The handsome Picador reissue of her novel Annie John this year alongside so much of her backlist sent me back to read everything by Jamaica Kincaid. What a pleasure and what a writer – elegant, uncompromising, simultaneously direct and layered and complex. Kincaid is a thought traveller, a marvellous companion, a summoner of miraculous clarities. Since we’re talking clarity, Roopa Farooki’s Everything is True (Bloomsbury) is a chronicle of the first 40 days of quarantine – the essential first quaranta giorni – of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown, written both in the immediacy of the knowledge of the junior doctor she had recently become, and with the dispassion and inquiry of the writer she’s always been. This is such a tough good read about a time of grief, tragedy, loss and catastrophic UK government mismanagement – not over yet, she makes clear – that after you’ve read it, after you’ve withstood its clear-eyed anger, you emerge focused on what must change and knowing how lucky you are to have read it.
Two exceptional biographies stood out for me this year – one of a poet, the other, paradoxically, of a poem. Katherine Rundell’s remarkable Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber) manages, with scant biographical materials, to make the man almost palpably live and breathe. Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (Faber & Faber) examines, with amazing forensic diligence, the context and fraught composition of the most famous poem of the 20th century. The clarifying light in each case is exemplary. The celebrated “difficulty” of both men and their work was revealed as perhaps not so difficult at all.
Two books by two phenomenal young British women, both still under 25. Vee Kativhu, now a UN Young Leader advocating for girls’ education, rose to prominence when her YouTube videos about how to study went viral. She spreads the gospel of goal-setting, self-love and strategies for success in her inspiring debut, Empowered: Live Your Life with Passion and Purpose (Square Peg). Soma Sara is the founder of “Everyone’s Invited”, the anti-rape organisation that provides a platform for survivors of rape culture. Founded in 2020, it lifted the lid on sexual violence in schools, received widespread media coverage and prompted a government review. Her debut, Everyone’s Invited (Gallery UK) is an impressive series of essays around inequality.
I spent the early part of this year on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: hilarious, utterly infuriating, but increasingly addictive. Reading the drunken nightmare every day dislocates one’s sense of reality, and for me the political scene this year hasn’t been so different. Of all the political books coming out, I see three as comprising an essential trilogy of the recent British madness: Tim Bale’s forthcoming The Conservative Party After Brexit (Polity); Sebastian Payne’s The Fall of Boris Johnson (Macmillan); and Harry Cole and James Heale’s Out of the Blue (HarperCollins) on Liz Truss. Did it all really happen or was it a drunken dream? Finally, the work of fiction I’ve most enjoyed is Barbara Kingsolver’s 1980s Appalachian take on Dickens, Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber) – original and very moving.
Faith, Hope and Carnage (Canongate), Seán O’Hagan in conversation with Nick Cave, has to be the most compelling book of the year – raw pain and struggle thought through and explored with rare courage. And in a very different vein, Christopher de Hamel’s The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club (Allen Lane) is a beautifully produced and magnificently surprising journey through the history of how and why people have wanted to collect manuscripts. An impossibly recondite subject, you might think; but it turns out to have a lot to do with all sorts of things about how we make sense of our histories and cultures – and it introduces us to a gallery of unforgettable characters.
I don’t know when I’ve been as jolted and delighted by the ending of a novel as I recently was by the ending of Sugar Street (Corsair), a deft punch of a novel by Jonathan Dee, that had the phrase “an American Dostoevsky” running around in my head. Dee creates a true page-turner out of simple materials and the result is a troubling and stimulating look at real American life – at the fix that materialism plus the information state has got us into. It’s also very funny.
I loved Original Sins (Chatto & Windus), Matt Rowland Hill’s harrowing but excruciatingly funny account of escaping his strict Baptist upbringing only to get hooked on heroin in his twenties. It might sound like misery memoir but it has the vitality of an English comic novel: imagine Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels crossed with the diaries of Adrian Mole. I was also very taken by Benjamin Wood’s The Young Accomplice (Viking). Set in 1952, the novel is about two idealistic architects, a childless couple, who take in two borstal leavers with the dream of recreating Frank Lloyd Wright’s communal-living project in the Surrey countryside. It is tense and full of menace.
Born in St Petersburg in 1976 and now teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, the Russian poet Polina Barskova has devoted much of her work to recovering the human experience of the siege of Leningrad, when around a million people perished in the course of the German blockade of the city. Barskova’s work is revelatory and elegiac, often dealing with nearness to death. But it is also bursting with life, and in her first volume of prose, Living Pictures (Pushkin Press), translated by Catherine Ciepiela and introduced by Eugene Ostashevsky, she has produced a genre-busting collage of memories and fictions that stands out from everything I have read this year for its defiant energy and intense originality.
