith. Speaking of whom, I would put Spring (Hamish Hamilton), the third of her seasonal quartet, as my political book of the year. In these strange times, we need the sophistication of really good novelists, as much as the observation of political analysts.
Two books outstanding for the research that went into them and the quality of the writing: Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (Guardian Faber) is a devastating account of how British citizens brought to Britain as children by their parents, and who had made their working lives here, were accused of being illegal immigrants, persecuted and forcibly deported. One of the most shameful episodes in our history is revealed, bringing tears for the victims, hurrahs for the author and shame for the government that oversaw the policy.
You have to overlook the terrible title, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love (Allen Lane), and find the wonderful book inside by Nicci Gerrard, who has talked to people suffering from dementia – “the incomprehensible de-creation of the self” – and to those who care for them. She brings their stories so vividly to life that although the subject is sorrowful, her book is hard to put down. Both these books seem to me not only good but also necessary reading.
The book that stood out from all others for me this year was Józef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (New York Review Books). Translated and introduced by Czapski’s biographer, the American painter Eric Karpeles, this slim volume consists of lectures given by Czapski in the winter evenings of 1940-41 to his fellow inmates in the refectory of a former convent, after they had worked throughout the day in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees. The quality of the Polish painter’s analysis of Proust is extraordinary. Based solely on memory, it captures as no other interpretation does the mix of disillusion with the human world and a time-defying mysticism of recollected sensations that infuses Proust’s work.
Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein (Macmillan) is an important book. Ultra-specialisation brings clear advantages in delivering small parts of a strategy. Paradoxically, effective leadership – now more than ever – relies on critical thinking and the ability to see the bigger picture. “The edge”, in sport and beyond, may increasingly reside with generalists who bring together different types of knowledge, make new connections and perceive useful analogies.
Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) by Bernardine Evaristo isn’t just my book of the year, it’s one of the most insightful and life-affirming books I’ve read in many a year. It comprises twelve beautifully interwoven stories of identity, race, womanhood, gender and sexuality, all rooted in the realities and complexities of modern Britain. The characters are vivid and authentic, the writing exquisite and it brims with humanity. And for a trip into the (near?) future, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape) won’t disappoint. A modern take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s a fascinating and engrossing look at AI, science, gender fluidity and, ultimately, what it really means to be human.
To read a major critic on a major poet is one of the great pleasures. Clive James’s passion for the work of Philip Larkin, his intense scrutiny which reveals an extraordinary empathy makes Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin (Picador) an outstanding book.
I caught up with John Gray’s wonderful Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane) a few months ago. The range, thoughtfulness and trenchant sense of Gray’s sweep across the centuries of thought is wholly exhilarating. It’s one of the few books that I started to reread a couple of minutes after I’d finished it.
My book of the year is Dan Jackson’s The Northumbrians (Hurst), a history of the north-east of England that is the most enjoyable book on a region of Britain that I have ever read. Often very moving, often very funny, it is written with a deep and learned love for Newcastle and its environs – but never once does it succumb to sentimentality.
Nor is there any hint of sentimentality in Anthony McGowan’s wonderful survey of philosophy – despite its title being How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog (Oneworld). Hugely entertaining and accessible, there can’t have been more delightful exponents of Socratic dialogue than McGowan and Monty, his scruffy and evidently delightful Maltese terrier.
Stephen Sexton’s collection If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin) has a playful quality and a lightness of touch that he somehow combines with the jagged-ness of grief to make a sequence of poems that is very fresh and eerily beautiful. It is clear from the first lines that this is a debut of significance, one that achieves a most difficult balancing act between wildness and control.
Nobody’s Looking at You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the latest collection of essays from Janet Malcolm, is a demonstration of pre-internet-style intelligence: her enquiries are deep rather than broad; she is outward-looking; her view is not flitty nor fragmented; and her pieces proceed always with a sense of lasered focus. Remember concentration? This is what it reads like.
How to Be a Dictator (Bloomsbury) by Frank Dikötter is a brilliant study of 20th-century dictatorship told through eight examples, including Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Rising on the back of populism, the dictator is caught in a vicious circle: inflating the illusion of mass support through the cult of personality, while turning the population into terrorised prisoners endlessly condemned to faking enthusiasm for their god-like oppressor.
The book’s psychological insight is devastating, the stories are eye-popping: Doc Duvalier voodooing his enemies’ hearts, Mengistu burying Haile Selassie beneath his office desk. Essential reading for any student of political manipulation, as a study of man’s inhumanity to man, it’s almost unbearably moving.
Winds of Change (Allen Lane) is an even more enjoyable read for those of us who were growing into adulthood in the early 1960s, the period covered in this latest contribution by Peter Hennessy to the story of Britain’s postwar history. Harold Macmillan wrestled with the challenge of how best to place Britain in its post-imperial years of relative economic decline, and concluded that membership of the European Common Market was the answer. Then General de Gaulle said “non”: a good reason for reading alongside Hennessy the biography of the General by Julian Jackson (Allen Lane), published last year to justified acclaim.
Top tip: if you are pregnant, or have recently had a baby, and your maternity hospital is Simpson Memorial in Edinburgh, do not read The Way of All Flesh (Canongate) by Ambrose Parry. Set in the Scottish capital in the 19th century, the reader follows a medical student working under the renowned obstetrician Dr James Young Simpson. It’s a gruesome world with bodies – both adult and in utero – laid bare across the pages. While the period detail (and gore) is unsettling, the book itself is an old-fashioned whodunnit and a fine example of the genre. Ambrose Parry is the pseudonym of Christopher Brookmyre and his anaesthetist wife, Marisa Haetzman: her Master’s degree in the history of medicine undoubtedly creates the world of our hero. It really sings, even if some of the procedures explored made this new mum wince.
Don Winslow’s The Border (HarperCollins) made all other crime novels published this year look ever so slightly anaemic. It’s a bruising, sprawling (but beautifully choreographed) story that takes in everything from Mexican cartels and their blood feuds to Guatemalan street kids seeking a new life in the unwelcoming hands of the US (under a president not entirely unlike a certain D Trump). A masterclass in widescreen storytelling.
Elif Shafak’s poetic Booker contender 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) details an Istanbul call-girl’s life and loves. It manages to be a wide-ranging examination of past and present Turkey as well as an affecting story of friendship, making it both sad and hopeful in equal measure.
“I sat around, wanking, in a dressing gown covered in my own puke.” Not the kind of line I’d have expected in my book of the year, frankly, but it’s one of hundreds I loved from Elton John’s Me (Macmillan). Me feels like a new kind of rock
autobiography: a confessional on steroids, with lashings of humour and humanity (I loved the anecdotes about Reg from Pinner’s Auntie Win).
