Can there be a ten-year period in which more changes than the one between being seventeen and being twenty-seven? Of course everything depends on circumstance and there are anomalies, but it does strike me that this is the decade in which I went from child under my parents’ roof to adult paying my own bills, and what—even assuming the acquisition of a life partner and the possibility of one’s own children—can possibly compete with that for upheaval? So the task of choosing ten books of the decade (and I will limit myself to just ten, this time) feels like not just a commentary on my reading, but on how that reading has shaped and reflected my life.
2010: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It has to be this. 2010 was the year I started university, and Mantel wins it by a whisker; George Eliot (particularly Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss) is close behind. But up until then, I don’t think I had quite realized that it was possible for contemporary fiction to be as rich and dense as what I rather naively and snobbishly thought of as “the classics”. Wolf Hall was the first novel I read that opened my mind to that possibility.
2011: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. The vast majority of my reading in this year was for university, and there are lots of reading memories that seem ineradicable, but The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was perhaps the longest (I also read The Faerie Queene in 2011, mind you). I got through it during shifts at my summer job back home, not even bothering to be surreptitious and read it under the counter. It’s outrageously overcomplicated allegorical pastoral Tudor romance, and yet I found myself entranced.
2012: Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I know this is a dick move and Desert Island Discs lets you have them for this very reason, but in the summer of 2012, I read every single word that William Shakespeare ever wrote, as well as some he probably didn’t. It took a little less than three months and by mid-July I was starting to dream in blank verse. Nothing else even came close to matching that experience that year.
2013: The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. An odd and messy year. I graduated, continued living in Oxford, scraped together internships at literary agencies and my old college’s Development Office, and read a fuck of a lot of Terry Pratchett, for no doubt obvious reasons. However, Tanizaki’s extraordinary perception about romantic and social relationships in mid-20th century Japan reminded me forcefully of Jane Austen, and I’ve not stopped recommending this book since.
2014: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris. This was the year in which I started blogging about my reading more seriously, reading other litblogs, and writing for the now-defunct Quadrapheme, which meant free books and new contacts in publishing house. In amongst the riches, Young God stood out like a hammered thumb: it’s reminiscent of Winter’s Bone in that it’s about a young Appalachian girl who grows up before her time, but it is, if possible, even grittier, bleaker and more disturbing. What a winner.
2015: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall. The first year in this decade where the winner is hands-down obvious and uncontestable. I was sent this for review and was so smitten, I read it twice in four months: the combination of lush landscape writing with an utterly unsentimental but also un-bleak portrayal of single motherhood fit its subject matter so well. It didn’t just show me what good writing was; it showed me that there are a million ways to live, and most of them are only just now being written into stories.
2016: The Likeness, by Tana French. Not the first Tana French novel I read, but as I finished that within about a day and turned immediately to this, the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the distinction is fairly academic. And academic is the point in this deliciously clever engagement with The Secret History tropes (overintellectual young people are faced with murder, must navigate treacherous shoals between story and reality; so meta, I fucking love it). It’s my favourite of hers because of the descriptions of the house and the friendship dynamics—she gets into the meat of how people relate to each other—and I read it just as I was beginning work on my own book, which has similar themes.
2017: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Getting harder now; 2017 was the year I started working at Heywood Hill and my access to books skyrocketed (no longer was it necessary to buy new titles with my own money or indeed even request them half the time; boxes of proofs come to the shop every week). Thien’s Booker- and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel is a gorgeously written family saga set in communist China, about music and integrity and survival. I rather wish it had won both prizes.
2018: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. I couldn’t stop talking about this, all year, and all of 2019 too. The first five pages are a devastatingly scary, moving, gut-grabbing experience, and the rest of it—telling the story of teenage Silvie and her father’s increasingly unhinged obsession with neolithic British customs—hurtles, with an extraordinary stop-start combination of sticky tension and humid tedium, towards what feels like an inevitable climax. It’s utterly magnificent and it, too, should have won both the Booker and the Women’s Prize.
2019: As we know, 2019 was an exceptionally good reading year overall—so good that I couldn’t even narrow my top books down to ten, and had to settle for twenty. There was no one standout title, though, so instead I’m nominating Willa Cather, and the three of her books I read this year. She is an exceptional writer whose evocation of landscape and grasp of psychological nuance makes her feel well ahead of her time. Both Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of the Lark are wonderful, not to mention the much lesser-known A Lost Lady: short but perfectly formed and breathtakingly empathetic.
This list, written on a different day, would probably have produced a different outcome—choosing books to represent a whole decade is so subjective a task that the decisions, though not totally arbitrary, often feel balanced on the knife’s edge of how I happen to feel right this minute. All of these are brilliant books, though, and have meant a lot to me over the past ten years.
Do you have any books of the decade you’d like to share?