Wednesday 7 December 2016

My novels of the year

This is the time of year when newspapers publish their 'best of' lists, giving literary hacks the chance to do some low-key log-rolling, or score-settling, or even to go public with a declaration of their particular favourites. One is, struck, as always, as much by the more flagrant omissions as by the ritual inclusion of Ali Smith's latest, whatever it is.

This has been in several respects the worst year of my life (or rather, as Homer Simpson would gently point out, "the worst so far"). I shan't bang on about Brexit and Trump, or personal or professional travails (all boring), and will simply point out that at least it's been, by way of consolation, a remarkably good year for fiction. Or what we have to call 'literary fiction', to distinguish it from the mulch..

A clutch of great novels appeared over the past twelve months, some of which will certainly last and be read by future generations. We need these writers, many of whom are under forty. and are not ever likely to become crowd-pleasing best sellers; will never be picked up by Richard and Judy's Book Club. They are in many cases published by the tiny independent outfits. who do so much to enrich our real literary culture. These are the writers I like, the writers I need.

So, at the end of a particularly rotten year year here are books that offer some hope, if that's not egregiously hyperbolic:

Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (Dalkey Archive Press)

An enormously impressive debut by a very young Australian writer who lives in Paris. I wrote about it for the Literary Review and confessed that I found much of it utterly baffling. It's experimental, to put it mildly, and consistently startling. Cox is a writer to watch. Who knows where he'll take us next.

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber)

An extraordinary year for our best living writer (and you can quote me on that) and this, her second novel, has met with mixed critical responses. I loved it, and think that it's even better than her great debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The author appeared last month on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions alongside the foghorn bigot Nigel Farage, running rings around him.

The North Water by Ian McGuire (Scribner)

I reviewed this harsh and unsettling novel for the TLS here. It's Moby Dick unplugged, and one of the most violent  and bracingly disgusting books I've ever read. The author's sense of the period, and of the sordid milieu, is absolutely convincing and often upsetting. This, one feels, is what the ghastly business of whale fishing was really like.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press)

The author's first novel in ten years, and it's taken the world by storm. Two big literary prizes already and huge critical acclaim. I wrote about the novel for the Literary Review (but you'll have to subscribe to read that). Here's a short blog  about the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize, which the author won.

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker (Faber)

I blogged about this blazingly original debut novel here.  It came out at the start of 2016 and made an immediate impression - a visceral account, by inanimate objects, of a military catastrophe. An astonishingly strange idea, brilliantly executed and entirely memorable. It seems to have dropped off all of this year's lists - perhaps I'm wrong in thinking it was published in 2016? It is, with Forbidden Line, the best debut novel of the year, although it's impossible to imagine two more different books. A good thing, surely?

This Is The Place to Be by Lara Pawson (CB editions)

This is not a work of fiction, nor is it a memoir, but it's certainly one of my books of the year, The author is a former BBC war correspondent, spending much time reporting the bloody conflict in Angola. She describes terrible things beautifully. It's also about her childhood, her life today in East London and her many friends and lovers, past and present. It's tough, candid, tender and true. There is real life here in abundance. 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Faber)

I blogged about this wildly successful novel here. It hardly needs further recommendation - and you've probably read it anyway. An assured interrogation of loss. 

Martin John by Anakana Schofield  (& Other Stories)

'Not for the faint-hearted' seems to be the consensus. To which I say 'balls'. This extraordinary account of a sexual pervert with a fabulous range of personality disorders (some almost endearing, most not) is a brilliant, bleakly comic exercise in style - Schofield has formidable gifts and ferocious powers of concentration. Like Beckett she works with impotence and ignorance, her prose is stark and full of shrewd repetitions and redundancies.

Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge  (Galley Beggar Press)

I've just finished reading this, the author's debut novel, published on 1st December. It took me a week and put me in a genial frame of mind that has lasted until now. A more joyous literary extravaganza hasn't come my way in years - it's an absolutely magnificent single-minded masterpiece and as mad as all get-out and I love it. Read my blog about it here.

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine  by Diane Williams (CB editions)

Bewilderingly original. Williams is new to me and on the strength of this wonderful collection of short (and often very short) stories I plan to read everything she's published, and as a matter of urgency. She navigates the mundane and makes it fresh and strange - a unique sensibility, and a brilliant stylist.

I publish this blog on the same day that the Goodreads Fiction Book of the Year is announced. With 30,154 votes Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty, published by Flatiron Books, is the winner. 

Six responsible adults. Three cute kids. One small dog. It’s just a normal weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

The only author I've heard of on this dire list is Ian McEwan (Nutshell comes in 17th with 1,300 votes). You can see the complete list here  Am I missing anything?


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