The list is a little shorter this year. I don’t know why exactly – I certainly read as much as usual, but only a few really stayed with me. So a drum roll please for (in no particular order):
1: Station Eleven. I first heard of this novel at an authors’ event at Dulwich Books. Emily St John Mandel read from the work, and described it as a ‘love song for civilisation’. Many dystopian novels seem a bit misanthropic, almost gleeful in their destruction of the enormous technological power we have in the 21st century. This post-plague novel brought home forcefully what we have to lose. It made me relish again the miracle of flying thousands of miles to visit friends, the wonder of being able to pick up the phone to talk to family, the extraordinary security in which so many of us in the West enjoy our day to day lives. Despite its bleakness, it’s an optimistic novel, holding out the prospect of rebuilding.
2: Case Histories. I’m late to the party here, but I’d never read any of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries. I discovered them on my mother’s bookshelf and was so gripped I couldn’t stop until I’d read the entire series. They offer the joy of a good, gripping thriller, written in crisp, satisfying prose, with lashings of dark humour and pathos. The long-suffering Brodie, a private eye with a history of disastrous relationships, is utterly beguiling. Please, can we have some more?
3: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. In the absence of the next Thomas Cromwell novel, this collection of dark and discomfiting tales from Hilary Mantel was the next best thing. No-one does mordant humour like her. They’ll be with me for a while; something nasty lurking in the bookshelf.
4: How to be both. ‘Ho, this is a mighty twisting thing,’ begins my copy of Ali Smith’s dazzling novel. But maybe not your copy, because the two interwoven stories were printed half with one story first, half the other. The invention, in language and imagery, as well as plot and structure, took my breath away. It became the novel I pressed on people this year, trying (and failing) to explain its extraordinary achievement. It’s full of the joy of being alive, and creating.
5: Black Country. Another bookshop evening, this time at the London Review Bookshop, where Liz Berry enchanted me with readings from her funny, magical and tearful collection of poems. I heard her again on the radio this morning, reading the bittersweet elegy to her mother, Homing, on Cerys Matthew’s Sunday morning Radio6 Music show. Listening to her sweet voice is the best way to hear her poems, but the second best is reading them, savouring each for their original and rough music.
Next year I’m planning on reading a lot of non-fiction, starting with Diana Athill, Edmund De Waal and something by 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I’m looking for wisdom. If you have recommendations, please share them here.