The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.
One of the year’s most exciting discoveries was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins) by Gail Honeyman. The enormous distance between the modern world and the inner world of the central character, Eleanor, is beautifully and vividly told. Honeyman’s voice is funny but heartbreaking, intelligent but compassionate, sharp and sweet. Only a very talented and courageous author could reach out to readers across the world by writing about a seemingly ordinary woman’s loneliness. Honeyman is that writer and I salute her.
Another marvel was East West Street by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), published in paperback this year. In an age in which the truth has become more elusive than ever, this is a brave, passionate book that makes its readers witnesses of a search for it. While the book focuses on a family’s trajectory through history, the questions it raises regarding memory, human rights and justice are universal and timely. One of the best examples of analytical thinking and research combined with fine storytelling.
Two remarkable books by two extraordinary North American writers appeared in the past few months. Anne Michaels, the author of one of the most important modern novels, Fugitive Pieces (1996), published her first volume of non-fiction, Infinite Gradation (House Sparrow Press). It is a meditation on death, love and the limits of utterance that extends Michaels’s lifelong preoccupation with the ethics of art.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions (Granta) is a brilliantly sharp-edged, quick-tongued set of essays about feminism and the conspiracies of silence that enable harassment and abuse, which has proved eerily premonitory of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and all the other scandals). Solnit is both a stylist and a fighter, distinguished by her rare combination of grit and grace.
Not enough attention was paid this year to Neel Mukherjee’s harsh and vibrant third novel, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus). Mukherjee’s deep knowledge of India and the West, allied to his never-failing curiosity about the ties that both bind us and separate us, makes him an outstanding chronicler of Bengali life, seen from within and without. His evocation of the world of servants, trapped in slave-like submission to the whims of the rich, is particularly moving. Nothing here – not even the heartbreaking struggles of a dancing bear and his destitute master – feels contrived or strained. In an age when so many fiction writers flimflam around in a cloud of unknowing, Mukherjee has an eagle’s eye for the truth.
I’ve been gripped by a topical book of 20th-century history. Fresh, vivid and revealing, Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Revolution: A New History (Profile Books) records how Rasputin, hearing that Russian troops were being mobilised to enter the First World War, telegraphed the tsar warning that it meant “the end of Russia and yourselves”. What followed – the Red Terror and White atrocities, large-scale peasant rebellions and the Volga famine – cost the lives of 25 million people, 18 times as many as Russian casualties in the world war. In the two months following an assassination attempt on Lenin in August 1918, the Bolshevik secret police executed nearly 15,000 people, more than twice the total number of prisoners of all kinds executed during the last century of tsarist rule. As McMeekin shows, an ignorant peasant-mystic proved a better guide to events than anyone – Marxist or liberal – mesmerised by grand theories of history.
I’ve also enjoyed the thrillers of the Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, republished by Pushkin Press, especially The Judge and His Hangman, in which a dying detective defies conventional ideas of proof, responsibility and justice.
Women born in the mid-20th century are now producing fascinating accounts of how the rise of feminism affected their lives. In the past couple of years, there were great memoirs by Carly Simon and Tracy Tynan. This year, in A Life of My Own (Viking), Claire Tomalin writes as feelingly about herself as she has always written about everyone else. Beautiful.
For pure fun, I recommend Dent’s Modern Tribes (John Murray) by Susie Dent, a lexicography of groups and professions. I loved surfers’ slang best, especially their word for colleagues who hang out in shallow water. I’ve known a few paddle-pusses myself.
For me, it’s been a year of poetry immersion because I chaired the Forward Prizes. Maria Apichella didn’t win, but her Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) is a collection I’ve been rereading with increasing delight. These are poems set in Wales about the relationship between an atheist ex-soldier and a Christian girl, and they feel both timeless and bang up to the minute: they read with the page-turning urgency of a thriller.
I can’t not mention Sinéad Morrissey, who did win with On Balance (Carcanet) – a wide-ranging, capacious, brilliant and entirely satisfying collection of poems that will be read many decades hence. For prose, try Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life (Faber & Faber) on the wilder shores and darker characters of the internet. It’s funny, neatly written and deeply thought-provoking.
The most extraordinary human being I encountered in print this year was the naturalist Sooyong Park, who has devoted his life to the Siberian tiger. He spends six months of the year living in a coffin-like hide, observing tigers and seeing the disasters caused by poaching and the wastage of their habitat. Perhaps because Park is not European, his attitude is different to what we are accustomed to. Science combines with the near-shamanic knowledge of the hunter-gatherer. The Great Soul of Siberia (William Collins), in Jamie Chang’s deft translation, is a book of intensity, grief and wonder. Observation and intensity also mark Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape). It’s a good title for what she does best: make us aware. Oswald manages to make fully formed, cool but passionate poems from the micro-moments that the rest of us either ignore or don’t know what to do with – the reflections of a cloud in a puddle, for example. With work free-formed, seductive and strange, Oswald is a terrific poet.
Matthew Francis’s brilliant reworking of The Mabinogi (Faber & Faber), the Welsh national epic, made scales fall from my eyes. Ted Hughes meets Game of Thrones meets Gerard Manley Hopkins – you get my drift. It has a wonderful precision of language that has made me seek out Francis’s other volumes. I found Megan Marshall’s new biography Elizabeth Bishop (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) fascinating as well as astute, and deeply understanding of Bishop’s highly complex persona. We cannot learn too much about this wonderful poet.