Rhik Samadder’s I Never Said I Loved You (Headline) also does something astonishing, managing to combine brilliant comic writing with a deeply affecting exploration of childhood trauma.
Rocket man: Elton John’s Me is “a confessional on steroids, with lashings of humour and humanity”. Credit: Granamour Weems Collection / Alamy
Two poetry collections made my year. Reading Jay Bernard’s Surge (Chatto & Windus) is like tapping into an energy source that reveals, in a blasting combination of excavation and incantation, a surfacing understanding that connects the landscapes of the New Cross fire and the Grenfell Tower fire, and reveals the cost, the loss, the ghosts deep in the machine, and delivers these revelations with a strength and a gravity and a communal force of voice that shakes every inhumane system.
Then just last month Paul Bailey, the great novelist and memoirist, published his first collection of poetry. Unsentimental, funny, affectionate, deeply moving, the poems read almost off-the-cuff but work at levels of exactness, kindness and observation that throw open a whole closed century of English class-shift and time-shift, in a loving and piercing evocation of family, childhood, love, loss, sangfroid, survival, and with a celebration of all openness, especially openness to our losses and mortalities. Inheritance (CB Editions) is quite an inheritance: a slim, calm volume whose resonance is huge.
There may be readers who opened Fleishman is in Trouble (Wildfire) by Taffy Brodesser-Akner hoping to be shocked by all the heavily reported sex and profanity. Indeed, the opening chapter suggests that the book is just about a newly separated middle-aged man, who, after years of monogamy, is bemused and confounded by the brutally sexualised business of online dating. It’s a captivating start but the book is much more profound than that. Brodesser-Akner, in her debut novel, captures the essence of modern, middle-class New York mores brilliantly.
The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth (Bloomsbury) by William Feaver is a superb and engrossing book. Feaver writes well about the painting; also, he uses the many interviews that he did with Freud to great effect; and he is aware that this is a great story about a major figure in English art and in the life of London. Since London is clogged up now with the rich, then the two-volume 600-page Phaidon Press edition of Freud’s work, with almost 500 illustrations, is for every posh house this season.
In fiction, Sameer Rahim’s Asghar and Zahra (John Murray), an account of the life of a young Muslim couple in west London, is funny and wise, and beautifully written.
Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite! (Faber & Faber) is a gripping and supremely elegant biography of Nietzsche, whose work (largely ignored, misunderstood or cynically misappropriated in his lifetime) becomes more urgent with each passing year.
I’ve been reading a lot by and about Mark Fisher, the cultural critic who took his own life in January 2017, aged 48. Fisher, who was haunted by the lost possibilities of a political future that never came to pass, was at his best when his writing was informed by personal experience. If you haven’t read him, I’d start with Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books), a celebration of what Fisher called “popular modernism” – or K-Punk, out last year from the enterprising Repeater Books.
I admired Late Migrations (Milkweed Editions) by Margaret Renkl, a New York Times columnist who lives in Nashville and whose pleasingly short book is a series of interconnected personal and nature essays that explore the cycles of living and dying.
I was astonished by Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press), a long and seemingly random stream of consciousness building into a slow-motion protest about the state of the nation seen through the state of a particular family. These thoughts are mixed with intense passages of prose, often obliquely addressing questions of freedom and captivity. This is a book entirely true to its own voice and project; an extraordinary work of art.
I also recently read and loved Susan Cheever’s memoir of her father, John Cheever, Home Before Dark (Washington Square Press). It’s a study of a particular kind of cultural and emotional inheritance, a fascinating mix of love, admiration, ambiguity and writerly discipline.
In an age replete with public figures willing to make ludicrous statements about the influence of our genes, Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (Fourth Estate) is an essential read. It is shocking in places, but it’s also entertaining, in a macabre do-those-people-really-think-that? kind of a way (yes, they do). Saini examines the arguments of the self-proclaimed “race realists”, with their talk of “human biodiversity”, and skilfully demolishes the ground beneath their feet. She writes with a quiet and engaging dignity, drawing on her in-depth understanding of what science really has to say about race and genetics. An important, timely book.
In a year where making sense of politics has been a struggle, two books stand out for taking a deeper view. Richard Seymour’s political writing is essential daily reading; his The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press) goes beyond moral panic about technology to map new terrain for understanding “screen capitalism”, its violence and our desires.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit (University of North Carolina Press) documents how black home-ownership was decimated by banks, real-estate companies and privatisation in the 1970s US: anti-discrimination liberalism after Jim Crow did not uplift African Americans but in fact intensified their exploitation through practices of “predatory inclusion” in housing markets. This is a vital explanation of racial capitalism today that sheds light on the struggle of Black Lives Matter and for housing justice.
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (Graywolf Press, translated by Natasha Wimmer) is a small jewel of a book, set in Pinochet’s Chile. This dark time is chronicled through the light of childhood memory, mysterious yet precise. Fernández’s picturesque language and dream-like atmosphere is well worth being invaded by. A book to slip in the pocket to read and reread.
The great puzzle of our times is how we could have known about anthropogenic climate change for over 40 years and done so little about it. The puzzle is addressed in The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane) and in Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich (Picador).
The first describes in terrifying detail what life will be like on Earth if we carry on emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate. The second tells how, between 1979 and 1989, we had a real chance of avoiding the extreme weather, heatwaves, mass migrations, floods and droughts that are now inescapable. We didn’t take it. Let us now hope we take the chance to avoid the even greater horrors that Wallace-Wells describes.
When I am not reading history – which I love but sometimes feels like work – I read novels, memoirs and too many bad thrillers. Thank goodness for Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Doubleday). It’s gripping and, like all her books, beautifully written. Her detective Jackson Brodie returns, older and maybe even a bit wiser, and tangles with a rich array of villains and victims.
My second choice is The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics), a wonderful 1930s Japanese novel. Author Junichiro Tanizaki called it his Jane Austen one. It is about family, marriage, love, sadness, and all as the clouds around Japan and the world get darker.
A compelling and resonant cricket season (World Cup, Ashes, the eve of the wretched The Hundred) has got my cricket-reading juices going. Through the Remembered Gate (Fairfield Books) is a candid and sympathetic memoir by Stephen Chalke, who since the late 1990s has through his research, writing and publishing transformed our understanding of the postwar game.
My oldie, though read for the first time, is Ronald Mason’s 1967 collection of essays, Sing All a Green Willow (Epworth Press). “1921 – A Year of Wrath”, “An Over of O’Reilly’s”, “My Hornby and My Barlow”: beguiling subjects, beguilingly explored, and how I now cherish that dignified belles-lettres tradition which in the summer of Sgt Pepper seemed such old hat.
Georgina Harding’s beautiful novels tell of wars, and troubled homecomings as traumatised fighting men try to re-enter interrupted marriages and homes grown strange. She also writes questioningly about language (her moving Painter of Silence, set in Romania during the Second World War, was told largely from the viewpoint of a mute). Her Land of the Living (Bloomsbury) is as wise and haunting as its predecessors.
