Compelling fiction, a game-changing biography and a 900-page whopper for food nerds – writers reveal which of the past year’s books they have most enjoyed
**Paula Hawkins **
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff; A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson; The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
In Fates and Furies (William Heinemann), Lauren Groff gives us a “he said”, “she said” account of a successful marriage between two people who spend a lifetime loving each other without knowing each other. Rich, lyrical and rewarding. A God in Ruins (Doubleday) is, for me, the best of Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novels; a characteristically perceptive, poignant and complex tale of one man’s attempt to live a “good, quiet life” in the 20th century. I’m very late to the Elena Ferrante party and have yet to read the Neapolitan novels, but I found The Days of Abandonment (Europa) quite extraordinary – a deeply discomforting, visceral tale of a woman unravelling.
**John Lanchester **
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; The Food Lab by J Kenji Lopez-Alt
A good year for fiction (it’s funny how they vary). I’ve particularly enjoyed Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations (Faber), Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend quadrilogy. I have Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island lined up for the holidays. In non-fiction, for food nerds, there’s the 900-page The Food Lab (WW Norton) by J Kenji López-Alt, who wins the contest for best authorial name of the year. His book is about the science of home cooking and went straight on to the New York Times bestseller list, though it doesn’t seem to have a publisher in the UK.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth; A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa), the first in her series, is an account of a friendship between two girls growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples in the early 60s. It has plenty of material for misery-lit cliche – poverty, casual brutality, organised crime etc. Instead the narrator subjects her every observation and emotion to rigorous, almost forensic analysis, which is an extraordinary pleasure to read. Lots of women published great, grippy thrillers this year – Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind (Headline Review) is one of the best. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Doubleday) is my book of the year and, so far, the decade. It chops back and forth along a hundred-year timeline, circling four generations of the same family, but at its centre is Teddy, who was a fighter pilot during the second world war and who, when he discovered he’d survived the war, “never adjusted to having a future”. This is a moving, ambitious and often funny novel, with many big themes, the most obvious of which is the fragility of life.
Dancing in the Dark by Karl Ove Knaussgard; The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante; Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
My favourite reading this year has been by Jenny Diski, in a series of pieces (on adolescence, Doris Lessing, cancer and mortality) for the London Review of Books. Close behind come Karl Ove Knausgaard with Dancing in the Dark (Vintage), the fourth volume in his autobiographical epic, which recounts his experiences as a young teacher dangerously infatuated with his teenage pupils; and Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan quartet drew to a close with The Story of the Lost Child – I passed the summer waiting for it to come out by reading all her other novels, which include the dark but brilliant The Days of Abandonment. I also caught up with Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, which is every bit as good as Brooklyn, and bought his latest book, On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton), an appreciation of one of America’s greatest poets.