Eileen Battersby's books of the year
From a British Museum history of the world in 100 objects, and poetry about the great island monastery of Skellig, to new fiction from Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, 2010 has been full of great reads. Our Literary Correspondent reveals her top books of the past 12 months
Even the Dogsby Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury) Great fiction is still being written: McGregor’s third novel is a sublime, humane study of harsh lives sliding beyond the ordinary into tragedy. Marginalised drug addicts in today’s Britain tear each other asunder as a chorus of invisible mourners offers a commentary of lamentation. For layering of language, adroit tone shifts, deft characterisation and linguistic control, it is the novel of the year.
Tinkersby Paul Harding (Heinemann) Harding’s assured Pulitzer-winning debut, which may have suffered from having such a lame title, looks at one man’s life as he waits for death. There is a sense of Beckett’s Malone Dies,yet Harding, who writes with laconic grace and a philosophical serenity, is a gifted original. Poised and formal, yet conversational, Tinkersis about history as well as individual secrets. Most of all, this limpid little novel is a celebration of the singular ease of the finest of US writing.
Nemesisby Philip Roth (Cape) Drawing deep into memory, Roth produces a narrative of staggering urgency that recalls the 1944 polio epidemic that tore through wartime Newark with all the force of a Greek tragedy. Bucky Cantor attempts the heroic, yet everything falls apart, culminating in a darkly realistic postscript. Yet again Roth demonstrates how good he can be when he moves beyond his ego.
Everything Flowsby Vasily Grossman (Harvill Secker) A man spends days – no, decades – on an epic train journey home, having spent 30 years in the Gulag. Grigoryevich attempts to rebuild a life. Left unfinished at his death, Grossman’s courageous novel is a majestic memorial to him and his country and one of the most important books of 2010. The Road,a volume of stories and essays also published this year (by MacLehose), is further essential reading.
Red Aprilby Santiago Roncagliolo (Atlantic) An appalling series of vicious murders keeps the Peruvian police busy, yet beyond the complex story of this brilliant thriller is the deeply disturbed Associate District Prosecutor Chacaltana, obsessed with his dead mother; he writes reports and then is sent off to oversee a local election. Dark, almost unhinged, Red Aprilis both crazed and as cool as only the truest, subtlest art. Here is a novel that will linger in the memory for years – no, make that forever.
Taurusby Joseph Smith (Cape) The exciting English writer follows his marvellous debut, The Wolf(2008), with an account of a bull, half hero, half villain, who grows and matures, then acquires incredible strength only to face death in the bullring. Both fable and polemic, Taurus is an atmospheric morality play of fierce beauty.
No and Meby Delphine de Vigan (Bloomsbury) The Me of the title is Lou, a clever 13-year-old living with her parents in Paris. The three are trapped in a subdued grief caused by a family tragedy. Lou the observer is damaged and intense yet also capable of immense empathy. She befriends a slightly older homeless girl named No. De Vigan’s delicate, brutal tale is pitch perfect and unforgettable.
I Curse the River of Timeby Per Pettersen (Harvill Secker) Midlife crisis strikes Arvid, the narrator, leaving him so broken that he recalls: “There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees.” His marriage is over, and he can’t tell his mother, who is dying. Pettersen’s candid, allusive and tender Everyman fiction beguiles as it explores the mess known as life.
Lean on Peteby Willy Vlautin (Faber) No cheap gags, no easy laughs: only powerful emotion distinguishes Vlautin’s story of a young boy’s odyssey in a United States that is real. Charley the narrator lives in his head and his hopes, and he makes the reader consider every casual crime ever perpetrated against a child or an animal. Forget Franzen: this is what US writers can say and do.
Point Omegaby Don DeLillo (Picador) A slim, elegant and characteristically strange study in meaning yet again confirms DeLillo’s meaningful, visionary status. A video installation, 24 Hour Psycho, consisting of a frame-by-frame deconstruction of Hitchcock’s classic, provides a clue of sorts to a post-terrorism novel offering a dazzling variation of DeLillo’s enduring theme: the US on the run from history and, most of all, from itself.
The Museum of Innocenceby Orhan Pamuk (Knopf) Istanbul, 1975, and the wealthy young narrator is about to become engaged to his social equal. It’s the ideal match, but he becomes involved with a distant cousin. Suddenly all the carefully made plans shatter. The cultural tensions of East meets West explode in the background of this intense, ambitious story in which a man seeks contentment through obsessive collecting. Edgy and candid, it is compelling stuff.
