The Wren, The Wren (Jonathan Cape) is Anne Enright at her lyrical, storytelling best. A portrait of a family living with the legacy, years after his death, of the abuse and neglect of their patriarch – a famous Irish poet who enjoys the adulation and indulgence that Ireland, to its credit, heaps upon its literary heroes. It’s a story of relationships, trauma, self-discovery and the healing powers of art and nature. I also loved In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan (Simon & Schuster). She uses AI to reinvent the classic police procedural and produce an innovative – as well as gripping – crime novel.
The best novel I read this year was published in Denmark over the years 1898-1904, but only made it into English in 2010. Lucky Per by Henrik Pontoppidan (Everyman), a grand, clever, wrong-footing book, begins with an ambitious young provincial escaping his punitive religious background; reaching Copenhagen, he aims for luck and happiness, but mainly fame, via an innovative piece of maritime engineering (including a freeport), which – if it works – will bring sleepy Denmark into the modern age. Ibsen and Bergman might come to the reader’s mind as Per’s quest unfolds. Pontoppidan won the Nobel in 1917; another who should have had it by now is the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare. His latest, A Dictator Calls (Harvill Secker), turns on a three-minute phone call in 1934 between Stalin and Boris Pasternak. Thirteen different versions of the exchange exist: rich material for this ever-intriguing writer.
Paul Johnson’s Follow the Money (Abacus) is essential pre-election reading for fiscal-policy watchers. Johnson brings to bear his immense experience and knowledge of the workings of British fiscal policy to examine the dilemmas that face any government. Let’s hope he gets the chance to hold a Labour government to account very soon.
Ed Conway’s Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future (WH Allen) uses a much wider lens. Conway takes us from Mount Tenabo in Nevada’s Cortez Mountains to Galician quartz mines and Taiwanese semiconductor factories, revealing the huge complexity, and perilous fragility, of international supply chains. A vivid guide to the “material world” on which we all, often unconsciously, rely – and essential background reading to understand securonomics.
[See also: The everyday economists guiding Rachel Reeves]
I loved Lawrence Osborne’s short story collection, Burning Angel and Other Stories (Hogarth). Graham Greene praised Patricia Highsmith as “the poet of apprehension”, and there is something of Highsmith in Osborne’s vision of the treacherous uncertainty of human fortunes, but he has a cooler eye. “Ghost”, a tale of the unreadability of life in Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover, is one of the most unsettling pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
I have a vivid memory of Stevie Smith at an event in Oxford not long before she died in 1971. A slight, alert figure, she delivered her sometimes bleak poems with what seemed like a suppressed smile. Her Collected Poems and Drawings (Faber & Faber) is a treasure trove. “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” is a meditation on how we are distracted from our best moments by an avatar of the visitor who interrupted Coleridge when he was writing verse. Smith’s unwanted visitor was herself, and her poem seems to me a finer evocation of wasted days than Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.
Red Memory by Tania Branigan (Faber & Faber) uses China’s Cultural Revolution as a timely template for an accessible exploration of what societies choose to remember, how they choose to remember it, what they decide to forget and why it is important. Beautifully written and sensitively reported. I don’t know how I missed The War After by Anne Karpf (Faber & Faber) when it came out almost three decades ago. I’m just glad I found it and it found me. It decodes and interrogates the generational trauma in the Jewish community unleashed by the Holocaust with searing honesty and intellectual rigour.
Mary Morrissy’s novel Penelope Unbound (Banshee Press) is a gloriously imagined alternative history for Nora Barnacle, who in Morrissy’s version gives up on James Joyce at the railway station where he left her in Trieste and goes off on a frolic of her own. Ingenious, entertaining and strangely moving.
In Carlo Rovelli’s White Holes (Allen Lane), the quantum physicist posits the mind-numbing notion that when they get very, very old, black holes – which result when stars collapse on themselves by force of gravity – turn into, well, white holes. Rovelli writes with equal gaiety and clarity. A splendid book.
[See also: The Booker Prize is becoming irrelevant]
The best translation of a work of ancient literature that I read this year was Stephanie McCarter’s marvellous new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in fresh, readable, vivid iambic pentameter (Penguin Classics). McCarter captures Ovid’s wit and cleverness, making us laugh at the escapades of abusive, lust-crazed, arrogant gods and hapless, also lust-crazed and arrogant mortals. But she also brilliantly evokes Ovid’s more serious sides, including his attentiveness to power and the magical vivacity of the natural world. Her wonderful handling of metrical poetic form is a fitting match for Ovid’s artful, fluent Latin verse. Also, I generally have limited patience for adaptations and retellings of earlier works of literature, but I adored Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber), Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant reframing of David Copperfield with an Appalachian setting – a heartbreaking vision of rural poverty, child abuse and the ravages of the opioid crisis.
[All the books recommended by our contributors are available on bookshop.org. Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops]
I, Julian by Claire Gilbert (Hodder & Stoughton) is a fictional autobiography of Julian of Norwich, whose 14th-century Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in English known to have been written by a woman. Julian was an anchorite, living bricked up in a small room attached to a church. Her story, as told by Gilbert, is one of resilience, compassion and spiritual awakening. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Penguin) reminds us, distressingly but also hilariously, of the battle women had in the 1960s to be recognised for their talents, not just their gender. The heroine, Elizabeth Zott, is one of literature’s great creations. Clever, feisty and a great cook!
I read two books this year that were impressive and enjoyable: both qualities equally important to me – as what is the point of being impressed if you don’t enjoy yourself? One was a historical novel by Jesse Norman, The Winding Stair (Biteback). The story of Francis Bacon, it fairly whizzed along and left me feeling happy but as though I had rushed up and down many Tudor and Stuart staircases in my turn.
