It’s been a year of reading in splurges and jags – unsurprising, probably, in a year otherwise occupied with the birth of my first child and writing a new collection of short stories. I’ve probably also read proportionally fewer new books this year than in any previous year: there has been some glorious raiding of the shelves, including The Leopard by Lampedusa, which is still kicking around in my head months after reading as well as collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, On the End of the World.
All of this has made me feel somewhat removed from this year’s fiction, much of which has not stuck as fast as I would have hoped. All That Is, by James Salter felt at the time like it should be the apex of the year, but weirdly now feels like a very good meal one has eaten: difficult to remember in detail, despite the few exquisite memories. The Collected Stories, however, do feel like the real thing. A resonant and shimmering collection, one that feels more lasting than this novel.
In terms of novels, the best were uncompromising and unusual, marked by a sense of playing a different game to others. Eimar MacBride’s debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) has to be the book of the year, for its originality, its refusal to compromise and its wholesale re-invention of the tired coming-of-age novel. I have rarely felt as passionate about a debut as I do about this novel, rarely has a book hinted so darkly at a fresh, inventive future for fiction.
David Peace’s Red or Dead (Faber & Faber) was not the book I had expected. When I had first heard about Peace taking on the life of Liverpool manager and icon Bill Shankly, I expected a companion volume to The Damned Utd; all seething hurt and seventies paranoia. But the genius – and I do think this is a work worthy of the word – of Red or Dead was to ignore that. To present a life without thought for expectation but aligned to artistic necessity. This is a novel that feels closer to conceptual art than mainstream literary fiction, and is all the better for it. A much longer piece on it can be found here.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love (Harvill Secker) was another book that sears itself into your consciousness, and frankly there’s no one else I’d rather read right now. A Death in the Family, the first book in the My Struggle sequence, was excellent, but this novel goes way beyond in complexity and fictional art (You can read my Observer review here). I found a similar excitement in Javier Marias’s The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton), a spiralling and dizzying novel of lies and loves and death and life. It has led me back to his books, and I am already hooked on his intelligence and craft.
Mention must also be made of Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia - a short story that suggests the mixed but always interesting NW could prove to be her transitional work. This is peerless, near-faultless writing, perfectly in control of its material. For the space of sixty or so pages I was lost in Fatou's halfway existence, one foot in the past, the other in the future. I can't praise it highly enough.
Three of the books that I loved this year also happened to be by friends. This should not put you off. Nikesh Shukla’s The Time Machine (Galley Beggar Press) is the best thing he has written, perfectly showcasing his ability to find humour in the dark and warmth in the chill. (it’s only a quid, and some of the money goes to charity, so do buy it). Lee Rourke’s new novel, Vulgar Things (4th Estate), is out next year and I was lucky enough to read an early draft. It is superb: challenging and unusual, strangely beautiful yet maddeningly unnerving. Even for Gavin James Bower, his book Claude Cahun: The Soldier with no Name (Zero Books) is short, but his depiction of this obscure yet fascinating artist is vivid and arresting.
In non-fiction, Philip Davis’s Reading and the Reader (OUP) was wildly inspirational, and essential for anyone interested in the acts of reading and writing. I found myself going back to books I loved reading sentences in a new light, perhaps the way you would after reading a good biography of a band and listening to their records all over again. It also made me hate Wordsworth less, which a quiet triumph all of its own. Sebald’s essays, A Place in The Country (Hamish Hamilton), are a joy as you’d expect. Another friend, William Atkins, allowed me to read an early draft of his book The Moor: The Landscape That Makes Britain (Faber & Faber). It will be one of the most celebrated and well-reviewed books of 2014.