We’ve all read about grooming, about how vulnerable girls are coaxed and exploited by predatory “boyfriends”. Dolores (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a sharp and witty first novel by Australian writer Lauren Aimee Curtis, plaits together an illuminating account of the process with an irreverent after-story set in a Spanish convent.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton) is a fascinating, bewildering novel, full of time switches, cross-references, and a plot that twists and turns on itself; an exhilarating ride through one person’s life and memory, so oblique I almost gave up. But the prose is so fluent and beguiling I’m glad I didn’t. I realise how much I see and don’t see in my own life: what better lesson for fiction.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Life (Allen Lane) is surely a definitive work: 550 pages of text, 150 pages of reference. Even Hilary Mantel sings its praises: “The biography we have been awaiting for 400 years.” Her novels teased my interest. And here is the man in all his devious detail. The story – document upon document – attests to his role in the evolution of Tudor England and its shift from a Catholic to a Protestant country; plots and negotiations as convoluted as Brexit… and there are other similarities too! It’s all told with MacCulloch’s light touch and persisting wit.
Taking my cue from TS Eliot’s suggestion, back in modernism’s heyday, that poetry had to be difficult, it seems to me that poetry these days had better be funny. So I’m opting for Frederick Seidel’s Peaches Goes It Alone (Faber & Faber), with its gerontian lucidity and juvenile senility, its outrageousness, inventiveness and radical indifference to the idea of causing offence.
I’d also like to smuggle in a book I got to after 2018’s “Best of” deadline passed. Annie Ernaux’s The Years (Fitzcarraldo) is the most original exercise in autobiography and memoir that I have read in… well, years.
We suffer too much order. Enter Dan Richards and Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (Canongate), whose visits to Martian bases in Utah or Jack Kerouac’s trail up a mountain are hilariously disrupted by curious bears, drunken bouts, or uproarious ghosts. Yet Richards’s exquisite prose makes subtly serious points about the way we humans have tried to live in the world, and what we have done to it.
Equally challenging to our dominion is WH Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood (Faber & Faber), its literary digressions on the sea all the more wilful for the fact that the chaotically ordered Auden claimed to despise the ocean for its maddening formlessness.
I’ve zero appetite for traditional non-fiction these days, the balanced, authoritative kind that aspires to inform and entertain. The writers I want to devote brain time to take personal risks and push at the edges of thought and experience while embracing incompleteness, skew, wryness and wit. So it’s thrilling that books such as Jenn Ashworth’s Notes Made While Falling (Goldsmiths Press) – an intelligent hybrid of memoir and criticism that explores afresh how we might process trauma – exist in the world. Or Leah Dieterich’s Vanishing Twins (Soft Skull Press), a gorgeous portrait of marriage that is searching, fractured, humane and still in need of a British sponsor.
Novel of the year for me is Alice Jolly’s Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile (Unbound), which is as bold, brave and addictive as they come.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said (Bloomsbury Circus) is a riveting account of their investigation into the sexual misconduct of powerful cultural figures, with specific focus on Harvey Weinstein’s victims and accusers, and on Christine Blasey Ford and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. This fascinating book is not only a primer on the #MeToo movement, but an eye-opening dissection of a society that has failed to deal effectively with sexual assault – a system in which victims are tactically silenced with non-disclosure agreements and cash settlements. Most strikingly, it highlights the crucial role journalists have to play in social awakenings.
The short story is an arena – or a literary gym – where writers can flex muscles that might seem out of place in a novel. Leanne Shapton has tremendous form in both genres, in fact, but her collection Guestbook (Particular Books) pushes the envelope in the most beguiling, clever and provocative ways. Full of images, photos, wrapping paper, competing texts, and meta-meta-fictional fun and games, it’s a mind-bending celebration of the form’s potential.
And how can poetry confront acts of brutal terror? Richard Osmond’s collection shows just how it can be achieved, superbly, in Rock, Paper, Scissors (Picador). Caught up in the 2017 Borough Market atrocity, the poems he writes about his experiences are harrowing, brilliantly intelligent and bear exemplary witness to the horror.
Kim Wagner’s brilliantly clear and authoritative analysis of the most notorious crime of the Raj, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (Yale University Press), will become a classic of imperial historiography. Wagner’s style is coolly forensic and scholarly. He sets the massacre in its full historical context, and gets as close as we are ever likely to get to the truth of what happened in Jallianwala Bagh.
Sharply observed, snappily written and thoroughly researched, Katie Hickman’s She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India (Virago) provides a fabulous panorama of a largely ignored area of social history. She challenges the stereotype of the snobbish memsahib by deploying for our enjoyment a riveting gallery of powerful and often eccentric women ranging from stowaways and runaways through courtesans and society beauties to generals’ feisty wives and viceroys’ waspish sisters.
The Emperor Who Never Was (Harvard University Press) by Supriya Gandhi is that rarity: a work of painstaking historical scholarship that is also a model of fine writing and clear, flowing prose. Gandhi explores primary sources in a variety of languages to establish the facts about the ill-fated Mughal prince Dara Shukoh and separate, in the words of the Emperor Akbar, “the firm ground of truth from the marshy land of tradition”.
The best group biography of the year – of many years, in fact – is Sarah Watling’s Noble Savages (Jonathan Cape), the story of the four Olivier sisters, Nöel, Margery, Daphne and Brynhild. Cousins of Laurence Olivier and Siegfried Sassoon, their mother was the model for Tess of the D’Urbevilles, their joint best friend was Rupert Brooke, and they had, said Virginia Woolf, strange glass eyes which they took out at night. But this is not why they are interesting. After feral childhoods in Surrey, where their parents lived in a Fabian utopia, each woman struggled with postwar realities: insanity, grief, poverty, catastrophic marriages. Elegantly structured in “seven fragments”, Watling’s book gives us a riveting drama that begins as pastoral comedy and ends as tragedy.
Sister act: Sarah Watling’s Noble Savages is a life of Nöel, Margery, Daphne and Brynhild Olivier
Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena (Viking) mingles insightful and often moving art history with frank personal recollection in a way that reminds us of the communality we share not only with our contemporaries, but with all historical epochs. I can think of no better expression of the humane than this economical, modest, yet altogether breathtaking book.
Meanwhile, I keep returning to Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s restrained but powerful retellings of ancient myth as modern story in Fabulous (Fourth Estate), where characters such as Orpheus, Tristan, the Pied Piper and, perhaps most memorably, a refugee named Joseph, relive their epic and intimate tales on the streets of modern Britain.
