I had a busy half term week, spending time with my children and some friends, and a glorious couple of days at the Hay Festival, so no time for blogging. I didn’t make it to Hay last year; with both my daughters doing important exams, I just felt I couldn’t be away from home at such a crucial time. So it was especially sweet to go back this year. I went for two days, staying overnight in a tent – I am NOT a camper! – at the official Hay campsite, which I felt was preferable to a B&B miles away. It was an experience. Perhaps the coldest night of my life. Hay on Wye is in quite an exposed position, with a cool breeze, even though the sun shined the whole time. Night time temperatures dropped to around 5 degrees, so it was not comfy, even beneath the many layers I had packed. The good value and the proximity to the festival site made it worthwhile though. I’m not sure what it would have been like if it had been raining.
I saw some really interesting presentations, very little on the fiction front this year, strangely. To be honest, I don’t think I picked the best days with regard to the programme of events. My fantasy is to spend the whole week there, to dip in and out, participate in some of the off-site events, perhaps do some of the walks in the area, but that will have to wait until I am free of the tyranny of the the school calendar! It’s also not cheap: drinks and meals on the site are expensive, so if you could self-cater somehow and take packed lunches it would be much more manageable.
Below are some of my photos from the event. If you’ve never been I highly recommend it. If travelling to Hay is not possible, you can watch many of the events on the Hay Player, which is very reasonable at £15 a year and gives you access to a huge back catalogue of events too.
On the few occasions when I have met famous people I have not been very good at it! They say you should never meet your heroes. This time I managed to mumble a few words of conversation in the brief encounter to get my book signed.
BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet gives the Christopher Hitchens memorial lecture, covering the future of journalism and the concept to truth in reference to AI. A panel of historians discusses how we represent history, particularly in reference to Britain’s stately homes, with the CEO of the National Trust.
And of course, the obligatory book haul – another of the expenses at Hay! I believe I was quite restrained…
As usual, Hay 2023 was inspiring, fascinating, at times controversial and always stimulating.
The shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced following much anticipation last week. The winner will be announced on 14 June, but it is one of those literary prizes where you suspect all of the finalists feel like winners due to the sense of warmth and inclusivity around it. This prize has really taken off in recent years thanks to some brilliant marketing activity. The team made fantastic hay out of the Covid lockdowns, running Zoom chats with shortlisted authors (and many hundreds of fans) where you really felt like you were part of the contest. All facilitated by the inimitable Kate Mosse, of course, the dynamic founder of the Prize. Unlike the Booker prize the Women’s Prize also has a sense of humility about it; it doesn’t confine itself to purely literary novels. This is a contest that celebrates the joy of reading in its widest sense, with podcasts, blogs and email newsletters that really keep you engaged.
This year’s shortlist of six books includes three debut novels and three from established authors.
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
This book has been getting a lot of attention. It is the author’s debut novel, though her short stories and non-fiction work have garnered praise. Set in 1970s London it tells the story of Yamaye, a young black woman and her relationship with the music she identifies with as part of her cultural inheritance, dub reggae. She meets and falls in love with Moose, but when their love affair ends, it triggers a search for identity and a personal transformation.
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Another author better known for her short stories, Irish writer Louise Kennedy’s novel is set in Belfast during the period known as ‘the Troubles’, a poignant moment to remember those terrible days as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It tells the story of primary school teacher Cushla navigating love and politics in the most challenging of circumstances. For most of us it is hard to imagine what it must be like to try and live an ordinary life surrounded by violence and threat but if the reviews are anything to go by, Louise Kennedy has pulled it off here.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s 1998 best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible remains one of the best books I have ever read – it had such a powerful impact on me. This literary giant needs no introduction and has both won and been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize before. Demon Copperhead is said to be her modern take on Dickens’s David Copperfield where a young man, born into poverty in Virginia tries to make his way in the world in a modern America beset by social problems and prejudice.
