Philip Hensher There were some very good novels this year, but they came from surprising directions. It is astonishing that one as original as Kate Barker-Mawjee’s The Coldest Place on Earth (Conrad Press, £9.99) couldn’t find a major publisher. A friend recommended this wonderfully controlled and evocatively written novel about a heart coming to life in the depths of Siberia. I always enjoy Mick Herron’s half-arsed spy thrillers, but Bad Actors (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) took a big step into literary excellence. The dazzling, Conrad-like structure turned an entertainment into a major literary statement. Sheila Llewellyn’s Winter in Tabriz (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99) was a revelation – long considered and slowly overwhelming with its sense of time and place (Iran, 1979).
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There were some very good novels this year, but they came from surprising directions. It is astonishing that one as original as Kate Barker-Mawjee’s The Coldest Place on Earth (Conrad Press, £9.99) couldn’t find a major publisher. A friend recommended this wonderfully controlled and evocatively written novel about a heart coming to life in the depths of Siberia.
I always enjoy Mick Herron’s half-arsed spy thrillers, but Bad Actors (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) took a big step into literary excellence. The dazzling, Conrad-like structure turned an entertainment into a major literary statement. Sheila Llewellyn’s Winter in Tabriz (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99) was a revelation – long considered and slowly overwhelming with its sense of time and place (Iran, 1979). Someone else who has written magnificently about Iran is James Buchan. His A Street Shaken by Light (Mountain Leopard, £16.99), not about Iran but about a Scotsman on the make, is the first of a cycle. It is one of those historical novels that evokes not just a past time but a lost way of speaking.
I shouldn’t really comment on Penguin’s short story anthologies since I’ve edited three myself, but Patrick McGuinness’s two-volume The Penguin Book of French Short Stories (£30 each) is outstanding – even if it left out George Sand.
In non-fiction, I liked Keiron Pim’s life of Joseph Roth, Endless Flight (Granta, £25) – a work long wanted in English and capably carried out. Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History (Picador, £25) might be the book that I was assigned to review which I enjoyed the most. I ordered Betsy Balcombe’s memoirs of Napoleon in exile on the back of it, which is always a good indicator.
I’m a year late, but Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar (Granta, £9.99) was a knockout: a responsible history of places that at the time aspired to nothing more than a few hours of lurid fun and total oblivion. God knows how he remembered any of it.
Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbook by Karina Urbach (MacLehose Press, £20). Alice Urbach was a household name in pre-war Vienna, and her cookbook So kocht man in Wien! was a bestseller. Then came 1938 and, being Jewish, she escaped to England, and later to America. Her publishers coolly stole her book and reissued it in an ‘Aryanised’ version (for example, altering the preface, which had contained celebratory comments about the ‘international’ quality of Austrian cuisine) and supplied it with a new author, ‘Rudolf Rotsch’, almost certainly non-existent. Her granddaughter, the distinguished historian Karina Urbach, after patient research, unearthed the extraordinary story not merely of how the book was Nazified but how the publisher, Ernst Reinhard Verlag, continued to market it under the name of a fake author and hold on to the royalties until this century. An unputdownable narrative, told with remarkable restraint.
After recent lockdowns, two of my choices this year involve impressive getways: Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (John Murray, £20) is such an important piece of history that it is remarkable it hasn’t received more attention until now. This dramatic, compelling and deeply sensitive account raises issues around courage, agency and the credibility of facts that still resonate today.
A leaky gothic fortress provides the setting for Ben Macintyre’s page-turner Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle (Viking, £25). There are plenty of false moustaches on stiff upper lips here. But by including the lesser-known stories of those who were not straight, white, wealthy, healthy or male, Macintyre brings fresh colour to the classic picture of Colditz. This is escapist non-fiction at its most engaging.
Charles Spicer’s Coffee with Hitler: The British Amateurs Who Tried to Civilise the Nazis (Oneworld, £20) is squirmingly enthralling. I’d never fully appreciated just how vulgar and lacking in taste, style and sophistication the Nazis were.
Just occasionally a dedicated historian of his long-gone local regiment finds a treasure trove of photographs and publishes them with a fine narrative. Mark Forsdike’s The Malayan Emergency: The Crucial Years, 1949-53 (Pen & Sword, £18.99) is fascinating. The Emergency was arguably the British army’s finest campaign, and the Suffolks the most successful regiment. They were mainly national servicemen, but they took to the jungle remarkably well.
Leanda de Lisle’s Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix, Queen (Chatto & Windus, £25) is a shrewd and elegant reassessment of Charles’s I consort and widow – or ‘that popish brat of France’ and ‘Romish whore’, as she was also known. She was certainly a fighter.
Mary & Mr Eliot by Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner (Faber, £20). A not unfamiliar story: adored man and devoted woman friend, liked but never loved and devastated by his sudden marriage to another. T.S. Eliot – great poet, bastard behaviour. Heartbreaking and wonderfully told.
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle, £12.50). A fictional bastard, in a fine novel inexplicably omitted from every shortlist. There’s no justice. Though there was, eventually, for the late Hilary Mantel. But, weary of the Tudors, I prefer her first novel (which remained unpublished until 1992): A Place of Greater Safety is a masterpiece about the French Revolution. There’s no one left to touch her.
Books on architecture are often pious and dull – except for the vanity publications, when they are just plain embarrassing – so I enjoy irreverence for its rarity in this milieu. The photographer Jethro Marshall has produced a picture book, Building Society: Low-rise Bungalows in the West Country (West Country Modern, £12.50), an ironic but rather beautiful appreciation of this lazily despised building type. Barnabas Calder’s Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency (Pelican Books, £10.99) is not to be compared with Ruskin in scope or style, but is an interesting read which considers buildings in terms of the energy they exploit and consume. Projection: if we follow strict eco demands, new architecture might become a thing of the past. We’ll have to reuse everything. Typical line: ‘Every seven US residents get through more energy than was required to build the pyramid of Khufu.’
Meanwhile, more delightful than apocalyptic is Jeremy Lee’s Cooking Simply and Well, For One or Many (HarperCollins, £30). Architecture and cookery have a lot in common: you need a design or recipe, and each requires sound ingredients, intelligent execution and a desire to please. Just when we thought we’d never need another cookbook, the charming, loquacious and occasionally outrageous Lee proves us wrong. It’s nicely written too.
I loved a heavenly little volume of bons mots from the open road: On Travel and the Journey Through Life, edited by Barnaby Rogerson (Eland Books, £9.99). Not just the usual carpe diems from Horace, or everyone saying it’s the journey that counts, but things such as St Augustine’s ‘Solvitur ambulando’ – it is solved by walking – or Dorothy Parker’s ‘Too fucking busy and vice versa’. Rogerson is the skipper of the good ship Eland, the best travel publisher ever.
Ed Yong’s An Immense World (Bodley Head, £20) is an exploration of the ways in which our fellow creatures navigate, understand and interact with one another and their environment through their senses. Dogs, ants, birds, butterflies, fish, flies, scallops, seals, elephants and the Philippine tarsier (which communicates in ultrasonic frequencies inaudible to humans) are among the multitude the author considers, and he writes about them all with a bewitching mixture of clarity and awe. The result is so mind-boggling, it’s tempting to say ‘forget looking in deep space for astonishment’. But let’s not do that. Let’s continue searching there while also paying better attention to the miracles right under our noses. Yong’s marvellous book shows us how.
I began the year reading Claire Keegan’s novel Small Things Like These (Faber, £10). I have now reread it three times and will fit in a fifth reading before the year is out. Set in New Ross, Co. Wexford, in 1985, it quietly, accurately and beautifully explores what happens when Bill Furlong, the local coal merchant, faces a moral dilemma that his whole family and community have an interest in ignoring. Keegan writes with breathtaking elegance and compassion. Every rereading reveals something newly marvellous. I also much admired Lucy Caldwell’s novel These Days, set in Belfast during the Blitz (Faber, £10.99). Her evocation of the devastation caused by the bombs resonates with the images of Ukraine that have shocked the world this year. Finally, Stephen May’s Sell Us the Rope (Sandstone Press, £8.99) is a terrific reimagining of Stalin’s time in London attending the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party in 1907.
I own a few books which have been transported from flat to flat and country to country yet never opened. Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 (Eland, £12.99) was one such. A trip to southern Italy this summer gave me a reason to finally crack it open and register my foolishness. Lewis’s account of Naples immediately after the Allied invasion of fascist Italy, when the city’s aristocrats were either elegantly starving or pragmatically turning to prostitution to make ends meet, is extraordinary. His phrases catch you effortlessly by the throat. It’s the kind of writing – photographic in its intensity, cynically knowing, yet humane – that every journalist and non-fiction writer aspires to.
If you’ve been a foreign correspondent for any length of time you end up wondering what has pushed so many of the societies you cover into conflict and what can be done to prevent a repeat. Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace by Chris Blattman (Viking, £18.99) answers many of those questions, examining the causal factors for war and the methodologies of peace-building. Contrary to expectations, it’s an optimistic book. The author, a Canadian-American professor, believes that outbreaks of violence are the aberration, not the norm, and that small, incremental measures can have a disproportionate impact when it comes to avoiding strife. Tinkering trumps transformation. He has an accessible style, and the frequent use of concrete historical examples prevents the book toppling into game theory abstraction.