The other was Normal Women: 900 Years of Making History (William Collins), a composite study by Philippa Gregory. Here, the author uses all her bestseller skills to weave some kind of narrative and once again a splendid pace was maintained. With both these stout, well-written books to hand, you could escape any family Christmas for an hour or two daily, going back in time and being utterly engrossed.
[See also: AS Byatt’s hard truths]
Books about creativity usually leave me cold. Not so Deliver Me from Nowhere (Random House), Warren Zanes’ insider analysis of how Bruce Springsteen created the 1982 album Nebraska. It’s a quietly inspiring book that nudges the reader towards a subtler understanding of how artists access their deepest talent. While never overreaching itself, the book is only incidentally about music-making: it’s for everyone.
Two Cheers for Democracy is a selection of EM Forster essays (many originally printed in the New Statesman) from the 1930s and 1940s, published by the reliably brilliant Persephone Books. In them Forster is conversational, concise and strikingly modern – and his apparent diffidence shields an elevated kind of confidence, assured of his ability to handle profound concepts with the lightest touch.
As chair of the Forward poetry prizes this year for best book and best debut – won by Jason Allen-Paisant and Momtaza Mehri respectively – I’m recommending some of the other stunning collections that made the shortlists out of 230 submissions: the innovative Cane, Corn & Gully by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa (Out-Spoken Press), which incorporates Bajan dialect with dance notation; My Name Is Abilene by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (Salt), a visceral and violent woman’s drama set in the Fens; Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber), an exquisite balancing of family expectations and queerness, migration and pandemics; Cowboy by Kandace Siobhan Walker (Cheerio), which explores a neurodiverse point of view that is fresh, quirkily imagistic and uber-millennial. These collections are testament to the fact that poetry in the 21st century is flourishing.
Two very different books, linked only by their brilliantly lucid prose. I have slowly been working my way through the Lucy Barton novels of Elizabeth Strout. In her latest, Lucy by the Sea (Viking), set during the pandemic, Strout has perfected an almost deliberately artless style to create a world – of illness, family complication, maternal anxiety – and characters that linger in the imagination long after; she’s a kind of Gertrude Stein for America in Trumpian times. In Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? (Allen Lane), Chandler both explains and reinterprets the philosophy of the great liberal thinker John Rawls, offering fresh approaches to everything from spiralling poverty to entrenched educational inequality to the so-called culture wars.
As chair of the Baillie Gifford’s 25th anniversary winner of winners award, I was required to read 24 storied works of non-fiction – no real hardship, then. Among the highlights was Wade Davis’s enthralling Into the Silence (Vintage), the epic story of the quest to conquer Mount Everest. The hero is George Mallory, who went on all three of those early expeditions, but it is also a book about the end of empire and the “mystical patriotism” of a generation of men who had witnessed first-hand the horrors of the First World War and for whom the Everest project became a redemptive mission. Of books published this year, I admired the honesty, integrity and intellectual seriousness of Robert D Kaplan’s The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power (Yale University Press).
[See also: Bill Gates is bad for humanity]
I would wholeheartedly recommend Decolonising My Body by Afua Hirsch (Square Peg). It is a very brave and honest exploration, almost an excavation, of mainstream Eurocentric standards of beauty and perceptions of body, particularly of the female body. It is also a calm and wise call for an awakening, a friendly – or sisterly – invitation to a transformative journey beyond all these mental walls that have been erected around and between us by capitalism and patriarchy and colonialism. I found it both universal and timely.
I read Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber) when it first came out in 2002, but this year I felt the need to revisit this essay collection, as I love Kingsolver’s literary voice and wisdom and profoundly thoughtful and graceful approach to life – from the biggest questions to the seemingly small things. She herself is a wonder.
The most involving new novel I read this year was This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack (Canongate). He has an uncanny gift for presenting a vivid realist depiction of the contemporary west of Ireland but layering it through with unexpected genre notes – there are elements of noir, dystopia, existential mystery. Built on lines of perfectly cadenced dialogue, the book is easily on a par with its feted predecessor, Solar Bones.
From the vaults I took out The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (Vintage), a 1,000-page study of the killer Gary Gilmore in 1970s Utah and his tender, space-cadet girlfriend Nicole Barrett – their voices are among the most memorable in 20th-century American literature, and this is by far the best thing Mailer ever wrote.
Eugene Vodolazkin’s brilliant, funny, harrowing novel about medieval Russia, Laurus, appeared in English translation nine years ago. His latest, A History of the Island (Plough Publishing House), translated by Lisa C Hayden, is an extended historical fantasy, a very Russian magic realist fable, about the tragicomedy of political history, the absurdities and fictions that justify a whole variety of social horrors. It has the same surreal wit as Laurus and the same moral and spiritual edge. It’s a rare combination, but you’ll also find it in Shane McCrae’s Pulling the Chariot of the Sun (Canongate), a memoir of how McCrae, a much respected American poet and critic, was abducted as a child by his white supremacist grandparents so that he would never have contact with his African-American father. The surrealism is in the events, not just the writing; but the writing is extraordinary, a recreation of childhood trauma – and the trauma of never being free as a child to name it as trauma in the feverish pseudo-normality of this incredible and shocking situation. It’s about race, class, imagination – and skateboarding – and is packed with passion and energy.
[See also: Social media’s brand problem]
Kit de Waal
How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair (Fourth Estate) is a memoir about growing up in a strict Rastafarian household. It’s a fascinating insight into a little-understood belief system, but Sinclair’s account is more about the triumph of her spirit over fundamentalism and the power of writing and poetry to heal and transform. My second choice is So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan (Faber & Faber), the magician, the genius. I’d really like to ask her how she manages to get a couple of novels’ worth of story into about 20,000 words. It’s brilliant, it’s wise, it’s a horrible read if you’re a writer. She’s too good.
