fri 15/11/2019

Best of 2018: Books | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2018: Books

Best of 2018: Books

Twenty books to stimulate and encourage in scary times

Anna Burns wins the Man Booker Prize

Reasons to be cheerful? A fortissimo blast of anguish and foreboding currently sounds from both those end-of-year round-ups that look back over the past twelve months, and the doomy previews that dwell on the travails of our immediate future. So, in a whistle-in-the-dark spirit, here is a selection of twenty outstanding books published in Britain during 2018 that offer, if not outright hope, then perspective, illumination, wisdom and even a touch of creative transcendence. Read them in early 2019 and the present may not look like quite such a demoralising place. 

Fiction

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton)

Brilliantly imagined, Barker’s female-centred rewriting of Homer’s Iliad proves that, in properly gifted hands, even the oldest stories may still be ripe for renewal.

Anna Burns, Milkman (Faber)

Scary, eerie, poetic, the voice in Burns’s surprise Man Booker winner entrances, in this story of rumour, power and gender in a wounded city much like Belfast.

Jonathan Coe, Middle England (Viking)

Benign, never bland, the latest volume in Coe’s gently satirical saga of middling lives in a changing nation tackles Brexit in a mood of mingled outrage and elegy.

Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin)

Ignored in the UK, this tough, lyrical, witty and profound tissue of stories about personal re-invention confirmed the Sri Lankan-born Australian's place in the front rank of fiction. 

Lisa HallidayAsymmetry (Granta)

A New York literary love-story and the modern ordeals of migration join in a haunting, mysterious, blisteringly smart debut that manages to blend heart and wit. 

Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith, Fitzcarraldo)

Rooted in Kinsky’s own East London sojourn, this poetic, surreal and hilarious tale of a self-exiled German in Hackney casts a visionary eye over our moody and unfathomable metropolis.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Cape)

For all its grim theme – the US prison-industrial complex – the searing eloquence and insight Kushner brings to her tale of survival in the microcosm of a women’s jail makes this an exhilarating work. 

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore (trans. Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker)

Mysticism and melodrama mix in this weird, gnarled but addictive saga of a burnt-out Japanese artist on a journey towards redemption through a world both mundane and magical. 

Sjón, CoDex 1962 (trans. Victoria Cribb, Sceptre)

Iceland’s literary spellbinder weaves old and new yarns into three linked novellas, both fables and satires, that tell the story of a people torn between myth and history, isolation and openness.  

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo)

Agatha Christie-style plotting entangles gloriously with Blake’s visionary poetry, and a dash of eco-feminism, as a maverick sleuth investigates the nasty deaths of macho boors in the Polish backwoods.

 

Non-fiction

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (Profile)

Disputes over ‘identity’ now convulse our culture and politics. Based on Appiah’s Reith Lectures, this elegant, far-reaching study finds a way through the confusion.

Alan Garner, Where shall we run to? (Fourth Estate)

One of the greatest modern storytellers of childhood, Garner now revisits his own Cheshire upbringing, and the impact of the Second World War, in this beautifully crafted memoir.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Cape)

Harari’s eclectic analysis of the present time meshes science and history to sketch a possibly dystopian future; being human, though, we can choose a better story.

Neil MacGregor, Living with the Gods (Allen Lane)

Once more, this time with religions and their art, the BM’s ex-chief sweeps across cultures and epochs to tell an encouraging story about what we share, rather than what divides us.  

Helen Parr, Our Boys (Allen Lane)

The fate of the author’s uncle, killed in the Falklands War, anchors this eloquent, compassionate micro-history exploring country, class, courage and masculinity in Britain.

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane)

The optimist supreme spreads his ultra-erudite gaze over the state of humankind to conclude that reason still rules, progress continues, and we have not entered a new dark age.

Sue Prideaux, I am Dynamite! (Faber)

From art to politics, Nietzsche’s disruptive ideas still mesmerise many. Prideaux’s engrossing, enjoyable life of the anti-philosopher shows how they emerged and why they still matter.

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton)

From Justin Bieber to Philip Roth, local libraries to Billie Holiday, these 31 pieces confirm Smith’s status as a classic essayist: learned, funny, open-minded, big-hearted. 

Christie Watson, The Language of Kindness (Chatto & Windus)

A prize-winning novelist, Watson worked as an NHS nurse for two decades. Her memoir of sickness, trauma, healing and compassion glows with a moral force that matches its literary grace. 

Tara Westover, Educated (Heinemann)

Raised in rural seclusion by Mormon fanatics, Westover broke free into self-discovery. Cool, wise, free of smug hindsight, her autobiography makes a seemingly freakish story into a universal one.

  • The Hundred Best Novels in Translation by Boyd Tonkin is published by Galileo (£14.99)
For Pinker, progress continues. We have not entered a new dark age

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