Again the NRB editors have invited me to nominate the best books I’ve read this year. As I explained in an early column I keep a list of books I’ve read, with a brief assessment, and I assign each book a mark out of ten. Those selected scored either 8.5 or 9 (space always having to be kept for a genuine 10 to pop up). In no order other than that in which I read them, these are the books I have most admired in 2013.
The Return of a King by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury 2013) charts the follies of the British colonial enterprise in Afghanistan in the 19th century. It’s a story of deceit and betrayal, massacre and military idiocy. Dalrymple, an expert on the history of the sub-continent, appears to have done massive research in the standard sources and to have uncovered new ones. He is also an accomplished travel writer with a touch for the telling anecdote. Larger than life characters on both sides of the complex multi-faceted conflict strut the stage. The moral of the book may be stated as, ‘Play the great game here and prepare to lose’. A moral which should have been obvious and which later interventionists have failed to heed.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd (Random House 2004) is the sort of book I wish I could have written. It is an invented memoir of a many-sided, intriguing and complex character. Boyd is good at this sort of thing, having done it before in the fictional biography Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960. Real-life characters include the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the blend of the real and the fictional is seamless. Description and dialogue capture period and place faultlessly. When an historical grasp, a sense of humour and flair for popular fiction come together, things don’t get much better for the right kind of reader.
Breaking Lorca by Giles Blunt (Random House 2010) is an astonishing performance, a complete and unexpected change of manner, subject and setting from a highly talented writer, the author of the John Cardinal novels about a Canadian police detective. Highly atmospheric and intelligently devised and written, the Cardinal books come out at long intervals so I was pleased to see the one-off novel, Breaking Lorca, available as an e-book. But my reading of his earlier books didn’t prepare me for the raw savagery, physical and mental, dramatised in this story set in El Salvador in the 1980s. The mundane ordinariness of a fiendish torturer and the moral wavering of a main character are crucial ingredients in a gripping story about human depravity. Cruelties like those depicted in this book are happening somewhere right now. Will we ever learn?
The Loop by Nicholas Evans (Sphere 2006) author of The Horse Whisperer, deals with a controversial subject – the preservation of the American wolf. The setting is the town of Hope in Montana’s cattle country. It opens with a striking chapter, more or less from a wolf’s point of view. The wolf comes close to a homestead where a baby lies in a bassinet on a porch. The tension scarcely lets up as a pack of wolves kills calves, enraging the cattlemen and bringing them into conflict with Department of Wildlife officials and the law. The book contains the essential elements of much American popular fiction – generational conflict, an unusual love story and a divided community. There is a good deal of wolf lore, but not too much.
The Son by Philipp Meyer (Vintage 2013) is set in Texas and concerns several generations of the McCullough family, cattle and later oil barons. The story is told from several points of view, the most powerful being that of Eli, who is taken by a Comanche war band in the early pioneering period and inducted into the tribe. He becomes skilled at many things, including killing Native Americans and Mexicans as well as Yankees when, later, he becomes a colonel in the Confederate army. His ruthlessness affects his descendants, male and female, in different ways as Texas evolves into the complex mixture of modernity and backwardness that it is today. This is a compelling novel that sits, in my judgement, up there with Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove.