It’s that time of year again. Time to look back on a year’s worth of novels and choose the ones I liked most. You might think this would be a fairly difficult task, but it’s quite easy when you’ve employed a rating system. Essentially this list comprises all the books I awarded a five-star review in 2008.
Come back tomorrow for another list comprised of books that made a lasting impression regardless of the number of stars they received…
Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 favourite fiction reads of 2008 (in alphabetical order by book title):
‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (first published 2007)
‘Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.
‘The Christmas Tree’ by Jennifer Johnston (1982)
Judging by the title alone The Christmas Tree sounds like it could be sentimental claptrap — and the somewhat dated illustration on my cover doesn’t do much to dispel that assumption. But this is truly a case of never judge a book by its cover, because what lies within is an exquisitely written tale about an Irish woman who returns home to die, and not once does Johnston resort to mawkishness or saccharine touches to achieve a deeply affecting story.’
‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber (2003)
Despite the constant debauchery (for want of a better word) that fills the pages, The Crimson Petal and the White never feels pornographic, nor sensationalist. Instead, because Faber has such an eye for detail and is a stickler for historical accuracy, the novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope — or want — to visit.
‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1997)
There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.
‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ by Sloan Wilson (1955)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today. For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?
‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen (1991)
‘This sparse, beautifully written novel, is an exquisite, mesmerising read. Open any page and the words are impeccably arranged to read like poetry.
‘Silent in the Grave’ by Deanna Raybourn (2008)
Silent in the Grave is a rollicking good story that ploughs along at a furious pace, ably assisted by page-turning cliff hangers at the end of each chapter, so that you begin to wonder whether you will ever put the book down! The plot is terrific, with enough red herrings to keep you guessing, right up until the dark and somewhat unexpected denouement.
‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan (1997)
At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.
‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner (2008)
This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)
‘On the face of it, this book does not have much of a plot. It’s essentially a series of vignettes, held together by the passing seasons, but it is written in such beautiful, evocative prose, it’s difficult to find fault with the narrative. There’s a quiet, understated grace to every sentence that makes it a powerful and affecting read. I never thought I would say this, but I loved this book so much I’m afraid the late John McGahern, my favourite Irish writer and possibly my favourite writer per se, has a rival for my affections.’
What books did you most enjoy this year?