Read part one of our guide to the best books of 2017 here.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday) by John Boyne is a big, sweeping novel. We visit Cyril Avery at seven-year intervals, following his life’s journey from birth to an unwed Irish mother and adoption by an odd Dublin couple (“You’re not a real Avery,” they frequently remind him) to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality and find a sense of belonging.
It is as much the story of modern Ireland as the story of one man. The novel begins in 1945 with Avery’s mother cast out of her community and ends just as Ireland votes to legalise gay marriage – a country making peace with its past and finally allowing Avery to feel at home. It is a beautifully written epic and will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
With Donald Trump in the White House, American politics in chaos and US foreign policy bafflingly obscure, what better time to be the BBC’s North America editor? Jon Sopel is clearly having a ball, and If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America (BBC Books) is entertaining and insightful in equal measure. Sopel reflects thoughtfully on what is going on and his chapter on the epidemic of prescription drug addiction that is sweeping America is especially worth reading.
Whenever Kay Redfield Jamison publishes a new book, a part of my world seems to be illumined, the colours become clearer and the shadows more distinct, and superstitions and magical thinking are dispelled. This year is no exception. Her wise and compassionate biography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf) not only reminded me of that poet’s particular gifts but made me think about the nature of creativity and the slapdash thinking we apply to those who endure the burden of an unquiet mind.
As for poetry, it was a rather thin year, but one book by David Harsent makes up for a great deal, and Salt (Faber & Faber) is a masterpiece.
In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the standout biography is about the man who lowered the hammer and sickle flag. Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster) is a fitting sequel to William Taubman’s previous biography of Nikita Khrushchev, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2004.
Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Allen Lane) began from conversations about family history with the author’s father. It fans out into a remarkable narrative that spans 20th-century Europe and pivots around the story of his Russian revolutionary socialist grandfather, Max, who fled to England in 1909.
Harriet Harman’s autobiography, A Woman’s Work (Allen Lane), is a personal memoir but also the story of women in politics and public life. Since Harriet entered parliament in 1982 – pregnant with her first child – she has seen the number of women MPs increase to more than 200. Many of us are there because of her – but most important is her work to improve the lives of women across the country, from maternity leave to helping women fleeing domestic violence.
There is still a stigma associated with loneliness and the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, which I have co-chaired since Jo was murdered, shines a spotlight on its causes and effects. That is exactly what Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins), does, too. It is a beautiful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel, and a reminder that there is a need in all of us for love, kindness and meaning.
Raise your hand if you think, like I do, that Donald Trump is madder than a box of frogs – or if the thought of his short finger on the nuclear button keeps you awake at night. Now we have a book featuring the verdicts of 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts to confirm our worst fears. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books) joins the dots between the US president’s “extreme present hedonism”, “malignant narcissism” and “sociopathic characteristics”. The book’s editor, Bandy Lee, told me that her concern is that Trump’s condition is “actually probably far worse than people are detecting now” and that “the worst is yet to come”. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
The Unquotable Trump by R Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly) reimagines famous comic book covers using real Trump utterances. Picture: © 2017 R Sikoryak
In a year of outstanding non-fiction, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (Viking) shines. Her lives of past writers are meticulously researched but devoid of dryness. Now she looks unflinchingly back at her own life, scarred by griefs, struggles, turbulence and – for so calm and gentle a woman – occasional bad behaviour. This is a piercing book: honest, moving, vivid.
Celebrities who turn to writing children’s books usually do so cynically. Not David Walliams. Bad Dad (HarperCollins) is a blast. Kids will adore it. So did I.
Richard Beard is a writer whose novels are as clever as they are affecting and as experimental as they are gripping – so it did not surprise me that The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), an account of how, as a boy, he watched his brother drown on a family holiday, should be a misery memoir like no other. A study in bereavement, it is very much more than that: an interrogation of memory, of the English class system, of the limits of language. It also features a surprising amount of cricket. I read nothing this year that I admired quite as much.
One of the most striking new books about the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity is The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity by Johanna Hanink (Harvard University Press), which sets the Greek economic debt crisis against the cultural “debt” that modern Greeks still feel to antiquity and argues that idealising visions of it have had a damaging effect on contemporary European identity.