In a Strange Roomby Damon Galgut (Atlantic) Three haunting narratives follow the narrator through the inner circles of loneliness. Galgut is a wonderful writer – perhaps this novel is, in fact, three heartfelt short stories, each intense and precise. But whether novel or short stories, the South African deservedly won even more readers with this compelling book that graced the Man Booker shortlist – and soared far beyond the eventual winner.
Things We Didn’t See ComingBy Steven Amsterdam (Harvill Secker) An original, daring, quasi-futuristic novel about what could happen, what will happen and what is, in fact, already happening, this fast-moving, nightmarish extravaganza about the coming apocalypse is both adventure and lament presided over by a boy narrator who keeps track of the strange developments in a still recognisable US. “We’re bringing vegetables to a farm?” he asks as flight takes over in a world going badly wrong.
Fosterby Claire Keegan (Faber) Everything great about the short story form, and everything great about the traditional Irish short story, is present in Keegan’s magisterial control in a narrative about a young girl sent to stay with relatives. Her mother is about to have another baby, and the child is dispatched to a couple united in their sorrow. Through them she discovers love, but the genius of the story resides in the ambivalence.
Skylarkby Dezso Kosztolányi (New York Review Books Classics) An ageing father and mother are trapped by their love for their domineering daughter, their “little bird”. It is 1899, and the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has already begun. The parents are excited by their daughter’s impending trip, and they make preparations. During the week she is away the old couple enjoy themselves. On her return the three realise the full extent of their communal misery. If fiction can achieve perfection, it has here, in this book first published in 1924.
The Sicknessby Alberto Barrera Tyszka (MacLehose Press) A doctor well used to death and dying is suddenly confronted with the reality of his father’s terminal illness. The two men are very close because of a bond formed between them, years before, when the old man’s wife, the doctor’s mother, died in an aircraft tragedy. The Venezuelan brings a strange grace to this poised, sophisticated novel about emotion; the old man’s fear of death is mirrored by the son’s dread of losing his father, while a neglected patient demands attention.
The Skating Rinkby Roberto Bolaño (Picador) The Chilean’s huge novels The Savage Detectivesand 2666speak for themselves, while his prolific oeuvre, bequeathed by a doomed man in a hurry, will continue to fuel conferences, yet don’t overlook this entertainingly eccentric debut – first published in Spain in 1993 but published in English for the first time this year – which is worthy of the Coen brothers and somehow made plausible by the colourful characterisation.
Skippy Diesby Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton) So Man Booker wanted a comic novel? This was it, and twice as funny as The Finkler Question. Murray ringmastered a cast of tough-talking teenagers and messed-up adults through a deceptively well-plotted tale with, at its tragic heart, the eponymous hero and his personal hell.
Lovesongby Alex Miller (Unwin) The narrator, a writer, returns home to Australia and notices changes in his neighbourhood, including a new bakery. His writer’s imagination can’t prevent itself imagining the story of the couple who run it. Miller, the unhyped author of several fine novels, deserves a wide readership. Begin with this beauty.
The Anthologistby Nicholson Baker (Simon Schuster) “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know . . . but everything I know about poetry,” begins Baker’s characteristically offbeat and engaging narrative about a man struggling to write an introduction to an anthology. In the process it makes us not only laugh but also think – as only Baker can.
Februaryby Lisa Moore (Chatto) Set in Newfoundland, this unusually philosophical, thoughtful narrative considers the often-forgotten victims of a disaster: the survivors. Helena has been in mourning for 30 years, since the night her husband was lost at sea when the oil rig he was working on disappeared into the ocean. Far more than just another great Canadian novel, February pieces together a life on hold.
Something Is Out Thereby Richard Bausch (Knopf) Author of Peace, one of the most compelling war novels ever written, Bausch is an American master with a feel for the short story that places him in elite company, up there with Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.
If I Loved You, I Would Tell YouThis by Robin Black (Picador) From the opening story, The Guide, in which a father considers his blind daughter and his various betrayals, it is obvious that Black’s quiet, insistent voice, with its shades of Mavis Gallant, simply won’t let go.
Wolf Among Wolvesby Hans Fallada (Melville House) The Berlin of the 1920s inflation years comes to life in Fallada’s epic. Wolfgang Pagel, a young former soldier, is part of the corruption that surrounds him, until he seeks something better. Written by a defiant, at times inspired Fallada in full awareness of Nazi propaganda, it is an astonishing book of its time – of any time. This edition contains, for the first time in English, the full text.