The best non-fiction I read this year was She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Bloomsbury Circus), an unshowy, quietly magnificent account of their investigation into Harvey Weinstein for the New York Times. The meticulousness of these two journalists and the women they persuaded to come forward, compared with the careless arrogance of their perpetrator, is stark.
My favourite novel this year was Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton). As soon as I read it I hoped it would win the Booker.
Let Me Not Be Mad (Bodley Head) is a beguiling reflection on a clinical psychologist’s own descent into mental ill health. Along the way the anonymised author, AK Benjamin, offers funny and unsettling insights into the vagaries of the relationship between clinicians and patients. Wit also abounds in Jeffrey Boakye’s insightful Black, Listed (Dialogue), a kind of periodic table of 60 words and phrases used down the ages to describe black people.
I adored Kevin Barry’s novel Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate), a story about ageing Irish gangsters in Spain. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile) by Shoshana Zuboff is a must read for anyone interested in power, politics, technology and the future of our fragile democracies. Zuboff is a brilliant mind who connects the dots
like no other.
Joanna Kavenna’s novel Zed (Faber & Faber), a comedy-dystopian piece (more Lem than Orwell), imagines a world where all-powerful algorithms totally define our lives, from the personal to the political, where we are all just subsets of our own data. However, the algorithms in Zed are constantly getting things wrong – the romantic partners they set people up with don’t suit them at all; the perfect lives they are meant to engineer are horrendous. Ultimately, we are not computer-predictable beings. Kavenna has clarified the new place where our “true” selves begin: we are that which algorithms cannot predict or fathom; we appear in the cracks between data and the everyday.
Abigail Parry, in her first collection, Jinx (Bloodaxe), performs twists and turns on playground games, ghost lore, cantrips and myths; the poems strike deep on matters of love and pleasure, sex and risk, as well as dazzle with their antic wit and control.
Spring (Hamish Hamilton) is the third of Ali Smith’s courageous almanac-style sequence, in which she has set out to capture the feel of this Brexit era. Here Smith enters the hostile environment through the character of a guard. In her apparently light-footed way, she stitches together chance encounters, unlikely allies and passionate attachments into a shapely, poignant, mordant critique – and allows, just, some pinpricks of light on the horizon.
Timothy Garton Ash
The key to understanding much of modern European history, including that of the EU, is the ménage à trois of Britain, France and Germany. Stuart Sweeney’s The Europe Illusion: Britain, France, Germany and the Long History of European Integration (Reaktion) traces this kaleidoscopically over more than three centuries. Germany invented modern historical scholarship and in Werte und Mächte: Eine Geschichte der westlichen Welt (CH Beck), a Nestor of German historical scholarship, Heinrich August Winkler, offers a magisterial survey of the history of the West, from Pericles to Ursula von der Leyen (bathos indeed). Finally, do yourself a treat: take a break from Brexit and read Simon Leys’s sparkling novella The Death of Napoleon (New York Review Books).
From Nasa scientist Katherine Johnson to hot-air balloonist Sophie Blanchard, Fantastically Great Women Who Worked Wonders (Bloomsbury) by Kate Pankhurst is a wonderful children’s book to inspire young girls that they can do anything if they believe in themselves, use all their talents and follow their dreams.
If you want to look back at a referendum on Europe that went a bit better than the last one, Yes to Europe! (Cambridge University Press) by Robert Saunders is a brilliant book about the 1975 referendum, where Remain won with two thirds of
the vote and Harold Wilson managed to bring the country together. As Bernard Donoghue once said: “Ted Heath took the British establishment into the Market”, and it fell on Wilson “to take in the British people”. For all his faults, Wilson had an instinctive feel for the British people. It’s a shame we don’t have more politicians like him around today.
I was up for the Booker Prize this year against two novels I really admire: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak (Viking) and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press). They are both novels that stretch the imagination and bring to the universe they seek to create such intensity of purpose and flamboyance that one would be hard-pressed to think of any other word other than “original” to describe both. They seek to bring to the reader the machinery of the mind, of consciousness – for Shafak’s character, of a snapshot of consciousness before expiration, and of Ellmann’s, of the chaotic and multiplex workings of an eccentric mind.
Rated Agency by the Belgian thinker Michel Feher sketches a promising map for revolutionizing our socio-economic order by attacking it where it is most vulnerable: not at supposed weak point of profit, but instead the pink flesh of credit and speculation. “Counter-speculation” and “investee politics” are his watchwords. Malcolm Bull’s On Mercy is a complementary tract disguised as a patient Cambridge-School contribution to context that excavates the virtue of mercy as a means to dethroning the supreme values of our age that have failed us. In poetry, Jana Prikryl’s No Matter, a series of love letters to quotidian New York against the backdrop of world-historical volatility, moved me very much.
It’s quite possible that the single most important book about politics, economics, culture and society published so far in this century is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile). She explains with far more power than anyone has done before the emergence of a whole new form of capitalism based on the exploitation of the personal data we freely give to vast corporations. It’s the Das Kapital for our times, setting out with clarity and urgency the implications of an economic system in which an elite can predict, and therefore manipulate, every shift in our desires. But Zuboff is no fatalist and her book should give us courage to, as it were, take back control.
Richard Lloyd Parry
Lanny by Max Porter (Faber & Faber) is the best new novel that I read this year, and it more than lives up to the promise of his first novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It’s a book about the English neo-countryside that creates a new way of being sentimental – a cruel, clear-sighted, ironic kind of sentimentality. It’s as if Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson took over writing the scripts for The Archers. I loved it.
This was the year that I discovered the late Curzio Malaparte, the singular Italian fascist-communist provocateur whose work has been republished in those nice New York Review of Books editions. The Skin, about liberated Naples in 1943, is remarkable: I can’t think of another book in which such imaginative brilliance and empathy sits alongside such gross bigotry and prejudice.
Behrouz Boochani’s extraordinary book, No Friend but the Mountains (Picador), was first published in Australia to acclaim last year, and finally came out in the UK and the US this summer. It is a miracle that it got written at all. Boochani wrote the book on WhatsApp messages while on Manus Island, Australia’s notorious offshore migrant detention zone. The extreme circumstances of its writing should not detract from the book’s powerful analysis. This is not simply a testimony “giving voice” to abject refugee experience, but a major account of how our asylum regimes are organised against the human condition itself.
EM Forster wrote that to describe Seven Pillars of Wisdom as an account of the Arab revolt was as misconceived as calling Moby Dick a book about catching a whale. Describing (or dismissing) the works of John le Carré as “spy stories” is a mistake of similar proportions.
The principal characters of Agent Running in the Field (Viking) are spies and the plot is built around espionage. But the book is about loyalty and betrayal, with the sub-theme of the benign envy that the superannuated elderly are inclined to feel when confronted by their young successors. The connection between the institutional perfidy of the intelligence service and post-Brexit manoeuvering for new allies may be overdone. But it serves to emphasise the consequences of the greatest wilful mistake in British history.
