Top titles from a year of reading

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

BOOKS OF THE YEAR:Our Literary Correspondent chooses the books that made the greatest impression on her in 2012



By Richard Ford (Bloomsbury)

By far the novel of the year: everything that can be good and great and true in fiction is expressed with an unnervingly eloquent humanity in this devastating masterwork. An older man looks back on his younger self and recalls with quiet regret the events that followed his father’s failed bank robbery. Ford’s art draws its strength from his relaxed, rhythmic prose and his astute observations of human nature.

The Doll

By Boleslaw Prus, translated by David Welsh (New York Review Books)

Prus casts a witty, all-seeing eye over the foibles of late-19th-century Warsaw society in this brilliant satire, first published in 1890. Dominated by the deranged Gatsby-like efforts of its hero, Wokulski, to win the shallow heart of an impoverished aristocrat, Izabela, it teems with life, gnashing of teeth and inspired dialogue.

The Misunderstanding

By Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (Chatto Windus)

Destined to become internationally famous some 60 years after her death in Auschwitz, in 1942, Némirovsky, the daughter of a Jewish banker from Kiev, fled Russia in 1918 and settled in France. Her story defies fiction. Suite Française and eight other novels have already appeared in English. Ironically, this one, her debut, written at 21, may be her best. Its staggering emotional intelligence proves that, however much she wanted to be French, she is a Russian writer.

The Cove

By Ron Rash (Canongate)

As beautiful as it is bleak, this story of a brother and sister’s shared dream of maintaining the family homestead against the odds in the harsh Carolina landscape is stalked by fate. Hank has returned from the war that left him with only one hand. Laurel is childlike but clever, and unaware that Hank is trying to prove to his girlfriend’s father that he can manage. When Laurel discovers an injured stranger with a secret, her act of kindness has tragic repercussions. Rash makes inspired use of the devices of the European fairy tale.

Dear Life

By Alice Munro (Chatto Windus)

Even by her breathtaking standards, this is a terrific collection, honed by Munro’s astute intelligence. One character admits: “I don’t get around to thinking about things. I always think there’s plenty of time.” But there isn’t. Life is short, and Munro’s art resounds with harsh truths. The book includes Amundsen, one of her finest stories.

Where I Left My Soul

By Jérôme Ferrari, translated by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press)

Set in Algeria in 1957, this shocking and perversely beautiful morality play follows Degorce, a French officer convinced of his superiority, as he eventually realises that he too has become evil. Also keenly watching is Lieut Andreani, even more obsessed, resentful and demented.

A Small Circus

By Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann (Penguin Classics)

When farmers decide to strike in a small town in Germany, events mirror the collapse of the Weimar Republic. In telling their story, Fallada makes use of his brief stint on a provincial paper, which gave him an insight into local politics. First published in Germany in 1931, A Small Circus delighted critics of the regime, yet its real strength lies in Fallada’s superb characterisation, narrative pace and, above all, dialogue.

The Life of Rebecca Jones

By Angharad Price, translated by Lloyd Jones (MacLehose Press)

Price looks at the history of a Welsh family that has farmed the same valley for 1,000 years. She marvels at such cohesion. Yet this tradition is threatened when three sons are born with a genetic blindness. A way of life is celebrated with dignity and nostalgia in a story beautifully unfolding towards an evocative revelation.

The Fall of the Stone City

By Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson (Canongate)

A town in Albania, rich in Ottoman buildings, is home to citizens eagerly watching their two doctors. One of them appears to win a social advantage when the Nazis arrive, posing as liberators, and their leader claims an ancient friendship. The doctor issues a supper invitation. Kadare is a playful and wise observer. This short, sharp narrative wields deceptive authority.

An Ermine in Czernopol

By Gregor Von Rezzori, translated by Philip Boehm (New York Review Books)

From the author of The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) comes an account of the antics of Maj Tildy, once an Austro-Hungarian officer. Now the empire has gone he has taken to defending his sister-in-law’s dodgy honour. This is a kaleidoscopic narrative set in a place where everyone except Tildy sees the absurdity of life.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

By Anne Tyler (Chatto Windus)

Subtle and direct, Tyler’s brilliantly underwritten narrative, in which a bereaved husband reassesses the life he shared with his dead wife, is a minor miracle. The fatal accident is shocking, but more surprising is the reflective self-discovery of eccentric Aaron, one of Tyler’s most engaging narrators.


By Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean (Harvill Secker)

Riba is a publisher fearing for the future of books. Approaching 60 and depressed, he sets off to Dublin for a literary odyssey during which he quickly comes to resemble Leopold Bloom. Vila-Matas’s fictionalised literary-essay form is engagingly original as well as rich in allusions and fun.

The Misfortunates

By Dimitri Verhulst, translated by David Colmer (Portobello Books)

Few families exist in quite the alcoholic haze manufactured by Dimmy’s father and uncles. All the vomit and mess are heroically managed by the gritty grandmother who dispatches any police calling at the door. Verhulst’s semi-autobiographical romp set somewhere in Belgium begins raucously but gathers unexpected emotional force.

The Annotated Brothers Grimm

Edited by Maria Tatar (Norton)

A magnificent volume to celebrate the bicentenary of the first volume of stories from the German siblings whose scholarship gathered a vast amount of folklore.

The Dinner

By Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett (Atlantic Books)

Initially the narrator seems to be merely the disgruntled brother of a successful man. They meet in an Amsterdam restaurant with their spouses. But instead of a satire on sibling rivalry, this is the story of their response to a crime committed by their sons.

The Guard

By Peter Terrin, translated by David Colmer (MacLehose Press)

Two security guards are in charge of an apartment building. Or are they prisoners? This masterly surrealist study of contemporary society, by a Flemish original, is worthy of the great JG Ballard.

Art in Nature

By Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal (Sort Of Books)

Witty, offbeat and unnerving, these stories reiterate Jansson’s astute and unrelenting observations of human nature.

The Attic

By Danilo Kis, translated by John K Cox (Dalkey Archive Press)

The Serbian’s self-assured comic picaresque debut was first published in 1962. Set in Belgrade, it follows a young writer as he commits to his art; there are echoes of Gogol and Bulgakov.

Dead Souls

By Nikolai Gogol, translated by Donald Rayfield (New York Review Books)

The Collected Tales

By Nikolaio Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Granta)

Such is Gogol’s all-pervasive influence on European writing that both of these new editions are great value.


By László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes (Tuskar Rock/Atlantic) Wonderful, crazy and grotesque, this daring novel takes six tango-like steps forwards and then six steps back, reflecting Gogol and Bulgakov while making its own subversive statements. First published in Budapest in 1985, it showcases postmodernist central European fiction through a series of theatrical, highly visual set pieces.

Train Dreams

By Denis Johnson (Granta)

The inspired Johnson charts the waning days of the American west through the life, losses and mistakes of an ordinary, forgotten man who died at 80 and once saw Elvis.

Swimming Home

By Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

An unhappy English couple try to conceal their misery by renting a holiday villa. Into their stalemate arrives a troubled young woman only marginally older than their own brooding teenager. Levy made a dark, compelling return to fiction with this taut novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Lighthouse

By Alison Moore (Salt)

Lonely, newly divorced Futh decides to go on a walking holiday in Germany. On the ferry he recalls a boyhood journey with his father. Moore’s Man Booker-shortlisted debut is nuanced in its study of displacement and apathetic turmoil.

Silent House

By Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn (Faber)

Belatedly translated into English, 29 years after its publication, Pamuk’s second novel, about a Turkish family, is confidently handled through contrasting viewpoints as well as flashes of vividly physical humour.


By Stig Saeterbakken, translated by Sean Kinsella (Dalkey Archive)

Increasingly detached Andreas Feldt has a strained lunch with his adult daughter, argues with an irritating superior at work and then embarks on an evening of uncharacteristic behaviour. His thoughts acquire a life of their own in this remarkable and affecting Norwegian novel.

The Light of Amsterdam

By David Park (Bloomsbury)

Alan’s plan is to see a Bob Dylan concert in Amsterdam. He was not expecting to bring his moody teenage son, but Alan’s ex-wife decides otherwise. Park’s seventh novel is a complex study of relationships that sees him allow characters rather than themes to propel an intelligently realist narrative.

The Spinning Heart

By Donal Ryan (Doubleday/Lilliput)

Ryan’s passionate debut articulates the confusion and anger of contemporary Ireland through the voices of the lost and betrayed.