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In Dandelions (Fitzcarraldo), Thea Lenarduzzi has written a poetic family memoir that surpasses many in the genre: she unfolds her own and her forebears’ migrations to and fro, between the north of Italy and the north of England, against a complicated backdrop of war, politics and hardship. She explores double identities and mixed allegiances and includes passages of exceptional sensitivity, showing deep love, especially of her nonna, without sentimentality. Denise Riley’s voice in Lurex (Picador) – what a glittering title! – is wry, sceptical and melancholy, speaking in her ever-exciting linguistic medley of pastoral and street talk. And she goes to the heart of things, asking in one poem, “What hope is there of a purely secular grace?”
Katherine Rundell’s book Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber) is an enthralling study of the poet who declared at a friend’s wedding that marriage was but fornication sealed with an oath – and wrote some of the finest love poems in the language.
My favourite new novel of the year was James Cahill’s Tiepolo Blue (Sceptre). It is set in the Peterhouse of the 1990s, which I remember well as a graduate student and very young fellow. Wisely, the author does not attempt a straightforward roman-à-clef – although some characters (now deceased) are recognisable – but instead takes the characters and story in a new direction. His description of the liberation and simultaneous breakdown of his homosexual hero is compelling. This year I also finally got around to reading Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin (Sandstone Press), prompted by the ubiquity of the German TV series of the same name, which I haven’t seen. The plot, which revolves around tsarist gold, is for the birds but the evocation of Weimar Berlin, with elements of Alfred Döblin and Fritz Lang, combined with Robert Harris, is brilliant.
Ian McEwan has often teased his readers with his duality of source material and does so again in his fine new novel, Lessons (Jonathan Cape). The would-be writer Roland Baines’ life follows McEwan’s own, through the unfolding crises of the last 70 years. Or does it? Was the child McEwan ever in thrall to a seductive music teacher? Did he ever contemplate failure as a novelist? Surely, as a master of prose this good, that, at least, was never the case?
I love reading novelists writing about other novelists. The late Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier (Arrow Books, 2007) is a classic of this genre – erudite, sympathetic, unfussy and gripping. She is particularly good on Du Maurier’s on-off flirtations with the examination of her own life in her fiction.
Surprise of the year for me was the reissue of Emeric Pressburger’s novel The Glass Pearls (Faber & Faber). I knew him as a film-maker but this short, sharp novel was a revelation. It concerns a quiet, pleasant man in postwar London who is hiding his true identity and in constant fear that his past will catch up with him. Shades of Greene and Highsmith – yes, it’s that good. Wrong Place Wrong Time (Michael Joseph) by Gillian McAllister brings a murderous twist to the time-travel novel. A mother witnesses her loving son kill a complete stranger. Why? Every day she wakes up, and time has jumped back, allowing her to turn detective. A high-wire narrative act, but McAllister retains her balance perfectly throughout.
Dasani Coates was named for a brand of bottled water: a symbol of the consumer society to which her mother aspired, even though it excluded her. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott started documenting Coates’s life when Coates was 11 years old and living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. The project lasted nearly a decade, and the result, Invisible Child (Penguin), is both a moving portrait and a devastating critique of America’s enduring colour divide. My fellow judges and I longlisted it for this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. In the end we gave the award to Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite (Faber & Faber), her thrumming biography of John Donne, which brilliantly captures the poet’s curiosity about what lies beyond infinity, and his invention of a language to carry him there.
James Poskett’s Horizons: A Global History of Science (Viking) forces me to think outside my Eurocentric box and puts science at the centre of world history. Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel’s A Village in the Third Reich (Elliott & Thompson) uses a picture-book Heimat in the Bavarian Alps to tell the grisly saga of the Third Reich. Watching ordinary Germans face the banalities of extraordinary evil, one asks: “What would I have done?”
Alexander McCall Smith
There is a certain satisfaction in holding, and reading, a bulky tome. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World: A Family History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) requires strong wrists, but is well worth the physical effort. It is a most readable and fascinating history of humanity from the perspective of that most enduring of institutions: the family. There is pleasure and learning on every one of its 1,200 or so pages. Then came Edward Mendelson’s long-awaited The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems, Vol I, 1927-1939 (Princeton University Press). Mendelson’s erudite textual notes substantially enhance this definitive collection, making it a complete delight for all those who revere Auden’s work.
Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters (Penguin) by Steven Pinker, today’s leading champion of Enlightenment values, is a beautifully written manual on how to think straight and evaluate evidence. How is that necessary? A malignant contempt for reality assails us from right and left. A significant minority of Americans believes that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that Hillary Clinton runs a paedophile ring from the Comet Ping Pong pizza house. And a similar number on the left passionately and truculently deny the reality of biological sex. We need more rationality, more Pinker.
