Books Of The Year: The Critics: The books that meant the the most to me

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The most gripping thing I read this year was Elena Lappin's "The Man With Two Heads" in Granta 66: Truth and Lies (Granta pounds 8.99). An account of how Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir Fragments, came to be exposed as fraud, "The Man With Two Heads" is written with modest perfection: equally impressive as journalism, history, literary criticism, psychological thriller and detective story. My real read of the year, though, was published in 1983. Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter flouts every convention on how a novel ought to be constructed with such panache and joy that the book is simply irresistible.


My favourite British novel of this year didn't make it on to the Booker Prize shortlist, even though I was a judge. And that, I guess, is a good lesson to learn about prizes: consensus often triumphs over passion. The novel in question is Boxy an Star, by Daren King, a doomed love story set in a bleak urban future where drugged-out youngsters drift aimlessly through the streets. Although its world could hardly be bleaker, it is nevertheless the most exhilarating read.

The Booker Prize swamped my reading this year, but as a treat, once it was over, I gave myself a Willa Cather season. For some reason I had never got around to some of her best works, including The Lost Lady and O Pioneers! Thank you, Virago, for keeping them all in print.


Three superb biographies of three monstrous geniuses stand out for me. In Karl Marx (Fourth Estate pounds 20) Francis Wheen pulls off the impossible: a defiantly unfashionable defence of the founder of modern communism, delivered with scintillating eloquence and wit. Benita Eisler's Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (Hamish Hamilton pounds 25) exposes the fearful price paid by all who were fated to love the "Napoleon of rhyme", yet leaves our awe for what his demons drove him to create undiminished. And in A Life of Jung (Bloomsbury pounds 25) Ronald Hayman sculpts a monument to the crackpot colossus of psychobabble. I finally caught up with The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a cracking cast of characters headed by the sublimely sinister Count Fosco, a multi-layered narrative of exquisite complexity, and an eerie atmosphere that haunts the mind like guilt. No wonder Thackeray sat up all night to finish it.


I can't remember when I last read a novel as original and devastating as Jim Crace's Being Dead (Viking pounds 16.99). Parts of it were almost too affecting to read in public - not many writers can make me go all flushed and shaky on the Tube. I admired the bravery and beauty of Daren King's first novel Boxy an Star, and Sue Miller's While I was Gone (Bloomsbury pounds 16.99) was deeply intelligent and, in its own way, terrifying. And I made myself read Great Expectations, which was funnier than I expected, but gave me no physical frissons whatsoever. I know it's sacrilege to criticise Dickens, but if he has managed to endure for more than 100 years, Crace deserves to be read well into the next millennium.


Two books I should have read years ago are passionately political, and disconcertingly topical. Hemingway's macho fantasy For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941) is a flawed, dated period-piece that tells us more about the author's own hang-ups than about the Spanish Civil War it purports to describe. Yet its account of the way neighbour can turn on neighbour with murderous brutality has chilling echoes in the reporting of Bosnian and Kosovan conflicts over half a century later. Andre Brink's A Dry White Season (1979) is more than an insider's book about the blinkered depravity that pervaded apartheid South Africa, of a kind that seldom caused Western capitalist boardrooms a moral qualm. It is also a frightening essay about the way comfortable, cosy groups of people in every country at every time savagely close ranks against anybody that questions the basis of the cosiness. A suitable gift, indeed, to celebrate Jesus Christ's 2,000th birthday. joanna briscoe I was impressed by The Last Life by Claire Messud (Picador pounds 12.99), the disquieting history of a French Algerian family. The great ventriloquist Rose Tremain is at her shocking best in Music and Silence (Chatto pounds 16.99), the story of a 17th-century lutenist. And I loved The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador pounds 10). She leaps from the colloquial to the exalted with thrilling fluency. I have also re-read A S Byatt's Possession (Vintage pounds 6.99), an annual event. I think it's one of the great novels of the century.

BLAKE MORRISON The best three novels I've read this year are Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Cape pounds 18), J M Coetzee's Disgrace and Jim Crace's Being Dead. Invidious to choose between Rushdie's sweep and exuberance, Coetzee's brutal economy and Crace's limpid poetic prose. But special mention to Crace, as the least well-known of the three, for a novel that has the elements of a thriller, but becomes something much deeper. Being able to quote its best lines, I thought I must have read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But no - I was quite unprepared for its narrative excitements and structural daring. And at 100 pages, it's proof that a classic need not be long.

ELSPETH BARKER Peter Tolhurst has produced a riveting study of West Country life, landscape and letters in Wessex: A Literary Pilgrimage (Black Dog Books pounds 19.95), a successor to his equally brilliant volume on East Anglia. For its bleak wit, eccentricity and economy, Magnus Mills's The Restraint of Beasts (Flamingo pounds 6.99). In Waterlog (Chatto pounds 15.99) Roger Deakin describes his amazing swim round Britain; erudite, funky and passionate, a total delight. I have read for the first time All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in 1929, recounting the experiences of a group of 18-year-olds in the Great War. Everyone over 15 should read it now. Bruce Bernard's magnificent collection of photographs, Century (Phaidon pounds 29.95), offers more to lament than to celebrate, but such is truth.

michele roberts Colette is one of my favourite novelists, for the excellence of her style and for her intriguing takes on the demi-monde and the haute-monde alike. Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman does her proud. George Sand, like Colette, combined producing bestsellers with living intensively, both as a lover and a revolutionary. George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large by Belinda Jack (Chatto pounds 25) paints a sympathetic portrait of the writer whom Flaubert called "chere maitre". I loved Affinity by Sarah Waters, which is a gripping novel about love and desire set in a Victorian women's prison, with a brilliant sting in its tail. Waterlog, by Robert Deakin, charts a swimmer's inner and outer journey through modern Britain with derring-do and charm.

cal mccrystal In a year less than outstanding for good literature, two books by journalists seized my attention. Henry Porter's first novel, Remembrance Day (Orion pounds 12.99), is a tour de force about murder and destruction of property by terrorists using sophisticated technology readily available in the shops today. The other was Lost Lives, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton (Mainstream pounds 25), a devastating account of those who perished in Ulster's troubles. My heart was lifted by reading Alain Rene Lesage's delightful Gil Blas (Smollet's translation) which satisfied me that the author was indeed the Homer of Naturalism.

cole moreton A friend told me off at the weekend for saying that everyone in Britain should read Lost Lives. You should never say should, she said. But in this case it's true - this encyclopaedic account of the ordinary lives and extraordinary deaths of every single person lost to the Troubles since they began is a harrowing starting point for an understanding of what's at stake over there. Inconceivable by Ben Elton (Bantam pounds 15.99) is not particularly well written, but it is a genuinely laugh-aloud funny book about the very painful process of fertility treatment. It also rings true - and you can take that from someone who knows.