I know it’s a tad late in the season for gift ideas, but books are for life, not just for Christmas so what the hell. Here, in no particular order – well actually they’re in the order I read them in – are the ten best books I read in 2016. I recommend them all unhesitatingly.
It’s a slightly eclectic list: nine novels, ranging from satirical to dystopian, the oldest of which was published just over half a century ago, the most recent of which came out last year; and one lone work of non-fiction.
I will be getting a hard time from Katy because, once again, it’s a shamefully all-male list. I promise I do occasionally read books by women – it’s just that, to date, with the honourable exception of Zadie Smith, they mostly haven’t done it for me (and even Zadie’s gone a bit off the boil since her early brilliance, in my humble opinion). Katy did buy me A Very Short Introduction to Feminism for Christmas and I have novels by Margaret Atwood and Penelope Fitzgerald sitting in my to-read pile, so maybe, just maybe by this time next year, I’ll have mended my ways.
But anyway, here, without further ado, is my list:
- Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks (2015). Within the first few pages, I had that warm, comforting feeling you get when you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game. The writing is exquisite and the book manages to be both intimate and expansive. It’s a moving personal story of love and loss – one of very few books that have genuinely made me cry – but also covers an extraordinary sweep of European twentieth-century history. All the while, Faulks interrogates the fallibility of memory and the identities we construct for ourselves out of a past that is mostly unknown and if not unknown then misremembered. There’s a certain amount of geeking out over psychology that will appeal to some readers more than others, but it’s entirely forgivable in the context of a story that has enough twists and emotional bite to keep you turning the pages at a frenetic pace.
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1996). Though it’s now twenty years old, Mistry’s masterpiece is still probably the best portrait of India out there. It’s a big (in every sense) social novel, covering the period from independence through the 1970s. It’s full of brutality. It begins with the brutality of the caste system, depicting a society in which people are routinely mutilated and murdered for not accepting their place in the hierarchy. Then it moves on to the brutality of poverty and the Indian government’s policy of ‘beautification’ – slums are cleared and the slum dwellers shipped off to forced labour camps. In the face of all this brutality, human life and happiness are portrayed as unbearably, tragically fragile. Mistry’s prose is almost Orwellian in its conciseness. The baldness of the writing only accentuates the pathos of the story.
- The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré (1991). The Cold War made Le Carré and this underrated novel is his almost nostalgic farewell to it. It’s his last George Smiley novel, dedicated to Alec Guinness, who famously played Smiley on screen in the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s really a collection of short stories – old spies’ reminiscences about the good old days before the Wall came down. Threaded through them all is a disconcerting sense that the West’s hard-won victory over Communism was a hollow one. What, asks Le Carré, was it all for? In the age of Putin and Trump, you may well wonder.
- A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré (1968). Le Carré – as the man himself acknowledges in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel – was obsessed by Germany. He first visited as a teenager, just after the Second World War, experiencing first-hand the devastation and the horror wrought by twelve years of Nazi rule – from the rubble of its bombed-out cities to the horrifying stench of the concentration camps. Then he was posted to the British Embassy in Bonn in the 1960s, where he worked for British Intelligence. By 1968, he’d left the service to be a full-time writer, but his time in Bonn continued to inform his fiction, not least in this novel, which is set in his former workplace. Germany in the late 1960s was still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past. A generation of German writers – led by the Nobel Prize-winning Günter Grass – railed against their fellow citizens’ forgetfulness about the past. The election of a former Nazi to the West German Chancellorship in 1966 elevated Grass et al’s moral outrage to a whole new level, but nobody captured the mood and moral frustration of Germany at that time better than Le Carré does in this novel. And what’s more, he manages to skewer the hypocrisy and incompetence of his former employers at the same time. Rather neatly, the overriding ambition of British foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe at that time was to get into the European Economic Community. How times change.
