Charles Lambert’s top 2015 reads
A few years ago I started recording the title of every book I read, along with the dates I started and finished, on an index card and storing these in a beautiful handmade wooden box. So I can say, with absolute certainty, that I’ve managed a weekly average of 1.2 books so far this year (I’m writing at the end of November). Of these 60-odd books, 18 were by women and 16 were in translation (with a single overlap in the shape of Yoko Ogawa), which leaves a substantial number of Anglophone men, for which I suppose I ought to apologise. I’ll try to do better next year. And before I start to talk about the books I’ve loved this year (in which the gender balance is redressed), I’d like to say that by the time it ends I just know that – on the strength of their other work – I will also have read and loved Dancing in the Dark (Vintage), the fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and The Occupation Trilogy (Bloomsbury) by Patrick Modiano. So there. But let’s get down to business.
The first book on my (chronological) list is Jenny Offill’s Last Things (Bloomsbury). First published in 1999, it came to my attention after her justly-praised second novel, Dept of Speculation, was compared by several people to a recent book of mine. (Oh, all right then, With a Zero at its Heart.) Last Things is a strikingly accomplished debut, magical, disturbing, obsessive and complex and demanding as the childhood it depicts, filled with dark enchantment, heart-breakingly sad. If Offill makes us wait another 15 years for her third book, we’ll have grounds for legal action.
I’m a great admirer of both Damon Galgut (In a Strange Room is my favourite) and EM Forster, whose work provided my early teenage years with an aesthetic and a politics (until I was led astray by Castro). So Arctic Summer (Atlantic), based on a few years out of Forster’s life, was a particular treat. It’s easy to forget just how complex a business being gay was before 1967 (when I was fourteen), how much of the deepest part of oneself was tied up in a knot of subterfuge, desire and self-reproach. This exquisitely written and often chilling book is a timely reminder.
One of the collateral pleasures The Walking Dead offers is the music the series uses. You know that moment when you try to catch enough of the words of a song to Google them and find out what you’re listening to? This is how I discovered my new favourite band, The Mountain Goats, and learned to appreciate the writing of John Darnielle. His novel, Wolf in White Van (Granta), is as weird and startling as his lyrics, telling the tale of a deformed recluse, the world he creates for himself and what happens when the outside forces its way in. As such, it sounds like a description of my new book, The Children’s Home (Aardvark Bureau), and it was fascinating for me to see how two writers could take such a basic outline and produce two books so strikingly different.
I mentioned Yoko Ogawa above. The Diving Pool (Vintage) is a collection of three long short stories, or novellas, each one a triumph of psychological acuity combined with a uniquely dream-like creepiness. They’re on the far side of odd, but the emotions they describe are instantly, uncomfortably recognisable, and the agonising way Ogawa ratchets up the tension is exceptional. Highly recommended.
Finally, I already knew and admired the short stories of Nuala Ní Chonchúir (Nude, Salt Publishing), so I wasn’t surprised to be impressed by Miss Emily (Sandstone Press), published under the name, Nuala O’Connor. It describes the relationship, in alternating chapters, between Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid Ada Concannon, and it’s a masterful combination of fact and fiction, moving, insightful and with pitch-perfect control of the two protagonists’ very individual voices. A tour de force.
But my big discovery this year has been the work of Pascal Garnier. Seven novels, published by Gallic Books (I know, I know) all of them brilliantly translated, and each one a masterpiece of narrative compression, dark humour, emotional insight, menace and pathos. It’s hard to resist calling out Simenon, if only because the picture of petit bourgeois provincial life is so piercingly accurate, but a host of other names, other from the world of cinema, spring to mind: Beckettian bleakness, a Chabrol-like awareness of guilt within a community, a more rooted Lynch. If I had to pick a favourite, and believe me it’s hard, it would be How’s the Pain?
Charles LambertBuy ‘The Children’s Home’