With 2015 behind us, it’s that time of year when I reveal what I’ve been reading in the last twelve months. As usual with these lists, my picks weren’t necessarily all published during the past year, but represent a mix of older titles as well as some new releases.
Unusually there’s only one historical novel among my fiction picks, which simply reflects my choice of reading material over the year, although my non-fiction selections cover the Neolithic, medieval and modern periods.
If you’ve enjoyed any of the titles below or would like to share your own favourite books of 2015, feel free to join in the discussion on Twitter (@JamesAitcheson) or on Facebook. You can also take a look back at my fiction and non-fiction picks of 2014.
Never Let Me Go
Faber & Faber, 304 pp., £8.99
The best fiction grabs you from the opening page, sometimes through a narrative hook, although much more often it’s the voice established by the author that compels me to read on. That was the case with Never Let Me Go, which from the very first paragraph never let me go.
In many ways reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I greatly admire, Ishiguro’s haunting novel is the story of Kathy H, 31, a ‘carer’ reflecting on her time growing up as a student at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school in rural England that is not all that at first it seems. There are no holidays; no parents ever visit; the teachers are always referred to as ‘guardians’; the curriculum followed is far from standard; and children and adults alike are only ever referred to by their first names.
This is a difficult book to review without spoilers. Suffice it to say, though, that these idyllic surroundings mask a dark secret regarding the destiny of the children. Through the lens of Hailsham, Ishiguro is posing his version of the eternal question: what is the meaning of our existence? Kathy, by her own admission, has led a healthy, fulfilling and purposeful life. She’s pleased to have been given the chance to help others, to have enjoyed close friendships, and to know – as the guardians at Hailsham tell all the students – that she is special.
And yet a dark cloud hangs over the novel: a sense of betrayal and resentment, never explicitly stated or acknowledged but present just below the surface. Ishiguro’s greatest success in Never Let Me Go lies in conveying, in conversational, unhurried and considered prose, exactly that complex and never-fully-resolved web of sentiment.
Ultimately, I feel – and here others may well disagree – that Never Let Me Go doesn’t completely deliver on its early promise. In the final act, as revelations are made, it becomes harder and harder to avoid questioning aspects of the underlying premise. Nevertheless, this is a tender, thought-provoking novel, and one of my favourite books of 2015.
Picador, 320 pp., £8.99
With so many books out there and so little spare time in which to enjoy them all, it’s not often that I choose to re-read even a favourite one. The Road – one of the key inspirations behind my own forthcoming fourth novel – is an exception to that rule, and in fact is one of the few books that I have actually enjoyed more on a second reading.
Set in a future America after an unknown cataclysm, an unnamed man and his son journey towards the coast through a burnt landscape, devoid of life save for the cannibals and slavers prowling the roads. Starving, weak and cold, their only hope of survival in this hostile environment is if they stay together.
Related in minimalist prose, their story is all the more powerful for what goes unsaid. The nature of the apocalypse that brought about such devastation is only hinted at obliquely, but in a sense it is unimportant: the past is irrelevant; only the present matters.
While the subject matter may be bleak, however, hope is never lost completely. Yes, there is much greed, cruelty and selfishness in the world envisioned by McCarthy, but in spite of that there is still goodness, love, belief and self-sacrifice. Even in the very worst of times, he argues, the human spirit can never be conquered.
- Marina Lewycka’s first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize;
- Moral Disorder, a brilliant and sensitive collection of linked short stories, set over a span of six decades, by Margaret Atwood;
- Claire Lowdon’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Left of the Bang, about the angst, misunderstandings and infidelities of a group of young London-dwellers;
- The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s novel set in 17th-century Canada, which tells of the arrival of French missionaries and colonists, and their impact upon the native peoples.
On Silbury Hill
Little Toller, 232 pp., £15.00
Part memoir, part history, part travelogue: Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill defies categorisation. A unique book in so many ways, it charts the many ways in which the eponymous Wiltshire monument – the largest man-made mound in Europe – has been viewed through the centuries.
Taking as a starting-point his first encounters with the Hill while a boarder at the nearby Marlborough College, Thorpe offers a lyrical, highly personal response to the Neolithic landscape in which it is set. As well as reflecting upon what archaeology has had to say about the site, he also delves into rituals and superstitions both ancient and modern in an attempt to unravel something of its meaning and purpose.
As someone who grew up in the vicinity of Silbury and is familiar with the various places described, this book had particular resonance for me. Whether it would have the same appeal to a non-local is hard to say, but it is hard not to be ensnared by Thorpe’s prose, which communicates so effectively his wonder and reverence for this most ancient of British monuments.
It’s worth noting, too, that the book itself is a beautiful object: a diminutive hardcover enriched throughout with photographs and artists’ impressions of the monument and the surrounding landscape. A real gem.
The Inheritance of Rome
Penguin, 688 pp., £14.99
In this sweeping, magisterial history covering six centuries from AD 400 to the end of the first millenium, Chris Wickham sets out to demonstrate why the so-called Dark Ages were anything but. While this period is traditionally characterised as being one of disorder and invasion, it also witnessed – as all early medieval scholars know well – a wide variety of new expressions of creativity and culture.
With its main text running to 560 pages, this is perhaps as concise as it is possible to make a history of Europe that spans such a broad period. As one might expect, it’s dense, but given its geographical and chronological scope – from the fragmentation of the western Roman empire, via the rise of successor kingdoms and the emergence of Islam, to the ‘feudal’ world – this is a book that arguably should be dipped into, chapter by chapter, rather than read continuously.
Some readers may be disappointed by the lack of an overarching narrative to help bind such a wealth of material together, but this runs counter to Wickham’s philosophy, which is to steer clear of imposing such traditional frameworks on this period. Instead, he favours a bottom-up approach: one that assesses the peoples, kingdoms and cultures of the period on their own terms, rather than with reference to what preceded and succeeded them.
Detailed maps and colour plates help provide context to the information presented, while the endnotes and bibliography, which stretch to nearly 60 pages, make this an excellent springboard for those wishing to delve further into the early Middle Ages.
- The Early Middle Ages, edited by Rosamund McKitterick, which provides a useful counterpoint to Wickham, tackling the same period through themes (politics, economy, religion etc.) rather than dividing it up according to geography;
- The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature, Hugh Magennis’s excellent guide to the literary world of Bede, Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
- Stephen Aron’s The American West: a Very Short Introduction, exploring the complex history of the region from the precolonial era to the twentieth century;