Frank Dikötter is a remarkable Dutch historian of China whose trilogy covering the lives of ordinary people under Mao is based on extraordinary, painstaking research in local archives and party records. It is astonishing how much priceless and fascinating information leaked from the provincial records of a totalitarian system. Now, with China After Mao (Bloomsbury), Dikötter has told the story of the years after Mao’s death in 1976 until the arrival of President Xi – a natural dictator to his fingertips who mimics the personality cult of the great (and murderous) helmsman. Dikötter, who writes with considerable verve, blasts several holes in the notion that a Marxist-Leninist system can ever bring real reform. The new dictator’s reign will not end well, any more than that of his hero. Poor China – a great civilisation suffering under Communist rule.
In The Real and the Romantic (Thames & Hudson), Frances Spalding describes, with the maximum of insight and minimum of fuss, the myriad ways English painters and sculptors responded to the challenge of making art in the aftermath of the First World War. She employs both major and minor names – from Paul Nash to Winifred Knights – to reveal the interwar years as a time of unexpected invention and stylistic fecundity.
Histories of Venice are legion, but Jonathan Keates’ elegant La Serenissima (Head of Zeus) is both richly informative and as dripping in images as the city itself.
For those who are natural contrarians, certain substantial writers such as Blaise Cendrars, Jorge Luis Borges or Vladimir Nabokov constantly stimulate and entertain (especially if they respect cats). My current literary hero, Giacomo Donis, a Venetian writing in English, having long renounced his US citizenship, has no living peer. An Abyss of Dreams (Shearsman), described as a “meta-memoir”, amiably proposes Plato as the father of modern totalitarianism. With a breathtaking mixture of Vian’s absurdism, Benjamin’s intellectualism and Iain Sinclair’s defiant eclecticism, two substantial novellas and commentaries confront Freud and pretty much every major thinker since Aristotle.
George Monbiot’s Regenesis (Allen Lane) is fascinating throughout, but I’d especially point readers – and aspiring writers – to the first chapter, a textbook case of how not to write a dry textbook. His story of soil is so alive, the anecdotes and evidence so well marshalled, that it will change your perception of the ground beneath your feet. Monbiot won the Orwell Prize, an award that could have equally gone to the surpassing American essayist Rebecca Solnit, for her Orwell’s Roses (Granta), a good reminder that looking for new angles to old stories can be remarkably profitable for writer and reader.
Justin Webb’s beautifully written memoir, The Gift of a Radio (Doubleday), reminds us that difficult childhoods have little to do with financial deprivation. As a child with a famous father he’d never met, a stepfather with seriously poor mental health and a mother who’d been badly affected by the worst of 1950s social prejudice, he rightly observes that “coping is an under-praised virtue”.
An acclaimed Northern Irish short-story writer, Louise Kennedy has published her first novel. Trespasses (Bloomsbury), about life and love in 1970s Belfast, is a book that I devoured quickly but which stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
My book of the year first appeared almost 90 years ago. But, shamefully, Anton de Kom’s We Slaves of Suriname had never appeared in English until the 2022 Polity edition, translated from Dutch by David McKay, with front matter by Judith de Kom, Tessa Leuwsha, Duco van Oostrum and Mitchell Esajas. The book is an astounding work of lyrical fury, a history of the bestial depredations of Dutch colonialism, and slavery’s aftermath, the so-called liberation, and all the racist oppression with which it has been structured. De Kom is a towering radical and anticolonial figure, and this book a painful masterpiece.
I’ve enjoyed the writer and curator Stephen Ellcock’s dazzling Instagram gallery for a few years now. His previous collections of images, The Book of Change and All Good Things, were wonderful, but England on Fire: A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape (Watkins) is his most extraordinary production yet. Along with the writer and musician Mat Osman he has created a phantasmagorical national dreamscape full of strange insights and juxtapositions and bristling with dark magic. I also loved Fergus the Silent (YouCaxton) by the naturalist and journalist Michael McCarthy, a pacy environmental thriller that earns its 450-odd pages by being so much fun to read.
The book that gave me the most reading pleasure this year was The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer (Canongate). Some reviewers complained that it is digressive, occasionally puerile, and overly concerned with the minutiae of Dyer’s life. To which I say, yes, it’s a Geoff Dyer book! You may as well complain about all the rich people in F Scott Fitzgerald. Neither did critics pick up on what I take to be its underlying theme: whether one can live a serious life without taking life too seriously. I loved it. Nietzsche, Beethoven, Eve Babitz, Jean Rhys and JMW Turner, and all of them talking to one another. Even Roger Federer gets a mention. Plus we get to learn about Dyer’s obsession with collecting shampoo from fancy hotels. What better company for the end of days?
