I read 83 books in 2012, so whittling it down to 10 has proved quite hard work. A few stinkers aside, it’s been a good year. So I’ve had to be pretty ruthless, and to make the final cut I decided to rule out any re-reads - the final list is just books I’ve read for the first time in 2012. So that’s goodbye to Mo Yan’s The Garlic Ballads, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, all books I’ve picked up for the second time this year.
10. J.G. Ballard - The Drowned World
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a good dystopia. Post-apocalyptic? Check. Plausible? Check. Slightly frightening? Check. I’ve read a few Ballards this year, but for me this one came out on top, and happily, Santa brought me The Drought so I’ll be onto that one next!
9. Ngugi wa Thiong’o - A Grain of Wheat
This tells the story of Kenya in the run-up to its independence, and how the lives of the key characters were changed irrevocably in the events leading up to it. Its slips and trips in time and narrator can take a little getting used to but definitely worth the effort.
8. Cormac McCarthy - The Border Trilogy
Cheating a bit here I know as it’s really three books not one, but doesn’t make sense to consider them separately in my opinion. We did the first volume, All The Pretty Horses, for our book club, and being as I’d bought the trilogy I decided to continue and read them all. The language is exquisite throughout, if a little challenging, and McCarthy is able to transmit the sense of aloneness and desolateness in a way I’ve not really come across before. The only reason this isn’t higher in the list is that a good 150 pages could have been chopped from the middle volume with no real effect, and that ended up letting the side down a bit.
7. Ivo Andric - The Bridge Over the Drina (trans Lovett. F. Edwards)
One of my long term ambitions is to read at least one work by every laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, hence my picking up of this work by Ivo Andric, who won in 1961. Not really a novel, more a collection of episodes around a theme (the bridge), or even potentially a biography of the bridge, from its building to its eventual destruction.
6. John Steinbeck - East of Eden
I find Steinbeck incredibly inconsistent as a writer. At his best, he writes works I would consider among my favourites ever (The Grapes of Wrath) and at his worst he writes thinly-veiled parables, lacking in depth and leaving the reader wanting (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl). Happily, then, East of Eden is among the former. It took me a while to get into but once I had I couldn’t put it down. The scope is epic and the cast of characters wide, but Steinbeck is able to carry it off with spectacular results.
5. Assia Djebar - The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry (trans. Tegan Raleigh)
I didn’t know much about Assia Djebar prior to picking this book up aside from the fact that everyone seemed to be talking about her as a potential candidate for the Nobel, so when I saw this available in my local library I thought I’d give it a go. This is short stories around two connecting themes - the female experience in Algeria, and the disconnection between Algeria and its former colonial master France, where many Algerians now live. I cried at least once.
4. Chinua Achebe - Anthills of the Savannah
I read Things Fall Apart for the first time this year and was a little disappointed, and almost didn’t pick this novel up. Happily I changed my mind, as in my opinion this volume is superior. Whilst Things Fall Apart speaks of old times in the beginnings of colonialism, this novel is about contemporary African politics and the endemic corruption within the corridors of power. It is pacey and exciting, drawing the characters together for a climatic conclusion.
3. Olga Tokarczuk - Primeval and Other Times (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
I finished reading this a few days after receiving the news that the person who recommended it to me had died, which made it a bittersweet experience as I know he would have enjoyed hearing about how much I loved it. It recounts the passage of time in a small Polish village from 1914 to the present day in a series of snapshots, drawing on myth and magical realism, in a way that is both compelling and evocative. Pretty sure I cried at this one too.
=1. Leo Tolstoy - War And Peace (trans. Rosemary Edwards)
=1. Vikram Seth - A Suitable Boy
I tried, really hard. But I just couldn’t do it. These two books are impossible to compare; the only thing they have in common is the page count, both around 1500 pages, and I guess out of necessity the scope of the novels and the size of the character list, which in both can be a little difficult to follow if you’re not concentrating.
War and Peace is not a million miles away from what it sounds like - following the lives of a few families during times of war and peace in the age of the Napoleonic wars. During the course of the novel their lives become intertwined and they begin to depend on each other for survival when the French invade Russia. It was a challenge I’d been meaning to take on for a long time, and I actually took a week off work in January to complete it - one of the best holidays I’ve ever had!
A Suitable Boy tells the story of Lata, a young Indian girl of marriageable age, and her mother’s attempts to get her married off to the eponymous suitable boy. It also has a lot to say about the state of post-Independence India and the politics of the time, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims, but not in a dry or uninteresting way, and I found it utterly fascinating. Three front-runners emerge for Lata’s hand, and the story climaxes with her eventual decision - which I found somewhat startling to begin with! It made sense once I’d thought about it a bit, and I think it’s fair to say that I will never properly stop thinking about this wonderful novel.