Eileen Battersby's books of the year
2011 HIGHLIGHTS:From a fictionalised portrayal of oppressed Libya to a trek through Alaska, our Literary Correspondent chooses her favourite publications of the past 12 months
Anatomy of a Disappearance
By Hisham Matar
Matar’s outstanding second novel, with its stylistic echoes of Nabokov, tells how a boy’s resentment of his detached widower father turns to remorse. All the sinister menace and secrecy that dictated events in Libya are considered by Matar the artist as truth teller.
The Sisters Brothers
By Patrick deWitt
So good, so funny, so real, so very, very sad. The Canadian writer revitalises an honourable old genre and makes it soar in an unforgettable narrative about loneliness, friendship and trying to clamber above the horror.
By Thomas Bernhard
The great Austrian writer transformed angry eloquence into art while waging war on the Viennese arts scene’s smugness and hypocrisy. In this masterful Dostoevsky-like diatribe the narrator, a writer, having accepted an invitation to a dinner given in honour of an actor, waits for the guest to appear and offers a running commentary on his former friends, including a woman who has just killed herself – as indeed did Bernhard, five years after publication.
By Claudie Gallay
A woman arrives in a Normandy seaside village to catalogue migratory birds, but she is, in fact, dealing with a huge personal trauma. A man arrives to investigate the death, years earlier, of his brother. Gallay’s assured mood piece intrigues and seduces while offering a vivid gallery of small-town characters, each nursing grievances.
New Finnish Grammar
By Diego Marani
A Finnish doctor working in Hamburg treats a sailor so badly beaten he is expected to die. He survives but has lost his memory and his language. The doctor, convinced the patient is a fellow Finn, sets out to retrieve the words, hoping identity will follow. Marani’s miraculous novel is profound, moving, elusive and tragic.
By Roy Jacobsen
Finn, who lives with his mother in 1960s Oslo, is about to lose his bedroom to a lodger. Not quite Huck, but the narrator of this witty and poignant coming-of-age novel, in which the narrator has to deal not only with his absent father but also with the sister who results from Dad’s short-lived affair, is well nigh perfect and utterly believable.
Professor Andersen’s Night
By Dag Solstad
A solitary academic sits down to eat his Christmas Eve meal and, gazing out of the window, sees a woman being strangled in a nearby apartment. Another uncanny meditation on trying to survive life by the Norwegian author of Novel 11, Book 18; relentlessly intelligent yet very human.
The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am
By Kjersti A Skomsvold
Dalkey Archive Press
Another gifted Norwegian, this newcomer tells the story of Mathea, widowed and lonely, who talks to herself and her absent husband in a blend of despairing optimism reminiscent of Beckett’s Winnie. A beautiful, defiant little book.
By Teju Cole
A young Nigerian doctor takes to wandering the streets of New York. He engages with the city but also revisits his earlier life, and this takes him to Brussels and Nigeria. Obviously influenced by the great WG Sebald yet individual in its meditations on race and identity.
The Artist of Disappearance
By Anita Desai
Too subtle ever to create a fuss, the three-time Booker nominee is a marvel worthy of standing with Tolstoy and Chekhov. The three long stories in this ideal introduction to her art are perfection. Translator, Translatedmay well be her finest – and that is saying something.
By Ron Rash
The deserving winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story competition here gathers several of the finest stories anyone could hope to read. These are powerful excursions into the darkest areas of human experience. Magnificent is suddenly too small a word.
By Jean Echenoz
The New Press
Having explored the life of Ravel, the French wizard here looks at the great Czech distance runner Emil Zatopek, the reluctant athlete who didn’t like running but knew how to obey. Running is both cautionary tale and great book.
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
By Yiyun Li
Graced by her characteristic candour, these are excellent stories from the author of The Vagrants. Particularly impressive is the novella Kindness. Yiyun Li is the consummate realist.
By Roberto Bolaño
The posthumous river of Bolaño publications continues, and yet again the frenetic Chilean, celebrated for his labyrinthine sagas, shows he is also a fine sprinter. The eponymous narrator is approached by a beautiful woman to cure her dying husband, who is, true to Bolaño, a poet. But there are those who want the poet dead. Hilarious and slightly crazy: don’t miss it.
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.
By Jacques Strauss
A singular tale about a deed committed by the narrator’s 11-year-old self that comes to haunt him. I can’t understand why this vivid novel, set in South Africa just as apartheid is about to collapse, didn’t get more attention.
Other People’s Money
By Justin Cartwright
Few novelists are as assured, stylish, socially perceptive and witty as the British-based South African – and this fast-moving exposé of the times we live in is all that and more.
A Summer of Drowning
By John Burnside
The Scottish poet and novelist is, sentence for sentence, one of the finest writers about. This books is set largely on an island in the Arctic Circle where the narrator’s mother, an artist, has come to paint. Burnside makes inspired use of the landscape and the bleak folk tales that may hold the answer to some mysterious drownings. Another of the year’s most overlooked novels.
The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
The greatest risk that Eugenides, the risk-taker and author of The Virgin Suicides(1993), takes in this highly readable account of a campus love triangle is to take no risk. A likeable, kindly novel, it explores the process of emotional growth as well as depression and its impact on everything it touches.
Monsieur Linh and His Child
By Philippe Claudel
Claudel’s film I’ve Loved You So Longis astonishingly sensitive, as is Broderick’s Report(2009). This exquisite novel again considers the theme of displacement; an old man flees his homeland, carrying only his sorrow, his memories and an ability to love.
The Outlaw Album
By Daniel Woodrell
From the author of Winter’s Bone(2006) comes a superb collection of unrelenting studies of life at the edge that suggests American writers continue to hold the genre by the throat.
