Not all book reviewers are as despondent and sore oppressed as the one depicted by Orwell in a bleak essay. Some of us, after years in the game, still tear open Jiffy bags eagerly in the hope, if not always the expectation, of enjoyment.
All the same when it comes to the annual task of selecting Books of the Year, one is sadly at least as aware of the books that have disappointed as of those which have delighted. That said, selecting 10 or a dozen to recall and recommend to readers who may have missed them is never easy and rarely fair. There’s a tendency to favour those books read recently and to have a dimmer awareness of those read in the first months of the year.
Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight (Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99/$27), set in a dark, war-damaged London in 1945, is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. It cries out to be made into a movie – black-and-white of course, directed by Carol Reed or Orson Welles, both sadly no longer available. The plot is murky, hard to follow, but the evocation of night journeys through the fog-bound city and along mysterious canals and forgotten rivers is spellbinding.
AN Wilson is so prolific and seems to write with such enviable ease – biographies and history as well as fiction – that his excellence as a novelist is not always acknowledged. His comic and often sad masterpiece may be the five novels of The Lampitt Chronicles, but his new novel, Aftershocks (Atlantic Books, 288pp, £16.99/$22), set in an imaginary South Seas island, once a British – and very Church of England – colony, is delightful and funny, while also being serious about questions of Faith in a benevolent deity after a devastating earthquake.
Michael Arditti is another English novelist unfashionably concerned with such questions. Of Men and Angels (Arcadia, 546pp, £16.99/$20) is a five-part novel exploring and elaborating the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom.
Any novel in which there are five distinct narratives, spread over the centuries and connected only by theme, carries the risk that readers will not be held as they may be by a continuous story, and will find some sections good, others unsatisfactory. But Arditti gets away with it. This is his most ambitious novel, perhaps his best.
If there has to be a Brexit novel, Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (Viking, 432pp, £16.99/$20) is as good a one as we might have hoped for – sometimes funny, sometimes angry, sometimes nostalgic or elegiac. Though there’s no doubt that Coe is on the Remain side, he is fair to the Leavers, and the most interesting character is the heroine’s middle-class husband, very much a rooted Somewhere, irritated by his Remainer wife’s assumption of her moral superiority.
Donald S Murray’s short novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband, 288pp, £8.99/$11) isn’t likely to have had much attention in England, partly because it’s set in the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and deals with a difficult childhood and the consequences for the islanders of their terrible loss of life in the First World War. The book is a gem, delicate, truthful and a testimony to people’s ability to endure the worst.
Without being sentimentalised, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus has become more sympathetic over time. Now retired and suffering from emphysema, he is involved in an investigation botched years ago by a team of which he was a member. In a House of Lies (Orion, 384pp, £20/$27) is Rankin at his best, with an intricate plot, the work of a master craftsman. Just the book for a horrid winter day.
The two best new biographies I have read this year were Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell (Allen Lane, 752pp, £30/$40) and I Am Dynamite! (Faber, 464pp, £25/$30), Sue Prideaux’s life of Nietzsche. Both are sympathetic as biographies should be. MacCulloch respects, and even likes, Cromwell while not denying his ruthlessness. He conveys better than any novelist the grisly decade of the 1530s, its dishonesty, greed, cruelty and terror. Behind Cromwell lurks the monstrous figure of Henry VIII, most loathsome of England’s kings. Prideaux explores Nietzsche’s ideas in a manner accessible to the common reader, while giving a rich and sympathetic account of a life that was ravaged by wretched health long before he became incurably mad.
Antonia Fraser’s history of Catholic Emancipation, The King and the Catholics (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 336pp, £25/$30), might serve as a model of how to write serious history for the general public. It has all the virtues of precise scholarship allied to a recognition that historical figures were human beings, not just names on the page. It’s a fascinating story, beautifully told.
Stuart Kelly’s The Minister and the Murderer (Granta, 352pp, £20/$25) is the story of a matricide who after years in prison was ordained as a minister in the Church of Scotland. This is a remarkable exploration of aspects of religious faith and experience that ranges far beyond the story of the Rev James Nelson.
They Fought Alone (Penguin, 336pp, £25/$28) by Charles Glass tells of two brothers who were SOE agents in occupied France. Even someone who is sceptical about the activities of the Resistance in these dark years, at least until the Spring of 1944 when an Allied landing in northern France was at last imminent, is likely to be gripped by the story Glass has to tell. It’s the fruit of much research, lightly worn, and utterly compelling.
All these are new books and good ones, but, at this season, there are days when you want an old one. In dark afternoons between Childermas and Epiphany, I always read a few chapters of Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour. It’s a robust and splendidly detailed picture of rural England in the mid-19th century, a world away from everything one dislikes or is bored by in the fairly awful times we are compelled to endure. The author, RS Surtees, had no illusions and no time for pretentious fools. Reading Mr Sponge is very comforting. You don’t need to be a fox-hunter to enjoy it.