A slightly different approach to this space-filler essential roundup this year. My aim is to try to shine a pencil torch of attention on books that might otherwise be overlooked, whether old books deserving new attention, new books which lost out to undeserving rivals in prize lists, or titles that might be left to languish in genre hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though his Patrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How Late hardly needs my imprimatur, fourteen years and a Booker Prize later). My guiding principle has been to pick the books which have stayed with me most strongly this year, even if they weren’t the ones I immediately loved at the time. I’m also detecting in myself a growing taste for books which aren’t quite as neat and clear as the ones I typically favour, so no Patrick McGrath (Trauma) or David Park (The Truth Commissioner), even though I loved both. It seems with this introduction that I am gradually working my list up into the twenties, so I’ll say no more. The list below is in alphabetical order by author and is not ranked. And yes, there are thirteen. Sorry, couldn’t cut it any further.
Andrew Crumey, Sputnik Caledonia : “gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart.”
Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme : “a substantial book despite its page count … the ‘narrative’ looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.”
Damon Galgut, The Impostor : “a magnificent achievement … feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this.”
Patrick Hamilton, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky : “all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key.”
W.F. Hermans, Beyond Sleep : “a rich and strange book … both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.”
Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path.”
Emanuel Litvinoff, Journey Through a Small Planet : “the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing … gives me hope for mainstream publishing.”
Bernard Malamud, The Assistant : “He writes … with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it.”
Adam Mars-Jones, Pilcrow : “an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways [with] peaks of brilliant wit.”
Patrik Ourednik, Europeana : “hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing … a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.”
Richard Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.”
Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length.”
Please share your own favourites of the year below.