I didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, and once again, that’s something I’m determined to rectify next year. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why I couldn’t average out reading at least one book a week, and yet for some reason I never manage it – the second half of this year has been fairly intensive in terms of writing, but that’s really no excuse. Reading is important. So my aim for 2015 is to read at least one book a week, and watch at least one film, but I expect I’ll be making much the same promise in 12 months, just as I probably did 12 months ago.
Anyway – here are my five favourite books this year, in the order I read them.
The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar
(I wrote this for The Murder Room website recently. You can read it here, and see the links to other authors’ choices, and I’m just reproducing the text below).
I’ve seen it described a number of times as being like a John le Carre novel with superheroes, and while that’s a fair description, it’s also an inadequate one, which points to how hard this brilliant book is to summarise.
The story posits that in the early 1930s, a German scientist named Vomacht performs an experiment that unleashes a quantum wave of possibility on the world’s population. Most people are unchanged, but some gain superpowers. While they do not age, they can be killed like anyone else, and the novel follows several of them from the events of World War 2 to the conflicts of the present day. That account takes us to many important places: Minsk, Leningrad, Auschwitz, Romania, Berlin, Laos, Afghanistan, New York in September 2011. The whole time, the overarching present day story builds to a conclusion that may or may not tie everything together.
What makes a hero? It’s a question the book asks on more than one occasion, and to which it provides no easy answers. The alternative history described in The Violent Century is all but indistinguishable from our own. The same wars and events occur, with the superheroes on each side of the various conflicts effectively cancelling each other out. Late on in the book, one of the main heroes encounters Osama bin Laden, who stares through him “as if he’s not there”. For all his powers manage to change, he might as well not be.
Regardless of the title, The Violent Century does focus primarily on World War 2, the implication being that it’s the conflict that acted as its own Vomacht wave on the 20th Century, the repercussions spreading out, changing many people, and feeding inexorably into the wars that followed in the years afterwards. But the book is much more than a study of the cause and effect of conflict. The superheroes don’t age externally, but they do inside, and The Violent Century is ultimately a love story, not between two people (although there is that, and more besides) but between a man and an ideal. It’s a story about a man living through the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and still clinging on to a belief in love and innocence.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
I’m such a lazy reader that it always surprises – and secretly pleases – me when I’ve read and enjoyed something that ends up on the Booker short list. But We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves arrived on a wave of ‘can you guess the twist on p77?’ hype, and I’m a sucker for a good twist, so I read it immediately. The twist itself is unnecessary and somewhat forced, a fact acknowledged by the narrator, but by then I was so entranced by her engaging and unusual voice that I didn’t care. And anyway, I had – of course – spoiled it for myself long before I started. Which didn’t matter a jot, as there is far more to the story than that.
The book’s been so successful that it hardly seems worth explaining what it’s about, but I found it a funny, sad, touching exploration of a quirky family – or rather, a normal family in which the quirks all families have are given clear and overt manifestations. Okay, there’s certainly an element of manipulation to the whole thing (at times, I was a little too aware of my levers being pulled, my buttons being pushed), and it’s a book with a very unambiguous viewpoint (certain factions of the animal liberation movement come off as slightly cuddlier than in reality, for example), but these are churlish complaints. It packs a wallop, this book. I laughed, I cried, I pressed it onto others. I liked it a lot.
With A Zero At Its Heart, by Charles Lambert
I have a friend who did Fine Art at university. At the time, I found him horribly pretentious, although with hindsight that’s unfair. I did Philosophy, after all; our arguments were presumably insufferable. So: sorry, Ben. A few years afterwards, he showed me some paintings he was working on: various triptychs, all the canvases exactly the same small shape. I assumed there would be some piffly, high-minded reason why he had chosen the same size canvases in sets of three – form mirroring content, or whatever – but I asked, and he told me there wasn’t. He just had so many other things to think about for the compositions that setting the structure in advance gave him a point to start from. I’ve mentioned this little quasi-anecdote before in interviews, because I think there’s an important grain of truth in it: that perhaps paradoxically, by setting yourself strict boundaries, you can often free yourself up, or at least force yourself to be creative in ways you might not otherwise have considered.
But I digress (albeit only slightly). With A Zero At Its Heart is a short, and I believe autobiographical, novel arranged into 24 different sections, each devoted to a particular theme – Death, Language, Sex, Money, and so on. Every section contains 10 passages, all of which are 120 words long. (There is also a brief coda). Structurally, it would seem difficult to give yourself more in the way of constraints than that, and I imagine that me-at-university would have found the whole idea horribly pretentious and quickly put it back on the shelf. Me-now, however, thought it was brilliant. It’s a lovely book, in fact: moving and intelligent and exceedingly well-written. The short passages are obviously very more-ish, but the prose is so delicious, with so much detail packed and folded into the sentences, so much meaning between the lines, that it’s preferable to linger. The narrative flits around, leaving the reader to piece together (or not) the scrambled fragments of various experiences, and the image of a life gradually reveals itself. Something about it mirrors the way it feels we look back on the events of our lives: not in chronological order, but darting here and there, making connections between the disparate things that are important to us and finding meaning there. The way we observe things around us too: bits and pieces; a jigsaw of experience. “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up,” as Burroughs observed, he says pretentiously. I can see myself revisiting this book – or just individual pieces from it – over and over again.
