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by The Guardian
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005 at 2:59 PM
Critics name their favourite books of the year 2005
Books of the year 2005
Books of the year: writers' guide
From poetry to prose, fact to fiction, our critics and guest writers name their favourite books of the year
Saturday November 26, 2005
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Everything Good Will Come(Arris Books) by Sefi Alta is full of irreverence and intelligence. There is a humane quality about Saturday (Cape) that I, irony-weary, loved. Ian McEwan so masterfully handles the elements I most enjoy about fiction: I cared for his characters. And I enjoyed Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation (John Murray). He has invented his own language - part Nigerian pidgin, part Iwealaese - that propels and liberates the story.
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (Virago) is her best book; a night- marish but very real vision of the future that continues to haunt me. I expected Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (Vintage), given the book's premise - a fascist government coming to power in America in the 1940s - to be much more horrific but I think its power is in the subtlety of Roth's approach. James Reasoner's Texas Wind (Dark Tail Publications), out of print since it was published in 1980, has long held a kind of cult status. Short and simple; it's the perfect private detective novel. Ali Smith's The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton) is definitely literature. She is one of the few contemporary writers ploughing a genuinely modernist furrow.
Georges Simenon is a late discovery of mine - not the Maigret policiers, but what he called his romans durs, his serious ones. Tropic Moon, translated by Marc Romano (New York Review Books), is a dark masterpiece, darker even than Heart of Darkness, set in Gabon in the 1930s: violent, sexy and frightening. Another essay in noir, Hilary Mantel's beautifully written novel Beyond Black (Harper Perennial), should have been on the Man Booker shortlist. The Power of Delight-A Lifetime in Literature: Essays 1962-2002 by John Bayley (Duckworth), is old-fashioned, anti-theoretical criticism at its best. And for the studied effrontery of it, John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? (Faber): wrong-headed, self-contradictory and brilliant.
Dr Johnson's Dictionary, by Henry Hitchings (John Murray). None of us would know how to describe, feel or convey what we meant unless we had a knowledge of the right word to use. This book is the riveting account of how Dr Johnson, an 18th-century man, blind in one eye, terrified of death and convinced he was lazy, compiled what is considered to be the definitive dictionary of the English language. Hitchings brings Johnson's humanity and the massive task he undertook to touchable life. A Jealous Ghost by AN Wilson (Hutchinson) is a convincing, compelling and icy reworking of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, in which Sallie, an American girl obsessed by the subject of her PHD thesis, quits university to take on the job of temporary nanny in an English country house. Sallie is so manipulated by words, so deluded by her own emotional fantasies that she interferes with James's original narrative and screws it into terrifying reality. When I Grow Up by Bernice Rubens (Little Brown) was published shortly after her death. This is a memoir of a prolific and important writer and Booker prize winner. Born into a musical family in Cardiff, the third offspring of emigrant Jewish parents, she gives a moving, truthful and often abrasive account of her life as a child, wife and mother, maker of documentaries and her emergence as a novelist. This is a "must" read for those would-be authors who puzzle as to what makes a novelist.
Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Fourth Estate) is in fact a year of lucid and rational thinking, about grief and mourning and feared loss; this account of a husband's death and a daughter's grave illness is the more moving for not trying to seem so. Alex Danchev's Georges Braque: A Life (Hamish Hamilton, £35, for which we should get more and better illustrations) is the first biography of the great Cubist, a vivid and cogent portrayal of a grave and moral man.
I love the musical syntax that informs Anne Stevenson's Poems 1955 -2005 (Bloodaxe) but in fiction I have been steeped in European writing: Stefan Zweig's Twilight Moonbeam Alley and other short stories (Pushkin Press); and Raymond Radiguet's masterpiece, The Devil in the Flesh (Marion Boyars), about the delicate and sensual love between a boy of 16 and a woman whose husband is away at the front in the first world war, written before Radiguet's untimely death at the age of 20. Having been intoxicated by Sandor Marai's Embers (Penguin), I am currently devouring with delight his Conversations in Bolzano (Penguin).
Tony Judt's Postwar (Heinemann) is a deft and gripping account of Europe's history after 1945 - political, ideological and cultural, though with the strange (or perhaps significant) absence of so-called "classical" music. To correct that fashionable emphasis read Richard Taruskin's five-volume, one man Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford University Press), one of the most brilliant exercises in cultural history tout court produced since the end of the second world war.
