As we near Christmas the ‘Best of…’ list becomes a staple of the newspaper, magazine, or website – a handy way of listing the books, films, music, television, theatre, et al that are judged to have made the past year enjoyable. It’s good for the marketing, of course, but also a happy reminder of what we have gained, culturally-speaking, in twelve months. And perhaps this year it’s good to be reminded that while our species is worrying adept at breaking things (institutions, trust, order, rules) we can also create aesthetic responses to the times we inhabit.
Looking back on a year of reading, I’m heartened by how many novels have emerged this year and illuminated life by recycling it as art. In no particular order, then, here are my picks of the year.
Ali Smith’s Autumn was a timely and thoughtful response to the post-EU Referendum state of the UK as well as meditation on ageing and transience and the power of art to stand in defiance of our own instability. The first volume of a projected ‘seasonal quartet’ it shows that Smith is in fine form, and perhaps the very writer that Britain needs right now.
Kate Tempest’s The Bricks that Built the Houses offered further evidence of how wonderfully talented and insightful its author is: taking the characters that peopled her album Everybody Down and fleshing out their stories and personalities on a larger canvas. That she finished the year with another album and collection of poems Let Them Eat Chaos showed once again that Tempest, like Smith, has her finger on the pulse of where we are today. We should be grateful that our times have such perceptive analysts.
Historical fiction remained a powerful comment on present issues in the guise of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist. The one was a tale of late-Victorian tension between faith, science, doubt, and emotional identity. The other explored the hopes and dreams of Revolutionary Russia as the bright future slid almost immediately into the turmoil of state surveillance and terror. As in the best fiction set in the past, accounts of events in previous times and other places cast their own light on the present whilst remaining utterly absorbing in their own right.
The two novels that made the greatest impression on me this year we not, however, written or published in 2016, so I’m going to have to bend the ‘end of year’ rules to fit them in. They both deserve it though.
Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing was published in Germany in 2006, but Anthea Bell’s translation appeared at the end of 2015. A story of an East Prussian family in the early months of 1945, the novel charts the collapse of their entire world as the Russian troops roll into the crumbling Third Reich and its citizens experience the displacement and terror that Hitler’s armies had previously inflicted on others. A sense of slow-building menace runs through the narrative, as events in the present force characters to confront deeds in the past, and to realise that ideas of ‘home’, ‘community’, and ‘family’ offer little defence against their nation’s collapse as the lies upon which the Nazi state was built unravel.
Jean-Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club (translated from the French in 2015 by Euan Cameron) is both a memoir coming of age in 1950s Paris and a meditation on the post-World War Two division of Europe and its consequences. In a society where cafe society is a mix of earnest political debate and table-football the narrator’s induction into a society of Eastern European emigres is as much a tale of growing emotional and political consciousness as a study in loss and displacement. Moving from the post-War Soviet Union and Hungary to 1950s Paris and Algeria it ponders our need for belonging, for family, for friendship, for a sense of connection to the world around us, before resolving its many plots in a single story of how ‘exile’ remains a trauma that never heals. With the plight of ‘refugees’ unwillingly politicised by those countries accepting them (or not) Guenassia’s work reminds the reader that maintaining ‘optimism’ having lost everything is an act of quiet heroism.
So my two ‘best’ novels of the year both the reader back to a time when ‘Europe’ was in crisis, reminding us how its stability should never be taken for granted, and how the forces threatening to break it apart must be resisted at every turn. I doubt that many people who voted for the UK’s ‘Brexit’ would read them, and that’s a pity because they really should.