2020: The Year Ahead in Books, by Allan Massie

A Thousand Moons, Sebastian Barry's sequel to Days Without End, is due to be published in March by Faber & Faber PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
A Thousand Moons, Sebastian Barry's sequel to Days Without End, is due to be published in March by Faber & Faber PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images
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Sebastian Barry’s last novel, Days Without End, won several prizes , chief among them the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. A Thousand Moons, to be published in March by Faber & Faber, is a sequel, but this time the story is told by Winona, the Lakota orphan adopted by Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and brought up in, what was for the times, an unorthodox household on a farm in Tennessee. There can be few novelists today who write as well as Barry.

Alongside it Faber are eagerly promoting a first novel by a young Dutch writer, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Billed as a story of “family darkness after an accidental death,” its editor “can’t remember when there was so much in-house excitement about a debut novel.”


 Novelists are often pushed to the margin in middle-age as new ones understandably attract more notice. Some give up. Others continue to plough their field. Graham Swift has never written anything that wasn’t interesting and pleasing. He is powerful in an always understated way. His new novel Here We Are (Simon & Schuster) starts with a seaside entertainment.


Michael Arditti’s novels have been distinguished by their variety as well as their intelligence. The Anointed is the story of David, the second King of Israel, the poet and shepherd-boy who slew the giant Goliath. It is told by his three wives, Michal, Abigail and Bathsheba. Since I had David write a quasi-autobiographical novel many years ago, I am especially interested by the different perspectives Arditti offers.


In March Canongate publish an Argentinian political thriller, Like Fleas From Afar by K Ferrari, which may prove a bestseller. It has a corrupt hero – no “Soiled Galahad” – in an even more corrupt and vicious world. It begins with a corpse wearing furry pink handcuffs in the boot of his car. Who is setting him up, and for what?


Canongate are also re-publishing William McIlvanney’s three Laidlaw novels in a uniform edition, novels which remind you that, as that fine crime novelist Nicholas Freeling put it, “crime is a phenomenon of significance as much metaphysical as material.” Like Freeling, McIlvanney was concerned with crimes against the spirit, not only the body.


That’s something I would expect to be explored in a new non-fiction book from Sandstone Press. Stolen Lives by Louise Hulland is a study of slavery and human trafficking in the UK today, a grim subject, not to be ignored.


Les Wilson won the Saltire Society History Book of the Year award in 2018 for The Drowned and the Saved: When War came to the Hebrides. His new book is very different, but it sounds just as interesting. Putting the Tea in Britain: The Story of the Scots Who Made Our National Drink is the story of tea plantations in Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, and now apparently, and surprisingly, here in Scotland too.


Of equal interest from Birlinn is Patrick Laurie’s Life in a Vanishing Landscape. I know of Laurie only as a good journalist writing about conservation projects. This is the story of his attempt to connect with his native Galloway on a family farm in a depopulated landscape given over mostly to commercial forestry.


2020 is the centenary of the birth of Edwin Morgan, virtuoso poet of great range, invention and humanity. Birlinn’s Polygon imprint will celebrate it with The Edwin Morgan Twenties, available as slim books or as a boxed set. Polygon also publish Later That Day, a collection of new poems from Andrew Greig, a poet who began very well 40 years ago and continues to get better.


Finally, two books which are sure to be a success. James Naughtie is one of Scotland’s greatest journalists; also, I should admit, an old friend of mine since his days as a young cub on this newspaper. On The Road (Simon & Schuster) is the story of his long engagement with American politics and his travels in the Great Republic. The title is – boldly? – taken from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel-cum-travelogue. There’s one significant difference: Truman Capote scorned Kerouac’s work. “That’s not writing,” he said, “it’s typing.” There is no doubt that Naughtie’s book will be “writing,” and good writing too.


Then if we are eager – or can bear –to know just what has been going on in Downing Street and the corridors power in the last year, Tim Shipman’s next instalment of our political story will be published by Collins in the Spring. Shipman is now to high, and more often low, politics what Sir John Curtice is to public opinion: the man who tells us how it is and has been. ■