Anthony Burgess took strenuous efforts to lay false trails for future biographers, but he has been thwarted by Andrew Biswell's mind-boggling diligence. The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (Picador) is the biography all Burgess fans have been waiting for and which the great man himself richly deserves: revelatory, scrupulous, sincere and fascinating. David Harsent's carefully harrowing collection of poems Legion (Faber) is both a disturbing distillation of and profound meditation on the vicious wars we have witnessed recently. Poems that move and make you think.
I reviewed David Constantine's wonderful stories, Under the Dam (Comma Poetry), for the Guardian, and am still thinking about the quality of the writing. Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is indeed beyond black, a terrible and swirling horror-comedy about a very fat medium on the perimeter of the M25, haunted by mean and nasty spirits, veering between damnation and the trivial. Reza Aslan's No God but God (Heinemann) is just the history of Islam I needed, judicious and truly illuminating. And I was enthralled by Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language (Heinemann), a history of how words came to take the forms they do, and therefore a history of the forms of the human mind.
I was greatly taken this year by three books which showed their subjects in entirely new light: Jane Glover's irresistible Mozart's Women (Macmillan) which, by placing Mozart in a domestic context gave us, for the first time in my experience, the man, at the same time entirely rehabilitating his remarkable wife, Constanze and his scarcely less fascinating mother, Maria Anna. John Pemble's Shakespeare Goes to Paris (Hambledon & London) proved as revealing about Shakespeare as about French responses to him, while Philip Hoare's far-ranging and superbly written England's Lost Eden (Fourth Estate) probed Victorian millenarianism, finding echoes as far back as the death of William Rufus in the New Forest.
It's been largely a re-reading year for me. I've returned to Edith Wharton, Dylan Thomas and laughed out loud at the opium-fumed insanity of Sax Rohmer's unintentionally hilarious Fu Manchu series (Allison & Busby). Of 2005's new books I did enjoy Cathi Unsworth's The Not Knowing (Serpent's Tail), an espresso of a femme noir, and Martyn Waites's dark, heartbreaking The White Room (Pocket Books). But it's Crusader's Cross (Orion) by that grand master of American fiction, James Lee Burke, that had me sitting up all night savouring his beautiful, elegiac prose and the intoxicating evocation of what is now, sadly, the lost world of New Orleans. Burke is a genius - this novel, complex, deeply mystical and violent, is another triumph.
CD Wright just won a big award called the MacArthur, which is awarded to people for being original thinkers and doing good things. Wright has been doing very idiosyncratic and always passionate work for a long time, and Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press) is my favourite book of hers. It's a sort of manifesto that explains why and how she writes, and why poetry is necessary. But it's not pedantic, or dull, or in any way expected. It feels very Whitman-esque (to me at least), fast and soaring like that; it's so inspiring that it's hard to sit still while reading it.
My year kicked off with The Right Nation by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Penguin), an outstanding study of the conservative ascendancy in the United States. Both Economist writers, they combine scholarly rigour with journalistic verve to tell what is an extraordinary political success story - one that goes a long way to explaining the shape of today's world.
I much enjoyed Elusive Peace by Ahron Bregman (Penguin), the companion volume to the excellent BBC documentary series charting the last five years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one fascinating nugget after another. And for sheer knockabout fun and insider gossip, who could resist Christopher Meyer's DC Confidential (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)?
I had some very severe opinions about fiction set in a concentration camp, but Imre Kertesz has forced me to eat my words. He won the Nobel in 2002, but we have had to wait until this summer for a new translation of his novel Fatelessness (Harvill). Utterly unlike the work of Primo Levi, Kertesz's voice is that of dispassionate wonder and enquiry, demonstrating that happiness and the inviolability of the self can survive the worst horrors imaginable. And immediately before that I read the paperback of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One (Pocket Books), twice and would have read it again had my handbag not been stolen in Selfridges.
Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler (Orion) - an urgent account of the day-by-day corruption of public and private life in Nazi Germany. It should also be read as an alert call, not just this is how it happened, but this is how it happens. Jung Chang's and Jon Halliday's biography of the world's greatest mass murderer, Mao: The Unknown Story (Cape), which is perhaps the most horrible and certainly one of the most educative books I've ever read. Nice to recall two novels, Stephanie Merritt's Real (Faber), eloquent and witty on what's wrong with men, and Julian Barnes's Arthur and George (Cape), a look in cool and courteous prose, at a squalid English injustice rectified by obstinate English decency.