In fictional responses to the Classics, I very much enjoyed and admired Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus), a politically and psychologically acute novel modelled on Sophocles’s Antigone – but reworked as the story of two British Muslim sisters and their jihadist brother.
I have loved every Salman Rushdie book I have read and The Golden House (Jonathan Cape) is no exception. Woven into its rich fabric are huge contemporary themes: the suspicion of experts, gender identification, the Trump phenomenon. I have friends who can’t get past the first sentence of a Rushdie novel – but the glorious opening line here is almost worth buying the book for.
Alan Bennett must be tired of being described as whimsical. As A Life Like Other People’s (Faber & Faber) demonstrates, the adjective is insufficient. He is a superbly gifted observer of the human condition and this book moved me more than anything else I’ve read this year.
I enjoyed two books in particular. One tells the story of a boy and a girl living in a small, specific, enclosed location; the other discusses the state of the entire world and why it is how it is today. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane) makes fresh and significant associations between historic moments in different parts of the world over the past 200 years.
William Sutcliffe’s We See Everything (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is confined to a dystopian, circumscribed London, patrolled by the murderous drones of the enemy. Both books describe our world: a world where politics has almost ended and money and brute force have taken over.
Two books made me think about what it is to be human, from two different directions. In To Be a Machine (Granta), Mark O’Connell recounts his encounters – some hair-raising, some hilarious – with those who believe that the future of our species lies in a merger with machines.
While O’Connell’s engineers try to build computers that mimic our ways of thinking, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (William Collins) describes an intelligence so different from our own that it makes you question what intelligence means, in a book that is full of wonder and tough questions.
I’ve always leaned on poetry as something more thrilling than… well, almost anything – religion, for instance. The older I get, the more essential poetry seems and, alas, the converse for the latter. Two books from this year give further proof of this: Sinéad Morrissey’s starry poetic engineering in On Balance (Carcanet) and Michael Longley’s angelic Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape), which was also proof, maybe, that Homer never died. Northern Ireland’s poets continue to outstare miserable politics and offer instead the better firearms of beauty and truth.
Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Hamish Hamilton) is a series of wonderful, thorny, scrupulous essays about writing and life, and the writing life. It is generous and fearless and difficult to hold in your hands.
Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair) is an excellent collection of poems. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel as blazingly hymn-like as its title suggests.
The book that left the most indelible mark on me was To Be a Machine (Granta) by Mark O’Connell, which describes the author’s journey through the transhumanist movement. After reading it, I dreamed of severed heads and super-intelligent robots. O’Connell’s style is at once sceptical and open and warm; his book is both frightening and full of humanity.
In the aftermath of Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press), I had to resist the urge to weigh every book in my house in order to find the heaviest. It left a gentler mark, but no less stubborn.
Among new novels, Marie-Elsa Bragg’s debut, Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus), stood out for me – a closely observed rural family chronicle, a fierce indictment of the ignorant authoritarianism of government agencies in recent decades promoting untried, environmentally disastrous and lethally poisonous pesticides in the countryside, and an understated but strong celebration of spiritual discovery and resilience.
The other book to remember was the reprint of E Amy Buller’s Darkness Over Germany (Arcadia Books), first published in 1943: reports of her conversations with a wide range of “ordinary” Germans in the 1930s, pointing up what happens when national confusion, mistrust in public servants and public service, cynicism, xenophobia and economic chaos take over a society. If we want to know – and we ought to want to know just now – what prompts the collapse of law-based democracy, this is a good place to start.
I can’t choose Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders: everyone will, right? Still, it’s utterly astonishing. As is Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko (Apollo), a window into the world of Koreans in Japan, an epic family saga.
Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poems, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe), is heartbreaking: she was a poet always in her heart, and she left us far too soon when she died in June. And the second volume of Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Jewish people, Belonging (Bodley Head), is a masterpiece of historical narrative.
The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Oneworld) by Nate Blakeslee weaves together three narratives in one superb book. He tells of the intensely sociable and frequently violent world of the wolf pack. There are the naturalists studying wolves at Yellowstone National Park in the US, whose devotion to their totem animal borders on the religious. Then there are the ranchers, hunters, politicians and so on who hate and kill wolves so often that it is a miracle that any survive. Blakeslee’s triumph is to tell all three stories with deep sympathy and insight.
