First up is the only work of non-fiction that really got me excited this year: Matthew De Abaitua’s Self and I, an account of the time the author spent working as an amanuensis to Will Self back in 1994. The title is, of course, a nod to Withnail and I, and Self’s capriciousness is certainly Withnail-esque. Self often gets a bad press, and De Abaitua doesn’t downplay his idiosyncracies, but he comes across as a highly sympathetic character. Really, though, it’s an account of how De Abaitua tried to get his own literary ambitions going, and any would-be writer will empathise with the long, frustrating and often humiliating experience that entails.
Now on to the fiction. I’m a great admirer of what Salt Publishing do – they have a wonderfully eclectic and risk-taking list to which I return to again and again. The annual Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, is always great value, and the 2018 edition opened with one of the best stories I’ve read in some considerable time: ‘Paymon’s Trio’ by Colette de Curzon, a tale about a demonic music score. The story of how it came to be published is equally compelling: it was written in 1949 when the author was 22, but because she didn’t know anything about the publishing world and how to get published, she put away in a folder until her daughter found it 67 years later. She lived long enough to see it published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press before passing away in March this year.
Salt get a very big tick from me for publishing the always excellent Alice Thompson – she didn’t have a book out this year, but I read and loved her 2010 novel The Existential Detective. Salt did give us Samuel Fisher’s novel The Chameleon in 2018. Narrated by a book that can change its cover to blend in to any given situation, the story is both a poignant account of a man on his deathbed and a gripping spy thriller set in Cold War-era Russia.
I was surprised by Jess Kidd’s The Hoarder – not having read any of its reviews or any of her previous work, I picked it up thinking it would be a work of high gothic mystery (a genre I absolutely love). To a certain extent it is – there’s a big sprawling house full of secrets – but it’s got a fantastic blend of dark and knockabout humour that I wasn’t at all expecting. The narrator is often accompanied by apparitions of saints, who comment on her every move – St George is there clad in his armour, while St Valentine observes her attempts at getting a relationship going.
In my day job as a freelance copy editor and proofreader I’ve worked on some fantastic novels this year. Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion is a fabulous post-Brexit satire that had me laughing out loud at my desk (great cover too), while Stephen Cox’s Our Child of the Stars is a moving work of sci-fi/fantasy that imagines an orphan alien adopted by an American couple. Sally Rooney’s Normal People has rightly garnered much praise – an intricate and intimate portrayal of a young man and woman and their on-off relationship as they navigate the awkward years of school and university.
Finally on to two novels set in Northern Ireland. Michael Hughes’s terrific Country re-imagines the Troubles as an Homeric epic, with an IRA sniper cast in the role of Achilles and his enemy, a British soldier named Henry, as Hector. I’ve banged on a fair bit both on this blog and on Twitter about the Booker winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say that I think it is one of the best novels I have read in years.