The rediscovery of Richard Yates, America's lost novelist, year after year gives a guarantee of a wonderful read. Revolutionary Road (Methuen) is now seen as a great novel of suburban America and, for me, Easter Parade (Methuen) is no less fine. All credit, then, to Politico's, for this year giving us Young Hearts Crying, one of the author's last books before his death in 1992. It's an agonising study of artistic mediocrity, of post-war men and women who would like to be artists without being much good at anything. Over the madness, the drink and the moving resilience falls the long shadow of the second world war. Nobody combines the powerful passage of history with complete accuracy of emotion like Yates. A masterpiece.
I loved Barbara Caine's Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family (OUP) for the way it used family history to illuminate 50 years or so of British public - and, at times, very private - life. Also outstanding was Evelyn Welch's Shopping in the Renaissance (Yale) which showed that there's nothing new about getting into debt at this time of year, especially if you're a girl in need of a new party dress. Both books qualify as being "academic" history, but they're written with such pace that you're hooked before you have a chance to feel scared by the scholarship.
Why is it danger always seems a necessary concomitant of greatness? Maria Fairweather's Madame de Staël (Constable and Robinson) was my most satisfying biography. Not a minute of De Staël's life was wasted, not a page of this book is dull. In the great 2005 anniversary tussle - Guy Fawkes versus Lord Nelson - I firmly side with the former. Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (Phoenix) remains the most poignant account, but James Sharpe came through strong on the day with his Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. His Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Profile) is a study in the potency of myth. David Miles's Tribes of Britain (Weidenfeld) peels back the early history of the British Isles, and shows how modern it really is. We have always been a most complicated of nations. To much the same point is the sharpest of personal memoirs, Xandra Bingley's Bertie, May and Mrs Fish (HarperCollins), about growing up on a Cotswold farm in the war. It proves that, of all eras in British history, the past half century has seen the most total upheaval.
Several books this year unexpectedly found new fuel in seams of material considered over-mined. Can there be anything fresh to say about Shakespeare? James Shapiro offers brilliant new readings of the writer's work and world in 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (Faber).
Is there anything new to be done with the tricksy, post-modern novel in which the writer teases the reader about what's real and what's not? Bret Easton Ellis proved that there is, in his best work of (sort of) fiction, Lunar Park (Picador), which is the terrifying story of one "Bret Easton Ellis", celebrity, junkie, husband, father and being stalked by his own characters. And two veteran English crimewriters managed to at least equal their previous best: PD James's The Lighthouse (Faber) is a classic closed-community murder mystery filled with a tender wisdom about life and death, while Reginald Hill's The Stranger House (HarperCollins), a working holiday from his Dalziel and Pascoe, is an Yorkshire-Australian tragi-comedy about religion and a scandalous political act.
One of my favourite biographies of the year was Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton (Fourth Estate), a lively and fascinating reconstruction of the "real" Isabella Beeton, unpicking her extraordinary posthumous legend with great skill, opening a wide window on to Victorian domestic and publishing history, and wearing its excellent sleuthing with a light grace. And I read with painful pleasure two remarkable pieces of life-writing out of Ireland, John McGahern's Memoir (Faber), a story of cruelty, bereavement and childhood torment told in McGahern's peculiarly luminous, calm, and humorous voice, intensely and vividly local; and Patrick Cockburn's The Broken Boy (Cape), an impressively unselfpitying and informed analysis of the 1950s Cork polio epidemic of which he was a victim, with a sprightly account of Anglo-Irish Cork life and the radical Cockburn household thrown in.
My books of the year have been Hilary Spurling's Matisse the Master (Hamish Hamilton), the final volume of her superb life of the artist; Edmund White's utterly absorbing autobiography My Lives (Bloomsbury); AN Wilson's After the Victorians 1901-1953 (Hutchinson), a highly personal survey of a fascinating period, cunningly provocative and beautifully detailed; The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton (Fourth Estate), Kathryn Hughes's inspired reconstitution of the queen of household management.
Two very differently very English books impressed me: Geoffrey Hill's austere, Anglican collection of poems, Scenes From Comus (Penguin), and Iain Sinclair's antic, anarchist docu-travelogue-autobio-rant, Edge of the Orison (Hamish Hamilton).
John McGahern is one of the finest living writers, and his Memoir (Faber) is a book his admirers have been waiting for. It casts light on all his fiction, but if you didn't know his work you could begin here, with a book about his Irish childhood which by turns makes you angry and sad, but uplifts you by the beautiful line of his sentences, by mean of pure cadences which make the rest of us look clumsy. Geoffrey Robertson's witty and dramatic The Tyrannicide Brief (Chatto & Windus) asks for a re-think on the lawyer who prosecuted Charles I, and who was himself executed at the Restoration after a travesty of a trial. Why is John Cooke not a radical hero, and why are we not listening to the contemporary resonances of his efforts to use the law to combat tyranny?
