2017 In Review: It's The Final Countdown!

on Friday, December 29, 2017
So Europe released a new album this year... Which is of no consequence whatsoever other than to say, look at that crappy headline I've been pushing for like six years now. Suddenly it's relevant again. Though, to be fair this:

is no this:

despite Joey Tempest's cool guy renaissance thanks to a hair straightener, some Grecian 2000 and the uncanny inability to sing everywhere except into the mic. But enough 80s fanboying, we've reached the pointy end of 2017 so it's time to rattle of my favourite reads. Will things ever be the same again?

5. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
What is it about the Booker Prize these days that gets it so wrong with the winner (yeah, shoot me, but some of you will recall Lincoln In The Bardo was my most overrated book of 2016) but still manages to find a completely unknown pearler to stick on the shortlist? Last year it was Graham Macrae Burnett's magnificent His Bloody Project. This time round it was Fiona Mozley and her unsettling debut, Elmet. Blending the mythical, historical and natural in a way that aims to continually wrong foot the reader, Mozley draws us towards inevitable catastrophe without ever telegraphing exactly what form it might take. In that sense, it is like riding a moral see-saw, one from which you might be thrown at any time. John, the narrator's father is a brilliantly complex character and one who you will have a difficult time working out. He's taken his two children into the countryside, to a house he built with his own hands, in what might be an attempt to protect them from the dangers of modern life. Or he might be a savage bully at war with the world around him, abusive and selfish, who has simply stolen them away. Of course, as the children grow and the folk in the surrounding towns become increasingly concerned for their welfare, things are bound to come to a head. And that is where Elmet takes a turn for the truly shocking. Seriously, it is beyond me how this did not win the Booker.

4. Belladonna by Daša Drndić
One day, when the world as we know it has ended, and we're all left picking our noses in atomic fallout shelters, someone will be trawling through the literature of the 21st century, happen upon the works of Daša Drndić and wonder why we didn't listen to her while we still had the chance. We certainly won't be able to say we weren't warned. Drndić rubs our noses in the shit of history and forces us to inhale for our own good. She did it in Trieste (my favourite novel of the last ten years). She did it in Leica Format. And again she has done it in Belladonna. There is an obsessive circularity about her books, such that they might best be read as a triptych. And while the material Drndić mines might have a certain sameness across the three works - an interrogation of history that unfolds into an excoriation of our collective failings - each one attacks it from a unique angle. In Belladonna, it is retired psychologist Andreas Ban who embarks on the excavation. Faced with his own mortality after being diagnosed with breast cancer, he begins to trawl his old files and books, finding connections he had not noticed before, only to realise that he is only one or two steps removed from atrocity. This intense connectivity sends him (and, by association, us) down the rabbit hole of despair, where he hides away assembling the ultimate indictment against the human race. And reader beware: we are all guilty. Belladonna is a dark, demanding book, but a fiercely moral and empowering one, too. Another triumph from one of the most important writers of our times.

3. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
So it turns out we've been robbed. While we were reading the fine novels of Rushdie, Desai, Naipaul and Roy, there's been an entire body of Indian literature hitherto unavailable to us in the English speaking world. Don't get me wrong. I adore Indian post-colonial lit. But having now read Vivek Shanbhag's masterpiece in miniature, Ghachar Ghochar, I can't help but feel I've been missing out. Written in the basha (vernacular language) of Kannada, this story of sudden wealth and moral ruin is so finely wrought, so perfectly precise, that it says more than most of the epic tomes we've come to expect from the subcontinent. The title is a nonsense phrase, akin to the Hebrew balagan or, if you're a fan of 80s action films, FUBAR, meaning so comprehensively messed up and twisted that it cannot be undone. It is a concept that floats throughout the book in various guises, as we witness the material rise of the narrator's family thanks to an entrepreneurial uncle's successful spice business. Everyone reaps the benefit, but also succumbs to the pitfalls of the nouveau riche: pettiness, arrogance, scheming and downright nastiness. It is a universal cautionary tale, magnified exponentially by the rigid stratification of Indian society. And it is executed to near perfection.

2. Euphoria by Heinz Helle
Rug up, Bookworms, because this is about as cold a novel as you will ever find. Some friends go for a weekend away in the Austrian Alps. They muck about, as you do, and think nothing of the world. When the time comes to come back down, they quickly notice that something is awry. An entire village at the base of the mountain is on fire. There is nobody about. Somehow, the apocalypse has come and left only them behind. At first, they band together in the hope of survival. But, fuck it, there's nothing left worth surviving for and so they quickly descend into savagery. Set against a frozen, unforgiving landscape, Euphoria is a horrifying tale of man versus man versus the elements versus what the hell (or, Helle... sorry) happened to the world. Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and while there are certain parallels to be found, this is by far the bleaker book. In fact, Helle paints a portrait of humanity so comprehensively stripped bare that it is almost impossible to digest. At least The Road had an air of redemption about it. Not here. Just the bitter pill of our lesser selves.

Well, only one book to go. Join me on Sunday when I'll reveal my 2017 Bait For Bookworms Book of The Year.


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