There’s always something a bit silly about literary prizes. I’ve been a judge of several, and been judged myself, and I know there is rarely a “best” Book of the Year in any category. As it is, neither critics nor readers are likely to agree about much. So what follows doesn’t pretend to be anything but a note of new books I have enjoyed this year. There is no pretence that I am aspiring to speak ex cathedra.
The Horseman (Bloomsbury, 320pp, £8.99) by Tim Pears is a remarkable evocation of life on a country estate just before the First World War. Entirely free of sentimentality, it takes the hardships and sometimes cruelty of rural life for granted; the existence of class distinctions, too. It rings true, as if Pears was in the hayloft watching and listening to everything in the stable below. There’s a burgeoning, barely articulated, relationship between the horseman’s son, a boy who communicates more easily with birds and animals than with people, and the lord of the manor’s independently minded young daughter. It is apparently to be the first book in a trilogy – it will be extraordinary if sequels can be so magical.
Though setting, story and characters are different, the atmosphere of this novel recalls Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, one of those books one keeps returning to.
The historical novelist who deals with public events has a problem. How do you create tension when the reader already knows the outcome? Well, the first thing you have to do is keep in mind that events which are now in the past were once in the future – when Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich in September 1938, everything was uncertain. The world held its breath and children were fitted with gas masks.
Robert Harris is the master of the intelligent political thriller. His Munich (Hutchinson, 352pp, £20) is utterly gripping, his portrayal of Chamberlain sympathetic and fair. Almost nobody except Hitler and his henchmen wanted war in 1938. Chamberlain, as the author of the Agreement, was cheered as lustily in Munich as in London. Harris’s plot involves the German aristocratic opposition to the Führer, but leaves open the question of how they might have acted if the Agreement had not been made.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker, 528pp, £20) might be read as a sequel to Munich, though it’s a work of history rather than a novel. That said, Shakespeare is also a novelist, and a good one, as is his account of the disastrous Norway campaign and the subsequent Commons debate which led to Chamberlain’s resignation. It is narrative history written with a novelist’s eye for character and an awareness that decisions are made often in ignorance of the facts, and always speculatively. The irony is that Churchill, the minister most responsible for the Norway fiasco, became the unavoidable prime minister. We may all be grateful that he did so – his luck and ours.
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