A friend marched me into a bookshop and demanded I buy the complete short stories of Flannery O'Connor, for which I bless him. Her mid-century stories of race, religion and rural Dixieland loserdom are mindburning wonders of image and speech which I come to annoyingly late. Eothen by Alexander Kinglake (Picador) is the less known link in English travel writing between Sterne and Chatwin. The energy, simplicity and sensuousness of his descriptions of the Middle East isn't something I associated with Victorian prose. Why did he really go to Cairo, when he knew the plague was raging there? I loved Michela Wrong's new history of Eritrea, I Didn't Do It for You (Perennial). A beautifully wrought account of human vileness and the banal corruption of sacrifice.
I've been a historian since school and I decided to go back to the subject this year. I'm particularly interested in military history because I cannot imagine what it is like to have fought in battle. I've read two enthralling books about different types of war in the 19th century. 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski (Perennial), vividly describes one of the most horrific episodes in warfare. And Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins) brings together a very original portrait of Nelson the hero and gives another vivid depiction of a battle, this time Trafalgar, set in an illuminating political, social and cultural context.
I savoured every paragraph of Orhan Pamuk's masterful Istanbul (Faber). A three-pronged book, this: an anatomy of the city's body and soul; a compelling account of family politics, war and diplomacy; and a study of the youthful writer's gropings through the dark towards his true vocation. I read "just one more" of the stories in Michel Faber's The Fahrenheit Twins (Canongate) until it was three o'clock in the morning, the book was finished and the next day a write-off. By turns crepuscular, buoyant, delicate, wry, horrific, otherworldly, this wordly and organ-rupturingly funny collection is a vitamin boost for the British short story. James Shapiro's 1599 (Faber) depicts a pivotal year in the theatres, courts, streets and provinces Shakespeare's England. The author loves his subject and writes erudite, undumbed-down history that none the less reads as fluidly as a good novel.
Among the diaries and essays in Alan Bennett's Untold Stories (Faber), it's the family reminiscences that stand out, with images such as that of his Aunty Myra scattering her husband's ashes among stunned picnickers on Ilkley Moor: funny, moving and true. For those not already acquainted with the American poet Sharon Olds, her Selected Poems (Cape) is the perfect opportunity: the titles look recklessly confessional ("After 37 Years My Mother Apologises for my Childhood"), but the narrative drive and attention to detail more than justify the risk, and who else would write a poem on the pope's penis? As an antidote to Yuletide slush, the anthology Light Unlocked (Enitharmon), edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lawrence Sail, offers wintry, Christmas-greeting poems by (among others) Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope and Paul Muldoon.
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes (Cape) and Saturday by Ian McEwan (Cape): they both got under my skin and stayed there. So did Alice Oswald's new collection of poems, Woods Etc. (Faber). And the great delight of my year, the book that made me feel I'd been waiting for it all my life, is the magnificently-produced and completely enthralling Birds Britannica, by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey (Chatto & Windus).
Bookstores should have a new category for their stock, something that combines short story and essay and poetry, tragedy and humor, fiction and non-fiction. Maybe there should be one shelf labelled just "Truth" or "Beauty". And sitting alone on that shelf would be Amy Hempel's books, especially this year's collection of stories: The Dog of the Marriage (Scribner). Every story reminds you how badly love can end, yet why we always sign on for another round of that torture. Hempel kills you, but then brings you back to life. A dazzling, shining new life.
Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black (Perennial) is the strangest, creepiest, most sorrow-and-pity-inducing book I've read for a very long time. As a picture of the morally and physically squalid Britain of today it's unsurpassed; it's also a great ghost story. A chilling masterpiece.
James Meek, in The People's Act of Love (Canongate), displays a confident ambition that I enjoyed very much. The picture he paints of a Russia crumbling into chaos, of the bizarre and horrifying behaviour that can flourish in unvisited corners of a vast and brutal landscape, is broad and powerful. Storytelling is coming back; both of these novels show it, and I'm delighted.