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
Another debit novel, this one also set in against the backdrop of conflict, this time Sarajevo in 1992. As we watch the terrible events in Ukraine unfold day after day it is easy to forget that only thirty years another devastating war took place on the European continent and destroyed a country. This novel tells the story of Zora, an artist and teacher who must decide whether to flee their home or try to stay and defend their city against siege.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Another author who needs no introduction, having won this prize a mere three years ago with her incredible novel Hamnet. This is her follow-up and is another work of historical fiction, this time set in Renaissance Italy. Sixteen year old Lucrezia has been married off to a powerful Duke, Alfonso, whom she believes plans to kill her. Powerless and alone she must try and save her own life. Based on a real person, it looks like Maggie O’Farrell has produced yet another literary gem.
Pod by Laline Paull
This looks to be the most unconventional book on the shortlist, where the central character is a dolphin. Afflicted by a form of deafness which isolates her within her family group, Ea survives a tragedy that kills other members of her family. Young and alone, she must navigate the treacherous oceans and multiple dangers. Exploring themes of family and belonging Pod also remninds us of the fragility of our natural environment and the impact humanity has had on other species.
Quite a shortlist! I would love to think that I might be able to get through them all before the winner is announced – six weeks and counting! I hardly know where to start.
If you were watching, listening to or reading the news over the Christmas and New Year holidays, you might think that the publishing event of 2023 had already happened. Yes, that autobiography! It is everywhere and has already become the fastest selling non-fiction book ever. I suspect that anyone who was going to buy it has already done so which I hope means that the initial brouhaha has died down. Those of us interested in books rather than gossip, however, can settle down and look forward to some far more interesting offerings for the first few months of the year. Here are a few of the titles I’ve picked that are due for publication this spring and which I am heartily looking forward to.
Two of the world’s finest living writers will be publishing new work this spring. Margaret Atwood releases what will be her eleventh short story collection Old Babes in the Wood in March. Salman Rushdie, who last year survived a vicious stabbing incident, perpetrated while he was a guest at a literary festival in the US, publishes his thirteenth novel Victory City, which is due out later this month.
I am very excited about the prospect of a new Marwood and Lovett mystery by one of my favourite contemporary authors, Andrew Taylor. His sixth book in the series, The Shadows of London, which follows on from his other post-Great Fire of London novels, many of which I have reviewed on here, is due out in March.
Caleb Azumah Nelson is undoubtedly one of the young new authors to watch at the moment. His first novel Open Water, published in 2021, was multi-award winning. His next offering Small Worlds, is due out in May and is about a young man in London whose life revolves around music and dancing. The world he has built for himself begins to be challenged however, in his relationship with his father, his faith, and his Ghanaian heritage. It’s being widely trailed already.
One of my favourite children’s authors of recent years is Zillah Bethel. Her 2016 book A Whisper of Horses is a joy. Her latest novel The Song Walker is out this month and concerns a young girl who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no idea who she is or how she got there. She meets Tarni, also alone and on her own mysterious journey, and the two trek across the Australian outback in search of answers to their respective questions.
Journalist Ian Dunt is a thoughtful and interesting political commentator, and there has been lots to comment on in the UK in the last few years! The public is now beginning to ask seriously whether the system of government we have is fit for purpose. As I ease my way back into some non-fiction, his new book How Westminster Works and Why It Doesn’t, due out in April, might be one to reach for for answers.
And finally, a book I will definitely be coveting is How to be Invisible: selected lyrics of Kate Bush, the paperback version of which is due out in April with a new introduction by the woman herself. I am a huge admirer and still listen to her music frequently, but she is such a recluse that we fans have to take every little Kate-tidbit that comes our way! Definitely a keeper!
What publishing events are you looking forward to in the next few months?