My favourite novel was Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) by Mohsin Hamid. A profoundly contemporary story about civil wars, unstable countries and refugees pouring to the cities of the West, it is also beautifully written, with the ghost of Camus hovering at the edge of the frame, as he did in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Two books on south Asia also gave me great pleasure. Both are by talented journalists who have done long stints in the region. Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak (Eland) is a funny, moving portrait of Pakistan, one of the most complex of countries, but here rendered in bright chiaroscuro and with obvious affection. River of Life, River of Death (Oxford University Press), Victor Mallet’s book on the pollution apocalypse of the Ganges, here turned into a metaphor for modern India, is also a wonderful achievement but more political, analytical and serious in tone.
Though anchored in the world of espionage, A Legacy of Spies (Viking) is – like all of John le Carré’s MI5 novels – far more than a conventional story of deception, defection and death. It is ingeniously constructed around a departmental inquiry into the perceived failures of the operation that formed the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The necessary violence is described in retrospect and the casual heroism of the agents stands out in contrast to the formality of the civil servants who judge them. The result is an examination of basic emotions – love, fear, loyalty and despair. All that and the pleasure of a reunion with George Smiley.
Two biographies have delighted me this autumn. In Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear (Faber & Faber), the shy writer of nonsense verse and hard-working painter, befriended by the powerful yet unfulfilled in love, living among vividly described expatriate British communities, is brought to life with exquisite sympathy in what must be the most handsomely produced book of the year.
Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell (Hamish Hamilton) also offers an often surprising and always brilliant picture of English upper-middle-class intellectual life in the mid-20th century: drunkards, journalists, musicians, aristocrats, hangers-on and the odd genius. I couldn’t put it down.
It isn’t that I don’t read anything. I read all the time. I have the bedsores to prove it. But when it comes to books of the year, it feels as if I’ve spent the year OD-ing on box sets. I have to ask my friends. They can’t remember turning a page either. The Giacometti show at Tate Modern was disastrously laid out but the catalogue, edited by Lena Fritsch and Frances Morris (Tate Publishing), is a Giacometti A-Z under many headings by many hands: Matisse, Henri; Politics; Kiki de Montparnasse, and so on. A great innovation. Jed Perl’s Calder: The Conquest of Time 1898-1940 (Yale University Press) is a mine of detail. Calder’s pliers were by William Bernard, who sold his design to the William Schollhorn Company in New Haven, Connecticut. I never knew that.
One of my books of the year is Laurent Binet’s novel The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker), a kind of hoot about French lit crit. I’m also in the middle of a very nice edition of Keats’s Selected Letters, edited by John Barnard (Penguin Classics), who is a wonderful guide through the correspondence.
The American poet Brian Blanchfield’s first collection of essays, Proxies (Picador), filled me with wonder, admiration and elation. Subtitled “A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts”, this outrageously intelligent book, written in a style that fuses head and heart alchemically, advances the game on both the life-writing and the essay fronts.
Chief Engineer, Erica Wagner’s biography of Washington Roebling – the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the iconic constructions that define the most iconic of cities – is a masterful work of research, revelation and gripping narrative. It brings to pulsating life 19th-century New York and New Jersey and manages to be moving, too.
Two books about grief moved me greatly. First, the Man Booker Prize judges got it right in choosing George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) as their winner. It’s a wondrous novel set on the night a grieving Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, visits his dead 11-year-old son Willie in his crypt in Georgetown. The novel, which in form resembles a play or a script, is a polyphonic masterpiece, by turns hilarious and deeply poignant.
Richard Beard’s memoir, The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), tells the story of a tragedy – the drowning of the author’s nine-year-old brother Nicky while on a family holiday in Cornwall in the 1970s – and of how the family reacted to its loss by behaving as if Nicky had never lived. Until, that is, the now middle-aged Beard reawakened long-repressed traumatic memories.
No doubt about it, I will read the genius poet Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby (Faber & Faber), for many years to come. She begins with a Freud quotation: “The loss of a mother must be something very strange.” Her subject is indeed the death of a mother. These poems continue this conversation with Freud, forging a strange, tough language to give value to the absurdity and chaos of grief. She manages to be witty, too: “Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zero Books). Edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix, this anthology of essays, interviews and personal recollections reflects on the ways in which punk was lived and experienced at the time. Gallix flips his finger at those who see nostalgia as an affliction and rightly attempts to promote the fragmented and contested legend of punk to “a summation of all the avant-garde movements of the 20th century… a revolution for everyday life”.
In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, I reread Mikhail Sholokhov’s wonderful, unsparing epic And Quiet Flows the Don, reissued by Penguin Classics. It starts as an elegy to the hard, sometimes suffocating communal life of a Cossack village on the banks of the River Don in Russia and turns into a work of brutal realism as the community is denuded by the First World War, then destroyed by civil war and revolution. As a teenager, I saw only a grand tale of soldiers and revolutionaries; now I read an intimate human story of loss and love. Any book that won both the Stalin Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature has to be worth a look.
If you want a complete antidote, read Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), the party-by-party, cover-by-cover story of how a Brit conquered New York publishing. As a novice editor, I can tell you it is packed with priceless advice from one of the greatest of them all.
Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time (Hamish Hamilton) is a remarkable match between subject and biographer. (Spurling knew Powell over many years, an advantage she uses with admirable delicacy.) The result is an exciting story, from its unhappy beginnings to its triumphant ending with Powell as a leading 20th-century novelist. You can’t read this without your fingers itching to get at his Dance novels, whether for the first or the 15th time.
The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press), which I had never read despite a long and ardent admiration of Zweig, includes Burning Secret, about a boy and childish passion, which wrings the heart.