Two novels made me want to rush out and buy the authors a drink: Peter Pouncey's stunning Rules for Old Men Waiting (Chatto & Windus), by turns flinty and lyrical, with (astoundingly) yet another first world war story at the heart of it that rewrites the genre. On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton) was exuberant, expansive, fabulously untidy but with a pitch perfect ear for all kinds of things Smith somehow knows about: ageing marriage; street talk in downtown Boston and the tortured self-importance of the academic life. A terrific year for the history of modern art too, with the second volume of Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse, Matisse the Master (Hamish Hamilton) and Jed Perl's New Art City (Knopf). I really loved Maya Jasanoff's gorgeously written Edge of Empire (Fourth Estate): cultures coming together in unexpected ways in India, Egypt and Japan. And, when Hunter S Thompson went up in a whoosh I thought I should go back and read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Perennial). Does it wear well? No. It rocks.
In what's been a strong year for non-fiction I was impressed by two books that give a couple of domestic issues the most human of faces, Richard Benson's The Farm (Hamish Hamilton) and Alexander Masters' remarkable deconstruction of a life (and a literary form), Stuart: A Life Backwards (Perennial). In The Short Day Dying Pete Hobbs (Faber) wrote probably the most original fictional debut of the year; a resonant tale of love and faith that moves, poignantly and powerfully, against the flow of "the modern novel". Christopher Logue's Cold Calls (Faber) is the very welcome fifth instalment of his ongoing masterly adaptation of Homer's Iliad while Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture (Picador) and Clare Pollard's Look, Clare! Look! (Bloodaxe) are both, in their very different ways, reminders that the poetic pulse still beats as strong as ever in the 21st century.
Now over 70, Alice Munro just gets better as she gets older. The eight stories in Runaway (Chatto & Windus) are literally breath-taking - they leave you winded with their toughness and brilliance. She's very good on the whole business of knowing and trying not to know, its role in making hard things softer, and on the shifty way in which time operates on memory. These stories aren't stories. They're life-spanning novels with the boring bits left out. They jump, and skip whole decades, but while the scene is happening, it's as spacious and detailed and leisurely as a novel. The great thing is, she knows how to cut to the chase.
I've relished two alienated accounts of life in Hampstead and beyond (the sound of detonating bombs over the horizon). Elias Canetti's Party in the Blitz (Harvill) is a score-settling journal of grim poetry readings and high-caste corpse-feasting. A lethal fiction of memory. Iqbal Ahmed's Sorrows of the Moon: A Journey through London (Coldstream) appears, at first, to be wide-eyed and innocent. It soon reveals itself as a Mayhew excursion through the cruel and fantastic city we are forced to recognise as our own. Across the river, Allen Fisher's south London epic, Place, a poem of anger, love, retrieval, has been reissued in a great seething brick by Reality Street, Edinburgh.
Two new books have sent me to the back catalogue of two great writers: Hilary Mantel and Joan Didion. Beyond Black (Perennial) and The Year of Magical Thinking (Fourth Estate) are my favourites of the year. I also recommend An Experiment in Love, Giving up the Ghost and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Mantel - all published by Perennial), and Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (Didion - both published by Flamingo) to anyone who, like me, was dense enough not to have read them earlier. For Christmas I want all Didion's novels.
Not simply because he faces trial for what he has written, but because it's a wonderful book, Orhan Pamuk's Snow (Faber) is a timely and moving insight into the collision of the west and Islam, set in the falling snows of the country of our times, Turkey. It's rare indeed to find so finely tuned a work of fiction telling us so much about the true nature of the events through which we are living. On the factual front, Zaki Chehab's Iraq Ablaze (IB Tauris) is a remarkable and important account of life inside the Iraqi insurgency. Chehab proves that for a truly holistic account, the book still outstrips even best of the bloggers.
This startling shocker strips bare motherhood. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Serpent's Tail) is this year's winner and the most remarkable Orange prize victor so far. For more unvarnished home truths, read back-to-back retaliatory autobiographies by Diana Melly - Take a Girl Like Me (Chatto & Windus) - and husband George Melly - Slowing Down (Viking) - authentic Bohemians writing with eye-watering candour and lack of vanity. Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand (Profile) is so funny about modern rudeness that it almost escapes "We're all going to hell in a handcart". Best political thinking: Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Allen Lane), reminds us what all the getting and spending and politicking is really for.
I've always been an ardent fan of Carol Ann Duffy's work. This year's Rapture (Picador) confirms her, in my eyes, as the most humane and accessible poet of our time. Through a series of linked poems, charting the passionate progress of a love affair - from the "glamorous hell" of losing your heart, through the "cargo of joy" that mutual love brings, to the "dark hour out of time" that signals final separation from the beloved - we feel the steady beat of true emotional understanding. Nothing is strained here, nothing is imposed or false or tricksy or self-vaunting. Rapture is essential reading for the brokenhearted of all ages.