Every year there are very many interesting reading challenges that bloggers and others set themselves. I have done one every year since I started this blog more than six years ago and I have participated in others, some successfully, some not. For a while there my challenge was to pick a genre or theme for each month and select a title. The aim was to expand my reading horizons and delve into things that would not normally attract my attention, such as science fiction or autobiography. It worked and I read some amazing things. Some stand-out discoveries for me were Emily Bain Murphy’s The Disappearances, the very first choice in my very first reading challenge in 2018, classic crime fiction (I never imagined I’d become a fan of Agatha Christie) and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I confess I had been a bit snooty about when it was published.
Last year, I decided I wanted to read more non-fiction. I only managed about four books! And, another confession, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions, which I think I started last summer, remains in my bedside pile, only half-read! Don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying it, but it’s a chunky volume and is a series of essays, some only a few pages long, so it’s the kind of book you dip in and out of. Definitely not one to speed read. It was a tricky year between one thing and another and I neither read nor blogged as much as I have done in previous years.
So, as the end of January draws near (noticeably longer days, hurray!) I find myself reading about other people’s reading challenges and wondering should I be doing one? And the conclusion I have come to, is perhaps not. Having failed (and I’m using that word with a degree or irony) last year to achieve quite a number of the goals I had set myself, due to a mixture of over-estimating my time and abilities, and under-estimating the other demands that would be placed upon me by life, I have concluded that perhaps the overall goal of expanding my reading horizons has been met, and I don’t need to do that any more. That particular habit has been well and truly established and neither do I need encouragement to read.
What I am going to do, however, is aim to pull an unread book off one of my shelves each month to read. If you are reading this you will no doubt be familiar with the particular compulsion that we book lovers have to just keeping on buying new ones, despite the many dozens of unread ones we already own! This is both a waste of money and a source of unnecessary guilt. I’m going to aim for one a month but be kind to myself if I don’t manage it.
There’s less than a week left of the current month, so I’ve been looking for something shortish, and I’ve landed on Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, published in 1989. I have no idea how long I have had my copy, but I vividly remember reading her 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety. It was one of the first books I read after completing my English degree (at which point my head was too saturated to read anything substantial for a long time) and it reignited my passion for literature, so I’m guessing I bought this book around that time. Hmm. I make that about thirty years. It’s time to give it the attention it deserves, don’t you think?
Yesterday I posted my fourth Booker Prize shortlist review. The winner of this year’s prize will be announced this evening at 7pm. You can follow it live on various radio and online channels (details here). Unfortunately, I have to work this evening so I will have to wait until later to find out the result.
I did not manage to read all six books on the shortlist this year. I have completed and posted reviews of the following:
I have started The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, but I’m afraid I have put it down again twice and gone to a different book! I just can’t seem to get into it.
I am most annoyed that I have not yet finished Treacle Walker by Alan Garner. Alan is an author who is from Alderley Edge in Cheshire, not far from where I live. It’s very exciting to have a local author on the shortlist. It would be amazing if he won!
I have thoroughly enjoyed all four of the books I have read and reviewed, it’s a strong shortlist, but the easy standout for me is Glory. It is just such a powerful and ingenious novel. I haven’t read anything like it before.
So, for me, it’s fingers crossed for NoViolet Bulawayo or Alan Garner!
It has been a long, hot and eventful summer, but the year has ticked round, as it inevitably does, and we find ourselves once again at the start of meteorological autumn – my favourite time of the year.
Like many people, we found ourselves travelling more this year than we have done for what has felt like a long time, primarily because we COULD. Two, summers of severe restrictions curtailed lots of people’s plans and it has certainly felt to me as if there was a high degree of pent-up wanderlust. We had a family holiday in France this year, a few days in sweltering Paris, followed by a longer spell in the south-western Gironde area, not far from the location of some of the terrible forest fires to hit parts of continental Europe, although we were lucky not to have been directly affected. It was heaven and I ate far too much patisserie, partly thanks to our holiday home being located next door to what we were told was the best boulangerie in town – it would have been rude not to partake!
We also spent time with family in Ireland, as well as a couple of shorter trips in the UK. Interspersed with that was the stress/excitement of not one but TWO results days. It has been the most difficult year for 16-18 year olds in this country, with the damage done to so many by Covid and online learning, all the talk of bringing down the perceived grade inflation of the last couple of years, fewer university places on offer, not to mention the uncertain economic environment. I am relieved to say that both my daughters did fantastically well, getting results they thoroughly deserved, and I will be despatching my middle child off to university in a few short weeks.
With only my youngest child left at school (and with her going into sixth form that’s only two years left!), September for me now is less about ‘back to school’ – that is a hard habit to break after 16 years! – and more about renewal and re-focus. I have had my break (three weeks without posting a single blog!) and now I am ready to start again.
What does September mean for you?
One event that has been on my radar for some time, but which was somewhat overshadowed this year by the appointment of yet another new Prime Minister in the UK (our fourth in six years!), was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist last night. It went largely unnoticed here because the mainstream media was completely absorbed by the shenanigans in Downing Street. As ever it is an interesting list, and I am familiar with only two of the authors.
As usual, I will be attempting to read my way through the shortlist before the winner is announced on 17th October, a little under six weeks’ time. Last year was the first time I actually managed to get through all six, and I am fairly optimistic of being able to do so again this year as quite a few of them are pretty short! That does not necessarily mean one can speed-read of course as short books are often more intense, I think. A couple of them are very long!
I aim to publish reviews regularly in the coming weeks and to make my prediction on the day itself. I’m very excited! Having only just returned from Dublin I think I will be starting with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a small Irish town in the 1980s, a period when society there was dominated by the Church.
I would love to hear what you’ve been up to over the summer and what your plans are for the autumn.
And so we find ourselves at the end of this Platinum Jubilee weekend, four days of events and celebrations that have been quite enjoyable, actually. I’ve been to two parties and for a change the British weather did not let us down! It does not seem so very long ago that we were celebrating the Diamond Jubilee (2012) in which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, being sprightly 80-somethings, played a much more active role. It had not been too bad a decade for Her Majesty – we had two major royal weddings, William and Kate in 2011, then Harry and Meghan in 2018, plus a host of minor royal weddings. And all those newlyweds have produced the next generation of royals. Sadly, the last couple of years have been very difficult; the Queen lost her husband in 2021, a few weeks short of his 100th birthday, her son Andrew brought disgrace to the family when he was forced into an out of settlement in a sexual assault case, and rifts between Prince Harry, his brother, his father and ‘the Palace’ have seen him and his wife give up their royal duties and move to California. Their public pronouncements have been uncomfortable to say the least.
But all that has been set to one side for the moment. We were even able to forget the mess that passes for British government at the moment to enjoy a truly once-in-a-lifetime moment in history. Whatever you may think of Queen Elizabeth, monarchies more generally or the British Royal Family, the world will not see her like again.
I started this blog in 2016 and have probably read more in the last ten years than in any previous decade. A few of my favourite books since 2010 have been by American authors. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of my favourite books from the 1990s. Her third novel The Goldfinch, published in 2013 certainly ranks in my top ten for the last decade. It follows the story of Theo Dekker, who loses his mother in an explosion at an art gallery. He manages to escape and takes with him a small but extremely valuable Dutch Renaissance painting. He spends the subsequent years concealing his crime and the book follows his story and the events that arise out of his concealment. It’s an extraordinary book.
Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life was another highlight, a novel of epic proportions following the lives of four college friends, all of them drawn together by their quirkiness, but also their relationship with Jude, the most vulnerable in the group. Set in New York city it is a novel of our times, dealing with sexuality, depression, self-harm, isolation and being on the outside. It is heartbreaking and completely compelling.
One of my other most enjoyable reads of the decade was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014. Set in St Malo, Brittany, it tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl in second world war France and Werner, an orphan and member of the Hitler Youth and invading German forces, and how their worlds collide.
