Charlotte's Web

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Top Five Novels of 2011

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The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’

This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:

Ali Smith There But for The

This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’  is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.

Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad

Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that  makes me love a book.

Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.

What were your top reads in 2011?

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

9 thoughts on “Top Five Novels of 2011

  1. I must be the only person in the world who couldn’t get on with the Goon Squad.

    In it’s place I’d like to offer Andrea Levy’s The Long Song – set in the West Indies, a prequel to Small Island, and somehow writing about the failing colonial system without being judgemental.

  2. Jo, you are a shining light of individuality! Meanwhile, I also loved The Long Song – it is Levy at her triumphant best.

  3. Completely agree about ‘To the End of the Land’. It really is a novel that stays with you. – I liked Charlies Rose’s interview with David Grossman too. Well worth seeing http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11241

  4. As always, i find a book to read from you – I’ve just added To The End of Land to my-buy list (I hope for Christmas, if I can find it). It sounds fascinating, and as a parent in this time of war and with two brothers’-in-law in the military, the potential for loss is always hovering around the corner. Good list, Charlotte! you read some challenging books this year.

  5. I don’t think I read any brand new fiction this year. Don’t shoot me!

  6. Mmmm… a tasty list of treats, thanks, Charlotte! I also enjoyed I Capture the Castle, but I am intrigued by the others on your list – particularly the Egan, to see how she gets away without a clearly discernible narrative arc. Why did NO ONE ask me what I wanted for Christmas??!!

  7. Oh lovely list! So delighted Ali Smith made it on as she’s a favourite of mine. And I loved I Capture the Castle when I read it a while back – time for a reread, I think. Very interested now to check out the books that are new to me, particularly the David Grossman.

  8. I’m afraid I couldn’t finish The Stranger’s Child. I don’t know what went wrong for me and suspect it was all to do with my mood. I loved the first pre-war section, but the second section dulled my enthusiasm and I gave up 20 pages into the third. I really should revisit it. But I loved the Ali Smith and Jennifer Egan this year too. And I Capture the Castle when I read it a while ago.

    Which leaves To the End of the Land. I’ve downloaded a sample to my Kindle already.

  9. Now this is a cliche, but I read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the subsequent 2 books back to back to back. He is an exceptional writer. I was completely invested.

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