Frank Dikötter’s China After Mao (Bloomsbury) covers the critical period of China’s opening and reform, followed by Xi Jinping’s growing authoritarianism. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what has shaped today’s China and what the Chinese Communist Party’s choices mean for the rest of the world. In Surveillance State (St Martin’s Press), Josh Chin and Liza Lin, two experienced Wall Street Journal reporters, explain how digital technology is being bent to the challenge faced by every Chinese ruler in history: how to manage China’s large population over time. From the first experiments in digital control in Xinjiang to the comprehensive penetration enabled by Covid, China’s digital panopticon represents a sobering warning to citizens everywhere.
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Jeremy Bowen’s The Making of the Modern Middle East (Picador) is a clear and dispassionate account of the impact of oil, nationalism and the West on the Middle East. I left the book feeling both well informed and very depressed. Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels (John Murray), about the German Romantic writers such as Schiller, the Schlegel brothers, Goethe, Caroline Böhmer and many others in Jena at the turn of the 19th century, was a pure joy to read. A seemingly more innocent and optimistic age than ours, despite the Napoleonic wars, autocratic governments and terrible child mortality.
Richard Lloyd Parry
Haruki Murakami’s fertile subconscious has produced a unique body of fiction, but an excess of the dreamlike and fantastical has overwhelmed and capsized his recent novels. For me, some of his best books are non-fiction: Underground (Vintage), about the Tokyo sarin gas attack, and this year’s Novelist as a Vocation (Harvill Secker), a book of essays about his life, writing method and the wellsprings of his extravagant imagination.
Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping (Westland) by François Bougon and the more up to date Xi: A Study in Power (Icon) by Kerry Brown are the liveliest and most accessible biographies of the Chinese leader, a man whose character and decisions are shaping all our futures.
The Trees (Influx Press) by Percival Everett, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is a deeply political, blackly hilarious, page-turning, comic horror/crime novel which I roared through. His gift for punchy and often hilarious dialogue is unsurpassed.
This was also the year when I discovered Tongues (No Miracles) by Anders Nilsen, one of the best comics I’ve ever read, a tangle of fantastical stories which snake outward through time and space from the seed of the Prometheus myth. Five chapters have been published so far (getting them in the post makes me feel like an excited 14-year-old) and they are all objects of beauty. There are whispers of a single volume book version but I recommend getting the separate volumes so you can enjoy the paper flaps and the cover art and free stickers.
I loved two books from small press Les Fugitives. Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound (translated by Jessica Moore) propels us through a fevered journey on the Trans-Siberian Express. Shumona Sinha’s brutal Down with the Poor! (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) breaks open a colonised brown mind negotiating its place between the black and Asian refugees and white do-gooders of contemporary France. In poetry Sandeep Parmar’s Faust (Shearsman) offers a profound exploration of Partition trauma and womanhood. Parmar’s work also sits alongside over 100 Indian-origin poets of the 20th and 21st century in the essential new Penguin Book of Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil.
In Value(s) (HarperCollins), the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney draws on his immense experience to identify where economics and society went wrong as “belief in the power of the market enter[ed] the realm of faith”. The last few months should serve as the epitaph for this market fundamentalism. The pandemic, Carney argues, should point us towards different values that a strong economy and society need: not just economic dynamism and efficiency (though these have been lacking), but also solidarity, fairness, responsibility and compassion. This summer, I revisited Joan Robinson’s 1933 classic The Economics of Imperfect Competition (Macmillan), in which she first theorised monopsony, and presented the strongest economic argument for a minimum wage. Ninety years on, it remains essential.
Allegra Hyde’s novel Eleutheria (Vintage) is about utopianism on a dying planet. In an absorbing narrative, advanced with memorable characters and scenes, Hyde thinks about the foibles of activists and even the perversity of hope, but never consigns it to the dustbin – as our ancestors were tempted to do so often in the 20th century. We will need that kind of subtlety as our ecological and other crises mount.
Martin Loughlin’s Against Constitutionalism (Harvard University press) brilliantly targets the principal legal dogma of the past 40 years: that well-ordered societies need elite protection from democracy, not least for the sake of rights. It isn’t, Loughlin contends, just that the juristocratic turn has elicited popular backlash while harmonising with economic liberalism. It has increasingly undone self-government.
You would probably dismiss Julia Chapman’s new novel Date with Betrayal (Pan) if you saw it in a bookshop: its design is “cosy”; it will be seen as women’s fiction (a stupid category) and dismissed as lightweight. Pish to all that. Chapman writes a charming series (this is the seventh instalment) set in the Yorkshire Dales: her heroes – a troubled ex-cop named Samson, a local lass called Delilah who runs a dating agency – are easy to like, her local characters richly drawn (my favourite is the farmer who calms himself by reciting tractor facts). Maybe I love this series because Delilah is a Yorkshire fell runner, as am I. But also because the books are written with care and affection, and we all need more of those.
