My year in books – part II – fiction

I still feel like a bit of a novice when it comes to fiction. I read fiction until I was about thirteen – Biggles, The Famous Five, Harry Potter (until the books became off-puttingly long) – and then didn’t pick up another fictional book until about four years ago. Somehow, through all those years of school and university, the idea of reading for fun just didn’t appeal. So single-minded was I in my pursuit of knowledge that I turned my nose up at the idea of reading made-up stories. Why would I want to waste my time with somebody’s petty imaginings when there were important and interesting facts out there for me to get to grips with?

Mercifully, since graduating from university I have mellowed somewhat and developed a voracious appetite for petty imaginings. Tom Wolfe is the author I credit most with helping me become a reader of novels. At a time when I was still fairly set on reading everything as a historical document, he taught me that a novel can tell you just as much about a society as a textbook. Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998) are both masterpieces in this sense. They also happen to be brilliantly written and plotted novels.

From Wolfe I moved on to Le Carré and discovered that novels could also be incredibly powerful political statements. I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and A Delicate Truth (2013) within a few weeks of each other and my mind boggled at the fact that this guy could write two such biting political commentaries fifty years apart. And they’re both gripping. Certainly no non-fiction writer has achieved that.

So now that I’ve laid my cards on the table and you know who my literary heroes are, you can decide for yourself whether to pay any attention at all to my list of the top ten novels I’ve read this year.

  1. Andrew Marr’s debut novel, Head of State (2014) is a slightly odd mix of House of Cards-style intrigue and Marriage of Figaro-style farce (complete with an absurd twist reminiscent of the moment in Figaro where the title character discovers that Marcellina, who’s been busy making his life miserable and trying to force him to marry her, is in fact his long lost mother). The book is set in the near future, with the plot revolving around a 2017 referendum on EU membership in which the Conservative Party is divided into factions – the pro-EU group led by a popular, statesman-like PM and the anti-faction led by a disturbingly sexy woman who until recently was the Home Secretary (the sexiness is all the more disturbing because, as a reader, you can’t quite escape the knowledge that the character is, albeit very loosely, based on Theresa May). The Labour Party, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. If you leave aside the more outlandish plot details, it’s all rather plausible.
  1. The same could be said for Chris Mullin’s classic political thriller, A Very British Coup (1982), which is arguably more relevant today than at any time since it was first released, thanks to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, whose politics bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the novel’s fictional Prime Minister, Harry Perkins. The opening scene of the book is the night of Perkins’ election victory at the Athenaeum Club, where the archetypes of the British Establishment – lords, bishops, businessmen, landowners, press barons – are outraged. Inevitably they wreak their vengeance and – with a little help from the CIA and friends across the pond – bring down the Prime Minister. I couldn’t help but feel a little flushed with outrage at the entirely plausible perversion of democracy when I got to the end of the book, which I suppose is the point.