The post-Brexit world: John le Carré reflects on “the greatest wilful mistake in British history”. Credit: Francesco Guidicini/ Camera Press
David Keenan’s For the Good Times (Faber & Faber) is a 1970s Northern Ireland tale of casual but extreme violence, dressed up in Perry Como songs. The singer’s supposedly flawless ethics, and his immaculate dress code, have stayed with me since I read it last summer. At times as unpleasant as it is entertaining, the book is a journey into the shattered sound of the voices of damned males howling from a bottomless well.
By inviting us into the mind of Keiko as she navigates the static neon noise, colours, shelves and etiquettes of the convenience store, Sayaka Murata’s quiet but insistent prose brings alive a person that under other circumstances would have remained invisible. And the wealth of strangeness and determination hiding under the polished facade of Convenience Store Woman (Portobello Books) will not cease to surprise.
Alexander McCall Smith
Joseph Kanon occupies the territory once so clearly staked out by Graham Greene and he never fails to lead us firmly back there with each new novel. He likes short titles – Defectors and Leaving Berlin are recent examples – but his books are packed with atmosphere and well-developed plot. The Accomplice (Simon & Schuster) is set 17 years after the end of the Second World War, the early postwar years being Kanon’s preferred period. It takes us to Argentina and involves a search for an associate of Josef Mengele. It is a splendid, cerebral read, full of moral and emotional depth.
Kate Brown’s study of the Chernobyl aftermath, Manual for Survival (Allen Lane), got misread as an alarmist tract warning against eating Ukrainian raspberries, but is in fact a humane and strange book about the irreversible things a technological disaster does to people and landscapes.
In The Palace Complex (Indiana University Press), leftist “architectural anthropologist” Michał Murawski published the most brilliant book on a building in many years, making a case for Warsaw’s once-loathed Palace of Culture and Science as the most enduring and successful legacy of Polish state socialism.
Johny Pitts’s Afropean (Allen Lane) was a vehemently unromantic modernist travelogue, distinguished as much by Pitts’s matter-of-fact photos of commutes and city-scapes as by his elegant, honest writing.
As a Labour Party member of almost 60 years, I have been – and remain – perplexed, alarmed and unpersuaded by accusations of “institutional” anti-Semitism. My reading in 2019 has reflected that concern obsessively. Jewish writers, from Hannah Arendt on Eichmann to Primo Levi on his “by chance” survival of Auschwitz, have convinced me that if it seems any discussion about Israel and its politics is a walk on ice, then that’s exactly as it ought to be. Two powerful new books show that anti-Semitism acknowledges no time limits and recognises no borders. Edward Berenson’s The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town (WW Norton) is a warning against complacency; Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial (Picador) is a record of the glorious complexity and variety of Jewish thinking and culture in the European diaspora, and a clarification of what anti-Semitism is – and what it isn’t.
In Constitution Street (404Ink) Jemma Neville finds wisdom and community in these fractured times. Constitution Street, Leith is the author’s home address, and by consulting her characterful and diverse neighbours, Neville, a human rights activist, describes what a proper human rights-based constitution might look like in practise, were we brave enough to claim one. Richard Mabey’s Turning the Boat for Home (Chatto & Windus) is an anthology of recent essays and reviews by the president of “nature writing”, so called. Poised where nature meets culture, he is knowledgeable, politically savvy and wry, and an excellent naturalist.
For poetry, New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf Press) brings together 21 exciting Native American poets, pushing at the boundaries of form and perception.
Robert Harris’s latest historical thriller The Second Sleep (Hutchinson) begins with a young priest wending his way across the moorland of Wessex in the “Year of Our Risen Lord 1468”. But gradually he uncovers what happened to the world centuries back in the Apocalypse of 2025. The Second Sleep is a gripping and topical evocation of civilisation’s fragility.
As a historian fascinated by borders and married to an architect, I also enjoyed Fiona MacCarthy’s Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus (Faber & Faber) – a subtle exploration of Gropius’s three lives in Germany, Britain and the US and of his significance as an “architectural thinker” for whom art was nothing less than “life itself”.
Kamchatka, that far eastern peninsula of Russian wilderness made jaw-droppingly majestic by its battalions of active volcanoes, provides the setting for Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth (Scribner), a most extraordinarily beautiful and haunting first novel, and the unveiling of a rare and special talent.
Can the Natural History Museum provide 1915 propaganda chief John Buchan with an image of a kraken, to help annoy the Kaiser’s sailors? What insects are spoiling army biscuits on the Western Front? Wither leeches to heal the wounds at Ypres? Karolyn Shindler’s A Museum at War (The National History Museum), a quirky wartime diary, as from the boffins of Cromwell Road, is a treasure house of oddities.
Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack on BBC One inspired me to read The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (Virago Modern Classics). The TV updating has, of course, modernised, simplified and glamorised the historical reality, but the historical reality is equally fascinating and deeply affecting. I’m only halfway through the thrilling doorstop of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press), a sort of Moby Dick about pies instead of whales, but I’m already confident enough to say that it has fundamentally changed my idea about what the novel can do.
Julia Blackburn’s marvellous Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (Jonathan Cape) is based both on her own research and on expeditions and conversations with scientists, amateur collectors and fishermen, all sharing her fascination with “Doggerland”, a great stretch of land that once filled the North Sea. Humans, mammoths and giant deer could wander it dryshod, from the Shetland Hills to Denmark or down to the mighty “Channel River”. Blackburn’s book is startling, funny and often very moving.
The two books I recommend seem at first sight to be as different as any two books could possibly be, beginning with their relative size. My Name is Why (Canongate) by Lemn Sissay is a small dynamo of a book. Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone (Allen Lane) by Charles Moore is a vast, powerful engine, being in fact the third volume of his magnificent biography, and in itself totalling more than 1,000 pages.
How could the contents have anything in common? Sissay was the foundling baby of a vanished Ethiopian mother, who was fostered by a white family and at the age of 12 abandoned into the national care services; he has since risen by his own brilliance, now a much admired poet and chancellor of Manchester University. Moore’s well-told tale, using authoritative sources, recounts the final stages of Thatcher’s premiership including her dramatic fall. Yet the message of both books is actually the same: courage. The courage of an individual who against all probabilities shone like a star – or, in the case of Sissay, still shines.
Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis (University of Regina Press) consists of three essays by two outstanding Canadian poets on our present global crisis, and richly exemplifies the wisdom it discusses. Pure gold on page after page.
Carolyn Forché’s harrowing memoir of her experiences in El Salvador as a young poet in the 1970s, What You Have Heard is True (Allen Lane), is a reminder of what unspeakable tyrannies have been connived at by the “free world” in recent decades, and a loving celebration of some idiosyncratic as well as heroic dissidents (including the now canonised Archbishop Romero).