Hannah Rose Woods
I don’t know why the 18th century doesn’t have a higher profile in British history. It’s often skipped over in school curricula, or conveyed in period dramas as an age of stately pleasure-taking, rather than febrile energy. Penelope J Corfield’s The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain (Yale University Press) is the guide I wish I’d had as an undergraduate – a sprawling survey of the (very) long 18th century in all its contradictions. Lucy Lethbridge’s Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves (Bloomsbury) is the kind of book I want to read in company, to have an audience for anecdotes. A touching, and frequently very funny, account of Brits venturing outside their comfort zones.
A Blue New Deal (Yale University Press)by Chris Armstrong is an important and timely contribution to a debate that should concern all of us much more than it does at present: how should we govern and protect our oceans? Everyone knows about the appalling extent to which we have polluted our seas with plastic, but there are other equally important problems that demand our attention, many of them consequences of the climate crisis, such as sea-level rise and acidification. In this deeply researched and well-written book, Armstrong draws attention to the urgency of these problems and proposes a political framework for dealing with them. The book should be read by anyone who cares about the planet and what we are doing to it.
In Act of Oblivion (Hutchinson Heinemann), Robert Harris brings us the story of the hunting down of the regicides – the men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I. When his son came back about ten years later, he forgave everyone, save those that had signed that document. The principal action takes place in the US, and Harris exercises his great skill in weaving the plot in the raw New World. Harris captures the Presbyterian core of this English settlement and provides a lavish character list and intricate storytelling. Above all though, the book excels in its stunning recreation of the landscape of America at that time. Harris proves himself to be masterful at this and it gives the book a vibrant memorability.
I have chosen two northern poets with very different attitudes to the lyric. Helen Mort’s The Illustrated Woman (Chatto & Windus) celebrates the female body, and the birth of her son, Alfie, that “prone angel on my chest”. Her deft poetry mesmerises as it troubles. Sandeep Parmar’s ingenious collection Faust (Shearsman) has Faust as a roaming migrant, in poetry that repeatedly ruptures from within to bare itself as essay, diary and memoir. Parmar’s prescience makes us consider our relationship to nationhood, environment and hope: “I signed a contract in my blood to strive.”
I was fascinated by The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age (Allen Lane) by Anand Giridharadas – which changed my view on the way we can (or can’t) change people’s minds. I mourn the loss of Hilary Mantel: The Wolf Hall Picture Book (Fourth Estate), created with Ben and George Miles, brings Mantel’s Cromwell eerily into the present day. And spring for the audiobook of Paddy Crewe’s galloping gold-rush yarn, My Name Is Yip (Doubleday); Sean Bridgers’ reading is absolutely perfect.
No novel published this year gave me more pleasure than Tessa Hadley’s Free Love (Jonathan Cape). As always in Hadley’s work, her bit of the world is so thoroughly substantiated that we are able to live in it. “It” in this case being both the late-Sixties suburbia from which housewife Phyllis flees, and the countercultural Ladbroke Grove in which she finds herself (in multiple senses). She and Hadley are following in the footsteps of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – what will be the consequences?
I tore through Vladimir (Picador), Julia May Jonas’s amazingly assured debut about a fifty-something female literary academic at a prestigious US college. She is dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s suspension for having a string of long-ago, apparently consensual, affairs with students. The novel combines its more obvious political themes – less #MeToo than the way in which many younger women now call out the sexual experimentation of a previous generation – with the compelling story of an older woman facing up to her perceived lack of desirability and professional success. Jonas parcels it up in a noirish plot but it’s the shrewd, bleak, brutally honest voice of the female protagonist that captures and holds our interest.
In Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves (Apollo), first published last year but now available in paperback, Ireland’s outstanding journalist examines the unhappy history of Ireland since 1958 through his own life and attitudes. It is a wretched tale made palatable by his humanity and engaging style – and by the fact that much has worked out well for Ireland in the end.
With the government’s migration policy in such appalling disarray, Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century (Allen Lane) has to be the most timely book of the year. Vince’s calm, compassionate and authoritative explanation of the inevitability of migration is essential reading. She explains how migration has always been a part of the human story; how it gives an opportunity for us to help mitigate the consequences of climate change for those who have shouldered the biggest burden; and how humanity can and will benefit from the shifting and mixing of peoples that must happen in the coming decades. There should be a copy on every desk in Whitehall.
I have a memory of my quietly republican grandmother crying in 1971. Martha Doherty, a 19-year-old Catholic girl engaged to be married to a British soldier, had just been tarred, feathered and tied to a post in Derry. Louise Kennedy’s brilliant Trespasses (Bloomsbury) sent me straight back to that moment. A love story set in Belfast during the Troubles, the plot – an affair between Cushla, a Catholic, and an older, married, Protestant lawyer – is nothing special. We know that civil wars are made up of thousands of small tragedies. But I know few novels that convey the grim predictability of everyday violence during that period so well. Kennedy’s careful attention is a welcome counter to Brexit’s careless disregard of lives and loves lost.
