What a year. I started it with Philippe Sands’s East West Street (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), which examines the meaning and importance of law, of the words that go to make it and of life lived well versus life lived foully. It does this personally, universally, locally and internationally with an eye to what unites and protects us from the power-madness of a divide-and-rule mentality that’s once more, right now, courting catastrophe. I think it’s one of the finest books I’ve yet read. Then there’s Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus). Occasionally you know that one of the writers alive at the same time as you has written the book they were born to write. With Barry, it’s as if every book he writes is a bit like this — and then there’s this novel. It’s a masterpiece. Barry writes warmth so that warmth is a form of truth.
The Locals by Jonathan Dee (Corsair) is a compassionate look at the American middle class and what is happening to it and the ways, right and wrong, in which it is responding. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is an original and very moving tour de force, in which the author manages to simultaneously speed time up and slow it down, while also gently outing our readerly hunger for drama, violence and (too) simple closure. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle (Zero). This short head-butt of a book taught me more about recent political events in a single rich evening of reading than I’ve learned in this entire last and very unpleasant year of obsessively monitoring cable TV, and confirmed for me something I’ve been feeling for a while now, namely that social media is a toxin we are cluelessly injecting into ourselves, even as we ask, “Why are we getting so mean and stupid?”
How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas (Tim Duggan). I read this book early in the year, and have carried it around in my mind like a talisman during a busy period of travelling and not-writing, as a reminder of a simple truth, for when I get back to work: good writing is joyful and exists for the purpose of making enjoyment and fun for the reader.
A book that made me feel I really was in the presence of a master (and indeed there’s a touch of The Turn of the Screw about it, strangely enough) was Roddy Doyle’s new novel, Smile (Jonathan Cape). In quite another world of experience, but just as Irish for all that, Sally Rooney in Conversations with Friends (Faber) seems to be Truman Capote (with his sharpest scalpel) reborn, with more than a dash of the high intelligence of Elizabeth Bowen.
The Intrusions by Stav Sherez (Faber). This talented British author of intelligent crime novels has been under the radar too long. His latest is a Silence of the Lambs for the internet age as a serial killer stalks his prey online, entering and controlling their lives. Chilling and utterly convincing. The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus). A cop heads home to the drought-stricken Australian outback when an old schoolfriend takes their own life. A mystery from their shared past comes to the fore and enmities (and relationships) are rekindled in a book that has atmosphere to spare, as well as a pleasing number of twists and turns. Elegant and gripping. The ever-reliable Denise Mina deserves all the awards she has already won for this, her latest novel The Long Drop. It details one tense night shared by a murderer and the man whose wife and daughter he killed. Games are being played as the two drink their way around late-1950s Glasgow. Remarkably, it is taken from the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland. Absorbing and filled with insights, this is a bravura performance, a true original.
One of the great pleasures and surprises of our digital reading age has been the resurgence of the essay. Who predicted that, in all those Computers Are Killing Literature thinkpieces we’ve had to endure? There have been some excellent essay collections this year, many of which carry pieces that started life online, and I’ve been learning new ways to think about the world, and to write about it, from such wonderful writers as Yiyun Li, Reni Eddo-Lodge and especially from Durga Chew-Bose in her collection Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I’ve barely started reading The White Book by Han Kang (Portobello, translated by Deborah Smith), but I can already tell it will be one of my books of the year. Delicate and thoughtful and concise and dense and strong; this is the kind of writing I like to read slowly. A man (of course) recently claimed that 2017 had been “a thin year” for poetry; this has certainly not been the experience of attentive readers. As well as new collections from the likes of Sinéad Morrissey, Emily Berry, Maria Apichella and the very thrilling Ocean Vuong, I have particularly enjoyed getting my head around the playful rhythms and deadpans of Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair).
Spending much of the year writing a book of my own has left me with a deeper and more personal understanding — and sympathy for — the challenges confronting authors. In fiction, I was impressed but challenged by the originality and scope of George Saunders’s Booker-winning story of grief and empathy, Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) and enjoyed Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton) (and now look forward to her Winter), but I would opt for John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies (Viking), not least for Smiley’s dramatic and surprising closing revelation of his reason for a life-time of spying — and lying. In autobiography, Nelson Mandela’s Dare Not Linger (with Mandla Langa, Macmillan) cannot rival Long Walk to Freedom — he died with it unfinished — but it reveals the struggles, setbacks and frustrations that to this very day thwart the progress of Africa. And Branko Milanovic’s much underestimated Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard), now being published in many languages, tells us more than any other recent book about the state of the world we live in and, at a time when hope is so urgently needed, offers us thought-provoking insights into the world we could become.
