The Reef by Edith Wharton
A lesser-known Wharton novel but, just like her very best, it is complex, clever, sad, funny and unerringly honest in its dissection of American society, money, sex and love - and the terrible, often tragic failure of men and women to understand each other. I came to Wharton’s work only a few years ago and can hardly bear to think I might never have discovered her. I find her prose and her attitudes astoundingly modern and, quite simply, she’s a consistently good read.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Hamilton writes about a group of men and women thrown together in a small-town boarding house during the Second World War. Neither wholly comedy nor tragedy, it is actually one of the most pitch perfect - in the sense of heart, emotional scope and pace - novels I’ve ever read, and its protagonist Miss Roach is a triumphant and heartbreaking creation.
A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton
A woman, looking after her best friend’s child, is distracted for a moment and the child drowns. That’s just the beginning of this harrowing novel and it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the drama to come. Hamilton takes her plot to really unexpected places and it’s the complete lack of sentimentality with which she unwraps her themes of guilt, friendship and betrayal that make this book so shakingly traumatic and - in an odd way - beautiful.
Strangers by Anita Brookner
The most recent - and, in my opinion, underrated - novel by one of our greatest living novelists. Ostensibly a meditation on old age and loneliness - and bearing all Brookner’s familiar hallmarks (the long Sunday afternoons in dark London flats are almost unbearably well-described) - it’s one of those books that seem oddly bottomless and universal, not to mention generous, life-affirming and humane.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
A fantastically impressive and readable first novel which tells the story of several decades in the life of an English newspaper in Rome. And, though the paper itself is the thread that pulls everything together, this is an astoundingly vibrant, edgy and emotionally astute novel about men and women and the workplace and how our working lives mesh with our hearts and souls. Reading it felt like striking out into brand new, uncharted territory. Rachman is a really fierce talent and one to watch.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This astounding book is a reconstruction, examination and writerly meditation on the real-life murder of a Kansas farmer and his whole family in 1959. The build-up to the murder - related in terrible and affecting detail - makes almost unbearable reading. But it’s Capote’s intensely humane exploration of its aftermath, its effect on a community and - especially - the trial and fate of the two disturbingly amoral young killers that raises this book into another league. I finished it with my breath held, my blood chilled and still unable to decide what I thought about any of it. That for me is the mark of a great piece of writing.
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
I picked up this novel on holiday - I’d never heard of Greer - and was instantly blown away by his original yet unshowy and somehow hugely compassionate prose. It’s 1953 and a San Francisco housewife is about to open her door to a visitor who will change her marriage and her life forever. It’s an emotional thriller, but it’s also a devastating investigation of a marriage, showing how easily all our certainties can be unravelled. What I most admire though is how convincingly Greer inhabits his female protagonist. It’s hard to believe this novel was written by a man. Not only that, but all its characters are so finely drawn that you feel you could reach out and touch them. Their warmth and heart bounces right off the page. A real achievement.
The Quickening by Julie Myerson is published by Hammer on 28th March.
Photo credit: Barney Jones 2011.