a very british coup

  1. The idea that dark forces involving the CIA are at work beneath the surface of British politics is also the premise of Robert Harris’s The Ghost (2007). The story is narrated by a ghost-writer hired to work with former British Prime Minister Adam Lang on his memoirs. The ghost thinks he discovers that Blair – sorry, I mean Lang – was recruited by the CIA when he was a student. But in a final twist, after Lang is blown up, it turns out that his wife Cherie – dammit, I mean Ruth – is actually the one who’s a CIA agent. We’re now pretty used to reading real-life stories about the morally dubious activities of Tony Blair, but Harris was quick off the mark: the novel came out the year Blair left office. Another example of a novelist being able to get at an essential truth more effectively than non-fiction writers because of the freedom to invent and embellish the medium offers. For the record, the essential truth I’m referring to is that Blair was an American stooge on foreign policy, not that he was a CIA sleeper agent.
  1. Is the age of the great spy novel over? While John Le Carré still has breath in his body it would be premature to say yes, but the genre over which he has reigned supreme for fifty years was so much a product of the Cold War environment, it’s hard to see it renewing itself indefinitely. Le Carré’s books have always been contemporary – his most recent one, A Delicate Truth (which I wrote about when it came out back in 2013) is about the public-spirited old guard fighting back against the corporatisation of the modern state. Interestingly, it’s a theme that the other great, long-running espionage franchise, James Bond, picks up on too in Spectre (2015). But for many other espionage writers, the spy novel has in effect become a branch of historical fiction (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). Joseph Kanon is one writer who has mastered the spy novel as historical fiction. All his books are set in the early Cold War and he brilliantly evokes the moral and physical decay of post-war Europe. My favourite is The Prodigal Spy (1999), which tells the story of a Communist spy (Walter Koltar) who gets caught up in the McCarthy-era witch hunts and defects from the US in 1950. Nineteen years later, his son Nick, who was just a small boy at the time of his defection, goes to visit him in Prague. It transpires that Walter wishes to return to the US and has information that could expose a major spy ring that’s still in place, but he’s killed before he can get out. Nick manages to return to America and using the clues Walter has shared with him, he eventually tracks down the man responsible for exposing his father all those years earlier. The only slight problem is that in a book with a relatively small cast of characters, it’s rather predictable who the double-crosser is going to be, but despite this, Kanon had me gripped right up to the final page.
  1. Tom Rob Smith is another author who has turned to the early Cold War for inspiration. But whereas Le Carré excels at depicting Englishmen and Kanon’s protagonists are mostly Americans abroad, Smith’s most impressive feat is to successfully inhabit the inner world of a Soviet secret-policeman. Very few western writers before him have made this imaginative leap. Perhaps in this sense he is a beneficiary of his relative youth (he was born in 1979 so he is able to look back on the Cold War with a more detached perspective than the likes of Le Carré and Kanon). And, of course, the wealth of archival sources released in Russia since the collapse of Communism means there is ample fresh material for anyone who wants to explore what was going on behind the Iron Curtain for all those years. The Secret Speech (2009) is set in 1956 against the backdrop of real events. In that year, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced the worst excesses of Stalinism in what was known as the “secret speech”. Smith’s protagonist, Leo Demidov, is a former secret-policeman who was part of the brutal Stalinist regime, but is now a reformed character. Khrushchev’s speech triggers a wave of reprisals against those who were part of the old regime and Leo and his family are caught up in the middle of this. There is a huge amount of plot packed into the book – including an extended postlude in Hungary during the 1956 Uprising. It feels almost like a Tolkienian epic in this regard.
  1. Like The Secret Speech, Go Set a Watchman (2015) is a follow-up to a hugely successful first book, but whereas fans of Tom Rob Smith only had to wait a year after the release of Child 44 for the sequel, Harper Lee’s devotees have waited more than half a century. That fact alone was enough to make Go Set a Watchman’s release the publishing event of the year. A LOT has already been said and written about Watchman – much of it revolving around the subversion of the heroic figure of Atticus Finch, who is quite possibly the most important and revered fictional figure in the history of US race relations. In Watchman, the 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch (who was a little girl at the time of To Kill a Mockingbird) returns to her native Maycomb, Alabama to visit her ageing father Atticus. After 100 pages of scene-setting (quite a lot for a novel that’s less than 300 pages), the book comes to life when Jean Louise discovers that her father and her childhood sweetheart, Henry (Hank) Clinton, are both members of Maycomb’s thoroughly racist Citizens Council. She is shocked and the climax of the book is a confrontation between Jean Louise and her father about his views. Truth be told, the book is only about race relations in the 1950s South in rather an oblique way. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Jean Louise and Atticus and the generational chasm that exists between them. All ends well as the two are reconciled: they agree to disagree on the racial question but, crucially Jean Louise is able to see her father, for the first time, as a flawed man, whose morality is separate from her own. Arguably, this tale of fathers and daughters making peace is much more universal than the original Mockingbird story – and it’s seriously worth a read for that reason.