The book that made the greatest impression on me this year was Never (Pan), by Ken Follett. Follett spends too much time discussing what people wear, but otherwise this bravura work of naturalist fiction has a terrible urgency. The author’s thesis is that the next war, like the First World War, will be one nobody wants but becomes inevitable. The pacing is impeccable, the characters are engaging, and the conclusion is terrifying, especially in light of the current nuclear sabre rattling. Never is both cautionary and compulsively readable.
The book that made the greatest impression on me is George Monbiot’s Regenesis (Allen Lane). I judge this the most penetrating inquiry into the impacts of farming yet written. What is easily overlooked, amid all the devastating environmental politics, is the Orwellian quality of his prose, his ability to be downright funny and his delicious satire of the pastoral tradition.
In An Immense World (Bodley Head), Ed Yong trawls the latest science to offer a synoptic panorama over the sensory experiences as enjoyed by creatures as diverse as army ants and humpback whales. It is overstuffed with remarkable nature stories, but manages to be both a celebration of our species’ genius for observation while also revealing how narrow and partial is our “sense” of things. Yong reveals how life is much greater than we can imagine.
I thought I knew John Donne until I read Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber), which had me thinking again about this morally flawed, genuinely revolutionary poet. It is rare for a biographer to rise to the level of their subject, but Rundell combines meticulous scholarship with flashes of wit and irony that the man himself would surely have appreciated.
In fiction, nothing drew me in as conclusively as Free Love by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape), who is surely one of our most astute and deft observers of everyday lives; never has a title seemed so ironic, or so poignant.
We’re familiar with the sexual and intellectual musical chairs of the Lake Poets and the Bloomsbury lot; in Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (John Murray) by Andrea Wulf we encounter their German forerunner. Wulf’s rebels are the “Jena set” of the 1790s. Caroline Böhmer is the female disrupter, Goethe is the giant dominating the lesser intellects, and the philosopher Schelling presaged environmentalism. All were inspired by the French Revolution and idealised Napoleon. This is a clever, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining book.
As one whose first language was Norwegian but who writes in English, I am fascinated by translations. Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf (Scribe) is practically a rap – it’s awesome how strictly she follows the structure and rules while escalating the giddy gallop into a crescendo of overwhelming terror of the destructive marauder. Beowulf’s anonymous author, preceding Jena’s rebels by 1,000 years, identifies the eternal problem: is mankind really too stupid to change?
Some books seem to spring from a whole lifetime and Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History (Picador) is one of those special creations. It is a very personal history of France, from Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls to the rise of Emmanuel Macron, interweaving an astonishing range of erudition with a feel for the land accumulated over decades of exploration by bicycle. The combination could be messy but Robb’s sparkling prose, sly wit and intellectual exuberance make for a gorgeous tapestry of insights, stories and surprises.
Colm Tóibín’s essay collection A Guest at the Feast (Viking) has something of the same sense of slowly amassed riches, drawing on an apparently photographic memory of childhood, a journalist’s precision of detail and a great novelist’s ability to transmute experience into gripping narrative.
Heritage Aesthetics (Granta) by Anthony Anaxagorou, Another Way to Split Water (Polygon) by Alycia Pirmohamed and Emblem (Prototype) by Lucy Mercer each very differently but unforgettably interrogate power and language in relation to nationhood, empire, intimacy and climate disaster. Nomenclature (Penguin) by Dionne Brand reminded me, yet again, of what I owe as a poet to the intellectual courage of her work and its expansiveness. London Nation (New River Press) by the late poet-psychogeographer Niall McDevitt makes for a prophetically anti-nationalist rereading of literary history. Seventeenth-century masques alive with corrupt sovereigns and politicians map a through-line to our more familiar contemporary villains.
In 2019 a former prisoner called Usman Khan stabbed two people to death at Fishmongers’ Hall in London. The novelist Preti Taneja taught creative writing to Khan in prison, and her memoir Aftermath (And Other Stories) – in which she reflects on the trauma of the attacks and the systemic failures that enabled them – is simply one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. Raw, brutal and yet thoroughly distrustful of easy narratives, Aftermath is an excoriating, and often self- excoriating, survey of the prison system, British society at large, the coded cruelty of institutionalised language and the inadequacy of art as a response to violence.
Kit de Waal
Write It All Down (Bluebird) by Cathy Rentzenbrink is much more than a writing how-to; it’s more a nudge from a friend, encouraging you to “Have a go, you know you want to, you really can and I will help you.” We don’t know where to start, we don’t know what other people will say, we don’t know how to make a narrative out of so many disparate events but this book shows us how – with tips, tricks, prompts. But beyond that, it’s a kind book from a good and knowing soul, part philosophy, part reflection, part instruction. No, it’s not a novel, but you could sit down, read it in one and come away wiser.