I bought one copy, for myself, of Kate Muir’s Everything You Need to Know About the Menopause (but were afraid to ask) (Gallery, £8.79), a paean to properly calibrated Hormone Replacement Therapy, then another two copies for friends, and am now considering buying it for my nieces. One day I suspect we will look back with pure astonishment on the era in which the 51 per cent of the population that experiences the menopause was either told by their doctors to ‘put up with it’ or was routinely prescribed anti-depressants. Muir’s campaigning work, along with that of the broadcasters Davina McCall and Mariella Frostrup, is already having a major impact.
The Wolf Hunters by Amanda Mitchison (Fledgling Press, £9.95) is an unashamedly nepotistic plug, since the author is a cousin. Set in a post-independence, dystopian Scotland, where rewilding is all the rage, this is the author’s first venture into the crime/thriller genre, and it’s a corker. Genuinely creepy and full of convincing detail, it’s a story with whisky on its breath, a wicked sense of humour and a dark, beating heart.
Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell (Faber, £14.99). Biographies by massive fans are often dull and slavish, but Rundell, with her own beautiful style, makes you cheerfully submit to and share her adoration of the man who believed that if you ‘tap a human… they ring with the sound of infinity’.
The Trees by Percival Everett (Influx Press, £9.99). I didn’t know what to make of this book and still can’t get it out of my head. It’s funny, dark, heartbreaking, clever and an absolute cracker.
The Palace Papers by Tina Brown (Century, £19.99). Nobody, but nobody, writes gossip like Tina Brown: she’s the gossip Goat – and you will tear through the pages.
Really Good, Actually by Monica Hersey (Fourth Estate, £14.99). This is funny – proper actual funny, not literary fiction funny. It takes every single time you have felt sorry for yourself and pushes it until it nearly breaks. I loved it.
The only good thing about the culture wars are the brilliant books we free speech fans have written on the subject. This year has produced three smashers: David Swift’s The Identity Myth (Constable, £20), Konstantin Kisin’s An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West (Constable, £18.99) and Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans (Constable, £20). The fact that they’re all from the same publisher who so short sightedly cancelled my own book on the subject (last year’s Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics) and I still love them is a testament to how good they are.
Doyle quotes me in his book – ‘Woke is the revenge of the dullard on the wit, of the wallflower on the whirling dancer’ – and this hat trick of excellence proves that it’s also the revenge of those who can’t produce anything more than a few sweary tweets a day on those who can sustain writing of real style and substance.
Ian McEwan’s Lessons (Cape, £20) is a brave venture. In this 500-page novel, his longest yet, he deploys the life of a helpless man-child to cover the entire post-war era, with its moral ambivalence and political paradoxes. He mixes true events from his own life with perceptive asides on the untrustworthiness of memory, yet turns the usual fictional pattern of writerly success completely inside out. His protagonist, Roland Baines, a feckless poet, is abandoned by Alissa, his German wife, who cannot face having anything to do with their baby son. To his astonishment and mixed dismay, she later turns out to be the star of contemporary German fiction. However much one wants at times to shake Roland out of his bemused torpor, McEwan’s wry humanity and gentle amusement at his own generation proves irresistible and a joy to read.
I thought I was a bit of a church crawler, but it was a revelation to devour the 365 full-page photographs by C.B. Newham in his Country Church Monuments (Particular Books, £40). He had all the best skin-and-bone cadavers, life-size horses, obelisks, swans and hand-holding couples to choose from, having spent years photographing 9,000 churches for national projects. There’s the famous hug-wrestling baronet of Bunny (Notts), laid out by Death, and the buxom waxwork of Sarah Hare, bright as life, at Stow Bardolph, Norfolk. It’s a complete history of England’s eccentric church embellishments, some outdoing their rustic housing in scale and daring. And Newham’s camera has caught wonderful images where no one has succeeded before. It makes me want to stay away from foreign glories till I’ve consumed these.
Johan Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages, translated by Diane Webb (Leiden University Press, £55), is an old classic in new clothes. First published in Dutch in 1921, it sets out to explain the mentality of late medieval men: their limitations, their joys and sorrows, the intensity of their experience of life and the profound pessimism of their outlook, all coloured by the universal presence of religion, ritual and symbolism. This is a literary and historical masterpiece which opens up a beautiful but arcane world. It was the book which inspired me as a teenager half a century ago to write about this rich and complex period. Diane Webb has written a fine new translation which for the first time does justice to the original; and Leiden University Press has produced an inviting volume, richly illustrated in colour.
