Books of the Year(s)

Thinking about a ‘Books of 2018’ list raises a tricky question. Is it a list of books published in the past twelve months, or the best books I’ve read in the period? Happily, as my list isn’t destined for a newspaper or magazine, and is unlikely to generate vastly increased sales for any of those titles I single out I feel comfortable with including in this year’s ‘Best of’ works that were certainly not published in 2018, but which have certainly made my year, reading-wise.

My first rule-bending exercise is to make room for Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. It’s impossible to single out one in particular (and I’ve only read a fraction this year out of the immense seventy-plus that he wrote) but thanks to my local lending library I’ve come to love these spare, psychologically intense dramas and the morally compromised demi-monde in which they play out. Recently re-translated and re-issued by Penguin in the UK, each novel is complete in itself but also part of a remarkable body of work, with a detective weary but decent, and a milieu that, even in its darker aspects, makes mid-20th century France feel like a welcome escape from Brexit Britain.

Elsewhere in fiction the year has had three highlights. Madeline Miller’s Circe is, in the same vein as her first novel The Shield of Achilles, a rich and complex reworking of classical myth into a narrative of great power and contemporary resonance. In a year when gender issues were never far from the news headlines, she gave the ‘witch’ of Homer’s Odyssey a compelling voice. Elsewhere, C. J. Sansom’s Tombland continued his series of murder mysteries set in Tudor England, with his lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake once again endeavouring to see justice done amidst political conflicts and personal tests of loyalty. The historical context (the rebellions that marked Edward VI’s reign) was constructed with the care and attention to detail that Sansom’s readers have come to know well, and although Shardlake is an ageing protagonist I hope his adventures are not over quite yet.

If I had to single out one novel for the year, though, it would be Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, a work that, like The English Patient, deals in slowly-revealed secrets and half-truths as its characters navigate their lives and try to make sense of them. With its setting in the still-ruined cityscape of post-World War Two London and its cast of characters whose backgrounds remain opaque to the end, it is a rich and complex reading experience. Warlight is a study in the world of espionage, an exploration of the human heart, and a reminder of what fiction can do.

In non-fiction Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express and Adventures in the Post-Soviet Space are both great examples of his gift for writing about our built surroundings and the political and economic forces that shape them. Whether discussing town planning in central Europe or the decaying ruins of the Soviet empire in its more remote outposts Hatherley remains one of the most perceptive and thoughtful analysts of the spaces in which we live and the people into which they can sometimes transform us.

My book of the year (although published at the end of 2017) is both ‘new’ and at the same time as old as its possible to be. It is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the time of MeToo much has been made in the media of this being the first significant translation of the epic by a woman, and there are certainly many instances where the problematic gender roles of the ancient poem are probed in her work. In a world where the topics of immigration and ‘movement’ are so politically volatile, though, and where notions of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ can prove divisive Wilson thoughtfully makes the tale of Odysseus seem more relevant than ever. In her Introduction she expresses the hope that in its translation Homer’s ‘alien’ poem can find new homes and readers, reminding us that in Greek culture welcoming the stranger, the refugee, or the exile was often a social and religious obligation. The mysterious guest in your home might prove to be a god in disguise, so your kindness towards them would be much more than a matter of simple charity: it would be the measure of the person that you are and would like the gods to believe you to be. In a year shaped by talk of a border wall, a ‘hostile environment’, and a worldwide turning away from the idea that immigration could be anything other than a problem, Wilson has given us an ancient text that feels utterly necessary and relevant today.  Happily, too, in picking her Odyssey as my book of the year I also don’t have to bend my ‘2018’ rule that far at all!