go set a watchman

  1. Patrick Gale’s latest novel, A Place Called Winter (2015) also deals beautifully with the shifting tectonic plates of social norms over the generations and the ramifications for families. Gale takes as his starting point the life story of his own great-grandfather, Harry Cane. In the early years of the twentieth century, Harry left England – and his wife and child – and headed for Canada where a new life as a homesteader awaited him. The official reason for his sudden departure was financial troubles, but Gale imagines that there was more to the story than this: namely that his great-grandfather was gay. Out of this blurring of fact and fiction, Gale has shaped a sensitively-told story of endurance: a loving portrait of a man he never knew. The fictional Cane survives being precipitously cast out by his own family and cut off from those he loves; he goes through an abrupt transition from being part of Edwardian England’s leisure class to a lowly manual labourer in Canada; his love life is characterised by rejection, rape and loss; and he ends up doing a stint in a brutal asylum being “treated” for psychiatric problems – ie for being attracted to men. And through it all he retains an endearingly naïve, optimistic, innocent disposition. Therein lies the poignant irony of the story: here’s a man who displays truly herculean levels of emotional resilience to stave off depression and bitterness and yet, by the standards of his age, he is judged to be psychologically unwell and unfit to be part of mainstream society.
  1. Jonathan Franzen is these days considered a Great American Novelist, often mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. He writes big, important books that are sweeping social commentaries of the age we live in – or so the critics say. When I saw him speak at an event in September, he made it plain that this is not how he sees himself at all. It wasn’t a matter of humility, of not wanting to put himself in such esteemed company: it was that this characterisation of him completely misunderstands why he writes and what he hopes to achieve through his books. His latest novel, Purity (2015), is not really a commentary on life in the internet age, which is how some critics have interpreted it. It’s just a story about a handful of pretty dysfunctional people and how they relate to one another. It is in some ways comparable to Tom Wolfe – the scale and intricacy of the plotting, the trick of telling different parts of the story from the perspective of different characters, the almost pornographic obsession with sex (this has also been a feature of Wolfe’s two most recent novels – I Am Charlotte Simmons and Back to Blood). Unlike Wolfe at his best though, where the plotting ratchets up in intensity as the book progresses and it feels like there’s an unstoppable centripetal force pulling the different strands of narrative together towards a climax, Purity loses momentum in the final third. Rather than driving the plot forward, Franzen delves deeper and deeper into the backstories of his characters. There’s something self-indulgent too about the totally dysfunctional relationship between Purity’s parents – Anabel, who’s sort of a feminist but mostly just a psychopath, and the long-suffering Tom – which lies at the heart of the novel. The relationship is so grotesquely depicted it’s almost painful to read. When I saw him speak, Franzen defended this aspect of the novel by saying he hoped it would bring comfort to others who have been trapped in equally fucked up relationships. Perhaps I’ve just had too happy and normal a love life to fully appreciate the book’s genius. I think I can live with that.

franzen 2

  1. When Franzen was asked which contemporary authors he enjoyed reading, Edward St Aubyn was one of the first names out of his mouth. And after my first encounter with St Aubyn this year, I can see why. Mother’s Milk (2005) was the most unexpected pleasure of my year reading-wise. I came to it having never heard of St Aubyn and it was given to me by a colleague whose literary tastes I don’t always share. It had therefore been sitting on my desk for several months before I finally picked it up. Once I did, I devoured it in about three days. The book opens with a graphic account of childbirth from the baby’s perspective and gets scarcely less bizarre from there. It’s a tour through a family wracked by familiar problems – mid-life crises, affairs, marital breakdown, elderly parents disinheriting their children and then asking them to help them die. The plot is not all that exciting but the writing is brilliant – virtuosic, I think, is the word for it. It’s hilarious at times – especially the sections written from the perspective of five-year-old Robert – and full of arresting phases and acute observations about human behaviour.
  1. Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (2014) is in much the same vein. The plot revolves around a female judge whose marriage is disintegrating and who gets emotionally involved in a case about a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a blood transfusion that could save his life. There’s a real sense of a master at work in McEwan’s prose: every word is there for a reason. And he seems finally to have grown out of the need to be grotesque and shocking – a characteristic of many of his earlier novels. The result is a book that’s captivating because of the quality of observation and the compelling characterisation, rather than because of the events it recounts. More than six months on from reading the book though, the thing that sticks with me most of all is the way McEwan beautifully evokes the tranquil world of Gray’s Inn and Middle Temple – a lawyerly haven of peace and quiet in the heart of London.

And so we come full circle. The first thing on my non-fiction list was Bill Bryson’s new book about how wonderful life in Britain is, which I enjoyed all the more so because I read it whilst on secondment in New York. I also read The Children Act in New York and I have no doubt that part of its appeal for me was that it nourished my longing to be back home in London.

Compiling this review of my favourite books of 2015 has made me aware of how mono-cultural my literary tastes are. You may have noticed there are very few women on the list – Harper Lee and Naomi Klein are the only two – and every single one of the authors on my list is from either Britain or North America. Perhaps in 2016 I will try to branch out a bit more.

In the meantime, dear reader, I hope this list has offered some inspiration for your own reading in 2016. Enjoy. And happy Christmas.

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