In A Horse at Night: On Writing (Daunt), Amina Cain lays down the keys to her literary kingdom very quietly. I was a big fan of her novel Indelicacy, so it was particularly appealing to read a non-fiction book that lists all her influences and what she extracted from them. And all done in a way that is simultaneously engrossing and somehow relaxing. Manifesto (Penguin) is an amazing and revealing book by and about the Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. It documents setbacks, heartbreaks, ambition and resolve. It gives insight into the idea of remaining ceaselessly positive regardless of the situations that may confront you. Part memoir, part rallying cry – it is the book that every young black writer should read.
For me, Lawrence Freedman’s book Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine (Allen Lane) is comfortably the book of the year. It is a reminder of the human factor as a central component of the so-called correlations of forces in war.
Invisible Child (Penguin), by Andrea Elliott, is a moving, rigorous and unflinching depiction of a poor family struggling to stay together in New York City against the multiple challenges of poverty, drug addiction and bureaucratic indifference. Her masterful storytelling centres on Dasani, the eldest daughter, who is best positioned to break the cycle.
The Shadow King (Canongate) by Maaza Mengiste is a delicate exploration of belonging, marginalisation and resistance set on top of the fault lines of class and gender during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The recently orphaned heroine, Hirut, defies the subordinate role women have been assigned to devise an ingenious plan to raise morale in the villages and confound the occupier.
The past, as LP Hartley observed, is a foreign country, and never has even the recent past seemed so foreign as it does in Matthew Engel’s The Reign (Atlantic), fortuitously published just after Elizabeth II’s death. Did you know that, until 1970, we were all (in theory) required by law to attend church on Sundays? Or that in the 1950s British aircraft fell from the skies so often that fatalities were nearly as many as in the next six decades combined? Engel’s masterly portrait of the first 25 years of the Queen’s reign – a second volume will follow – is consistently entertaining, frequently surprising and sometimes provocative.
Desire, art and politics lead the dance in After Sappho (Galley Beggar Press) by Selby Wynn Schwartz; a mesmerising, uplifting and most inspiring novel. It’s a great literary achievement. As we tangle across time with the dazzling female artists who are its reimagined historical subjects (from Sappho to Virginia Woolf), we understand that we are connected in our transhistoric longings to live more audaciously, more fully, closer to ourselves. Here, Schwartz, like our Nobel laureate, Annie Ernaux, makes the clever decision to have her first-person narrator speak as “we”: “The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho. Who was Sappho? No one knew, but she had an island.”
James Bridle is an artist who is fascinated by technology – creating a homemade self-driving car to understand how AIs “think”, for example – and I loved their book, Ways of Being (Allen Lane), which looks at artificial and animal intelligence, and how those challenge our assumptions about the world. Come for the slime mould replicating the Tokyo subway system, stay for the non-binary computer that used water to model the British economy.
For both form and content, it’s hard to beat Jeremy Lee’s Cooking (Fourth Estate), with its Kelly-green jacket and exquisite illustrations. Lee is a born enthusiast and experimenter, and even a non-cook like me will feel compelled into the kitchen by his delicious propositions for walnuts, wild garlic or “shiny darlings from the deep”. I also loved Living Rooms (Peninsula Press) by Sam Johnson-Schlee, a deep dive into what our interiors are really saying about us, inflected by Marx and Freud. Who knew the humble sofa contained so many layers of meaning?
Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (Bodley Head) is a dark, riveting book. Her method is what gives the book its intensity: nothing much about politics and little about the intricacies of anti-British insurgency; she concentrates instead on the savagery on the British side. All written in a tone of contained and footnoted fury. The best piece of fiction I read this year was Arinze Ifeakandu’s God’s Children Are Little Broken Things (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). The stories, set mainly in Nigeria, are created with astonishing levels of nuance and complexity – offering a glimpse of gay life in Lagos – and refuse to allow the protagonists’ lives to be dominated by easy versions of repression.
Around the turn of the 19th century a cluster of thinkers, writers and scientists formed in the small German university town of Jena and laid the foundations of the modern world. It is a bold thesis. But Andrea Wulf asserts it convincingly in Magnificent Rebels (John Murray), an utterly absorbing account ranging from high philosophical theory to mischievously profane stories of ideas, love and ambition in Napoleonic Europe. Through an interwoven series of portraits Wulf shows how Enlightenment rationalism evolved into Romanticism, and thus produced the Western sense of self that defines much about our lives to this day.
