I saw a recent Guardian interview with Robin Robertson, the poet whose The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also won the Goldsmiths prize. Asked, ‘What was the last great book you read?’, he replied: ‘There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors [Robertson works for the publisher Jonathan Cape], but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.’
I too thought Warlight was tremendously good but it was a little odd to see that comment on Patrick White in a year when I read or reread eighteen of White’s books plus a 600-page biography of him. ‘No one reads him’ – I must then be no one, ου τις, ou tis, the name Odysseus gave himself in the Cyclops’ cave, so that Polyphemus, when his neighbours asked why he cried out, answered, ‘No one is hurting me!’ The ghost of Patrick White can now exclaim: ‘No one is reading me!’
I’ve browsed or skipped briskly through at least half a dozen selections of ‘Books of the Year’ already. Geared almost exclusively towards new books—some not even published yet—such lists always used to look utterly unlike my own because I’d often read nothing at all published that year. In 2018 I did actually read titles published in 2018, about a dozen of them. Some have dropped out of my head already, others seem in no particular hurry to leave. But to summarise a whole year’s travelling through books? ‘There is no end to what I have to say’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in December 1989, ‘but then you would have to read it.’
So apart from White – and my other major re-read, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald – and a few of the usual suspects that cropped up in many lists, I’d pick out Melissa Harrison, whose novel All Among the Barley, as well as her short book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, greatly impressed me, and Sarah Moss, whose The Tidal Zone I read last year but whose other books, six of them, I’ve read in the last few months, all novels apart from Names for the Sea, which is about her family’s year in Iceland. She writes beautifully, accurately and inventively about place, about human relations, particularly about young women confronted by prejudices, constraints and barriers, in this and earlier ages, being an expert and seasoned traveller in both time and space. Ghost Wall is the latest novel, a short, concentrated and powerful book. The others, all accomplished and hard to choose between, are Bodies of Light, Cold Earth, Night Waking and, perhaps a personal favourite by a narrow margin, Signs for Lost Children. Then, after the notable sureness and confidence of Sarah Perry’s first two books—After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent—I am being impressed all over again by her Melmoth. I’m also halfway through the big new Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford—but it’s hardly surprising that I should be.