Sally Rooney took the literary world by storm in the last few years with her books Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018) and Beautiful World Where Are You (2021). Normal People was made into one of the televison events of the decade and I loved both the book and the series. Exceptional writing from a very talented young woman, who is still only thirty.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were another highlight of the decade. Published 2011-2014, I devoured them all and cannot choose between them for brilliance. I have yet to see the television series as it is currently only available on a channel I do not subscribe to. The two central characters Lila and Elena have stayed with me and the relationship between them has shed a whole new light on the nature of female relationships. Outstanding.
In the UK, Dame Hilary Mantel completed her Wolf Hall trilogy with Bring Up the Bodies in 2012 and The Mirror and the Lightin 2020. It is a truly outstanding literary achievement. Having won her second Booker with Bring Up the Bodies, she did not quite get the hat trick with the final instalment. That honour went to Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, although she shared that honour with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.
Two other award winning novels by slightly lower profile authors I thoroughly enjoyed were Milkmanby Anna Burns, which won the Booker Prize in 2018, and Birdcage Walkby the late Helen Dunmore, which was published posthumously in 2017. Milkman tells the story of a young woman growing up in Belfast during the time of the Troubles and struggling just to be herself and live the life she wants to without the threat of violence. Dunmore’s novel confirmed her as foremost among authors of historical fiction telling the story of a young woman in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution.
If I had not confined myself to British authors, my book of the decade would have been Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a book about trees and people trying to destroy them, versus people trying to protect them. But my parameters were set and Powers is American, so my book of the last decade, for sheer enjoyment, writing brilliance, masterful storytelling is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. It tells the story of a young William Shakespeare and his wife, and the 11 year-old son they lose to illness. Powerful, poignant, and a creative imagining of an event that actually happened but which we know so little about.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, looking back over books from a big chunk of the last century that I have enjoyed. Every day I have thought of more that I should have added to a previous decade and I am sure you can think of many others I have forgotten. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of my choices.
After the turbulence of the 1990s, the noughties were a quieter decade for the Queen. She was getting older of course, in her mid-seventies by the turn of the century. In 2002 she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, marking an incredible half century on the British throne. It was an altogether more sedate affair than the Silver Jubilee in 1977, I seem to remember. Perhaps we were all becoming more grown up about the monarchy. The Queen also celebrated her 80th birthday in 2006 (my youngest was born on that day). She was officially an elderly lady and from that moment on she was pretty untouchable.
I think one of the reasons we took our eyes off the monarchy was that there was so much bigger stuff going on elsewhere in the world. There was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, of course, an event which led to prolonged and devastating war in the Middle East, the effects of which are still being felt today. The financial crash in 2008 would lead to a decade of austerity in the UK and the end of the Labour government.
For me, the decade was dominated by small children. My three children were born between 2001 and 2006. These were my reading wilderness years. Most of my reading was of children’s books, which, to be fair, is no bad thing. We worked through the Harry Potter books, of course. A favourite of mine was also Philip Pulman’s Northern Lights (though this was in fact published in 1995), though my kids were less keen on this one. My son adored the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney (2007 onwards) while my daughters adored the Rainbow Magic books (2003 onwards). We had a huge collection of them which they have never forgiven me for throwing out. To be fair, their opprobrium is deserved and I have no defence.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stimulated my interest in literature from that part of the world. I read two books published in this decade by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini which are extraordinary – The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). Both novels evoke the culture and atmosphere of Afghanistan and its turbulent recent history.
I had a long drive to work in the first couple of years of the decade. I used to buy audiobooks (on cassettes!) and one that I loved, and which I listened to several times, was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, published in 2000. Complex and innovative in structure, it explores the relationship between two sisters in the 1930s and 1940s, as recalled by Iris, her sister Laura having died in 1945.
In the UK, Zadie Smith shot to literary fame with her first novel White Teeth (2000) about two men, a Bangladeshi and an Englishman, who became friends during the war, and how their relationship evolves later on amid racial tension in London. I am ashamed to say that this is a book I have tried and failed to read more than once. I have no idea why. It took me a long time to read books in those days so perhaps it required more mental energy than I had available at the time.