London Country by John King (London Books) has received little critical attention but it is by far the most original and ambitious work that I have read this year. King’s characters are white, working class, pro-Brexit, and the book is set between 2015 and 2019 in the edgelands around London – Slough, Uxbridge, Southall. The plot plays second fiddle to the atmosphere captured in a superb soundtrack curated by the skinhead taxi driver Ray (a nod to Richard Allen’s Skinhead books), who drives around thinking hard about England listening to, among others, Prince Far I, the Fall, Sleaford Mods and the ur-punk of the Cockney Rejects. A clever, artful and optimistic book in which, to misquote King’s hero George Orwell, hope really does lie quite literally with the proles.
What Have You Left Behind? (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is a book so devastating that as I read it I had to put it down to catch my breath. To cry, and to sit in awe of its subjects, caught up in the conflict in Yemen that has killed more than 350,000 people while the world has looked away; of its writer, Bushra al-Maqtari, who travelled the country over a number of years to gather their testimonies; and its unflinching translator, Sawad Hussain. Everyone thinking about the human cost of war, the role of art as advocacy and how to write when words fail us should read this book. Right now I’m also immersed in the incendiary beauty of Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy (And Other Stories) a monumental novel that documents ecological catastrophe and Aboriginal lives in blistering prose.
After the Funeral by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape) draws us into situations that bear out Tolstoy’s famous line, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Each story explores a way of coping with a peculiar challenge. In “Funny Little Snake”, a neglected child is foisted on her stepmother, Valerie, a limited woman opening the buttons of the child’s fussy, filthy dress. Such clues compel Valerie to witness the oblivion of the child’s classier parents. What a child needs in the absence of love is an underlying question. Hadley elicits the answer with an acumen that puts her among the great detectives of human nature.
Alexander McCall Smith
I’m something of a notebook addict. Now I know I’m not alone, as Roland Allen makes clear in his fascinating study of notebooks through history, The Notebook: A History of Thinking on Paper (Profile Books). Moleskine users will love this wide-ranging history of an everyday object: it is beautifully written and a complete delight to dip in to or read from cover to cover. A lovely book, as is John Goodlad’s The Salt Roads (Birlinn), an extremely readable account of the Shetland cod fishery. Here you feel the wind, taste the salt: a quiet triumph.
In a year that opened with the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine and ends with the conflagration in Palestine-Israel, we should be grateful for Emily Wilson’s luminous new translation of the Iliad (WW Norton). Wilson’s rhythms restore to the poem the sense of a relentless drive towards catastrophe. Rage, grief, a vengeance that will not – because it cannot – be sated; hostages, the desecration of corpses, the murder of children, the derangement of parents; the senseless, needless, hatred of peoples pressed too close to one another to see how to end what has begun: Wilson’s edition should be compulsory reading for every statesperson and politician – especially those seeking to make cheap capital out of our current tragedy. Writing at the beginning of the Second World War, the philosopher Simone Weil claimed that force was the true subject of the Iliad. Terrifyingly, Wilson’s impassioned translation helps us experience that essentially dehumanising force anew. Read and be awed – and afraid.
I enjoyed Jonathan Eig’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr, King (Simon & Schuster). It is the perfect introduction to a titan of 20th-century history: Eig shows us King the legend, but also King the complex and imperfect man.
I also really loved Eleanor Catton’s intellectual thriller Birnam Wood (Granta), a funny and superbly written story of left-wing environmentalists and dodgy tech billionaires, moral hypocrisy and intense idealism. I raced through it. The ending is astonishing.
Daniel Schreiber’s Alone: Reflections on Solitary Living (Reaktion) was a surprise bestseller in Germany when it was first published in 2021, now translated into English by Ben Fergusson. In it, Schreiber eloquently digs in to the taboo subjects of loneliness and shame. It has to be said that Alone is not a self-help book; it’s an existential book, and all the more transgressive for it. A hybrid between essay and memoir, the author puts to work the writing of various philosophers and poets, including Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sappho to examine the vicissitudes of intimacy, solitude, the solace of friendships. Schreiber is interested in the gap between the life we live and the life that we imagined for ourselves. In this sense, Alone is also a conversation about yearning for an unlived life.
In Politics on the Edge (Jonathan Cape), Rory Stewart rails against a culture “that prized campaigning over careful governing, opinion polls over detailed policy debates, announcements over implementation”. And then they put Boris Johnson in charge. If you want to better understand the catastrophe that has been our government since 2010, or you just want to bask in Stewart’s beautifully formulated prose, read this book. Keir Starmer didn’t invent the phrase “the class ceiling”, it was the title of a radio series that Polly Toynbee made in 2011. She’s been working on An Uneasy Inheritance (Atlantic) ever since. It was worth the wait. Toynbee describes “the moral contortions [that] spring from searching for some liveable ground somewhere between Gandhi and hypocrisy”. So interesting, so profound, so funny.
Amanda Craig’s The Three Graces (Abacus), set in Tuscany, bounces energetically through the action-loaded endgame of three elderly women seeking solace in Italy. The novel itself has much grace and the talented Craig always remembers what so many contemporary novelists chose to forget: that storytelling needs a story. Jonathan Raban’s posthumously released Father and Son (Picador), counterpointing his own physical struggles in the wake of a severe stroke with those of his father fighting in the Second World War, is by no means his best book, but can serve to remind us of brilliant earlier titles, such as Coasting and Old Glory. Nobody writes better about the dreams and nightmares of life on the water than he did.
