WAY BACK WHEN, when to be lettered was a virtue and people actually read literary fiction, I remember asking a legendary publisher, who was renowned for the quality of the books he published, how he managed to keep up with all the literary trends and books of the moment. I still recall, more or less, what he said: “I read against fashion. I ignore everything that’s flashy, supposedly trending or earth-shaking and go for books that embody great storytelling and classic literary values such as a powerful style, memorable characterisation, insights, plot, the usual. You will find if you use these filters, that most so-called masterpieces are bogus, no matter what award juries or reviewers might profess. If you read the few novels that are true masterpieces, books that will, with luck, be read 20 years from now, and reread a classic that hasn’t dated, every now and then, you’ll be just fine.” At the time, as a sprat just entering the world of publishing, it wasn’t advice I could necessarily follow but these days I find I sample a lot of books, buy only a few and finish a very select number. I don’t feel I’m missing anything. And with that as context, here are my books of the year.
They don’t include any from India, for obvious reasons: as an Indian publisher I’m not allowed to pick any of my own company’s books, which would leave any list of books of the year incomplete. Among the books from elsewhere that I liked, the first is by an award-winning novelist, who has always been considered a first-rate stylist. I’d never read Kevin Barry before, but I was intrigued by the title of his book, Night Boat to Tangier, which suggested overtones and undertones of romance, mystery and sudden death, staples of the golden age of literature from a long, long time ago. The book fulfilled all its promises. Two over-the-hill Irish gangsters are waiting in the Spanish port of Algeciras for the arrival of the Tangier ship. Among other things they are looking for the daughter of one of them who has gone missing but that is not the only element of drama in this novel. The tension builds, as does the mystery, but there is much more to the novel than these elements, this is a genuine literary masterpiece that dives deep into the big questions of life, love, death and everything in between. All laid out in writing that’s as strong, spare and sharp as Japanese steel. It will cut you, this novel, make no mistake about that.
The second book on my list is an autobiographical novel so profound and beautifully written that it achieves transcendence. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is the story of an American poet of Vietnamese origin that talks of his family’s horrific past in Vietnam and his own struggle for acceptance as a gay, coloured child of immigrants in 21st century America. Vuong’s writing is so gorgeous you could read the book for the pleasure of his prose alone, but then the story it tells is so brutal and poignant, its power is guaranteed to sweep you away. A one-two punch, the sort of combination every writer dreams of achieving and every reader dreams of experiencing.