Arts review of 2019: Allan Massie’s books of the year

Karen Campbell PIC: John Devlin
Karen Campbell PIC: John Devlin
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One can never say for certain that literary prizes go to the best authors or the best books, for there’s never an indisputable literary league table. Nevertheless the Saltire Society should find few ready to question two of their judgements this year: the fiction award to Ewan Morrison for his novel NinaX and the non-fiction one to Melanie Reid for her memoir of recovery from a horrible accident, The World I Fell Out Of.

Admittedly the Morrison award may be called bold. NinaX is not a novel you curl up with comfortably on a sofa. It’s intelligent and demanding: a study of a mind-bending cult and the difficulty a survivor has in adjusting to the world of normality. But you’re not likely to forget it. (There were questions raised about whether a man writing about a woman should have taken the prize ahead of three women writing about women, but this argument is specious. Women have written good novels from a male point of view, men likewise from a female one. It’s called fiction.) Melanie Reid’s account of her long recovery is compelling, a tribute also to the NHS. As such it might be coupled with Kenneth Roy’s In Case Of Any News, written in hospital in his last weeks of life. If a deathbed book may reasonably be styled ”life-enhancing,” this is it.


To call someone “the best living novelist” is probably silly. Still, if pressed, I would accord that title to Andrei Makine. If the Swedish Academy want to recover their lost prestige, they might do so by giving the Nobel to Makine. His latest novel is The Archipelago of Another Life, an account of, amidst much else, a man-hunt in Siberia, beautifully translated as ever by Geoffrey Strachan.


Robert Harris is the master of intelligent and surprising narrative. The Second Sleep begins with a nice piece of conjuring deception. It puts the question: what if the technology we rely on died on us? The answer is as persuasive as it is fascinating.


I found John le Carré’s Agent Running Free his best novel since A Most Wanted Man. Le Carré’s continuing capacity for indignation is stimulating. He remains the master of the novelist’s tradecraft.


If Le Carré’s vitality in his late eighties is remarkable, it’s also remarkable to write your first novel in your seventies and for it to be a very good one. But this is what Euan Cameron has done with Madeleine, a novel about treachery and possible redemption, the main part set in Vichy France. It is itself a sort of love-letter to France; any Francophile will delight in it.


The best American novel I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, a story of courage, cruelty and perversion, set in a Southern reform school in the early 1960s. Not comfortable reading, but compelling.


Karen Campbell’s novel, The Sound of the Hours, is equally compelling but more warmly enjoyable. Set in North Italy in the last months of the war when the local Fascists and the occupying German forces were engaged in a brutal struggle with the partisans, it has a Scots-Italian girl as heroine and a black American soldier as hero and lover. Well researched, it feels authentic. As a companion piece, I would recommend House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead, a non-fiction account of the brave women who fought for the partisans. For sheer pleasure and good writing, little matched Suncatcher, Romesh Gunasekera’s recovery of lost time and an intense teenage friendship in Sri Lanka when it was still Ceylon in the early years of Independence.


Among other non-fiction books, I enjoyed and admired were To the Island of Tides: A Journey To Lindesfarne – Alistair Moffat’s meditation on history, faith and mortality, lightened by recollections of childhood and adolescence, and Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing, also richly meditative.
AN Wilson’s Prince Albert, the sympathetic biography of Queen Victoria’s husband, does justice to the admirable, if not very likeable, man who did so much to modernise the monarchy, but by some way the most enjoyable new biographical work was Leo McKinstry’s Attlee and Churchill, a study of two remarkable men who developed an admiration for each other which, across party lines, extended even to friendship. It was also depressing because it invites comparison of then and now. From Attlee and Churchill to Corbyn and Johnson, it scarcely bears thinking about.