Books of 2020

It seems premature to publish my favourite five books of 2020, particularly since I’m currently up to my neck in all manner of fantastic latecomers which might easily be added to the list. But if I don’t throw down a marker now, the moment will inevitably pass. And I share this list in the knowledge that everybody in the world wants to write a blog about books – I have nothing new or unusual to add, and I make no apology for indulging myself.

Wodwo – Ted Hughes

I was slightly astonished that so much of my life had passed before I came across this collection of prose, drama and poetry by Ted Hughes. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I slipped into the book as if it were a warm bath. I often found that I was gliding through the pages as if I’d read them before; as if the stories and images rose up and coiled around me like simple fun. And I was desperately gratified to discover such a strong engagement with shooting and rural life, which helped me to feel less like a literary leper. Think of Grooby, who, in shooting a hare that is driven out of a standing crop by a combine harvester, wounds himself in a manner both ambiguous and graphic. And Billy Red, who catches and kills rats with his teeth like a terrier. I was so enraptured with Billy Red’s story (Sunday) that I wasted an entire night making a print of him in action (above). If I could build my home inside a book, I would choose Wodwo.

North – Seamus Heaney

Heaney has become a recurrent theme for me, and there is so much in his work that I find startling and direct. North was his first real departure from a period of early work which critics have called “the anonymous” – the sequence I have always liked best. I read this collection of poetry in a single inhalation, then pulled it into a thousand pieces over successive weeks. Because here is a vast overview of deep time and the mass movement of human beings, killed and dying with the relentlessness of the tide. Leathery bog bodies are woven into strange relics of Norse and Scandinavian culture, then folded back into modern concerns around nationhood and identity. And if North didn’t have enough to commend it, Heaney also tries his hand at translating Skeletons Digging by Charles Baudelaire. And it’s blisteringly creepy.

Le Gloire de mon père – Marcel Pagnol

I’ve read that “the French are proud of Proust, but they love Pagnol”. Unashamedly nostalgic and concertedly rose-tinted, Pagnol’s autobiography is just beautiful. And it makes my top list because in truth it’s a powerfully evocative description of rural Provence in the years leading up to the First World War. The thrust of the book follows a day’s walked up partridge shooting in the mountains above Aubagne, and the young Marcel’s experience of following the guns through the rocks is a cast-iron testament to that almost religious devotion small boys can feel for their fathers. Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette featured on last year’s (unpublished) top five, but there’s more than mere loyalty at play to see him placed again. And in the meantime, I’m rediscovering a growing obsession with France – I’ll make the nerdy confession that I set aside a fair amount of extra time to read this in the original French. It was a total joy.

Poor Fellow My Country – Xavier Herbert

Herbert is a literary giant in his native Australia, but he is almost unheard of in Britain. I happened to find this extremely scarce novel by sheer fluke, and it felled me. At 1,500 pages long, it took almost two months to read from beginning to end, but nothing will ever look the same again. I don’t know much about Australia and I’ve never really bothered to look – so I was staggered by this epic post-colonial monster which drew together numberless characters, cultures and landscapes and rendered them in a vast, breathless collage which actively rolled and moved around the page. Herbert was a master of shifting focus; his characters flit and dance with the busyness of termites, but we never lose track of the bigger picture – his ability to examine the smallest human detail and then pose it against the enormity of aboriginal deities actually made me laugh out loud with admiration. And if I get another dog, I’ll gonna call it Prindy, the ‘goanna.

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

I’ve written before on this blog about Starve Acre. To say I “enjoyed” the book is an overstatement, but I can honestly say that I’ve thought about this story every day for the last six weeks. And for all I’m a little hesitant about praising a novel that I would love to amend and rehash, I am grateful that my eyes were opened to an entirely new genre. All I’d add is that if you intend to read Starve Acre, make sure you have time to cover the whole book in a single sitting. It has a strange and compelling momentum that will not survive a pause. And I also have to say there’s no reason why Hurley should occupy this spot above Sarah Moss or Daisy Johnson, but I read him first and went to them later for better. Maybe number five should be split three ways. To be continued.

And The Worst Howler of the Year goes to:

The Other House – Henry James

I gather that there are many good reasons why this book is so terrible. For a start, it was originally written for the stage and then adapted into a novel. That process of adaptation seems to have stripped away even the merest muttering of fire or passion, replacing tension with screeds of staid and wordy convolution. I have enjoyed Henry James in other guises and I was glad to learn of his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson – but this was the first book I’ve encountered in many years which I would describe as genuinely unreadable.

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