I am a great fan of Robert Harris, who I regard as a role model for anyone who wants to get into political thriller writing. Munich (Hutchinson) is a wonderful tale of personal relationships and political drama, built around the Munich conference before the Second World War, when Neville Chamberlain produced the infamous “peace for our time” speech. This is a very, very good read.
Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta) vibrates with creative energy. It’s a chronicle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and also a haunting fable of music silenced and of loves postponed, played out over the melancholy vastness of an imagined China.
In CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (Fourth Estate), the breeding of racehorses provides a potent metaphorical language for the discussion of racism. In grand, lyrical prose, Morgan summons up the Kentucky landscape and tells a tale full of charismatic characters and idiosyncratic voices.
Seeking a template for these dark and strange days, many works (from the BBC series Doctor Foster to novels by Salman Rushdie and Colm Tóibín) have modernised Greek dramas. A particularly classy example was Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), in which Kamila Shamsie relocates Antigone by Sophocles to Western and Eastern capitals during the “war on terror”.
In The Feud (Pantheon), Alex Beam tells the improbably enthralling comi-tragic story of how the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov and the American Russophile critic Edmund Wilson ended up viciously duelling with typewriters over prosody and vocabulary in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane) draws on his experience of four controversial institutions – the Tory party, the Vatican, the Chinese government and the BBC – to swell the tiny list of intelligent and cultured memoirs by front-line politicians.
Looking at my Kindle history, two themes dominate: America’s racial divide and the ways that big tech companies are shaping our personal lives, society and democracy. On the former, Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press), Arlie Russell Hochschild’s warm, perceptive study of right-wingers in Louisiana, stands out, as do the collected essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton).
On big tech, Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a sobering guide to how much of ourselves we’re putting online and what private companies might do with that information.
For personal reasons, I loved Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate), which started life as a New Statesman article and is now a funny, moving book.
Alexander McCall Smith
Memoirs of friendship have a particular appeal. They are often touching and not infrequently they throw a light on a life that a conventional biography might not supply. Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo (Polygon) is a charming, beautifully written account of the author’s friendship with Muriel Spark. The centenary of her birth is coming up, and there are plans to bring out a uniform edition of her novels. Taylor’s memoir is the perfect prologue to this celebratory year, providing a sympathetic and intimate picture of the author of such timeless classics as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Much of my reading nowadays includes anything remotely Shakespearean. This has been a bumper year, including Fools and Mortals (HarperCollins), an absorbing novel by Bernard Cornwell that invents the life of Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, and Margaret Atwood’s wickedly wise Hag-Seed (published in paperback by Vintage). She casts The Tempest adrift in a prison and makes a magisterial case for the timeless, classless relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.
The work I most enjoyed and valued, in any category, was a first book by the economist Andrea Mays. The Millionaire and the Bard (Simon & Schuster) tells the gripping story of Henry Folger’s amassment of the First Folio and the establishment of his library in Washington, DC – a narrow focus, perhaps, but one that is not only fascinating about Tudor publishing but delves more broadly into Anglo-American relations and big business, obsession, privacy, marriage and money.
I suppose Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, A Life of My Own (Viking), is written by a member of the liberal elite (she is a former New Statesman literary editor), about the liberal elite, for the liberal elite. I do not recommend it to Nigel Farage since, aside from anything else, Tomalin is half-French. But no other book this year so moved and beguiled me. A life punctuated by glittering career success and personal disaster – a wayward husband’s death in his forties, a daughter’s suicide in her twenties, a son born with spina bifida – is recalled in translucent prose with honesty, modesty and a complete lack of self-pity.
The Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey – also known as Loki – wrote my book of the year. Part memoir, part manifesto, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Luath Press) charts McGarvey’s life and the political life of his community in Glasgow’s Pollok housing estate. It covers addiction, abuse, depression, love and loss in raw, upsetting yet powerful detail. Somehow it retains hope and a sense of humour. Poverty Safari is a bold and ambitious work. No one in politics could fail to be shocked by it, or fail to see some light and guidance in its conclusions.
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit