As everyone's taking the time out to have a retrospective on the last 12 months, here are the ten best novels I've read in 2007, in no real order.
Time's Arrow - Martin Amis got himself into hot water over comments he made about Islam, but he did used to write good books, and this is one of them. It opens with the death of an old man and manages to work its way backwards to his birth. Superficially it sounds daft and pretentiously experimental, but it somehow works and the result is probably the most unusual novel to have interesting things to say about the Holocaust.
The Bonfire of the Vanities - the blurb says Tom Wolfe's masterpiece is the timeless classic of the 80s, and I'd have to say, its canonical status is entirely justified. Wolfe's meditation on executive culture and the interests that feed off media-inspired witch-hunts manages to hit home without sounding at all preachy. It's probably even more relevant today then when it was published 20 years ago.
The Custom of the Country - Edith Wharton's creation, Undine Spragg is an unscrupulous social climber prepared to manipulate and trample on others as she worms her way into the heart of New York society. Her ruthless pursuit of fortune sees three divorces, a suicide, and plenty of scandal. Imagine Paris Hilton with a back bone. Truly excellent, and justifiably caused a stir when it was published in 1913.
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne's best known novel is about Hester Pyrnne, a young woman who causes a scandal by giving birth while her husband remained behind in England. Unfortunate enough to live in a puritan community, an A for adultery is embroidered on her clothes as public penance for her sins. Meanwhile her unnamed lover undergoes severe guilt while her husband plots his revenge. Extremely hard hitting for the time, but gripping.
The Brooklyn Follies - A bit of a departure for Paul Auster. Famed for gloomy, postmodern novels about lonely men who are writers, usually writing about writers, this is probably his most "conventional" work to date. Nathan Glass returns to Brooklyn after breaking up with his wife and overcoming lung cancer, and manages to redeem his wasted life. This is probably the best way in to Auster's output.
On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan may write about "Mercedes-driving cunts", to quote an Urban 75 wag, but he can write nonetheless. His most recent novel is no exception. He details the sexual awkwardness of two virginal newlyweds on their wedding night with painful precision that you almost feel as if you've got vested interests in the outcome, which is no mean feat for a novel well under 200 pages long.
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro's character, the butler Stevens, is a foil for a meditation on duty, dignity, vocation, and ultimately the price excessive devotion to them can extract. As a take on masculine crisis, other books seldom come as moving.
Alias Grace - Marget Atwood's fictionalisation of a real double murder in mid-19th century Canada is a superb psychological portrait of one of the perpetrators, Grace Marks. Her being a woman meant she was deemed incapable of committing such a crime, and was therefore spared the gallows in favour of life imprisonment. How she recollects the murders and the attitude of wider society toward her allows Atwood to explore the hypocritical gendered mores of the time.
Delta of Venus - Anais Nin's collection of semi-interconnected erotica is a must for anyone who doubts the evocative power of literature. See what I said about it here.
Sophie's Choice - Masterpiece is the only word that can adequately summarise William Styron's magnum opus. Stingo is drawn to the passionate, but violent coupling of Nathan and Sophie when he rents a room beneath them in 1947 New York. As he gets to know them, the tragedy of Sophie's life is gradually unveiled. I very nearly didn't read this on the strength of a radical feminist review I'd read a few years back, but I'm glad I did. There may well be some dodgy things said about women in there, but nevertheless it is one of the most powerful, most moving novels ever written.
What have been your best reads this year?