Since her death in 2011, books, films, shows and dance pieces have paid tribute to the artist-writer Leonora Carrington’s unique mix of fantasy, mysticism and drollery. Among these, the exhibition catalogue Leonora Carrington: Revelation, by Tere Arcq and Carlos Martín (Fundación Mapfre) stands out. It’s an exceptional survey, and sumptuously produced; the curators have traced works never seen outside their owners’ homes. Carrington emerges stranger and more wonderful, but also tenacious and consistent over a lifetime searching for meaning beyond the visible. You could say she’s the ultimate Space Crone, as in Ursula K Le Guin’s title essay in a hugely stimulating, witty and profound selection of her writings (Silver Press).
Richard Lloyd Parry
This was the year I finally read Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest, and certainly the longest novel I have read since university. What with eating and sleeping to fit in as well, there wasn’t time for anything else but tight, focused and, above all, short books. Shy by Max Porter, (Faber & Faber) the story of an English delinquent on a suicide mission, is sad, droll and soppy-uplifting in just the right quantities. Aung San Suu Kyi by Wendy Law-Yone (TLS Books) is a long essay about the Burmese leader that conveys her spiky strangeness without getting bogged down in denouncing or excusing her over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
A new Angela Saini book is always an event for me, and The Patriarchs (Fourth Estate) didn’t disappoint. Limiting the science to the essential genetics, Saini majors on reviewing the cultural and historical stories of how we got to where we are today. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about the current male domination of human power structures, she shows, and there’s every reason to do something about it. The Patriarchs was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing for good reason: it’s a timely book, providing essential background and insight on the roots of a number of issues at the centre of today’s culture wars.
Ishion Hutchinson’s School of Instructions (Faber & Faber) is a book-length poem partly about West Indian soldiers fighting in the First World War, in particular Britain’s battle for Palestine and Sinai (the title alludes to the British military’s Imperial School of Instruction near Cairo). Anchoring this wider history is the boyhood and education of one Encyclopedia Britannica-toting Godspeed, whose imagination becomes a portal between violences both quotidian and colonial. But the richness of Hutchinson’s music, the shuttling between time and perspective are remarkable. The poem is sonorous, overlaid, multiple: a form of address as devastating as the proclamations of prophets.
I read Eliza Clark’s Penance (Faber & Faber) in February, and it’s stayed with me all year. Part multimedia mosaic, part wickedly and tenderly constructed suspension bridge between different modalities of alliance and violence, the prose has a diffusive quality that seeps into your sleep and makes it necessary to keep reading as soon as you get up the next morning.
I was very impressed by Jade McGlynn’s Russia’s War (Polity), which shows that, sadly, the campaign of aggression against Ukraine is not just “Putin’s war” but enjoys the support of a broad swathe of the Russian people. The author exposes Russia’s colonial view of its neighbour, which is a co-creation with Russian civil society rather than just the product of top-down manipulation by the Kremlin. McGlynn also demonstrates that Russia sees itself as being at war with the wider West as well, in which the British – the dreaded “Anglo-Saxons” – are simultaneously excoriated as Russia’s historical foe and ridiculed for their supposed current irrelevance.
An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie (Wildfire) is an astonishing debut novel by a 23-year-old author who deservedly won the Hawthornden Prize (I was on the judging panel), and will I hope get wide readership. It tells the story of Sayon Hughes, drug-dealer and killer, and of his redemption. He kills an enemy as a Homeric fighter would do, without any particular personal animus: he is an enemy, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather as Dickens introduced complaisant Victorians to some of what was going on around them in the cities, McKenzie tells us what is actually happening down the hill from Clifton in Bristol in the places where the university students go to buy their drugs. Like Dickens, McKenzie is often very funny: there are some unforgettable characters, particularly female matriarchs. A new and brilliant voice on the scene.
I was deeply interested by Patrick Barkham’s approach in The Swimmer (Hamish Hamilton), his biography of Roger Deakin. Instead of creating a seamless narrative, Barkham honours Deakin’s protean nature (and reveals his less attractive aspects) by collaging together often wildly contradictory testimonies from friends, colleagues and lovers. It manages, as few biographies do, to convey how impossible a person is to pin down, perhaps especially one as mercurial as Deakin. I was tickled too by Prophet (Jonathan Cape), Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché’s madcap sci-fi romp, which combines a bananas plot with some very touching writing on grief, nostalgia and love.
On a visit to Iraq in early summer, I was struck by the desertification of increasing swathes of the country; unusual weather events, with thunderstorms destroying the harvest; and the apparent lack of concern among the political class in Baghdad over the impending environmental catastrophe. In Wounded Tigris (Corsair), the Northern Irish explorer Leon McCarron recounts his journey along the river, from its source in Turkey down to the Gulf. He warns that by 2040, Iraq will no longer be the land of two rivers, as the Tigris is drying up – and the birthplace of civilisation is becoming increasingly uninhabitable.
Have I really just read a 60-page short story about adult male seahorses discussing fidelity with their seahorse babies? Open Up (Faber & Faber), Thomas Morris’s second collection of stories, opens and closes with two of the best I’ve ever read, one about football, the other about a person desperate for real vampire teeth, both somehow opening to inarticulable truth. More proof of a writer beyond compare. Talking of beyond, I’m beyond moved to be reading Liz Lochhead’s A Handsel: New and Collected Poems (Polygon), a bringing together of her poetic work from 1972 onwards, which opens with a series of powerful, witty and frank new poems. From the start, Lochhead changed everything for writers and writing in Scotland and beyond, and this book is further revelation of the combined light touch and deep discipline of this poet and thinker who never sells us short and asks of everything with a tenacity that’s a gift of warmth, spirit, unending intelligence.
