So it's official: 2005 will be a Harry Potter year. And as tradition dictates, the book is to be released bang on midnight on a Saturday, apparently because J K Rowling wants all the children to get their copies at exactly the same time. Wouldn't tea-time, say, be just as good? Why is it that if the product were a pair of trainers we'd see this as a manipulative and cynical marketing exercise, but just because it's a book it's a noble, altruistic gesture by the Blessed Rowling? I shall be one of those on 16 July attempting to stay up all night over Harry Potter and the Half- Blood Prince but unlike the tinies, no doubt, the saga of Potter's sixth year at Hogwart's School will soon have me... yawn... sigh... zzzzzzzzzzz.
Fortunately, for those who still like to read grown-up books, the publishers' spring catalogues offer many delights. A new novel by Andrew Miller is always cause for celebration. His debut, Ingenious Pain, and its follow- up, Casanova, were unconventional and brilliant historical novels, but he's made the transition to the contemporary novel with ease. The Optimists (Sceptre, March) centres on a photojournalist whose view of humanity is darkened by witnessing the aftermath of genocide in Africa. How can a man find his way back into human life after such devastation? Depressing as that might sound, Miller's books are always strangely uplifting, never didactic: "full," as he describes them, "of food, gardens, journeys and weather".
Rupert Thomson is a mystifyingly underrated writer: his elegant metaphysical fables are not easily forgotten. Perhaps Divided Kingdom (Bloomsbury, April) will bring him the acclaim he deserves. Ian McEwan is another heavy hitter with a book out this spring: Saturday (Cape, February) is set on the day of the great anti-war demo through London last year. His protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a noted neurosurgeon with a huge house, two happy, talented children and a beautiful wife - attributes he thoroughly deserves, for he is a decent, cultured and hard-working man. But this being McEwan's universe, he's about to be punished for his virtues. This cleverly constructed, wise and humane thriller is, for my money, much better than Atonement, and deserves at least the same success.
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (Faber, March) continues this master novelist's examination of memory, love and secrets with its tale of three adults, all once pupils together at the same idyllic school, who come to realise the intense pull the past still has over them. Faber's catalogue is stuffed with good things. Stephanie Merritt's debut, Gaveston, demonstrated an eye for the delusions and disappointments of romantic love, allied to a keen literary sensibility, which bodes well for her follow-up Real (April), the tale of a love affair between a struggling playwright and a fading, older actor. Sam Taylor's The Republic of Trees (Faber, March) nods to The Lord of the Flies with its story of English teenagers living in sleepy rural France who relocate to the woods to create an ideal community and a life of skinny-dipping and rabbit-skinning. When they start assigning each other roles from the French Revolution, you know it's all going to go bloodily haywire ("So I'm De Launay... Well, it's been nice knowing you all"). Also from Faber: Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul: a Life and a City (April); Matthew Sweet's lovingly researched evocation of the early years of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon (February); surely the most snappily titled memoir of the year, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (February) by Nick Flynn, and a new collection from Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott, The Prodigal (Feb).
The Irish writer Eugene McCabe was the subject of a tense email exchange I once had with the novelist Alan Warner, who concluded: "If you've never heard of him, you don't deserve to have that job!" I checked out the novel Death and Nightingales forthwith. …