The Life of an Unknown Manby Andreï Makine (Sceptre) Long based in Paris, a Russian writer who has just been left by his grasping younger girlfriend decides to return home to a post-communist country he no longer knows.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritanceby Edmund de Waal (Chatto) De Waal is a major potter. On inheriting a collection of 264 miniature carvings that have been in his family for generations, he set out to track their history from the 19th-century Charles Ephrussi, who would inspire Proust’s Swann, to Habsburg Vienna, on to the eventual danger of Nazi occupation, to England, Japan and eventually to De Waal, in whose artistic hands this family memoir becomes a central-European novel of breathtaking beauty.
Driving Home: An American Scrapbookby Jonathan Raban (Picador) The master of the margins, Raban is an inspired observer and a natural writer. He has always understood the US, and since he left his native England to settle in Seattle he has never lost his understanding of the US or his outsider’s fascination with it. Six hundred pages of pleasure, including Last Call of the Wild.
Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Timeby Joseph Frank (Princeton) The most Russian of all the great Russian writers – indeed, he was “too Russian” for Nabokov – Dostoevsky the literary giant deserves a monumental book, and this is a masterful single-volume edition of Frank’s epic five-volume study. Tormented through his life by a host of demons, Dostoevsky lived a life that is the stuff of fiction, and Frank brings perception to the chaos and the genius.
Engineers of the Soulby Frank Westerman (Harvill Secker) In what is part investigative odyssey and part literary history, this gifted Dutch writer, a former Moscow correspondent, sets out to look behind the official version at the writers of Stalin’s Russia, including the wonderful Andrey Platonov, and their efforts to salvage their country’s cultural intregrity.
f The Cello Suites: In Search of Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin (Chatto) A newly retired pop-music critic happens to arrive at a concert where he falls in love with the music of Bach. Siblin’s new passion brings him on an entertaining and well-researched odyssey dominated by Bach, the suites and the musician who presented the haunting pieces to the world, the cellist Pablo Casals.
f Atlantic by Simon Winchester (Harper Press) The Atlantic is grey, immense, full of stories. This rich, engaging, informative romance is both personal and epic. It all begins with a voyage on an ocean liner that Winchester took when he 18. Having sailed from New York to Southampton myself, when everyone appeared to be seasick bar my brother and me, I found this book irresistible. The writing is as choppy as the ocean’s waves, but Winchester’s forensic approach, his heart and his enthusiasm compensate for the occasional lulls.
Chopin: Prince of Romanticsby Adam Zamoysky (Harper Press) In his bicentennial year the world has shimmered with the music of Chopin, a genius who heeded the folk idioms of his native Poland. Zamoysky, a historian, is far better on the life and society than he is on the art, yet this is an intelligent book.
Waking Up in Toytownby John Burnside (Cape) This Scottish poet and novelist is such a terrific storyteller that he makes riveting this squalid account of his addictions after the hellish childhood he related in his earlier memoir, A Lie About My Father. Wonderfully well written, this crazy, honest and insightful account of dancing with disaster is moving and, often, horrifically, hysterically funny.
Muraqqa: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Libraryby Elaine Wright The art historian has assembled a strong team of contributors, including Charles Horton, in compiling this magnificent catalogue of six 17th-century imperial Mughal albums to accompany a world-class exhibition that toured internationally before arriving home at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. It is a gorgeous book of wonders, exploring calligraphy and the art of floral border decoration.
A History of the World in 100 Objectsby Neil MacGregor The director of the British Museum sets out to plot the history of civilisation through a series of objects, including pieces of eight and Dürer’s woodcut of an Indian rhinoceros. Each tells its story, and all prove how exciting history can be.
Human Chainby Seamus Heaney (Faber) “And soul is longing to dwell in flesh and blood / Under the dome of the sky” – from The Riverbank Field.No other constant has blessed the communal present as consistently and cohesively as that of Heaney’s poetry. His brilliant 12th collection explores life and death; memories flicker, ghosts walk and the genius pulses as powerfully, as exactly, as ever. No one has achieved more for poetry; no one has given more to his craft. Human Chainis high art and life itself.
Voices at the World’s Edge – Irish Poets on Skellig Michaeledited by Paddy Bushe (Dedalus) The great island monastery of Skellig, established in the sixth century, is a wondrous place. A group of poets ventured out to stay the night, and the works inspired by the experience are gathered in this special book, which includes Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain’s Vertigosequence.