Although I never seem to get tired of writing it, I’m struggling to read much fiction at the moment. However, two very different non-fiction books have impressed me this year. Catherine Taylor’s The Stirrings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is a memoir of growing up in Sheffield at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders that creates a very special atmosphere: haunting, disturbing, melancholy. And Duncan Heining’s And Did Those Feet… (Jazz in Britain) hits my niche interest perfectly: a collective biography of six British jazz composers (including Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook and Keith Tippett) who have all excelled at that most paradoxical of musical tasks – composing for improvisers.
A wise man once told me that most things that are extremely popular are also good. So this year, to wean myself off social media, I’ve read the Big Beasts of British fiction: the latest Cormoran Strike novel, The Running Grave (by Robert Galbraith, Sphere); all four Richard Osman Thursday Murder Club books (Viking), and Mick Herron’s latest Jackson Lamb thriller, The Secret Hours (Baskerville). The Slough House novel was a little slow to start, the Strike is maybe 300 pages too long, and the Osman series occasionally threatens to lapse into treacle, but guess what? They’re popular because they’re good. I also enjoyed Prince Harry’s memoir Spare (Bantam) immensely while also feeling bad for everyone involved.
Let the Light Pour In by Lemn Sissay (Canongate): I love Lemn for his hard-won light smashed out of darkness like gold from the rock. Simple fast quatrains, dawn-written, day after day, just swallow one like an espresso and go. The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie (Chatto & Windus) is the story of the scholars and spinsters, nerds and nudists, perverts and philologists, murderers and madmen, queers and quacks, academics and aunts and Australians, who sent in the thousands of word-slips that made the Oxford English Dictionary. If you are fascinated by words, there is no better book.
The title poem of Declan Ryan’s first collection, Crisis Actor (Faber & Faber), is an ingeniously-resourced appreciation of the late Ian Hamilton, and the book as a whole brilliantly elaborates and expands the aesthetic of Hamilton’s own poems. Tough but tender, it takes boxing and boxers as its leitmotif, and develops the idea of contest to create a portrait of contemporary life which is haunted by images of violence, defeat, and complicated nostalgia. Ryan’s voice may not be the loudest in the contemporary arena, but it carries an impressively long way.
My favourite book this year was Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood (Granta). I’ve always loved thrillers, but there’s often an aftertaste of something a little thin, or synthetic, to the less good ones. This is different – the novel is paced like a runaway train, but it has a powerful richness, of warmth and generosity, and a ferocious moral compass. I also hugely admired Emily Wilson’s translation of the Iliad (WW Norton). I was never going to adore it as much as her Odyssey – not enough Cyclopes, too few sirens – but it captures so brilliantly the fire and dread and bewilderment and rage of the poem. She wears her erudition beautifully: she matches it with such wit, precision and flair.
In Immortal Thoughts: Late Style in a Time of Plague (Thames & Hudson), the painter Christopher Neve finds words to capture the visual imagination of great artists in their final days. Their dance with death is made yet more poignant because Neve composed this beautiful little book in 2020, during lockdown, and his short essays are interspersed with snatches of world news from the “wireless” and glimpses of a plane-less blue sky. “Late style” is an “odd compound of thought beyond reason”, produced when “the constraints of patronage, sharp eyesight and public approval are left behind” – works such as Michelangelo’s five last drawings of the Crucifixion, sketched by “one of the greatest sensibilities there has ever been, at his wits’ end”.
Two books about diversity in Britain: in I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be: A Memoir in Eight Lives (Jonathan Cape), Colin Grant takes us round his family and to the Caribbean and back, exploring deep feelings to do with memory, hope, loss and a determination to survive. There are great moments of sadness and humour. While in What’s in a Name? Friendship, Identity and History in Modern Multicultural Britain (Sceptre), Sheela Banerjee mixes indignation with curiosity. She goes through the “keyhole” of her friends’ names to unpeel complex stories of identity. The book defies monochrome pictures of how we define ourselves, how we live, how we mix.
I have chosen two novels featuring main characters with psychic powers. Broken Light by Joanne Harris (Orion) finds a menopausal woman rediscovering a gift she had when she was young – she can get into the minds of those around her and alter their behaviour, for good and bad. This is Angela Carter meets Carrie and it is done with dizzying aplomb. Bernie Moon is a compelling and complex creation. The Murmurs by Michael J Malone (Orenda Books) stars a young woman who can sense when people are nearing death – a heavy “gift” to live with, especially when those people don’t believe her. She also has to deal with an ex-prisoner who seems to be stalking her and a charming New Age preacher who is attracted to her. Then there’s the long-missing teenager. The pages fly by, but this is not for the faint-hearted.
So many good books this year! I could pick Lorrie Moore’s I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home (Faber & Faber); or Susanna Moore’s The Lost Wife (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). So read those: but then turn your attention to Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Promise (John Murray), a powerful tale of sisterly love during the period of the American civil rights movement. I’ve come late to Lauren Groff, but her new novel The Vaster Wilds (Cornerstone) is extraordinary. Like The Lost Wife, it is a tale of survival and a book of the spirit, of one woman’s strength. Don’t miss it.
In this age of rising nationalisms Philosophy of the Tourist by Hiroki Azuma (Urbanomic) is a ground-breaking work that attempts to reopen a future space for the “global citizen” in creative and counterintuitive ways. Sticking with the future, Julianne Pachico’s novel Jungle House (Serpent’s Tail) offers a strange yet deceptively simple look at what sentient artificial intelligence could look like, and weaves in questions of indigenous rights and the capitalist obsession with growth and immortality.
