Selecting novels of the year is a common journalistic game, one that is almost as absurd as book prizes. It’s not quite as absurd, certainly, because there is less pretence – marginally less, anyway – that you delivering an authoritative judgement. So what follows is merely a list of new novels I have read, enjoyed and admired in 2015. To emphasise that I am not rating them, one to ten, the order is alphabetical, authors’ surnames, A onwards.
Michael Arditti: Widows and Orphans. A decayed seaside town, a failing local newspaper, family dramas, sometimes painful, sometimes comic; written with assured mastery of tone.
Sebastian Faulks: Where my heart used to beat. Ignore the irritating title with its absence of capital letters. An intelligent and moving examination of the traumas of war. Faulks is as accomplished as ever.
Jonathan Franzen: Purity. Not that mythical beast, the Great American Novel, but a Big American one, a story of secrets, manipulation and lies. The style is often slack, the tone too knowing, but nevertheless this is absorbing and on the whole satisfying, despite one of the novel’s key scenes being decidedly clunky.
Ernst Haffner: Blood Brothers. The street life of feral boys in immediately pre-Hitler Berlin, written in a cool, laconic style. This is a sympathetic study of damaged lives in the harsh underworld of the Depression years. Haffner disappeared soon after the Nazi takeover.
Robert Harris: Dictator. The last book in Harris’s Cicero trilogy is as good as anything he has written. A compelling picture of power politics – the portrayal of Caesar is chilling – Harris makes the familiar story of Caesar’s assassination seem new.
Andrei Makine: A Woman Loved. An idealistic Russian writer tries to make a film about Catherine the Great, first in the crumbling Soviet Union, then in the chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Yeltsin Presidency. As ever, beautifully written, as ever there is a touching love-story. Makine is near his best, nobody writing today is better than that.
Simon Mawer: Tightrope. The sequel to The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. Returned from a German concentration camp, the damaged heroine of the earlier novel is caught up in the moral and intellectual confusion of Cold War espionage.
Edna O’Brien: The Little Red Chairs. A novel of astonishing vitality by an octogenarian author. A practitioner of alternative medicine arrives in a small town in Ireland and a woman falls in love with him before his true and horrifying identity is revealed. Disgraced, she flees to London where she struggles among the legions of the lost.
Andrew O’Hagan: The Illuminations. Coping with the past, an old woman, formerly a celebrated photographer whose mental health is failing; and her grandson, an Army officer, whose mission in Afghanistan has gone horribly wrong. Two stories skilfully blended in one. Humane and moving, this is surely O’Hagan’s best novel to date, and I say that as one who thought Be Near Me outstandingly good.
Piers Paul Read: Scarpia. Scarpia is the police chief and villain of Puccini’s opera, Tosca. Piers Paul Read gives him a fuller, different and more admirable life in this beautifully-written historical novel of Italy in the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. A master of narrative, whose research has been so thorough that he seems to be remembering his story rather than inventing it.
Jane Smiley: Golden Age. The third and last book in the Langdon family saga which began with Some Luck, set in remote Iowa farmland in the early twentieth century. The sprawling family has traversed the Continent and their story is now brought up to the present day and even beyond. Absorbing reading, even if you need to keep referring to the family tree to remember what the various relationships are.
Louise Welsh: Death is a Welcome Guest. The second volume of Welsh’s disturbing dystopian trilogy makes for grim but compelling reading. The future couldn’t be like this – or could it?
Finally, and out of alphabetical order, an honourable mention for Shena Mackay’s Dancing on the Outskirts. Out of order because the book isn’t a novel, but simply the wittiest and most delightful collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time. Ration them as you would a box of fine chocolates.