(photo: Tobias Fischer on Unsplash)
I’ve previously devoured the books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven). Set in Barcelona before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, they are gripping literary thrillers, and the latest instalment, The Labyrinth of the Spirits (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), didn’t disappoint. The books can be read in any order, and for sheer storytelling exuberance they are hard to beat.
Diane Setterfield made her name with two wonderful gothic mysteries, The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black. Her new novel, Once Upon a River (Doubleday), has a very different but equally evocative atmosphere. At an ancient inn near the Thames in Oxfordshire, the locals pass the time telling stories, but one night they witness something far stranger than any story they can tell: a drowned young girl is pulled out of the river and brought to the inn, only to wake a few hours later.
Two really enjoyable debuts: Isabel Rogers’ Life, Death and Cellos (Farrago) is a very funny tale of musical shenanigans set in the febrile atmosphere of the Stockwell Park Orchestra, while Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose) is a charming and poignant story of two friends seeking to make sense of a confusing world.
Zoë Folbigg’s The Postcard (Aria) is the highly entertaining sequel to her bestselling novel The Note, based on the true-life story of how she met her husband. In The Postcard, Maya and James set off on a round-the-world trip, which tests their relationship to the limits. There’s a particularly grim description of a claustrophobic journey in the luggage rack of an Indian bus which has stuck with me long after reading it, and made me very glad that my backpacking days are long behind me.
Golden Child by Claire Adam (Faber) tells the story of twin boys in Trinidad, one of whom is considered a genius, while the other is seen as a bit odd. When one of them is kidnapped, it opens up huge fissures in the family. This was one of the most disturbing and affecting novels I have read in a long time, a real gut-wrencher, and hugely deserving of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize.
Several short story collections stood out this year. Vicky Grut’s Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and comprises stories published over a period of almost thirty years. One of the stories, ‘On the Way to the Church’, also featured in this year’s Best British Short Stories (Salt). Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures (Influx), Being Various: New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell (Faber), and the latest Mechanics’ Institute Review anthology featured some outstanding examples of the genre.
But my book the year is the only non-fiction title in this list: George Szirtes’ The Photographer at Sixteen (MacLehose), a memoir told backwards from the moment of Szirtes’ mother’s death in the 1970s. As we go back in time, we are drawn into some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century, including the Hungarian uprising against communist rule and the Holocaust. It’s a profound book about memory and family, and utterly compelling.