02 December 2017

The Heart’s Invisible Furies author shares his standout novels of the year, from Edouard Louis’ powerful The End of Eddy to Roddy Doyle’s tale of two school friends that reunite when middle-aged

I’m a voracious reader. At the time of writing I’ve read almost 120 books this year, most of them contemporary fiction and some classics that I’ve never read before too. Of the new books from 2017, here’s a selection of my favourites.

Larchfield

Polly Clark

The dual narrative in Polly Clark’s debut novel is one of the strengths of this brilliant book. Clark juxtaposes the poet WH Auden’s time as a schoolmaster in Scotland with a contemporary young woman’s arrival in the same town, finding enchanting and unexpected connections between the two. Exploring issues as diverse as sexuality, motherhood and isolation, Clark creates a world filled with trauma and, while focussing on the minds of two poets, also details the effects of post-natal depression. A really fine debut.

The End of Eddy

Édouard Louis

This is the first volume of Édouard Louis’ memoirs of growing up gay and unloved in a small French town and it is as moving as it is upsetting. Louis recreates the world of his childhood without any sense of self-pity, describing his bitter and cruel parents and his struggle to come to terms with his own identity. It’s a short book but every page packs a punch and I look forward to reading the forthcoming volumes that continue his story.

Smile

Roddy Doyle

I think Smile is Roddy Doyle’s finest book in twenty years. The central relationship between two school friends who reconnect in middle-age is so tense that the reader feels on edge throughout. As Victor’s memories of the past are slowly revealed, Doyle combines an unreliable narrator with a shocking finale that is both technically skilful and artistically audacious. Here is a novelist at the very top of his game, challenging both himself and the reader to find new approaches to the novel.

A Natural

Ross Raisin

Ross Raisin’s third novel A Natural is his best yet. It follows the journey of Tom, a professional footballer who, despite a promising start, has not quite made it to the big leagues. A quiet, introverted figure, he’s also gay in a sport not known for its embrace of minorities. Raisin creates a deeply moving portrait of fear and acceptance and also of the struggles that the not-quite-good-enough have in recognising that their dreams might not be realised.

Pachinko

Min Jin Lee

Pachinko tells the story of Korean immigrants living in Japan between 1910 and today, a family saga that explores the effects of poverty, abuse, war, suicide, and the accumulation of wealth on multiple generations. The monstrous degrees of hardship suffered by the Koreans makes for painful reading. Lee writes of this maltreatment with a stoicism that reflects the fortitude of her characters. Surviving is what matters to them, not human rights.

The Day That Went Missing

Richard Beard

In non-fiction, I was greatly moved by Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing. Richard and I have been friends for almost twenty-five years but I never knew, until now, that his younger brother had died when they went swimming together on a family holiday as children. Beard reconstructs the events of that day while examining the long-term consequences on his family, creating a powerful testament to grief and emotional restraint. There’s an element of the detective novel to the book too, as Beard interviews witnesses and those with connections to that fateful afternoon.

The Party

Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day’s psychological drama put me in mind of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley in its depiction of an unbalanced friendship between two boys who grow into men together. The twists and turns that the novel takes are never predictable and the novel becomes as unsettling as it is involving. One of those books that a person reads in one day because you absolutely have to know how it’s going to turn out.

The Awkward Age

Francesca Segal

Francesca Segal’s The Awkward Age is a terrific novel, elegantly written and a worthy successor to his award-winning debut. In late middle-age, Julia and James have fallen in love with each other but her teenage daughter and his teenage son are making their lives a nightmare. The children are unconscionably cruel at times, selfish and utterly spoilt, and the effect they have on their loving parents is heart-breaking. Quite a sad book, at times, but rich in storytelling

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