The Old Country, By Sam North

What is it with the English aristocracy? There are far more deserving objects for our compassion, yet Sam North's masterly creation, Lord Woodford – a self-centred, bristle-moustached, scarlet-faced, alcoholic aristo who's never done a day's work in his life – milks the reader's sense of pathos until it hurts. And makes you laugh at the same time.

Hopeless, hapless and helpless, at 68 Lord Woodford has lost all his money and his ancestral home, and lives in a barn; he's divorced from his third wife, and the ashes of his mother, who died falling out of a Land Rover, have farcically ended up inside a chocolate cake which Lord Woodford pledges to bury on the old estate where he is now a trespasser. Then the novel moves backwards through time, showing us a wedding, a birth and a conception. By the end, one knows Lord Woodford and his family inside out, and his personal struggles and failure are universalised.

Few novelists write about childhood and old age with equal facility, but Sam North does, and his book also evokes all the sensations of lived experience with an unerring sense of le mot juste.