I've been impressed by two first novels by young writers this year. In The Honeymoon (Picador), by Justin Haythe, a boy surveys his claustrophobic relationship with a self-deceiving mother. Not much happens - and yet a great deal happens, and the whole thing is so odd, subtle, funny and sad, and so beautifully written, you can't help but feel that Haythe is on his way to being a major literary talent.
Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing (Vintage) tells the story of two ambitious men involved in the development of Ottawa in the 1970s. It combines great story-telling with a prose so vivid and visceral it is really poetry. A hugely exciting book.
First three equally absorbing novels: The Double by Jose Saramago (Vintage) is a philosophical reflection, a modern fable and, at the same time, a mystery novel woven together by a Portuguese master story-teller. Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker), Elias Khoury's moving, funny and often savage work is the first Arab novel to make the Palestinian disaster of 1948 its central theme. Broken Verses (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie is set in Karachi during the Zia military dictatorship and is an affecting story of a courageous feminist and her love for a radical poet without being politically correct in any way. The non-fiction from which I learnt a great deal this year is authored by a former West Point graduate and US military historian, Andrew J Bacevich. The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (OUP, USA). A good Xmas present for local warmongers.
Ali Smith's The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton) progresses with rocketlike unstoppability; Sartre and Jacques Tati could have been the parents of this gleaming book. Dermot Bolger has written his finest novel in The Family on Paradise Pier (Fourth Estate); his portrait in bold strokes of a lost Anglo-Irish world reaching out into every struggle of the 20th century is fantastically adventurous. Carson (Hambledon and London), by Geoffrey Lewis, also astonishes, not least in its account of the highly emotional Carson at sixty falling irrevocably in love with Ruby Frewen, half his age, even as the whole world of Ireland hung in the balance.
The novel Findings, by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books) because it finds without disturbing the found. And this takes courage and delicacy.
Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid (Henry Holt & Company). Told exclusively from the perspective of regular Iraqis, these are the war stories we never hear. Shadid, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, avoids the trap of critiquing the occupation for its poor execution - bad planning, corruption, brutality. For his characters, there is only one question that ever mattered: Is this a liberation, or is it an occupation? As an expert storyteller, Shadid tries to disappear but he cannot. In a country trampled by foreign ideologues who are ignorant of its culture and language, the author's own fluency in Arabic and deep understanding of Iraqi history themselves become damning indictments of the arrogance of occupation. Why doesn't this definitive work have a British publisher?
A strong year for fiction - including Diana Evans 26a (Chatto and Windus) and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail) - but also plenty of excellent non-fiction to get your teeth into, not least Tom Holland's wonderfully readable history of the first world empire and the battle for the West, Persian Fire (Little Brown). Holland sets up Greece versus Persia of 2500 years ago, skillfully separating fact from fiction. Readable history at its best with great battles scenes! More sobering, another essential read is A Woman in Berlin, the anonymous diary of a German woman caught in Berlin in April 1945 with the Red Army storming the city (Virago).An observant, elegant and sharp writer, with an extraordinary sense of detachment, the book's an uncomfortable reminder that, when it comes to war, things have not changed so very much.
I loved Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation (John Murray), written in an English that has had its back broken by Nigerian tonal rhythms - Iweala's tale of a nine year old boy soldier in an unnamed African state at war has more than a tinge of truth. Aimee Bender's short story collection Willful Creatures (Doubleday Books) includes a tale in which a big man buys a tiny man and keeps him in a cage. Another book in which I found a comparably heady mix of imagination, skilful prose and generosity of spirit was Marilynne Robinson's pitch-perfect Gilead (Virago), it was a three day wade, and should have been longer.
I'd strongly recommend The March by E.L. Doctorow (Random House - USA), about the end of the American Civil War. The novel leaves you at a loss as to whom to be angriest at: General William Tecumseh Sherman and his rampaging horde of Union troops as they burn to the ground whatever they can't loot or rape, or the Southerners who started the most deadly conflict in American history and so arguably deserved everything Sherman's march rained down on them. Doctorow puts you so smack in the middle of all those severed limbs, dead horses, and smoking plantations that the smell of gangrenous wounds, rotting flesh, and charred roofbeams rises from the page.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
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