The best writing I encountered this year also happened to be a form of rewriting: novels which took familiar stories and gave them an unexpected modern spin or even a bit of postmodern topspin. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (Faber, £20) relocates the action of Dickens’s David Copperfield to southern Appalachia – a place that has usually been seen by the rest of America as a source of either humour, in TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, or horror, in the 1972 film Deliverance – and the result is emotionally raw and riotously entertaining.
Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind (Mantle, £18.99) reimagines the classical myth of Medusa in a narrative that manages to be both very funny and unexpectedly terrifying: a true comedy of terrors.
This year, the average date of publication of the books I’ve read is c.1840. One of the most recent is J.B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934). Grumbly, hilarious and historically priceless, it recounts the author’s investigative odyssey through some of the loveliest and ghastliest rural and industrial parts of England, from Southampton to his native Bradford and back to London, by way of Tyneside and East Anglia. He talks to people, watches them at work and play, and consumes their depressing food. Finding none in print, I read a 1994 edition. The book is said to have boosted the Labour party’s electoral fortunes. With its meditations on the ‘miserable meanness’ to foreigners of ‘the cheap press’, the shrivelling of the railways and ‘the present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic’, its fresh and lively feel makes it my best ought-to-have-been-republished book of the year.
I missed a train because I was so engrossed in Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (Vintage, £9.99). First published in 1963 and reissued this year in a translation by Shaun Whiteside, it is a novel which sounds silly in plot summary. A woman is trapped in a high Alpine valley by a mysterious invisible wall and has to learn to survive. Totally gripping
The Lion House by Christopher de Bellaigue (Bodley Head, £20) is a complex piece of history told with extraordinary clarity. In the 16th century, a Greek slave becomes the best friend and adviser of the Ottoman emperor. The Doge of Venice, playing a double game, happens to be his father; there are threatening pirates with red hair, and where does the pope stand in all this? At a banquet, the slave, now sophisticated but unknown, has a drink: ‘After each sip of wine, he pours in a little water. That way a single glass lasts the whole evening, turning first mauve, then pink, then clear.’ We can see, and understand, everything.
Chips Channon would probably have met them all, since he knew ‘everybody’ and liked royalty best. On one evening alone he was invited to 11 dinner parties. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1943-57, the third volume edited by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson, £35), finds bombs falling on Belgrave Square. Channon is a little bored with being an MP and hopes to become a peer, while the love of his life, Peter Coats, is working for Lord Wavell in India. Perhaps the brilliantly successful and ‘sweet’ young playwright Terence Rattigan might take Coats’s place? Channon is honest, frank, intelligent, and wrong about practically everything, but always intensely readable.
‘Let cursed neutrality go to hell,’ spat a Puritan preacher, as Oliver Cromwell’s troops stormed Basing House. Jessie Childs’s The Siege of Loyalty House (Bodley Head, £25) turns an English Civil War stand-off into a fable of murderous polarisation: gripping, timely history. Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History (Picador, £25) delights and illuminates, as the chronicler of the Hexagone cycles around its demythologised past.
In fiction, Ian McEwan’s Lessons (Cape, £20) spans baby-boomer lives, minds and times with vision, insight and dexterity. Further afield, Zhang Yueran’s fierce, tender, penetrating Cocoon, translated by Jeremy Tiang (World Editions, £13.99), shows how the catastrophic legacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution blights Chinese lives. The wildly inventive dystopian satire of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria, translated by Max Lawton (New York Review of Books, £15.99), confirms that Putin’s Russia has met its (self-exiled) literary nemesis: it’s Orwell, Vonnegut and Calvino in one.
I’ve read a lot of mediocre-to-bad books this year about the pandemic, and one really good one: Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends (Allen & Unwin, £8.99). Set in the sun-soaked, jittery days of spring 2020, this madcap lockdown novel is fleet-footed, extremely funny and then, when you least expect it, rather moving. Also funny, also unforgettable, is Either/Or by Elif Batuman (Cape, £16.99), which concerns the misadventures of an intelligent, naive young undergraduate during her second year at Harvard in the late 1990s. Batuman is particularly good on sex and sexual politics.
In both books, the star feature is the narration. In refreshing contrast to the current vogue for minimalist plain speak, these are garrulous, rambunctious novels, full of baroque riffs and digressions. Treat yourself to some pure pleasure over Christmas: either of these would make perfect holiday reading.
More books of the year next week.