Jack Holmes and his Friend

By Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

The long opening sequence of White’s ninth novel is so good that it almost compensates for the disappointing second section. At his best, White seduces with beguiling candour and virtuoso imagery, making this narrative of ebbs and flows worth reading.

Brooklyn Heights

By Miral al-Tahawy, translated by Sameh Salim (Faber)

Hend arrives in the US having fled Egypt and a failed relationship. With her is her eight-year-old son, along with her literary ambitions. As the boy begins to rebel, Hend feels increasingly old – she is in her late 30s – and invisible. The theme is displacement, and the tone is one of candid vulnerability.


By Will Self (Bloomsbury)

A London postmodernist novel that makes as many nods to Thomas Pynchon as it does to Joyce and Woolf, this a fun book, endearingly self-satisfied. It is difficult not to enjoy its tricks and bravura flourishes.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

By Carol Rifka Brunt (Macmillan)

The candid debut by this New York-born, Devon-based writer, about a young girl’s relationship with her dying uncle, is told with such beguiling intimacy that you can anticipate her thoughts and be genuinely concerned about the outcome.


Caspar David Friedrich

By Johannes Grave (Prestel)

Aside from being a majestic-looking volume, with superb reproductions, Grave’s insightful monograph offers an intense scholarly reading of the work of one of the towering figures of German Romanticism. He responds to the paintings with restrained passion and a sense of the cultural traditions that shaped Friedrich, including the friendship with Goethe that he later rejected.

Roads to Berlin

By Cees Nooteboom, translated by Laura Watkinson (MacLehose Press)

A prevailing literary presence in the Netherlands, Nooteboom writes fiction with a metaphysical allure, and his travel writing and essays are invariably insightful. Roads to Berlin is a series of essays chronicling his lifelong engagement with German culture.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

By Caspar Henderson (Granta)

Here is the key to nature’s secret cupboard, featuring the animals that have eluded our gaze. Seek no further for the dream gift.

More Lives Than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada

By Jenny Williams (Penguin)

This outstanding study of Fallada is essential reading for anyone with an interest in a complex German master. First published in 1998, it has been revised and updated by Williams, who has had subsequent access to a further 6,000 letters. Fallada had many problems in life, many of his own making, but he has been fortunate in his biographer.

Portrait of a Novel

By Michael Gorra (Norton)

The US literary scholar traces the path that led Henry James to the publication of The Portrait of a Lady, in 1883, and beyond. Gorra’s admiration for one of James’s most beloved works makes this slightly novelistic study irresistible.

The Golden Age of Botanical Art

By Martyn Rix (André Deutsch and Kew Gardens)

This spectacular, informative and important book combines a history of the evolution of botanical art with the riches of the Kew library collection of prints.

Cézanne: A Life

By Alex Danchev (Profile)

The author of Georges Braque (2005), Danchev looks to Cézanne in this scholarly, hugely engaging study of an artist known for his direct approach in dealing with people. Cézanne the individual strides out of the pages, attitude and all – as does his art.

A Journey to Nowhere

By Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Euan Cameron (MacLehose Press)

An allusive personal quest tracing a lost romance develops into a seductively exciting historical exploration of a country that no longer exists. Dominated by empty manor houses, Courland is now part of Latvia, and Kauffmann is the ideal literary detective.

The Old Ways

By Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton) Macfarlane follows ancient tracks and forgotten roads in a magical book that travels through cultures and histories as well as the physical world. Edward Thomas is present, as is a very powerful sense of England. But so too is the influence of WG Sebald.


By Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books)

Less self-aware than Macfarlane, Jamie responds to the natural world with an individual, often humorous approach.

The Dirtiest Race in History

By Richard Moore (Bloomsbury)

In an exciting investigation, Moore provides an insider’s guide to the ugly reality of Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic disgrace and the wider travesty of drug abuse in sport.

The Mirador

By Elizabeth Gille, translated by Marina Harss (New York Review Books)

An unnervingly enlightening and revealing study of Irène Némirovsky written as the imagined autobiography she never wrote, by a stranger who was also her daughter. Gille was five when her mother died.

The Scientists: An Epic of Discovery

Edited by Andrew Robinson (Thames Hudson)

From Copernicus to Hubble, Linnaeus to Darwin, this fascinating book resounds with those words Isaac Newton once wrote in a letter to Robert Hook: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is a book of – and for – life.

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