The top titles of 2012
BOOKS OF THE YEAR: ANNA CAREYasks writers, poets, historians, comedians, politicians, broadcasters, an editor and a bookshop owner to nominate their favourites
At the end of what seems to have been a poor year for fiction, it is a pleasure to be able to single out a pair of wonderful novels.
Richard Ford’s Canada (Blooms-bury) is a masterly study of loneliness and fortitude, in which an elderly man recalls the disaster that befell him and his sister when his parents, out of desperation, decided to become bank robbers. Ford’s beautiful and subtle prose style and elegiac tone catch the essence of contemporary American life, as no other of his contemporaries do.
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Viking) cracks the woman we used to know as the Blessed Virgin out of her cast of pious sentimentality and presents her to us as a living, suffering woman. First performed on stage, The Testament makes its way seamlessly into a short, daring and very moving novel.
John Banville’s novel Ancient Light is published by Viking
No novel published this year came close to the elegance and lyricism of John Banville’s Ancient Light (Viking). The truths and tricks of memory when attached to love affairs of the past combine to create something utterly poignant with a startling payoff in the closing pages. But Banville was given a run for his money by two other Irish novels that employ multiple narrative voices to brilliant effect: Donal Ryan’s outstanding debut, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland), and Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn Child (Granta), a novel which defies categorisation.
Elsewhere, Susanna Jones’s When Nights Were Cold (Mantle) offers a gripping tale of female Alpine climbers in the early 20th century, while Bethan Roberts’s My Policeman (Chatto Windus) employs an unsettling love story to examine attitudes towards homosexuality in 1950s Britain.
Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Little Brown), which uses the prejudices and ambitions of a small English town as a microcosm for a nation; it’s the best novel she’s written yet.
John Boyne’s latest book for children, The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket, is published by Doubleday
The word “thriller”, written in large and urgent letters on the front cover, does little to entice me, as it can often translate into hard work for the reader who just wants to be kept mildly enthralled before lights out, but Before I Go to Sleep (Black Swan) is a thriller worth staying up for. It is SJ Watson’s debut and is hugely enjoyable, a psychological thriller about a woman who lost her memory 20 years before and has to be reminded about who she is and who her husband is every day of her life. But there is a gasp-aloud moment that turns everything on its head. Prepare to stay reading late into the night.
In the midst of Olympic fever, I bought Chris Cleave’s Gold (Sceptre), a high-octane journey through the commitment and drive needed to be an Olympic athlete, with a serious nod to the cut-throat element of sport. The main character just about sacrifices her soul in order to win. It is a timely work of fiction, but Cleave is meticulous in his research, a fact that shines through the invented narrative in this great holiday read.
Claire Byrne presents Saturday with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1
The most intriguing book of the year was Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Harvill Secker), which, although advertised as a novel, seemed to be less a novel than a book about the difficulty of writing historical fiction, particularly when it comes to the Nazis and the Holocaust. That makes it sound like hard work, but in fact it’s an engrossing thriller about the plot to kill the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust and, even by the fairly low standards of the Nazis, a thoroughly appalling human being.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking), which I picked up with some trepidation. It’s eccentric, fragmented, and includes random and repeated digressions on MP3s, model trains and electric cars. It is, therefore, like spending a few hours inside Neil Young’s head, which is an entertaining place to visit even if one wouldn’t want to live there. Finally, ignore the naysayers and immerse yourself in Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second part of Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy on Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. I can think of no better book to keep a reader company over the long winter evenings to come.
John Connolly’s The Wrath of Angels is published by Hodder and Stoughton
Next World Novella (Peirene Press), by Mattias Politycki, is a little gem about loss. An aging academic finds his wife slumped over, dead, at her desk and leaves her there while he meditates on their life and his own obsessions.
In her memoir, Country Girl (Faber and Faber), Edna O’Brien charts a life lived with passion, truth, occasional dazzle, and utter devotion to words. She wears little armour – she peels the skin of memory in language that is fluent, vital, charged with feeling. This is pure Edna.
I found Alice Munro when I was 24 and ever since would walk over coals to reach each new collection. The stories in her latest, Dear Life (Chatto Windus), unmoor the reader in the way only hers can, and then slowly, cumulatively, devastate. The last four pieces are not fictions but veiled childhood memories. Alice is 81 now. I hope she lives to 101, because I cannot imagine a world without her.
Mary Costello’s short-story collection, The China Factory, is published by Stinging Fly Press
Diarmaid Ferriter’s Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s (Profile Books) is an impeccably researched and absorbing account of one of the most important periods of transition since independence. The archival breadth of the book, and its scrupulous methodology, are lessons in how to tackle often opaque sources to produce a narrative that is both compelling and trustworthy.
Harry Clifton’s The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (Bloodaxe) is a collection from one of our greatest poets, demonstrating yet again his immense skills, his large concerns and his angular relationship to Ireland, one that produces extraordinary verbal and emotional effects which linger long in the mind. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the second part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, tells us about the brutality of Tudor England, and its causes, in pellucid prose and superb dialogue. History is made to live.
Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland
The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley et al (Cork University Press), is a stunning achievement, full of cutting-edge research and inter-disciplinary perspectives, lavishly illustrated and a worthy monument to the defining event in modern Irish history.
Pádraig Yeates continues to excel as a social historian and never loses sight of the ordinary citizen, as demonstrated by A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-21 (Gill Macmillan). (See review, page 12.)
Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl: A Memoir (Faber and Faber) might be somewhat reticent in relation to personal revelations, but some of its prose is majestic.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, is published by Profile Books
Marilynn Richtarik’s Stewart Parker: A Life (Oxford University Press) draws a vivid portrait of a brilliant playwright and places him where he belongs – at the heart of the Irish dramatic renaissance of the late 20th century.
Two books of poetry are profoundly moving in different ways: Bernard O’Donoghue’s Farmers Cross (Faber and Faber) shows an apparently effortless control of diverse subjects but is above all elegiac: many of the poems are dedicated to dead friends, notably Ascent to Ben Bulben, in memory of the much-loved Yeatsian scholar George Watson. Tom Paulin’s Love’s Bonfire (Faber and Faber) is also elegiac, but (apart from measured versions of poems by the Palestinian Walid Khazendar) the tone is raw, painful and jagged. The title poem leaves an extraordinary resonance behind it.
Roy Foster is the Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford
The looming centenary of the Great War will lead to an avalanche of publications on the origins of this great human tragedy that started Europe’s violent 20th century. Those searching for a fresh and well-written account of how Europe stumbled into the abyss in 1914 will find Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (Penguin) most insightful and richly textured.
Another book that made a deep impression on me this year is Shulamit Volkov’s splendid biography of Walther Rathenau (Yale UP). Rathenau surely must be one of the most fascinating German politicians of the 20th century: he was not only the heir to a mighty industrial empire and chief organiser of imperial Germany’s economic war effort, but also a distinguished writer who came to endorse the liberal Weimar Republic after 1918. As a Jewish intellectual and German foreign minister favouring European reconciliation, Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in 1922. Volkov tells the story of his extraordinary life with great verve.