My choices are “nature” books of radically different character. Frans de Waal’s behavioural study Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (Granta) forces us to rethink the inner lives of other animals in a way that has major implications for the rest of life on Earth. My year’s other highlight was a rereading of Marcel Pagnol’s 1989 The Water of the Hills (Picador) (made famous by Claude Berri’s film Jean de Florette). The two-part novel is a modern Greek tragedy of mathematically precise symmetry, but also the most compelling parable about our relations with nature that I know in European fiction.
Earth mother: Frans de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug forces us to rethink the inner lives of animals. Credit: Karl Ammann
No book this year has done more to explain our current political plight than Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s comprehensive study Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge University Press). Norris and Inglehart recognise that the home-grown features of the Trump and Brexit phenomena need to be aligned with a growing turn across the West towards authoritarian-populism. This has emerged in reaction against a generational revolution in attitudes towards sexuality and race. The good news – at least potentially – is that young liberals outnumber reactionary curmudgeons, if only the former would take the trouble to get out and vote.
The book which impressed me most was Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough (University of Chicago Press). It’s a beautiful and trenchant study of six women – Simone Weil, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag – who were all criticised for being cold. Their offence was to look the world in the face and to report what they found.
I also hugely enjoyed Tastes of Honey (Chatto & Windus), Selina Todd’s heroic attempt to do the impossible and explain the life and work of the mysterious Shelagh Delaney. Alongside Andrea Dunbar, Delaney was our most unexpected and gifted postwar playwright. How was she so mislaid?
Novel by novel, Niall Griffiths’s exploration of transgressive, desperate lives has become essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what’s going on in Britain today. His latest book, the deeply intelligent Broken Ghost (Jonathan Cape), combines myth, drug culture and iconoclastic political vision in a wild music that’s also a call to arms. This important book outstrips even its own virtuoso literary technique.
There’s virtuosity aplenty in Stephen Sexton’s poetry debut If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin), too. Imagery and emotion interweave in a work of astonishing maturity by the young Northern Irish poet, whose impressive new voice promises to help refresh contemporary verse.
Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands (Chatto & Windus) is a haunting investigation into family trauma and secrets from a forgotten England that turns out to lie closer to the surface than anyone suspected. Turning detective, she interrogates old snapshots with the forensic skill of a professional art critic.
Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation of The Odyssey (WW Norton) is quite extraordinary. It has been hailed as the first translation by a woman but that I think sells it short. It is powerful and immensely readable. And yes – it does treat Homer’s hero with a detachment and clarity that brings out in full his violence and his moral ambiguity. The translation of Homer for our times:
Virgil and Aeneas await.
Two books that both test the edges of “memoir” stood out for me this year; Sinéad Gleeson’s glittering and experimental Constellations: Reflections from Life (Picador), and Jessica J Lee’s moving exploration of landscape, language and the nature of family, Two Trees Make A Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan (Virago).
In a different way I was also struck by David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel (HarperCollins), which tells two remarkable stories. One is of Gange’s own kayaking voyage along that coastal arc, and the other a historical account of those coastal communities and terrains cast into unlikely kinship by their relationship with the Atlantic.
The main insight in Richard Davies’s accessible and original Extreme Economies (Bantam Press) is that we learn a lot from looking at extremes: economic successes in adversity such as the resilient Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan or the tsunami-devastated villages of Aceh, Indonesia; failed cities that mislaid their potential, such as Kinshasa and Glasgow; and tomorrow’s economic future in geriatric Akita in Japan, wired-up Tallinn, and the fast growth and extreme inequality of Santiago. The book is not doctrinaire. It shows that markets can work wonders in unlikely places but work perversely in others and need a structure of social organisation within which to function. The author draws on sociology and anthropology and the simple power of observation and conversation to bring economics alive.
Every so often, you read a book so exquisite that you become an evangelist for it. Ever since finishing Sandra Newman’s novel The Heavens (Grove Press), I’ve been forcing copies on to my friends. It’s a fractured, ever-shifting story about the selfishness of genius and the pain of loss. It has Shakespeare as a character, which ought to be terrible, but isn’t. And the aching sadness at its heart has stayed with me all year.
My absolutely shameless non-fiction pick is my friend Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women (Chatto & Windus). Its exploration of the “gender data gap” is heavy duty ammunition for every feminist fight happening right now.
The two books of poetry I most enjoyed this year were What I’m Looking For by Maureen N McLane (Penguin) and Peaches Goes It Alone by Frederick Seidel (Faber & Faber). The former is a sampling from the first five volumes of a versatile and crazily bright poet who has read and synthesised countless strands of classical and English-language poetry. She hovers somewhere between the academy and the cult – as does Seidel, the divisive bad-good poet, whose terrible-beautiful rhymes and offensive-tender sentiments will have you levitating one minute and on the floor with horror the next. I don’t smile often in these strange and anxious times, except when I read any poem by Seidel.
The book I read with most profit this year was the absorbing Staring at God: Britain in the Great War (Random House) by the historian and commentator Simon Heffer. The author does not spare a sense of horror – the killing of “an entire generation” which left Margot Asquith “staring at God” – but he eschews simple warnography. A particular strength of the book is Heffer’s understanding – as befits a former deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph – of the role of the press; this was the great age of newspaper proprietors such as Lord Northcliffe, often described as “the most powerful man in the country”.
My two books of the year could hardly be more different. Tim Parks’s Out of My Head (Harvill Secker) is a brisk, chatty and light-hearted account of Parks’s encounters with neurologists and philosophers looking for the location of consciousness. Are there literally images in the mind? If not, where are they? Trained philosophers might prefer their own technical discussions of famous issues; lay readers will enjoy themselves.
Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice (Princeton University Press) is long, detailed, and painstaking. It is also a fascinating account of how the concerns of philosophers were transformed by the work of one diffident and self-effacing philosopher, the Harvard professor John Rawls.
In The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin (Bodley Head), Jonathan Phillips chips the accretions of myth off the Muslim military hero and plonks him – flawed, ambitious and charismatic – squarely back in the realm of men. Phillips’s careful scrutiny of the surprisingly numerous contemporary sources underlies an impressive piece of historical reconstruction. The endgame of Saladin’s struggles against the crusaders came in 1291, some 100 years after his death, when Acre, the last great Christian enclave in the Holy Land, was taken after a brutal assault. The narrative and ramifications of this defining set-piece siege are superbly recounted by Roger Crowley in Accursed Tower (Yale University Press).
Jonathan Phillips explores the real Saladin. Credit: Universal History Archive
Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape) by Jeanette Winterson is a book not only exploring Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein one rainy holiday in Italy but all the challenges and difficulties of AI as well as the trans experience. I also loved Orange World (Chatto & Windus) by Karen Russell, which is a collection of short stories in which demons live in drains, bog women come back from the dead and trees can grow inside the human body.
