Top titles from a year of reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.