There’s a habit of mind peculiar, I think, to writers: a sort of paroxysm in which one tries to abandon oneself temporarily and shape-shift into another’s reality in order to answer the unanswerable question: what is it like to be you? In A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention and Murder (Granta) Mark O’Connell attempts just that, with queasily brilliant results. Why Malcolm Macarthur brutally killed two innocent people in 1982, in a case that nearly brought down the Irish government, will never be known, for there is a caesura in the inner life of the murderer around which O’Connell compulsively circles. That we are all unknowable to each other, and often to ourselves, is the lesson of this fascinating and troubling book.
In choosing a book of the year for 2023, it is tempting to pick Rory Stewart’s memoir Politics on the Edge (Jonathan Cape). It is, however, disqualified on the grounds that his praise for his departmental boss at the Ministry of Justice – namely me – is, at best, over the top. Instead, I will go for Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad by Danny Finkelstein (William Collins). This is a moving and gripping account of how Finkelstein’s mother and father survived the Second World War, despite the best efforts of Hitler and Stalin respectively. It is a tale of inhumanity (timely, given the rise of anti-Semitism), but also one of hope and endurance.
Caroline Dodds Pennock’s enlightening book On Savage Shores (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) recounts the early history of indigenous Americans travelling to Europe, turning the tables on how “discovery” has been learned and taught. The episodes Pennock recounts are unfamiliar and require a wholesale rethinking of what we thought we knew about the encounter of powerful Europeans with the rest of the world long ago. Meanwhile, Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama (Allen Lane) chronicles the asymmetry in the occupied West Bank today that its main character cannot reverse. It is one of the most effective presentations of quotidian injustice I have read, precisely because the story Thrall narrates is not a matter of the gory violence that has become so prevalent in the region since.
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng (Canongate), set in Penang in the early decades of the 20th century, contains a memorable portrait of Somerset Maugham as a house-guest. But the book’s real brilliance comes in the creation of the hostess herself, Lesley Hamlyn, who is a born noticer, good at keeping secrets and skilled at playing both sides politically and domestically. I also enjoyed Mike McCormack’s This Plague of Souls (Canongate), which happens, like his previous masterpiece Solar Bones, in a ghostly County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Once more, a middle-aged man seeks solace, completion or maybe even redemption. But this book is starker and more clearly dramatic than Solar Bones. It is filled with a foreboding that is almost wondrous.
In recent years, Brett Christophers has become a one-man investigative team lifting the lid on so-called advanced capitalism, especially in the UK, sifting through business models and balance sheets to identify where profits and super-managerial rewards really stem from. The answer, suffice to say, has very little to do with risk-taking, enterprise or productivity, and a lot to do with preying on essential social infrastructure and resources, such as care homes, housing and utilities. Our Lives in their Portfolios (Verso) provides the first accessible and critical overview of how asset management firms such as BlackRock and Blackstone have taken control of whole swathes of the tangible and intangible world around us, making extraordinary gains for themselves in the process. Necessary reading for anyone wanting to stay abreast of our dysfunctional economic times.
My nerdy fixations have been well catered for this year. In ornithology, Mark Cocker’s One Midsummer’s Day (Jonathan Cape) is a stunning celebration – and commemoration – of swifts. In essays, Jacqueline Rose’s The Plague (Fitzcarraldo) is a double espresso of unembarrassed seriousness, burrowed into our bruised, post-Covid world and left me both shaken and stirred. In Shakespeareana, Gregory Leadbetter’s Caliban (Dare-Gale Press), in just five poems (but twice over: there are masterly versions in both contemporary and Tudor English) deepened my affection for The Tempest and its lost and freckled “moon calf”. Otherwise – and inexplicably – it’s been Trollope, Trollope, Trollope.
John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry (Yale University Press) is a brilliant and comprehensive anthology of poetry from Gilgamesh to Heaney. Carey never falters in giving us context, example, and memorable judgements. It’s outstanding and in itself a fine work of literature. In Germinal (Penguin Classics), Émile Zola moved from being thought of as merely scandalous and over-populist to being one of France’s greatest novelists. Among much else, Germinal elbows the working class into the foreground and takes the novel in a fresh direction (DH Lawrence, for example, was influenced by Zola). It is remarkably detailed, powerful and moving. His current successor is Ken Follett, whose latest novel The Armour of Light (Macmillan) similarly takes on a huge and exploitative industry (the wool trade) and sets a powerful chronicle alongside it.
AJ Liebling was a New Yorker writer who spent the interwar years as an unrepentant gourmand in Paris, consuming the finest food and drink to be found in the city with a lover’s delight and insatiability. Many of the meals and dining companions are so finely evoked in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (Penguin Modern Classics) that an ascetic will be tempted to turn glutton. Julian Bell’s Natural Light (Thames & Hudson) is nominally about the enigmatic art of the 17th-century German painter Adam Elsheimer, who was domiciled in Rome, but ranges across science, intellectual history, and the nature of Nature. Elsheimer’s tiny paintings contain multitudes and so too does this book.
The most valuable and thought-provoking books I read in 2023 both offered a sort of universal field theory of and for contemporary experience, though in what they focus on the two couldn’t be more different. I wasn’t surprised that Dacher Keltner’s Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (Allen Lane) was about awe in the sense of the sublime – beautiful, powerful, overwhelming experiences – but was delighted to find that he also lists moral beauty (“other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming”) as a source of awe. In saying we need awe he means that we need meaning, need natural, creative and moral beauty, need connection, experiences in which we lose ourselves, need reverence and a sense of the immensity of the world and our own smallness within it.
