Our Critics Choose Their Books of the Year

New Statesman (1996), December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Our Critics Choose Their Books of the Year


Beryl Bainbridge

Edith Templeton's Gordon (Viking) could be subtitled "the joy of hurt". First published in 1966 by the New English Library, and almost immediately banned in both England and Germany on the grounds of indecency, it is the story of a sadomasochistic love affair between an intelligent young girl and a psychiatrist. In real life, the latter committed suicide. Templeton, aged 87, is still with us. That her book has not lost its power to shock is attributable to the brilliance of its prose. Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self (Penguin pbk) is a wonderful biography of a great man. One would think his diary was a sufficient legacy, but Tomalin has leapt ahead and provided an unravelling of an age whose concepts, both political and moral, Pepys took for granted. In many ways, his sexual life, with its deceptions, seductions and miseries, was no different from that endured by the characters in Edith Templeton's novel.

Joan Bakewell

Sowing the Wind: the seeds of conflict in the Middle East by John Keay (John Murray) begins in 1900 and explains in detail the background to how we come to be where we are today. Here is the fall of the Ottoman empire, the western powers' scrabble for territory, the Anglo/French squabbles about who shall have access to the oil around Mosul. Here are all the trade-offs and negotiations, the arm-twisting and exerting of influence. This book makes all too clear that we have learnt nothing from history, and Blair and Bush are simply prolonging its mistakes, Injury Time by D J Enright (Pimlico) will do much to sustain your belief in humanity. It is his final memoir, an extended commonplace book, full of gentle humour. Enright's learning and wit shine through.

J G Ballard

Godard: a portrait of the artist at 70 by Colin MacCalbe (Bloomsbury) is a brilliant biography of the almost forgotten genius of world cinema. MacCabe brings to life Godard's strange and prickly personality, and sets Breathless, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou against the political background of the day. A superb picture of a maverick talent that is also an obituary for a vanished era of serious film. Helmut Newton's Autohiography (Duckworth) is the great photographer's long-awaited self-portrait, and a fascinating glimpse into a dream-world of palace hotels and sleepwalking women. For me, Newton is the greatest figurative artist at work today, the heir to Paul Delvaux and those special fantasies that awake at midnight.

Hugo Barnacle

Toby Litt's Finding Myself (Hamish Hamilton) revived the idea of the country-house party as a laboratory of the emotions and gave it a number of modern twists, to excellent effect. Matt Thorne's Child Star (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was an impressively anti-nostalgic story of 1980s adolescents acting in a TV serial. Both were notable for their range and the detail of charaterisation. Russell Hoban continued on cracking form and gave us Her Name Was Lola (Bloomsbury), another of his offbeat romances, full of quirky lore about Hindu gods, masculine fecklessness, literary inspiration on and E-type Jags.

Nicholas Blincoe

Geoff Dyer seems to have abandoned fiction and non-fiction alike in favour of a highly personal hybrid. His book on travel and leisure, Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It (Abacus), is difficult to describe but impossible to forget: I would call it a roving snapshot, if I was not scared of sounding too illogical. Another unusual work of non fiction, Joe Sacco's Palestine (Jonathan Cape), is a first-hand account of a trip through Palestine during the first intifada--told in comic-book form. It was a revelation to discover that a comic book could deal so effectively with issues of truth and objectivity. It is prefaced with a powerful essay by Edward Said, whose death this year was a great loss.

A S Byatt

It is a long time since I have been knocked sideways by a book of poems, but the life, energy, verbal precision and inventiveness of Don Paterson's Landing Light (Faber & Faber) kept me awake at night. …

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