Everyone’s doing it: choosing books they’ve enjoyed, or which they’d like to see under the Christmas tree, or which they reckon in some way deserve to be bought in the run-up to all the festivities. If you can match the reader to a book she’ll truly enjoy, then you’re doing well. Below are my favourite adult novels for this year, and I'm not counting the ones I’ve reviewed on ABBA during the last twelve months.
THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas (Tuskar Rock)
This book divided readers more than any other novel published this year. It was denounced as crude, misogynistic, and was also a favoured contender for the Bad Sex Prize which, incidentally, it didn’t win. The story is simple: a man at a barbecue in a suburb of Melbourne slaps a child who isn’t his own. The repercussions of this act propel the book forward, and we see what transpires through the eyes of several narrators. I thought it was terrific: energetic, lively, never for one moment boring and in parts most moving, especially in its depiction of the older generation of Greek immigrants who came to Australia after the Second World War and who have ceased to understand their own children. I reviewed a cracking Aussie thriller earlier in the year called TRUTH by Peter Temple and this, although not quite as good as the Temple, fills in the portrait of Melbourne with a bit more detail. I loved it.
PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf ( Picador)
Has anyone heard of Kent Haruf? I hadn’t until Scott Pack, on his blog, mentioned this novel and what a fine writer Haruf is. I found PLAINSONG and its sequel, EVENTIDE at the library and I’ve just finished reading the latter. My advice is: run, don’t walk to the nearest library to you and see if you can find them there. They are quite marvellous. A combination of Raymond Carver (very plain and unadorned prose) Cormac McCarthy (hard men, farmers, the land, a very small town in Colorado, an amazing landscape etc) and Elizabeth Strout(sensitive portrayal of feelings, emotions, especially of children and women and a build up of the story of a whole community in short chapters). I feel Haruf is my discovery of the year and I will now read everything he’s written. I can’t recommend him strongly enough.
A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore (Faber)
This novel was on the shortlist for the Orange Prize this year and it’s unputdownable. There are a couple of ‘as if’s’ in it but it’s very good about middle class mores and excellent about subjects like adoption and attitudes to children in general. It's very easy to read and told from the point of view of a young woman from the country who’s a University student. She takes the job of a mother’s help in a family which is much odder than she first thinks.
ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books)
I’m evangelical about this writer. I become like the Ancient Mariner and pin people against walls crying: You must read Elizabeth Strout! All three of her books are excellent but I’ve not written about this one before. It’s about a minister who’s widowed and left to care for a young daughter of five. The child has not spoken since her mother’s death. The rest of the novel follows from this. It’s superb: moving, well-written, and engaging.
THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)
This novel is on the shortlist for the Costa Novel Prize this year. It has a double time frame: the present, and the Fifties and early Sixties. It’s about motherhood: its problems, its agonies, its great joys and as always with this writer, she has produced a story written with both sympathy and elegance. She’s also very good at plotting so you always have a strong interest in reading on to see how the whole thing fits together. Terrific.
SAPLINGS by Noel Streatfeild (Persephone Books)
Anyone who loved ‘BALLET SHOES’ and Streatfeild’s other children’s books will be happy to read this adult novel. It shows her brilliance at depicting children and adults and the interaction between them. She’s very good at exploring the small miseries of childhood and how important they are; she’s very wise about the emotional havoc that can be wreaked in families and she describes brilliantly things like boarding-school and evacuation during the Second World War and in general gives a full and rounded picture of family life in the Forties. She makes us care about every single one of her characters. This novel is a real find, and I do urge you to seek it out. For anyone who, like me, loves Dorothy Whipple’s books, it would make the perfect present.
LOVE AND SUMMER by William Trevor (Penguin)
The master of the short story has written a novella which is both a love story and a portrait of an entire community. A young man returns to the home of his youth to sell it after his parents’ death and sets in train a series of events which ends in tragedy. Misunderstandings, and wrongly interpreted signals play a part in a the story which is full of the warmth and ease of summer despite the shadows and the pain.
STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
Lovers of the previous Jackson Brodie novels will enjoy this one as well. She’s fantastically good at plots which seem unknottable but which always do get unknotted. Jackson is a wonderful character but in this story he plays second fiddle to the heroine: a policewoman with a heart of gold who rescues a child she sees being assaulted in a shopping precinct. What follows involves corruption in high places, awful things happening to children and a Yorkshire setting which is brilliantly evoked. This was a ‘hold in one hand while frying onions’ book for me.
ANNIE DUNNE by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
Another book which takes the reader to a vanished Ireland (see LOVE AND SUMMER above) this is the story of two small children who are sent for the summer to live in the country with Annie Dunne and her sister. That’s it. Barry is outstanding at writing from the point of view of old women and here he creates a truly memorable main character. This novel is one of those which feels as though it hasn’t been ‘written’ at all but somehow arises organically, like a growing tree. The very opposite is true of course and the book is skilfully and poetically crafted, but it reads like life; as though Annie Dunne were a real person. It’s not plot driven in the way the Atkinson is, for example, but enough happens of horrendous and momentous note to keep you turning the pages. It’s a beautiful, life-enhancing book.
THE THREE WEISSMANS OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine (Corsair)
The blurb on this book says it’s a version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. That’s as may be, but what it certainly is, is a very witty and entertaining story of what happens when Mrs. Weissman and her two adult daughters go and live in a small cottage by the sea. Mr Weissman has asked for a divorce and made his wife leave their apartment while he takes up with Felicity, a much younger woman. The daughters go with their mother, to help her and because they have love entanglements and work problems of their own. It’s a real treat of a book. It’s not Jane Austen but it does have some of her sharpness, perception and humour. She’d have enjoyed reading it, I reckon, and taken it as a compliment that Schine has used one of her novels as a jumping-off point.
I hope you enjoy some of these and please do put your own books of the year into the comments box!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.