The Angel Esmeralda
By Don DeLillo
No one listens to the battered heartbeat of the US more intently than DeLillo. These nine stories, spanning some 40 years, culminate with the more recent, and finest, he has written. What a seer.
By Sam Savage
Firmin is a rat. Life finds him in a struggling Boston bookstore. At first he eats the books. Then he begins to read them. This is a cult book in the making. Savage writes with a wry whimsy, and Firmin speaks for dreamers everywhere.
There But for The
By Ali Smith
It all seems so simple. You invite people to your home; they eat; they leave. But what happens if a guest decides to seek refuge from life in a bedroom? This lively novel from the extremely clever Ali Smith has sufficient great moments to compensate for the gag – and the book – being pulled a bit thin.
The Art and Craft of Approaching your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise
By Georges Perec
Perec, who delighted in subplot and digression, here offers an immaculate comic tract that if followed could secure that raise or, more likely, cost you your job. Still, this masterful novella is so funny it will compensate for your loss.
The Death of the Adversary
By Hans Keilson
This European classic, first published in 1959, is oblique in tone and very deliberate. A bundle of papers entrusted to a lawyer is passed on to a friend for his opinion. The central narrator is the voice present in the papers. He looks back on his obsession with an unnamed dictator, B, and his rise to power. There are echoes of Kafka and of Hans Fallada and Wolfgang Koeppen; Keilson was a psychiatrist, and this is a masterclass in how the mind works.
Now All Roads Lead to France
By Matthew Hollis
The poet brings astonishing empathy and intelligence to this study of the final years of Edward Thomas, a literary journeyman who reviewed everything before becoming a poet thanks to the encouragement of Robert Frost. The Edwardian world comes alive, as do the turmoil and uncertainty of the first World War.
By Ian Donaldson
Shakespeare’s great rival was a soldier, a murderer – he killed a fellow actor – and a genius. He lived life on the edge and brought swagger into his art. Donaldson is a scholar with enough panache to make this book seethe with its subject’s energy and anger.
The Anatomy of a Moment
By Javier Cercas
Cercas had been planning to write a novel. But, unable to forget his glimpse of history in the making as he saw, on TV, civil guards storm the Spanish parliament – three new ministers stood firm – he instead pursued what he saw.
Charles Dickens: A Life
By Claire Tomalin
All praise to a great biographer turning her gaze on a three-dimensional subject stalked by his ambivalence. All of the contradictions are here, and she confronts them in a book that reads as a story starring the most complex of Jeykll-and-Hyde characters.
Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Tomalin chronicles the chaotic life, but this excellent study must not be overshadowed. It is the better book, as it looks to the work that consumed Dickens, who spent much of his career shaping his own life into fiction with a strong social polemic.
Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer
By Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Described as the English van Gogh, Samuel Palmer was a follower of William Blake who, with like-minded artists, sought refuge in the English countryside. A great romantic, his strangely beautiful work has been neglected. This gentle, sympathetic book will encourage people to discover a visionary.
The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
By Fiona MacCarthy
The British artist Edward Burne-Jones emerged from a tiny devoted following to become the central figure in the shaping of the softer aspects of the Victorian imagination. MacCarthy looks at the man and his work while also examining the 19th-century English arts scene.
By Jennifer Potter
Although never quite caught up in the violence surrounding the tulip, the rose has its own story to tell, and Potter blends the literary, historic and symbolic references with quiet charm in a handsome volume modelled on Anna Pavord’s work.
The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72
By Molly Peacock
The Canadian poet’s captivating engagement with Mrs Delany follows the story of a minor English aristocrat married off at 17 to a 61-year-old who dies within eight years, leaving her a widow – until, in her 40s, she meets an Irish rector named Delany. Widowed again, at 72 she invents collage, creating botanical works of such splendour they charm Peacock’s imagination.
In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry
By Seamus O’Brien
Garden Art Press
One of Ireland’s unsung heroes is the great plant collector Augustine Henry, who first set off for China in 1881. His initial collection of 1,000 plant specimens was welcomed by Kew Gardens, and his extensive travels and discoveries have been honoured by Seamus O’Brien of Kilmacurragh Gardens, who has replicated his journeys and written this rich, much-needed book.
Fire Season : Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout
By Philip Connors
Bored to death with a conventional job in New York, Connors discovers peace in the blessed solitude of keeping watch over a vast area of the US wilderness. He is on the lookout for range fires that begin suddenly and tear through thousands of hectares. Presented as monthly instalments kept throughout the fire season, it’s a book that testifies to the greater depths of life and thought to be found by watching nature.
The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956
Edited by George Craig, Dan Gunn, Martha Dove Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
The forensically gathered letters in this second volume – there are two more to come – run parallel to Beckett’s emergence as a playwright and provide extraordinary insight into the writing process, while leaving no doubt he was a terrific person from whom to receive a note, however brief. All the humour and humanity of the work sing out, often engagingly.
Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape
Edited by FHA Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout.
Cork University Press
Revised, expanded and now with an index, this major book is as important as ever in the ongoing battle to protect Ireland’s besieged environment as it faces huge dangers from the waste-processing industry.
Warrior: the Amazing Story of a Real Life War Horse
By General Jack Seely
No, not great literature, but what a wonderful story. General Seely went off to the first World War and took his beloved horse; together they experienced it all, including the Somme. Aside from Seely’s stiff upper lip, his love for his horse is real and heartbreaking, and the descriptions of life at the front are graphic.
By Lynn Schooler
From the author of The Blue Bear, this is a nail-biting account of a trek through the Alaskan wastes. Schooler looks beyond himself and the freezing conditions to think and, above all, see. This is nature writing at the highest level.