- An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013). Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than this – or at least that’s what I thought until I read number 7 on this list. Harris’ novel is a vivid re-telling of the real-life story of the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an officer in the French Army. He also happened to be Jewish – at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. In 1894, he was (as it turned out, wrongly) found guilty of being a German spy and deported to Devil’s Island – a French prison colony in the South Atlantic. Harris’ version of the story is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, a loyal army man, who took over French Army Intelligence a year after Dreyfus was convicted. As he goes back over the evidence, Picquart gradually discovers that the Army has got the wrong man but his superiors want to hear none of it. An Officer and a Spy is the story of his heroic, honourable struggle against a conspiracy of silence.
- The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013). Set in the near future, this dystopian novel about the totalitarian potential inherent in the way the internet has developed is a 1984 for our times. The likes of Google and Facebook today have access to way more personal information about way more people than the Stasi could ever have dreamt of. This book is a chilling, brilliant attempt to make us face up to the implications of that fact.
- The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016). This is another masterpiece of historical fiction. Entirely based on real events, it’s the story of composer Dmitri Schostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State he unwillingly served. Barnes has imagined his way into Schostakovich’s life in an extraordinary way. The result is a novel that not only opens a window onto the composer’s inner world – imagined, yes, but well-researched and entirely plausible; it also offers a subtle analysis of the anatomy of power and the complex ways in which fallible, non-heroic, human beings interact with totalitarian authority.
- The Tin Men by Michael Frayn (1965). Concerns about robots stealing our jobs are very much de rigueur at the moment, but they’re nothing new. Michael Frayn’s debut novel – a satire set in an ‘automation research institute’, written when Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson was Prime Minister – is testament to that. The ‘institute’ includes departments working on the automation of headline writing, sport – ‘When takings at the gate have fallen low enough to cure any tendency to sentiment, people will notice that a computer is a far more suitable tool than a cricket team for producing a complex score sheet from the variables of ground moisture, light, surface wear on ball, fallibility of wicket-keeper, and so on’ – and even morality. The latter involves the development of machines that will spontaneously throw themselves off a sinking raft in order to save others. One of Frayn’s protagonists is a wannabe novelist, who starts by writing the blurb and the reviews for the inside cover, before preceding to chapter one. Another is a bluff ex-Army and public school type, who’s responsible for overseeing scientists whom he regards as an alien species – “I mean, people talk a lot of nonsense about scientists being difficult people to get through to. But I say, if a chap’s a decent chap, he’s a decent chap be he a scientist or a nigger minstrel.” There are flashes of comic brilliance but the humour isn’t quite sustained throughout. Nonetheless, much of the satire remains remarkably fresh and relevant half a century on.
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015). The only thing that baffled me about the glowing reviews this Pulitzer Prize winner received is that so many of them described it as ‘very funny.’ It is not very funny. But it is very good. It tells the story of a Vietcong sleeper agent who’s attached to a General in South Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he follows his general to America, where he remains for years, all the while living a double life. Eventually, he returns to Vietnam as part of a doomed South Vietnamese mission to re-conquer the country and ends up imprisoned by the regime he’s spent his whole life loyally serving. They torture him for being ideologically contaminated. The book’s greatest strength of all is the wry narrative voice – the story is told from the sleeper agent’s perspective; we gradually discover that what we are reading is his ‘confession’ for the sin of being corrupted by America. It’s worthy of Le Carré.
- The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel (2016). The odd one out on my list, both in that it’s the only work of non-fiction to make my top ten and in that it’s the only one I’ve written about elsewhere. Erixon and Weigel argue, quite convincingly, that the conventional wisdom that says we’re on the brink of a golden age of innovation is based on a misunderstanding of the innovation process. Innovation is not the same as invention. It is, above all, an economic process. But capitalism is broken. It is stifling innovation by failing to create the right incentives for new products to be developed and brought to market at scale. The Innovation Illusion is a much-needed corrective to the increasingly mainstream view – often couched in ludicrously hyperbolic terms – that a tsunami of innovation is coming whether we like it or not. Actually, Erixon and Weigel would like it to come – they think robots will, on balance, make our lives better and more prosperous – but they think that wave on the horizon is just a mirage.