Richard J Evans
Lewis Namier (1888-1960), has long held a legendary status among historians. When I was an undergraduate, my teachers told me he had revolutionised the study of our subject. DW Hayton’s startlingly honest biography, Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier (Manchester University Press), puts him in his contexts – a Polish-Jewish immigrant to the UK, a painstakingly exact scholar, a Freudian who thought that ideas played no part in history or in the motivation of individuals, a Zionist who disliked Israel, and a thoroughly unpleasant man. Hayton shows both why his work on 18th-century politics was hailed as revolutionary on its first appearance, and why it is no longer influential today. Masterly.
I finished Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) sitting on a wall in Old Street, north London, because I couldn’t put it down long enough for the five minute walk home. It’s her best novel: slippery, sensual, subtle, precise. No one is so good at capturing the fluid emotional territory in which we live, the fudges, untruths and compromises that constitute reality.
I also loved the painter Celia Paul’s memoir Self-Portrait (Jonathan Cape). It’s fascinating for its account of her long-term lover Lucian Freud (he emerges as the ultimate man-baby, by turns charismatic, needy and breathtakingly selfish), but it’s also painfully honest on what it means to be a woman who puts art first, no matter what
On 15 February 1938, TS Eliot invited John Hayward to be his literary executor: “I don’t want any biography written, or any letters printed that I wrote prior to 1933, or any letters at all of any intimacy to anybody. In fact, I have a mania for posthumous privacy.” It didn’t work out. The letters, which continue to be released in impeccably edited volumes, are a great de facto biography – much more graphic, revelatory, immediate and reliable than the confident squint of the average biographer (Faber & Faber).
Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (Vintage) – effortlessly brilliant, gripping, funny, touching – was unaccountably missing from the Booker Prize longlist. A shared collective squint this time.
The Unnamable Present (Allen Lane), the ninth work in Roberto Calasso’s multi-volume study of modernity, is the first to tackle the contemporary moment. Though the book is just 208 pages, Calasso still covers a vast array of topics in elucidating the “deadly insubstantiality” of the present: tourism, Islamic fundamentalism, transhumanism, Robert Frost, fascism, the prophetic dreams of Baudelaire. For Calasso, all thought is contemporary. Even when you have no idea where he’s going, it’s a thrill to follow this singular writer on his eccentric path through our political and cultural reality.
Kate Nicholls’s extraordinary memoir, Under the Camelthorn Tree (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), should not be missed. Nicholls left England for Botswana with her five children, one a babe in arms, to live among lions: but this is no Born Free. Nicholls tells her story – of home-schooling her children, of surviving a brutal assault – with astonishing candour. Funny and heart-breaking in turns, here is a life lived to the fullest.
Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber) is one of the finest poetry collections in a year of great poetry collections. It is framed as a drama: one in which the inhabitants of an occupied town grow deaf to horror. Its power has an eerie familiarity – alas.
Of my 2019 reading list, two are the books that I am most inclined to gift to friends. Javier Cercas’s The Impostor (Quercus), a novel without a fiction, is a beautiful story on our natural right to lie about ourselves and the disaster that comes when other people decide to believe our lies. It is a subtle reflection on the fate of the fiction writer in the post-truth world.
William J Burns is commonly believed to be one of the finest American diplomats of the past half century. His memoir The Back Channel (Hurst) is one of those rare intelligent and clearly written books that makes you believe that diplomacy, like handwriting, is still critical for our survival.
Alexander Zevin’s Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist (Verso) is a singular work of history that shows how the Economist – the most ardent cheerleader for Anglophone liberalism – has shaped the liberal tradition and influenced world affairs since the title was founded in 1843. A narrower, but no less important story, is recounted in Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice (Princeton University Press), a path-breaking book that shows how postwar liberalism was transformed by the philosophy of John Rawls. Both Zevin and Forrester are lucid expositors of liberal ideas and their ascendency in the political and intellectual life of the West.
Three books published this year reminded me how much I love the compressed storytelling of a great short novel. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (Fleet) tells a haunting tale of a brutal American reform school. Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) makes its seductive, unsettling way from communist East Berlin to present-day London. Kevin Barry’s The Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate) provides two ageing Irish gangsters and so many cut-out-and-keep lines that your copy will be left in tatters. None is much more than 200 pages but each one is packed with riches.
Benjamin Moser’s sensational biography of Susan Sontag, Sontag: Her Life (Allen Lane), provides an indelible portrait of a personality, a career and various milieux. Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking (HarperCollins), about approaches in European football since 1992, is one of the most illuminating and engrossing works of cultural history I’ve ever read. Adam Mars-Jones’s Second Sight (Reaktion Books), a collection of film journalism from across 30 years, became an instant candidate for my desert island book.
The digitisation of our everyday lives has provoked all manner of pessimistic and romantic yearnings for some low-tech utopia. Some promote craft as an alternative, in the form of cooking or motorcycle repair. Others tell us we have to meditate or sleep our way to a calmer existence. But none has confronted the deep-lying source of our present restlessness as insightfully or as enjoyably as Josh Cohen’s Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (Granta). Knitting together pop-culture icons such as Homer Simpson, Andy Warhol and The Big Lebowski with psychoanalytic and critical theory, the book seeks out timeless aspects of the human condition, and connects them to the compulsions and neuroses of the 21st century. The result is both fascinating and soothing.
The two best books I’ve read this year reflect some of the strange recent political and social shifts in France. The first is Twilight of the Elites (Yale University Press) by Christophe Guilluy, an academic geographer who charts in this book the dispossession of the French white working class that has fuelled so much of the rage of the gilets jaunes. It is a visionary work.
The second book is Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo (Europa Editions) by Philippe Lançon, who survived, with life-changing injuries, the infamous massacre on 7 January 2015. This is not a book about such politics, but about “recovery” – if such a thing is possible in Lançon’s case – and real individual suffering. Lançon’s book is a moving and compelling work of literature and as such it will long outlive the demented fanatics who tried to kill him.
Book prizes have proved controversial this year: I had my first taste of judging on the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. I loved all our longlist, but I can’t forget Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is my Mother Tongue (Indigo Press). It is brutal on aid politics, it is damning on FGM, yet this book is infused with love as Saba, the heroine, outwits all the voyeurism of the refugee camp and of the novel form.
For similar reasons, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press) stands out: every line has something important, sad, funny and fierce to say about “civilisation” and its discontents as its female narrator gives voice to chaos, and expresses the human sublime.
It seems as though every year I’m introduced to a remarkable new voice by the good people at Dublin’s Stinging Fly magazine, and 2019 has been no exception. Nicole Flattery’s story collection Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury), is a head-spinning delight of off-kilter voices and dark satisfactions.