There are two 2017 books of nonfiction that have really stayed with me. The History of the Future (Coffee House Press) by Edward McPherson is a collection of impressively researched yet conversational essays about environmental degradation, place and time. The Rules Do Not Apply (Little, Brown) by Ariel Levy is simultaneously the personal story of a dramatic miscarriage, a frank, powerful look at shifting gender roles and how we make a life for ourselves, and an inside glimpse into Levy’s work as a journalist for the New Yorker.
Two brilliant Irish novels stood out, one lushly lyrical, one laconic, both so well written they make pain into literary delight. Days Without End (Faber), Sebastian Barry’s novel of war and defiant love, is as full of outrage and blood and grief as one of Kurosawa’s Shakespearean movies and it’s as gorgeously beautiful too. Roddy Doyle’s Smile (Jonathan Cape) is achingly sad and ruefully perceptive, exquisitely balancing anger with sympathy.
I enjoyed What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin (Virago). She creates an acute sense of tension, and the way she loops explosive events in her life into the philosophy around art and language is skilful and riveting. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is one of the books where the jacket description gets it right: they use the word “kaleidoscopic” to describe this ingenious structure that is at once as entrancing as it is beautiful. In Days Without End (Faber), Sebastian Barry employed a rich, flourishing cascade of 19th-century vocabulary to create an atmospheric novel.
This year I read a series of fantastic memoirs. I loved Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy (Riverhead), in particular the depiction of her father, a gun-toting, guitar-wielding Republican pastor. Written with a poet’s precision, it’s funny, raucous, thoughtful and angry in turn. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (Allen Lane) is a sharp, insightful look at social mobility, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (Vintage) is a harrowing but clear-eyed examination of crime’s emotional fallout. As for fiction, I came a little late to Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (Faber) but it really is an amazing achievement, especially the brilliantly sustained first-person voice. For page after page, I found myself thinking, how does he do this?
I learned a great deal from Jon Wilson’s India Conquered (Simon & Schuster), an admirably concise, balanced and thoughtful look at how British colonialism maimed India, and the sheer wickedness of so much of what we [Britain] did there. The product of many years of detailed archival research, Wilson’s book is without question the best one-volume history of the Raj currently in print. I also hugely enjoyed John Keay’s The Tartan Turban (Kashi House), about the allegedly half-Aztec, half-Scottish mercenary Alexander Gardner. Minutely researched, wittily written and beautifully produced, it brings back from the dead one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of travel and exploration and stands as one of Keay’s most memorable achievements. Charlie English’s The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu (HarperCollins) tells the story of how the priceless literary remains of this ancient city’s golden age were smuggled to safety after Al Qaida took over and imposed Sharia law in April 2012. It reads like a sort of Schindler’s List for medieval African manuscripts and is an exemplary work of investigative journalism that is also a wonderfully colourful book of history and travel.
The standout book of the year for me is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus). It’s a modern retelling of Antigone set among a family divided by politics, love, and radicalism. In less than 300 pages, it managed to do all the things I want novels to do — tell me something about the world, give me a tiny glimpse into the otherness of others, and, most of all, give me that ache of longing as I turned the last page and realised I would never meet these characters again.
Beginning with a house fire set by a teenager, the flames quickly spread across Celeste Ng’s suburban idyll in Little Fires Everywhere (Little, Brown), a sharp and nuanced tale of race and family in 1990s America. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Macmillan) is part memoir, part true crime, wholly brilliant. Bleak subject matter is expertly handled as Marzano-Lesnevich challenges us to see both perpetrators and victims from every possible angle. Perfectly paced and beautifully observed, Jon McGregor defies expectations in Reservoir 13 (4th Estate), his graceful and compelling portrait of a community coming to terms with tragedy.
You could not go wrong with James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy (Jonathan Cape), a riveting psychological thriller with a protagonist actually as creepy as Ian McEwan’s stalker in Enduring Love, though (at first) more subtle. In Joshua Ferris’s entertaining collection The Dinner Party (Viking), most of the characters are comparatively sane, but no less deliciously ghastly. Lawrence Osborne’s Beautiful Animals (Hogarth) is both impossible to put down and beautifully written: a great combo.
– Guardian News & Media Ltd