2011 has been a brilliant year for me, not least in terms of what I’ve read. I only started keeping a record in 2010 and 38 full length novels seemed a respectable total, but this year it’s been 55! This came as a surprise as I’ve been working flat out on my own book as well as the various other hats I wear. Luckily I’m not one of those who can’t read anything else whilst writing – I wouldn’t be capable of such a sacrifice. A day never passes without me immersing myself in some fictional world (I even read Moby Dick during a week in bed with flu!)
I think the big tally this year is partly attributable to getting a Kindle in February. For some strange reason I can read much faster on it, although I still prefer the physical experience of books. When I started thinking about this piece, it was hard to know where to begin, but I find that certain novels acquire a significance beyond themselves – they remind me of the time and place I read them and I can’t think of them without feeling whatever they made me feel at the time. So rather than an endless list, I’m going to focus on my true literary highlights of 2011, the ones that came to me without looking at my notebook, and how they came to mean something out of the ordinary.
Knowing that my novel is partly set in Brooklyn in 1976, several friends had recommended Let The Great World Spin by NY-based Irish writer Colum McCann. It landed with a resounding thwack on my doormat the day before I set off on my research trip, a trade paperback. I eyed it, recalling my wish to travel light, then shoved it in my rucksack for the plane. Set on the day in 1974 that Philippe Petit tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers, it is the story of two Irish brothers and a memorable cross-section of New Yorkers from the bereaved mothers of Vietnam soldiers to the down and outs of the South Bronx. It is a deeply moving literary masterpiece and will always remind me of an unforgettable trip which took me not just to another place, but thanks to the true stories I was told in Brooklyn, back to another time.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell was that rarest of things, a novel loved by all seven members of my book group, and it’s amazing how seldom this has happened in our 9 years together. I’ve been a fan for years, but O’Farrell’s writing just gets better and better. In this novel, her characterisation, her subtle examination of the bonds between couples and families and the way the past seeps into the present, were executed with such skill, lightness and poignancy that our discussion lasted for hours.
In early September, refreshed after a holiday in France, I set myself the not inconsiderable task of getting my manuscript into presentable shape by Christmas. I booked a place on a How To Get Published talk at the Ham & High Literary Festival and then noticed a half day creative writing workshop the same day. I thought that might ease me back into writing. It was led by Jane Rusbridge, author of The Devil’s Music (which I had yet to read) and tutor of Creative Writing at the University of Chichester . We did an exercise based on Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas which was very enjoyable (and difficult), but deep down I was thinking: I don’t write like this, imagery and lyricism are not my thing. Now I realise that I’d always held back, afraid to take the risk. With my first writing group of term looming, I sat down at my desk the next day to finish a key chapter I had been agonising over and couldn’t seem to get right and suddenly it all fell into place. I let go and allowed the character some real emotion. That’s an awful lot of inspiration to get in the space of 3 hours! By this time I was sure The Devil’s Music would be something special and my hopes were rewarded.
Booker shortlisted title Pigeon English, narrated by an 11 year old Ghanaian boy recently arrived in London and living on a bleak, crime-ridden estate, is quite simply one of the most powerful and arresting narratives I’ve read. Not just this year – ever. I still can’t think about it without catching my breath. This was the book that really made me see red when articles appeared in the press recently claiming that fiction lacks the capacity to reflect real life in times of upheaval.
My final choice may seem curious given the rather ambivalent review I gave it but I spent more time discussing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas than any other book this year. There’s something very exciting about controversial books – you may love it or hate it, but I stand by my view that it’s a novel worth reading. Unusually, the TV series has been judged by many to be better than the book and I agree that it’s at least as good, although diluted by the actors being (in some cases) more personable than the characters, and the shock factor of the bad language and sex much reduced. Analysing The Slap gave my critical faculties a good workout and the review attracted a lot of readers to my blog in its very early days.
If you’re looking for ideas for the year ahead, check out my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012
Coming soon: Reviews of We Had It So Good by Linda Grant and Jubilee by Shelley Harris, which is the first of my Hot Picks.
Did you read anything in 2011 which will stay with you?