A book I did love was Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003. It is an innovative novel about a teenager with autism spectrum disorder who takes it upon himself to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog. It is about how the central character Christopher navigates a world that has been set up for the convenience of the majority that does not experience disability or neurodiversity, and what this means for people who are on the outside of this group.
The book of the decade, for me, however, was Wolf Hall by Dame Hilary Mantel, published in 2009. I adored her earlier novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution A Place of Greater Safety (1992), but it was Wolf Hall that really cemented her reputation as one of the finest living British writers. And rightly so. As a piece of historical fiction it is truly extraordinary. The depth of her research and the profound degree to which she has understood both her subject (Thomas Cromwell, minister at the court of King Henry VIII) and the period, drips off the page. The plotting, the story-telling, the characterisation, the immersion, it is all breathtaking.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that I read Wolf Hall in the decade in which it was published (which was the rule I set myself), but on this occasion I am giving myself the benefit of the doubt for this is a truly outstanding book that might even be book of the century.
The 1990s proved to be a torrid decade for the Royal Family; the Queen’s children were getting divorced left, right and centre. Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, Princess Anne divorced in 1992, and Prince Andrew in 1996. In 1992, a massive fire at Windsor Castle caused extensive damage – the Queen would go on to describe that year as her annus horribilis. But it would get much worse. In 1997 her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned, deemed no longer worth refitting, one of the few occasions on which the Queen has been seen to cry in public. Then, the big one, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris in September 1997, drew great criticism. The Royal Family failed to grieve alongside a nation that seemed to have had its heart ripped out and sharp contrasts were drawn between the warm and outgoing character of Diana, and the seemingly hard-hearted Royals. Diana had become a thorn in the side of the British monarchy and conspiracy theories abounded about the cause of her death.
I was in my twenties in the 1990s and therefore at my peak. I had my own fair share of ups and downs, romances and heartbreaks, successes and disappointments. I joined the Civil Service in 1991 after graduating in 1990 and had an exciting few years in Whitehall before moving to Newcastle in north east England. Eighteen years of Conservative government came to an end in 1997 when Tony Blair and his New Labour government were elected in 1997, and there was so much HOPE! The music of this era remains the soundtrack of my life. My favourite band Radiohead became one of the biggest bands in the world, releasing their seminal work OK Computer in 1997, which probably remains my most listened to album ever. I was also listening to REM, U2, Blur and Oasis of course, Morrissey, PJ Harvey going to lots of gigs, working in the capital so at the theatre all the time. I was living my best life! Or so it seemed at the time. I met my husband in 1999, so the decade ended on a high too.
I re-discovered contemporary fiction in the 1990s and some of my favourite all-time books came out in this decade. One of the best was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published in 1992, a debut novel about a group of Classics students at a New England college and the events leading up to the death of one of their number. In 1991, Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri won the Booker Prize for his extraordinary novel The Famished Road, a strange and dreamlike book about a spirit boy who finds himself torn between the spirit and the material worlds. I remember finding it both strange and fascinating, but hugely powerful.
Two extraordinary Indian novels were published in this decade, both of which had a profound effect on me. Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy is one of the finest books I have ever read, and, at more than 1,300 pages long, it is also one of the longest ever published. I read it one Christmas when I was particularly miserable and it saved me. In 1995, Rohinton Mistry published A Fine Balance, another very powerful novel about life in the caste system in India.
In the UK, there were a couple of literary landmarks. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary came out in 1996 – it WAS my life! It spoke for women of my generation, who were told we could have it all and then found we couldn’t really. Then in 1997 came JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and children’s literature would neve be quite the same again.
British-American novelist Tracy Chevalier took the literary world by storm in 1999 with her debut novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, a unique and innovative piece of historical fiction about the story behind Vermeer’s world famous painting. For me, it started a love affair with the Netherlands and with historical fiction for which I am very grateful.
Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love was another favourite. The scene with the hot air balloon remains one of the most arresting in the English language, in my opinion, and I am in awe of McEwan’s ability to create incredible stories out of the day to day.
But for me the book of the decade is AS Byatt’s Possession. Published in 1990, it also won the Booker Prize that year. The novel follows two present-day academics who are researching a possible romance between two previously unconnected Victorian poets. It is a book about academic rivalry and hubris, about lies and deception and is both a detective story and a romance. It is extremely literary whilst also being very accessible. It is a masterwork.
There are so many books I could have chosen from this decade. Reflecting on those years I see that they were turbulent for Her Majesty, and eventful and rich for me too, though rather more mirabilis than horribilis in my case, I am happy to say. At least none of my yachts were decommissioned.
And then came the 1980s. It all started quite well for the Royal Family with the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981. I remember the event well and at the time it seemed like the biggest event that had ever happened in my life. The nation was enthralled by Diana Spencer, a fact that would become a problem for the Queen in the years to come.
It was the decade of my teens and much of the music of my youth was pretty dire – I was a fan of Adam and the Ants and Duran Duran! I was also a big fan of Japan and OMD, which was somewhat better. The Smiths and Joy Division came to the fore, but I was not into indie bands until much later. The prevailing culture was of materialism, prizing wealth and selfishness. Margaret Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society. In 1987 I went to university, truly a dream come true. With so many young people going on to higher education today (a very good thing in my view, though I do wish it was cheaper for them), it is easy to forget that in the 1980s this was a privilege gifted to only about 15% of 18 year olds, and the majority of those came from either a privately educated or grammar school background.
Most of my reading in the 1980s was of the classics, either in my preparations for studying an English degree, or during my studies. I did also study American and Irish literature, which was more modern, but I read little from post-war authors. I missed out on a lot!
There were some landmark books published in the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, came out in 1985. It has always been an iconic novel, but has enjoyed a resurgence in the recent years with the extraordinary television series and the author’s follow-up The Testaments. It is truly frightening to me that some of the horrors envisaged in that novel are materialising before our eyes today.
In the US, Alice Walker was blazing a trail for non-heterosexual women of colour with her novel The Color Purple, published in 1982. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was adapted into a film in 1985, by Steven Spielberg and starring Oprah Winfrey. It holds the dubious record for the film receiving the most nominations at the Academy Awards without winning a single Oscar. Hmm. It is hard to overstate the importance and significance of this book.
Magical realism as a literary style was being explored with exceptional applomb. Isabel Allende published her extraordinary debut novel The House of the Spirits in 1982 and Milan Kundera published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel about the Prague Spring in 1968. His books were banned at the time by the communist regime in his native Czechoslovakia.
Of British books published in the 1980s I could choose a number as my book of the decade. An author I admire hugely, Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan but brought to the UK by his parents at the age of five years (and now a knight of the realm), published his Booker and Nobel Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day in 1989. A beautiful book encapsulating perfectly British character and manners with tenderness and empathy.
In 1985, Jeanette Winterson published her groundbreaking semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit about a teenage girl growing up in northern England in the 1960s in a fanatical religious family and discovering her sexuality.
While I love both of these books very much, I don’t think I read either of them in the 1980s. So, my book of the decade is by Salman Rushdie (another knight of the realm, while Winterson is merely a CBE), who is described as an Indian born British-American, so I think it counts in the parameters I have set myself. Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was voted the ‘Booker of Bookers’ a few years ago. An awesome novel which was one of the first contemporary novels I read after I graduated in 1990 (the end of the 1980s, strictly speaking!), I remember being blown away by it. It is set at the time of Indian independence in 1947, specifically following the life of Saleem Sinai at the stroke of midnight in the new republic. Children born at that time were said to have been imbued with special powers. It is a spectacular novel, perhaps the finest of the second half of the twentieth century.