Best of a decade: Books
- The List
- 2 December 2009
1. Cormac McCarthy – The Road (2006)
Already considered one of the finest novels of the modern era, Cormac McCarthy’s compelling and relentless story of a man and his son struggling to survive in a blasted, ashen post-apocalyptic landscape set a new benchmark for future fiction on its publication in 2006, and combined high literary ideas with an unforgiving, gripping narrative. As the father and son head south to avoid another bitter winter, their lives are constantly threatened by the bleak, dead environment around them as well as by other travellers. Marauding tribes have resorted to murder and cannibalism to survive, while the pair also discover a human farm in a plot which subverts and transcends horror and thriller genres to create something akin to a modern fable.
Tapping into a universally nightmarish vision, all of this might have been too depressing or distressing to read were it not for McCarthy’s masterly use of prose to create a heightened sense of poetry in a world seemingly dead to such concerns. Full of symbolism yet propulsive and energetic at its most basic level, this is a monumentally powerful novel which walks the tightrope between despair and hope and which shines a brave light on humankind’s relationship to both.
2. Ali Smith - The Accidental
The Inverness-born writer’s new noel The Accidental, a fleeting sexual encounter in a cinema café while screening of poor cow booms in the next room kicks everything off. Qt the point when Terence Stamp’s abusive thief is arrested, our key character is conceived. The opening to the book ends with a declaration of the inherited ethos of Alhambra (named after the site of this less than immaculate conception) with which she will later turn upside down the life of an unsuspecting vulnerable family; from my mother: grace under pressure; the uses of mystery; how to get what I want. From my father; How to disappear; how not to exist.
3. Dave Eggers – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)
From the tongue-in-cheek title onwards, this brilliant post-modern memoir announced the arrival of an irresistible new force in American literature. Billed as being ‘based on a true story’, the book told of how Eggers had to raise his eight-year-old brother after both his parents died from cancer suddenly, but the authors’ playfulness, energy and refusal to get sucked into either cynicism or slackerdom meant that it fulfilled the promise of that self-aggrandising title wonderfully. Full of odd framing devices and contextual self-awareness, this is an irrepressible piece of work which is truly heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.
4. James Ellroy – The Cold Six Thousand (2001)
Ellroy’s astonishing and brutal Underworld USA trilogy has brilliantly documented fifteen years of secret American history, and this middle book was the finest of all, charting the turmoil of the Sixties that followed JFK’s assassination. Taking in the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the breathtaking plot sees an intense struggle for power and control between the FBI, the Mafia, the CIA, Vegas big guns and many more, all set against a backdrop of race riots, Vietnam protests and immense social upheaval. Heavily stylised prose creates the mood of paranoia and rage perfectly in this landmark of American fiction.
5. A L Kennedy – Paradise (2004)
Following the peculiar life of Hannah Luckraft who, at almost 40, has little to show for it, she realises that her lifestyle isn’t something she can sustain forever. She wakes in a foreign city, unable to remember where, who and almost what she is. Attempting to recapture that moment, she traverses the globe which clashes hard with the normality of brother Simon and his “lovely wife” Gillian.
Paradise is a dark and heavy book. Kennedy lays bare Hannah’s struggle with life and has an ability to create the sensations within her head – confusion, impatience, delirium. Her sentences are blunt and vivid, exploiting every syllable.
From The List issue 503
6. Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002)
Scotland hasn't been too short of strong crime writers in the last ten years but when Louise Welsh made her literary introduction in 2002 with a thriller entitled The Cutting Room, it was evident that an exciting new voice had arrived. Rilke, a Glasgow house clearance expert in his 40s, finds a trove of antiques in the mansion of an elderly spinster whose brother has just died. When he stumbles upon a stash of highly charged and possibly murder-filled erotica, it sets him off on an addictive journey of detective investigation and self-discovery.
7. Phillip Roth - The Plot Against America (2004)
Unlike Roth’s more recent stripped-down semi-autobiographical offerings, this expansive alternate history romp was wonderfully ambitious, impressively imagined and expertly executed. In 1940, Roosevelt is beaten to the U.S. Presidency by aviation hero and right-winger Charles Lindbergh, ushering in an age of anti-semitism and fascistic isolationism. Delving into the heart of American politics and society, the novel blended a moving coming of age tale with a deep expose of the tensions and paranoia that still simmered beneath the surface of American life post-9/11, linking past to present in a vivid, visceral way that made the outlandish plot all the more plausible.
8. Michel Faber - The Crimson Petal and the White (2002)
For a while there, it looked like Michel Faber was about to be Scottish literature's answer to Stanley Kubrick After the gory sci-fi of Under the Skin, the adventures of an a cappella group in The Courage Consort and the archaeological digging of The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, the Highlands-based Dutch writer surprised everyone with 2002's doorstopping epic The Crimson Petal and the White. Chiefly concerning a teenage prostitute called Sugar, the book was variously dubbed as 'the first great 19th century novel of the 21st century' and 'the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely.'
9. Steven Hall - The Raw Shark Texts (2005)
The greatest pleasure in reading is getting lost inside a realm conjured by something as inauspicious as ink on paper. Steven Hall’s debut novel creates a whole world of nothing -- conceptual beings, un-space and memes -- where the idea of a fish can eat away your memories. From the familiar thriller setting of an amnesiac tracking back through a mystery, Hall’s inventions play with tropes of postmodernism, sidestepping the genre’s pitfalls to create something that is innovative and affecting. Tantalisingly, he has secreted supplementary material around the internet, each reshaping the original text. Like the best stories, those which linger in your mind for ever, the Texts reads on.
10. Zadie Smith - White Teeth
In a social and cultural decade rampant with spin, the clarion call which heralded the arrival of Zadie Smith in early 2000 felt a little like uber-hype in overdrive. A partial manuscript of White Teeth had been the subject of a publishing auction with Hamish Hamilton finally scooping her up and she completed the novel in her final year studying English literature at Cambridge. Focussing on two wartime buddies (Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones), and their crazy families, it won a raft of awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whitbread debut novel award and was turned into an annoying Channel 4 mini-series in 2002.