Kalpesh Lathigra’s Memoire Temporelle explores identity and belonging through the photographer’s experience as a British man with Indian heritage and his visits to his parents’ hometown of Bombay. The book, available from kalpeshlathigra.com, includes extracts of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore and brings together “emotional resonances” from “memories that may or may not have happened, long since past”. On the same theme but with a very different feel, I also loved Alys Tomlinson’s Gli Isolani (The Islanders), published by Gost. Tomlinson spent two years exploring tradition and identity in Italy, inspired by paganism and folklore. Her book documents the inhabitants of the islands of the Venetian lagoon, Sicily and Sardinia and their continued use of costumes and masks in festivals and celebrations.
In new editions of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (NYRB Classics), what is striking is his unique historical position between feudalism and modernity – and a humane ambivalence that unifies his reactionary and progressive sides. The latest volume, out in September, takes the narrative up to 1815. Roberto Bolaño’s fictive literary encyclopedia, Nazi Literature in the Americas (Picador), is not new but I found the experience of reading it this year to be rousing. Not just another clever, formally exciting testimony to Bolaño’s total devotion to literature, it’s also an illustration of a novel way to describe politics (in this case, the far-right) in literature – an approach that has lately been attracting imitators.
I loved Amina Cain’s tender and intimate A Horse at Night (Daunt) – a book that is as much about reading as about writing. For Cain, books are characters, friends, provocateurs, and reading a mental landscape through which she moves with a meandering, associative intent.
Swinging from the pleasures of a book that settles you into a cosy armchair to a novel that pins you to a bed of nails, I admired the economy and precision of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (Granta): a brilliantly observed and uncompromisingly brutal novel that coolly dissects a strained mother-daughter relationship and has you wincing with dreadful recognition.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration predicts as many as 1.5 billion environmental migrants by 2050, with many fleeing drought, flood and wildfire. The coming together of two hot-button issues – the climate crisis and migration – is the basis for Nomad Century (Allen Lane) by Gaia Vince, an essential book on how humanity must adapt as the planet warms and some regions become uninhabitable. The question, she says, is whether the transition will be managed calmly or whether “hunger and conflict will erupt – an unconscionable outcome that would endanger us all”.
I loved Amy-Jane Beer’s The Flow (Bloomsbury). It is clear to me that the climate crisis is essentially a freshwater crisis and the stories of water will shape the future of humanity. Beer’s moving book is about water and landscapes as well as friendship, memory, loss and resilience. It is full of quiet wisdom and passion, and shows us what words can do when the personal and the ecological are blended organically.
Just when I thought there was nothing to compare to Karl Schlögel in the special German art of historical mediations on Russia, the old magician Alexander Kluge has released Russia Container (Seagull Books) into the literary supply chain: an intoxicating feat of imagination that resurrects multiple lost Russias before the reader’s eyes. I’ve enjoyed making my way through Owen Hatherley’s Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer (Particular Books), the latest instalment in one of the most extraordinary oeuvres in writing about space and form, and a welcome antidote to the pre-industrial phantasmagoria of the new monarch.
In The Nutmeg’s Curse (John Murray), Amitav Ghosh uses the spice trade to illustrate the stupidity and wilful destruction wrought by the colonial powers on indigenous communities and nature. He argues that the West’s mechanistic view of the Earth has led to the climate crisis, and that only by changing attitudes and reengaging with nature can the crisis be managed.
The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has said that she dreams of sending planes full of migrants to Rwanda. But policymakers are in denial about the number of people who will be forced to move as the impacts of climate change become more profound, argues the scientist Gaia Vince in Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval (Allen Lane). She calls for us all to step up and manage migration humanely.
Anirudh Kanisetti’s Lords of the Deccan (Juggernaut) breathes life into the rajas, scholars and soldiers of two nearly forgotten mediaeval dynasties, and resurrects the extraordinary world of early mediaeval south India with flare, nuance, clarity and sophistication. Kanisetti is a superb writer and a talented story-teller as well as an impressively judicious and subtle historian.
Everything the Light Touches (Borough Press) by Janice Pariat is a gorgeous novel about four characters on four different journeys, each in a different time, but linked by their passion for botany and the diverse ways they try to understand the natural world. It is warm, tender, precise, full of charm and humour, but also hugely ambitious and lit by wonderful flashes of gorgeous prose. It announces the arrival of a major new talent in Indian fiction.
I loved Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker (Fourth Estate) – the story of a boy who finds his lazy eye allows him to see time collapsed, and stand in the presence of eternity – for its joyful intelligent strangeness, as well as the vivid pleasure of the plot. After her tragically early death, I’ve been rereading all Hilary Mantel’s books, especially my favourite parts of A Place of Greater Safety and Beyond Black (Fourth Estate). She was, I think, the boldest and greatest of all living writers in English. Her work burned with originality, and with such generosity. There is nobody like her, now.
Explore our other 2022 book round-ups:
The best children’s books of 2022
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in