The Exit, by Helen FitzGerald
A book that comes festooned with many blurbs, one of which is from me, claiming that if there were any justice in the world, FitzGerald’s previous novel, The Cry, would be a Gone Girl moment for her. It wasn’t, of course, and it strikes me now as a bit of a stupid thing to have said: that kind of lightning strike is down to so many imponderables in addition to quality. I know this. And yet here we are, a year later, and I’m tempted just to repeat myself.
The Exit is another example of what FitzGerald does really, really well, which is to use a crime of sorts as a springboard for exploring the minds of her characters. If you believed the back cover, The Cry was about what had happened to a missing baby – except the reader was in on the secret from the start, and the book was really about the worlds and psychological defences of the various characters being picked slowly apart and watching them adjust, or not, to the unfolding circumstances. The Exit has a more obvious crime and mystery element – possible nefarious deeds going on at a care home – but if anything, the crime here is even less central to the story. Instead, for most of the journey, we’re taken into the minds of two main characters: Rose, an 82-year-old children’s author suffering from dementia, who frequently regresses to a traumatic episode from her childhood, and Catherine, a pretty, amiable and slightly vacuous 23-year-old, forced into work at the end-of-life care home in which Rose is a resident. Initially far more concerned with her social media status and escaping on holiday than the small number of patients under her supervision, Catherine slowly establishes a bond with Rose, and then begins to investigate the older woman’s claims of potential wrong-doing at the home.
FitzGerald brings a real authenticity to both women’s voices: Catherine and Rose are thoroughly believable characters – fallible and prickly, likeable and funny – and it’s a pleasure to see the younger character change as she’s forced to confront a number of very grown up situations throughout the book. It’s a progression, a character arc, that feels natural and unforced and, because we like Catherine a great deal, especially welcome. And I don’t want to downplay the crime element, by the way – The Exit goes to some very dark places indeed. But like The Cry before it, it’s also powerful and moving – almost unbearably so in places (although it never descends into anything cloying; there is just the right amount of cynicism and grit mixed in with the sentiment here, and every single bit rings true) – and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I had a minor quibble with the ending: for perhaps the first time ever in a novel, I wanted less ambiguity, which is a measure of the affection I came to have for the characters. But put very simply, this is a superb book. If there’s any justice in the world, etc etc … well, let’s just say that if there’s any justice, you’ll buy it when it comes out in February, and leave it at that.
Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel
Survival is insufficient, a quote from Star Trek: Voyager, is written on the side of one of the carriages of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians touring a post-apocalyptic landscape, staging productions of Shakespeare in the ramshackle communities they pass through. The setting is Year Twenty – which is the number of years since a virulent strain of flu wiped out 99% of the population, leaving the survivors with none of the trappings of civilisation we take for granted (useless iPods, passports and other items are displayed in a makeshift museum that forms a destination for some of the characters). But that description is not strictly true, as although the novel begins at Year Zero, the moment of the flu outbreak, the narrative moves back and forwards through time, and a substantial amount takes place before the disaster strikes. The story in Year Twenty isn’t satisfying for what happens, as such (it’s fine, but the events themselves would barely fill a single episode of some standard dystopian drama), so much as for how it ties the rich, decades-spanning strands and themes of the book together.
The central figure is Arthur Leander, a famous actor, who dies of a heart attack on stage during a performance of King Lear. Days later, most of the audience will be dead too. Along with Arthur, we follow various characters his life has touched in some way, both before and after the apocalypse. Eventually, connections emerge. Some are not hard to guess, some seem slightly contrived, and yet despite that, and despite the furniture of the future world being somewhat familiar – but then, how could it not be by now? – the novel as a whole still feels fresh, surprising and remarkable. The writing is gorgeous. There are moments of real beauty here, internal and external, and the characters are vividly rendered – something which can also be said of the apocalyptic landscape itself. It always seems horribly credible but strangely hopeful: a dystopia populated more by carefully, nervously caring human beings than marauding monsters, people who aren’t simply surviving. I was trying to think what these sections reminded me of, and eventually I figured it out: immersing myself in the world of Fallout for the first time, encountering all those abandoned villages with their scavenged houses, nobody shooting at you, while oddly-beautiful old-timey music played in the background. You might think I could offer higher praise than that comparison, but you would be wrong. I loved this book.