Astra Taylor’s The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together As Things Fall Apart (House of Anansi Press) – I must state that she is my friend and I blurbed this book – looks at the way that the insecurity and instability produced by economic and social arrangements also becomes emotional insecurity, and how it could all be different. That is, while tallying the sabotage of our undermining she never loses sight of what real security on all these levels could look like. Both books advocate for deeper, more meaningful lives and against what alienates us. Taylor makes the case for clearing away capitalism’s distracting, destabilising regime; Keltner for expanding and more clearly valuing our connections to each other, to our own depths and capacities, and to the grandeur and order of the world beyond.
In a year of unrelentingly bleak news, I’ve chosen Sparks (Allen Lane), Ian Johnson’s evocative study of China’s underground historians documents both the relentless crackdown on civil society and intellectual freedom under Xi Jinping, and the quiet courage of those who refuse to be crushed. Drawing their inspiration from earlier acts of resistance that appeared hopeless in their own times, these independent scholars, filmmakers, and journalists have come to view their work as time capsules, determined to preserve an accurate record of the country’s past for future generations. “They want future Chinese to know,” Johnson writes, “that in the 2020s, when things had never been darker…. Not everyone had given in.”
Thomas Hardy is one of the very few major novelists who can also be considered a major poet. One is drawn inevitably to the extraordinary elegies that he wrote after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912. Mark Ford – himself an accomplished poet – has written a brilliantly astute analysis of these “Emma” poems in Woman Much Missed: Thomas Hardy, Emma Hardy and Poetry (Oxford University Press). Ford’s analysis is both revealing and ideally comprehensible. Literary criticism at its most trenchant and forensically convincing.
Alan Jenkins’s eighth full collection of poems, The Ghost Net (New Walk Editions), consolidates his considerable reputation. The past and how it haunts the present, love affairs and their collateral damage, families, and the death of close friends all inform these measured, compelling, often elaborately rhymed poems. Hardyesque?
Sports Banger: Lifestyles of the Poor, Rich & Famous by the artist and fashion designer Jonny Banger (Thames & Hudson) is a lavish ten-year retrospective of a cultural troublemaker. His career offers an alternative recent history of this island. Never has anger been so much fun. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber): yes I know you’ve already read it, but don’t judge this paperback by its terrible cover. It looks like it was designed in the US. Anyway, the book itself is so far gripping and I doubt it will become any less so.
Werner Herzog’s memoir Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Bodley Head) is as intense, surprising and wacky as his films, with a real sense of reason underlying all the madness and eccentricity. Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M Conway’s The Big Myth (Bloomsbury) is a convincing and deeply researched account of how wealthy libertarian business interests in the US – invoking Hayek and supply-side economics – corrupted American life over the course of the 20th century, and prepared the ground for the present crisis in its politics.
Two books by Scotsmen engrossed me this year. In Ascension (Atlantic), a profound and thrilling novel by Martin McInnes, travels from the abysses of the deepest ocean to the Oort Cloud at the edge of the Solar System, before we find our way home. It may or may not be set in the future. The Bone Cave by Dougie Strang (Birlinn) concerns a month-long walk into the prehistoric beginnings of Scotland, when myths were laid down. Rediscovering the places named for the Cailleach – the shape-shifting crone-goddess – he offers a sensitive exploration of land, time, modernity and masculinity. Both books ache with a profound, not-quite-lost connection to Earth.
In need of some light relief, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Empire Roller Disco (Anthology). One cold night in 1980, the New York photographer Patrick D Pagnano visited Brooklyn’s legendary Empire Rollerdrome and documented the partygoers and joy he witnessed there for Forbes magazine. A tribute to the nationwide dance craze at the time, the photos capture the characters, clothes and passion of the dancers and is a fitting tribute to the venue, which closed in 2007. I’ve also been compelled by Breathing Space: Iranian Women Photographers (Thames & Hudson), which brings together the work of 23 photographers from three generations and their contrasting approaches to both their craft and the changing society in which they’ve lived since 1979. These are images of protest and art, which come together beautifully in this fascinating book.
Yasmin El-Rifae’s Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution (Verso) is a remarkable book which penetrates into the heart of feminist political activism without neglecting its roots in the complex lives of women or the harsh dynamics which can unfold in the midst of emancipatory struggle. Based on the years after the 2011 revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, when Opantish (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment) set itself the task of exposing and fighting against violent sexual assault, Radius shows how a protest movement, even when it fails, can plant the seeds of a better life, one which must also include a more forthright understanding of the reality of being a mother.
The long-awaited publication of Avi Shlaim’s memoir, or “fictional autobiography” as he terms it, could not be more timely. Through a powerful evocation of his early life in Baghdad, the painful relocation of his family to Israel in the 1950s, and his anguished education in London, he traces the path that would culminate in his career as one of the most influential of Israel’s New Historians. Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew (Oneworld) tells the relatively unknown story of a time when Jews and Arabs once lived together in harmony. It is a tribute to a lost past and a template for the future which, in the midst of the disaster unfolding in Israel-Palestine today, has never been more needed.
In June, at the Festival of Ideas at Borris House in Ireland, I attended a uniquely fine event, two writers with different takes on a 1980s double murder in Dublin: John Banville with his vaguely fictionalised account in The Book of Evidence (1989), and Mark O’Connell on conversations with the murderer, following his release from jail, recounted with spectacularly affecting brilliance and restraint in A Thread of Violence (Granta). Run, don’t walk, I say. On a different note, Audrey Osler’s Where are you From? No, Where are You Really From? (Virago) could not be more timely or touching.
The lovers at the heart of Aleksandar Hemon’s novel The World And All That It Holds (Picador) are both male, one Jewish, one Muslim. They travel – over decades – from Sarajevo to Shanghai, witnessing the crumbling of empires. The narrative of their odyssey is as politically astute as it is visionary – full of dreams and songs and megalomaniac delusions and lyrical beauty and rude jokes.
