I started 2018 with grand plans to keep good records and review every book I read this year. As usual, that lasted till about half way through February, so my year-end round-up of books I loved reflects those that really made an impact.
In no particular order, they are:
Icebreaker: a voyage far north
Horatio Clare’s account of life aboard a Finnish ice-breaking ship, busily keeping the Bay of Bothnia navigable to shipping during the long winter months, made me pine for the fjords. Something about Clare’s descriptions of the stoic and gloomy crew, the splendour of the ice and the implacable nature of the ship’s life appealed to me. Anyway, it may help to explain why I’m heading to Helsinki on Saturday to spend Christmas in the snow.
It took me a while to get around to Francis Spufford’s rollicking novel of 18th century New York. I’d read about how beautifully it was written, how precisely it conjured the pioneering spirit of early Manhattan, how well it was researched… but I don’t remember anyone pointing out how side-clutchingly funny it was. Perhaps if they had, I’d have jumped in earlier. I adored it from start to finish, for its audacity, wit and precision.
Madeleine Miller’s retelling of the myth of the sorceress Circe was my stand-out novel of the year. It represents an enormous feat of imagination, conjuring a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses from the ancient world and bringing them to urgent, vivid life. Miller does not just make us believe in magic, in immortals. She makes us feel the pain of immortality, the toll that magic takes. I was so immersed in the world she created, I didn’t want to leave. For the first time in years, I read the last page then turned again immediately to the beginning.
Anna Burns’ Booker Prize winner plunges you straight into the heart of 1970s Belfast, with its unwritten (but unbreakable) rules. The voice of the unnamed 18-year-old girl who tells the story is wholly original, striking and funny and alive with cadence and lilt. The density of the prose reflects the stifling conformity of the time and place, where the impossible is normal and what the outside world thinks is normal doesn’t apply. As someone who remembers the troubles only as a depressing and frightening backdrop on television news, this was a sometimes shocking glimpse into how it must have felt to grow up in the heart of it.
Against the Grain: a deep history of the earliest states
Big ideas and a big book from James C Scott. Deep history, the far-away origins of our species and how we may have lived, fascinates me. And this book gets down to the nitty-gritty, the ways we lived before states, before taxation, before parliaments and leaders, before we settled by the rivers to grow grain. Scott persuasively explains how the standard view of a steady progress from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculture and grain production was anything but steady. People, he asserts, were remarkably reluctant to settle down and till the fields. Indeed, city walls tended to be designed to keep people in, rather than repel invaders. The links between grain and taxation, war and surpluses, livestock and disease, are all explored in intriguing detail. A book to make you think differently.
Strange Labyrinth: outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers and a coward in London’s great forest.
Will Ashton was a delightful guide to this personal and whimsical memoir/history/travel book about Epping Forest. I spent a lot of time in Epping Forest this summer in preparation for leading a Refugee Tales walk of 120 people into and out of the woods. Happily we made it through without having to bunk up in the trees for the night. Knowing a little about some of the folk who had lived in the forest before, including poet John Clare and sculptor Jacob Epstein, brought fresh interest to every walk.
Life After Life
Kate Atkinson is fast becoming my favourite novelist of English life. This novel reminds us, time after time and life after life, of the delicacy of the thread on which every life hangs, the tiny decisions that turn fate one way or another. Mordantly funny at times, it’s also achingly sad as Atkinson repeatedly takes the world she has carefully constructed for us in its minute, precise detail and shakes it like a snow-globe. Despite the cleverness of the central conceit, and the way it insists on its own fictitiousness, it doesn’t pull its emotional punches. The opening chapter is a masterclass in how to start a story.
The Dark is Rising
About this time last year, I noticed a thread starting on Twitter, launched by nature writer Robert Macfarlane. People were reading or re-reading Susan Cooper’s creepy children’s book, The Dark is Rising, starting on December 22, the midwinter darkest day and finishing (as the novel does) on January 6. I hadn’t read the book before. It was something else – part-pagan, part-parable, a descent into the darkness and a struggle back into the light. The natural world is depicted with delicate menace. The uncanny is everywhere, in the way that early dusk can bring on the shivers in familiar lanes, or a blanket of snow makes everything unknowable. As the darkness wheels round again, I’m thinking of re-reading it this year, a companion into the Finnish night.