In the poetry section, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber) gave me unexpected narrative heartbreak, a completely new yet somehow familiar imaginative world, and a string of unforgettable images. It also made me want to fight harder.
Two poetry collections, from opposite ends of these islands, held me in thrall: Roseanne Watt’s Moder Dy (Polygon) from Shetland and Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost (Jonathan Cape) from Devon. Watt writes in English and in Shetlandic dialect, providing her own translations of the latter, bringing levity and precision to both: “du seems tae fin dysel maist whaar de licht/is slockit: helliers, vodd hooses” becomes “you seem to find yourself most where the light/wrecks: sea caves, ruined houses”. Benson won a Forward Prize for Vertigo & Ghost; on parenthood (and everything else) she’s transcendent: “it’s not my own mortality/I flail at now, but theirs./Look how fitfully I steer,/how obsolete I am in person;/I am wheeled and governed”.
Two very different books won my admiration this year. Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Viking) is astonishingly good at describing what it was like to grow up on the south side of Chicago and then to spend eight surreal years in the White House. Authentic is an overused term, but Obama is unusual in her ability to reflect honestly on her private and public life, so helping her to shine in both roles. I also loved Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day (Jonathan Cape). Hadley brings the gifts of a still-life painter to her fiction yet manages to produce satisfying twists and turns to her storytelling.
Although I once earned a living in my youth writing comics for IPC, I’ve never been much of a comic reader. The exceptions, by the likes of Alan Moore, have developed techniques specific to the form, and The Prague Coup (Titan) written by Jean-Luc Fromental and drawn by Miles Hyman is exceptional. It speculates about Graham Greene’s time in Vienna and Prague, his connection with MI5 and Kim Philby when the Soviet Union was closing in on eastern Europe and all sorts of jiggery-pokery was going on. Meanwhile, Greene’s private love life was becoming entangled with his slightly more public one. Greene fans will probably love the atmosphere of The Third Man. Its melancholy feel is a great antidote for too much Christmas cheer.
Kit de Waal
Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series was recommended to me by Alexa (yes, that’s right) and I have now worked my way up to Joe Country (John Murray), book six. The premise is that failed spies are sent to do menial tasks until they can be humiliated or bored into resignation. Their boss, Jackson Lamb (one of the most foul and interesting characters ever created), manages to intervene in threats to the country and what follows is what every spy story thrives on – bad guys, double dealing and danger.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (Viking) by Sara Collins is a brilliant story of a slave, Frannie, who leaves a Jamaican plantation and comes to London to become technically “free”, being gifted to a man trying to prove that Africans are lesser humans. This is a gothic novel in the style of Jane Eyre, but far darker and more humorous.
While Frank Langfitt was working as National Public Radio correspondent in Shanghai he came up with an unusual twist on the journalist’s cliche of soliciting comments from taxi drivers. He decided to become the taxi driver and to offer people rides in exchange for their stories. The result, The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), is an entertaining and sympathetic mosaic of characters and experiences from the highly charged and fast-moving society of contemporary China.
Tim Brooks’ The Great State: China and the World (Profile) is a brilliant, original and readable history, told through selected episodes to flash out the thesis that China’s sense of its place in the world was defined and determined not by the Chinese but by those who conquered them — the Mongols and Manchus. The Great State helps us to understand how much contemporary China’s behaviour in the world owes to past experience, and how much its diplomacy rests on dubious historical narratives.
Two photography books really stood out for me this year. Maja Daniels’s Elf Dalia (Mack) is a fascinating journey into the mystical and isolated Swedish valley of Älvdalen. Recalling myths and fairies, witches and inventors, Daniels spent three years there and has woven together her stunning images with those from an enchanting historical archive of the area. Continuing the ethereal theme, I found Robbie Lawrence’s Blackwater River (Stanley Barker) mesmerising. Shot in the Low Country, the coastal region where Georgia meets South Carolina, the photographs are a reaction against the current cold and harsh political climate. It is hard not to feel enveloped and warmed by them.
Cold comfort: Maja Daniels’s Elf Dalia journeys into Älvdalen, Sweden, melding her images of this isolated valley with an enchanting historical archive
Credit: Maja Daniels/Tenn Persson, courtesy of Elfdaen Hembygdsforening and Mack
Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited second collection Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber) is exemplary in a particularly dazzling year for poetry. The book narrates an imaginary town’s collective political resistance against authoritarianism while focusing in on the private lives of a few of its inhabitants. The town could easily be Kaminsky’s native Odessa or one in Trump’s US, where the poet lives. On an otherwise unremarkable day a boy is shot dead; the townspeople choose to go deaf. And what unfolds is a devastating story that comes so close to our global turmoil it singes the reader’s eyelashes.
As a judge of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, how could I choose anything other than Lucy Ellmann’s magnificent, sprawling, witty and original Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)? It takes us inside the consciousness of a mother and baker living in Newcomerstown, Ohio, via a dense monologue that is full of all the tangents, distractions and recurrent fixations of a human mind. It is both sharply political and deeply personal, as the narrator’s thoughts bounce from the practical demands of her own family and the morning’s news to Jane Fonda workout DVDs and resurfacing traumas from her own childhood.
Tom Holland’s Dominion (Little, Brown)is a brilliant meditation on how Christianity in its Latin and Protestant forms entirely changed the way humans conceive life and their relationship to each other. Holland articulates beautifully the ethical and spiritual potency of seeing Christ’s crucifixion as an event that in its shamefulness quite literally reorders the cosmos. But, just as powerfully, the book is haunted by Nietzsche. We live in the world after Paul deemed there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. But such an ideal is not one we can quite live by without inviting its destruction.
Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, published in Don Mee Choi’s English translation by New Directions, is an extraordinary series of poems on unjust death, whether brought about by the torture of political dissidents under a dictatorship, or by preventable catastrophe under capitalism. Drawing on Korean folklore, the book is as much a shamanic invocation as a political protest. “I receive news that all living things that have built houses above ground or under water/are dead, that the only surviving thing is the thing inside my head/and that’s because the news was sent by that thing living inside my head.” It is a major work of grief, fury and defiance.
Published to a storm of controversy in Vigdis Hjorth’s native Norway in 2016, Will and Testament (Verso) arrived in English this year. The novel is a meticulously paced account of a property dispute that bleeds poisonously back into the history of the narrator and the family members whose squabbling over a cabin comes to seem darkly absurd compared with the trauma she has suffered.
The other book that fairly struck me over the head was The Adversary (Vintage) by Emmanuel Carrère, first published in English in 2001. Carrère examines the life and crimes of Jean-Claude Romand, who fabricated 20 years’ worth of a medical career before murdering his family as the lies began at last to unravel. Like Will and Testament, it’s the coexistence of almost unimaginably variant realities within a family that haunts you.