The end of the year seems an arbitrary but not insignificant marker in the continuum of life, so I realise that I’m putting undue pressure on, but I’m a finisher. After a year of these kinds of round ups, maybe it’s time for a change of tack…
THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK – DORIS LESSING: After stalling with The Good Terrorist, I was surprised to find an early hook. Perhaps it helped that the main character was so easy to identify with, and that the formal challenge of shifting gear as notebooks were traversed was enthralling and stimulating. It’s certainly an ambitious novel, that undermines as it upholds – rangy, intelligent and simply compelling.
THE BREAKERS – CLAUDIE GALLAY: A moody, enigmatic and almost entirely riveting story about a woman transported to the rough edge of the French coast for reasons that become clear – especially after she meets another soul turned up to grieve. A tense read, a ‘coming-to-terms’, and a mystery that’s not so much thrilling as it is dark. The things that make it memorable – the porbeagle, the children and an escape to Paris – are beautiful spots of light in the darkness.
THE FOUNDLING BOY – MICHEL DEON: After a terrific beginning, with cheeky asides from the writer (by far the strongest part of the book), the story of a boy growing up in Normandy just before the second world war dwindles into a romp around with a confidence trickster. Not that it started altogether earnestly, but it seemed to have a bit more weight than it ultimately delivered. Shan’t read the next one…
PACIFIC – TOM DRURY: Another terrific installment of Grouse County, as different again from The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams. Drury just cooks up the tastiest, most plate-licking of all literary dishes that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished. You can simply never have enough Drury. Question is, am I brave enough the enter The Driftless Area when my heart is in Grouse County?
UNDER MAJOR DOMO MINOR – PATRICK DE WITT: Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help but recall the story I heard about de Witt assessing his writing through the haze of dope. This story lacks the charm of The Sisters Brothers, though it has its fair share of capers and quirk. Whereas Eli is captivating from the start, Lucy takes a bit of warming up, and in the end, his story just wasn’t enough to have me rooting for him. Damned expectations, I say.
THE DRIVER’S SEAT – MURIEL SPARK: What a sharp knife Spark’s writing is, and what a story The Driver’s Seat. The protagonist is a perplexing oddball, going on a bewildering holiday. She’s looking for someone, someone that will complete her fantasy – or destiny – to make this the holiday to end all holidays. A shapeshifter, the character becomes different things in different company, and she drives exchanges with companions wilfully, almost maniacally. The man she ultimately fixes her gaze on has no chance. The backdrop of student riots serves as a poignant reflection of the woman’s self obsession, which leads to her self destruction. Chilling.
THE WOLF BORDER – SARAH HALL: Hall has thrilled me in the past with her almost feral characters, and Rachel begins that way, too: she’s a warden of a pack of wolves in Canada who is enticed to return to the Lake District to manage an ambitious project of re-wilding. Conceiving days before she leaves Canada, Rachel’s story is two-fold: becoming a mother; and getting to grips with hostility that is more political than natural. The setting and the characters sparkle in true Hall style, but the story pulls its punches so that the jeopardy remains too far away to be a threat.
DROWN – JUNOT DIAZ: Diaz’s spell over me holds. Drown is full of stories about people playing against their own character, dealing with hardship and turmoil that is as much internal as it is circumstantial – and yet expertly questioning the extent to which the environment makes the man. Drown is tender, and hones in on critical, formative moments. It also revels in the relationships between daily decisions and long-term situations, making the reader wonder when lightning actually strikes. Fucking glorious.
THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP – MARIE KONDO: Some books have a ‘time’ and this book’s time is now, following the painful process I’ve been through of emptying my London flat and condensing my belongings into the size of a shipment. In this mindset – ‘what else can go?’ – Kondo’s book makes great sense. That it is the only thing I’ve ever read to make me question whether I want to keep all my thousands of books is comment enough.