The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is a gripping account of a marriage between a murderously competitive couple. Nothing in this subtly twisting story is quite what it seems, but one thing about the novel’s narrator is for real – her ability to say things so witty and so pungently true I kept turning down pages to mark them.
In Agents of Oblivion (illustrated by Dave McKean, Swan River Press), Iain Sinclair offers four pieces riffing off writers who have always worked, like himself, on the borderlands of our consciousness. Not well acquainted with two of these – HP Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood – I was persuaded, through Sinclair’s oracular references, to try them again. His interpretations of JG Ballard and Arthur Machen are as illuminating as we might expect from a highly original author whose extraordinary prose offers biography, reminiscence, autobiography, and his own brilliantly idiosyncratic insights.
Orbital by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape) is the rarest of things, a book that satisfies both my lifelong obsession with space travel and my hunger for sentences and paragraphs that demand to be read and reread. A day in the life of six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, that’s all, but my goodness this novel is beautiful. A special mention, too, for Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber) whose talents seem limitless. This had me utterly gripped. A noir detective thriller set in 1922, where the tragedy of American racial politics has taken a different course. it’s page-turning alternative history that has profound things to say about real history. Some gorgeous sentences and paragraphs here, too.
Some of the best books I’ve read this year didn’t get the coverage they deserved. Among them, Sonia Overall’s novel Eden (Weatherglass Books) is a bravura multi-thread narrative, taking in a ventriloquy of Ernest Hemingway – whom Overall captures agonising over his last novel and bristling at growing old – combined with a lusty story of a female literature professor in full-blown mid-life crisis. It’s strikingly original and the writing is electrifying. In memoir, Jenn Shapland’s Thin Skin (Pantheon) exposes the extractive systems that work to make sure we keep looking the other way while minority populations, our collective consciousness and the environment pay the price for our greed. In poetry, Anna Barker’s mesmerising debut collection Book of Crow (Indigo Dreams) wowed me with its spiky conversational movement, charting one woman’s plunge into personal grief and her co-dependent relationship with a sarcastic, truth-telling, but oh-so-tender corvid.
Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church by Peter Ross (Headline). Never have the joys of exploring the churches and cathedrals of this country been so vividly conveyed as they are in this engaging and elegiac book. Ross’s interests are not so much in the architecture of these buildings as in the stories they have to tell – stories of medieval saints, martyred nuns, holy relics and eccentric parishioners. He also records conversations with the people he meets along the way, some fellow “church crawlers” and others committed to preserving these gems of the British countryside. That cause is in too many cases lost, but no one could read this book without realising that, whether we are believers or not, every time we lose a church we become, culturally and spiritually, a little more impoverished.
It feels like cheating to choose a book that was so successful, and has been out for a year. But damnation to that. There can never be too many readers of Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber). It is Demon’s voice that captivates: his words and his ways and his spirit. Barbara Kingsolver has such meticulous mastery of it. The plot is fine too, although spotting parallels with David Copperfield, of which this is a modern rendering, turns out to be the least interesting aspect of the book. The American opioid epidemic is added to Dickens’ grinding poverty in Kingsolver’s Copperhead/Copperfield, and it is usually done with blazing brilliance. An astonishing, alluring book. I’m glad my memory is bad enough that if I wait a while, I can meet Demon all over again.
One of the most urgent questions to ask these days is who gets to claim what patch of the Earth and why. Two new books offer us different and unexpected answers. The historian Natasha Wheatley’s The Life and Death of States ( Princeton University Press) shows how the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian empire introduced arguments later used by indigenous groups to contend their sovereignty was not extinguished but only temporarily submerged. Emory historian Jo Guldi’s The Long Land War (Yale University Press) flips common-sense categories. Instead of ownership rights she talks about occupancy rights, from the Irish Land League to the informal settlements of the 21st-century metropolis. Both books suggest that breaking the grip of private property on our imagination involves drawing on resources of the past.
Apart from Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me (Gallery) – which I read in one go – Ben Okri’s newly rewritten masterpiece The Last Gift of the Master Artists (Apollo) was my best read. It’s political, human and magical. A friend handed me Cariad Lloyd’s You Are Not Alone (Bloomsbury Tonic) after the death of our close friend and I’m not sure I would have made it through the year without it. With no new Jon McGregor, I’m rereading If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Fourth Estate). He has the ability to make the world go quiet and bring it into focus. We could use more of that in our politics.
The most important publishing event this year was Granta’s reissue of The Diary of Virginia Woolf after it had been out of print for, well, for as long as I can remember: five beautiful and impeccably produced volumes with the text completely reset. At thirty quid a pop they’re not cheap but the decision to make available again this invaluable piece of 20th-century literary history, and to do so with an uncompromising commitment to quality (paper, font, design), can only be celebrated. My favourite new novel was The Guest by Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus): as relentlessly spellbinding as her debut, The Girls.
In Kick the Latch (Daunt), a short, economical account of the life of a horse trainer named Sonia, Kathryn Scanlan stretches the possibility of what biography and novel – for it is both – can do while working alongside one another. Using interviews that cover the sweep of an entire life from 1962 to the present day, Scanlan chisels a transitory and occasionally brutal blue-collar existence down into vignettes that recall the best of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Carver. What emerges is a portrait of a hard-scratch existence lived on the fringes of society, and always at the service of the beloved animals that once roamed the American plains, but now run race tracks for the pleasure of gamblers, drunks and modern-day drifters.
[See also: Why read life-writing?]
Jonathan Coe, Theresa May, David Reynolds and Elif Shafak are among the authors appearing at Cambridge Literary Festival
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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures