Arts review of 2017: Allan Massie on the year in books

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore
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There is no league table for Books of the Year – any attempt to draw one up is absurd – so the sensible thing is to note briefly a number of books one hopes readers may enjoy. (I’ll omit some of the good Scottish books I’ve reviewed because these reviews were re-printed in our 24-page Scottish Books 2017 supplement last week, which I daresay many readers will have kept rather than throwing out.)

The Horseman by Tim Pears is a remarkable evocation of life on a country estate just before the First World War – a novel that sounds such a note of authenticity that you might suppose that the author was in the hayloft, watching and listening to everything in the stable below. It may not have been the “best” new novel I read this year; there’s none I enjoyed more.

It is probably unnecessary to draw attention to Robert Harris now. Everything he writes pleases old admirers and wins new ones. His novel Munich is utterly gripping, his portrayal of the maligned Neville Chamberlain sympathetic and fair. Harris always remembers that events now in the past were once in the future; the world held its breath when Chamberlain flew to Munich and he was cheered as loudly by the Germans afraid of war as he was when he returned home.

Two other books might be read as companion pieces or sequels to Munich, though neither is a novel. Six Minutes in May by Nicholas Shakespeare is an account of the disastrous Norway campaign in the Spring of 1940 and the momentous Commons debate which precipitated the fall of the Chamberlain Government. The narrative is detailed and gripping, the character sketches acute, while Shakespeare is alert to the happy irony that Churchill, the man responsible for the Norway fiasco , was the beneficiary of the perceived need for a new Prime Minister.

Iris Origo, a rich Anglo-American married to an Italian nobleman, kept a diary in 1939-40. Now published for the first time as A Chill in the Air, it is alert to the fears and uncertainties of Italians who disliked the idea of an alliance with Nazi Germany and hoped Mussolini would keep Italy out of the war. Fascinating, certainly for anyone who loves Italy.

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill was a runner-up for the Walter Scott Prize, won deservedly by Sebastian Barry’s marvellous Days Without End (which was actually published in the autumn of last year). Golden Hill has subsequently won other prizes. This isn’t surprising because, first, it’s a strong narrative set in pre-Revolution New York, when it was a small town, both perplexing and dangerous for the novel’s hero, and second, because it is a very clever book, eminently discussible, partly because of the way in which it draws on, mirrors and sometimes parodies the classic 18th century novels of Fielding and Smollett. Teachers of Creative Writing will find it rich material; the common reader will find it enjoyable.

Novelists often make big claims for their work. Gustave Flaubert, walking through the ruins of Paris after the bloody suppression of the Commune in 1871, told a friend that the disaster of the failed Revolution would have been avoided if only people had read his last novel, L’Education Sentimentale. I think he was making a joke. Peter Brooks in Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris, has written a very interesting book which combines biography, history, literary criticism and a discussion of the development of photography. (The contemporary photographs of the destruction are riveting).

Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, died in June, three months after the publication of Birdcage Walk. Set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution, this story of a thrusting property developer with a dark secret in his past, and his wife, the daughter of a radical writer, was good history and a very good novel indeed. All her novels were good – very different from each other, for she always set herself a new challenge. This last one may have been her best, a true swansong.