1. Little by Edward Carey
This is the story of little Marie Grosholtz, later to become Madame Tussaud, founder of the famous London institution that bears her name. This novel is by turns dark, funny and eventful; it’s a powerful evocation of the past. It’s hard to explain how a book crammed with “The Terror” and poverty can enrich the soul but it does. I feel good every time I think of this magical novel.
2. The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard
This is an angry, but controlled, novel that looks at the Anschluss and the way in which the fates of two nations, Germany and Austria, were decided by the Nazis with the help of a group of industrialists supporting their cause. There is a fierce intelligence behind this analysis of the political atmosphere of the 1930s. It an elegant novel that has much to say about our modern world. It’s also a beautifully told story.
3. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Ostensibly about a man who’s girlfriend is murdered, this novel is a story of paranoia, of the pernicious influence of the media and the anxieties of modern life. A psychological study of PTSD and it’s affects. This is a graphic novel of rare insight and humanity. The tension in the novel builds as you await to see if the characters will self-destruct or finally step back from the abyss.
4. Vernon Subutex I & II by Virginie Despentes
The first two volumes of the fictional trilogy that is the life of Vernon Subutex – a rollicking romp set in Paris with a strange eclectic mix of characters, insightful and very funny. Despentes tackles the issues of race, gender, equality, relationships, drugs, rock and roll, fecklessness, courage – I could go on. So original and irreverent, I can’t wait for the final volume!
5. West by Carys Davies
An amateur 19th century archaeologist sets out across the west, leaving his young daughter behind when his wife died. His quest is to find the origin of a bone unlike any he has seen before. This beautiful eleganct little novel explores grief but also environmental issues and, ultimately, our humanity. A poignant tale that pulls at the heart strings.
6. Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese
A collection of essays (which are truly insightful and vivid), but also a mini collection of short stories. All set in post WWII Naples, a desperately poor place, struggling to recover under the weight of indifference and corruption. Ortese was a big influence on Elena Ferrante. As honest and devastating a vision of the post war world as you will ever read. Wonderful stories that wound and caused my heart to ache.
7. Never Anyone but You by Rupert Thompson
An uplifting fictional biography of two very brave and very talented women, Lucie Schwab and Suzanne Malherbe. Refusing to accept the strictures of the male society of pre-war France and the authority of the Nazis these two women lived extraordinary lives. Beautifully reimagined by Thompson. Restores your faith in humanity.
8. Grace by Paul Lynch
Grace is a young girl thrown out of her home by her mother; perhaps to protect her, perhaps to spare the family the extra mouth to feed. In any case, Grace has to survive on her own wits and talents during the Irish famine, in which a million people starved to death. A tale of the injustice and brutality of the time, the desperation of the people. A tough but important read, ultimately, an uplifting story of survival against the most terrible odds.
9. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard
The little known story of Michelangelo’s sojourn to Turkey to build a bridge for the great Sultan. Wonderfully inventive and so readable. A comment on East-West relations and perceptions, as well as a fascinating reimagining of the great artist as a man with feel of clay. A novel to return to.
10. Total Chaos by Jean Claude Izzo
A reprint, I admit, but this novel is too good to miss. This is the first novel in the Marseilles trilogy (Churmo and Soles are the other two), an exceptional crime novel. In fact, one of the most important and influential European crime novels ever written. It gave life to “Mediterranean Noir” and reinvigorated, if not reinvented, the French crime novel. Police detective Fabio Montale investigates the death of a childhood friend, the trouble he is heading for may overwhelm him. This is a novel of police and political corruption, of gangsters, and of the marginalised people of a great cosmopolitan city. This is NOIR.