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NOVEL OF THE YEAR How to be Both by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now. How do you tell a story, “and tell another underneath”? That’s what this very-nearly-Booker-winning novel sets out to do. There are two versions: identical cover, same ISBN. One opens in the 15th century, with the life of a little-known fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose work was hidden under whitewash for four centuries; the other in the “cold grey horseless world” of the 21st century, where a Cambridge schoolgirl mourns her mother. Their lives intertwine—they learn from and comfort one another. Ali Smith writes with fierce wit, intelligence and love, tossing out thoughts that reverberate long after the last page is turned. “I’m good at the real and the true and the beautiful,” Cossa says, and “the place where all three meet.” That is Smith’s genius in a nutshell.
NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, Atlantic, paperback, out now. Before August 2005, “working a hurricane” at the New Orleans Memorial Medical Centre meant family fun time: staff brought along kids, pets and picnics. But Hurricane Katrina was like no other. Power was cut, and the hospital became a dark, fetid Noah’s Ark, with animals wandering the wards. The helicopter pad hadn’t been used since John Paul II’s visit in 1987; many patients were too sick to reach it. What were the staff to do: stay and die with them, or “euthanise”? Fink’s account of five days in hell conveys both the gravity of their decisions (some were prosecuted for homicide), and the impossibility of maintaining moral clarity in 110 degrees, without sleep. Shades of “Titanic” and “Alive”—but this is in a class of its own.
THE FOUR BEST BOOKS OF THE MOMENT
HISTORY Common People by Alison Light, Fig Tree, hardback, out now. Other people’s family histories are often as dull as their holiday snaps. Not this one. Alison Light began exploring her past when her father was dying. Starting from his mother’s pauper’s grave, she travels backwards, tracing her ancestors on both sides to her great-great-great-grandparents, bringing working-class Britain during the Industrial Revolution to life. It’s a world of migrants, constantly moving in search of employment, however grim. Warwickshire needlemakers breathe in clouds of steel dust, and develop “grinder’s asthma”—and they’re the lucky ones. Light’s maternal great-grandmother grows up as an orphan in the workhouse and dies in an asylum. In beautifully paced, faintly plangent prose, Light ventilates her research with reflections on our need to know where we came from. She gives our thoughts space to breathe alongside her own.
POETRY Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador, hardback, out now. No one knows what the weather was like in Bethlehem on the night of the Nativity, but as the end of the year looms our compasses swing north, to frozen landscapes and starry skies. Carol Ann Duffy’s sixth Christmas mini-book transports us to the Lake District. At midnight on December 24th 1799, the eve of Dorothy Wordsworth’s 28th birthday, the countryside is suspended in anticipation—“Ice, like a cold key,/turning its lock on the lake”. Coleridge strides over Helm Crag towards Dove Cottage; Dorothy awaits him. There’s a hint of romance. Dozing in his four-poster, William Wordsworth rhymes “cloud with crowd”. As a new day dawns, the three share fireside festivities. Duffy’s spellbinding verse, spiced with witty, wintry illustrations, recaptures a magic most of us left behind in childhood.
FICTION Amnesia by Peter Carey, Faber, hardback, out now. In the first sentence of Carey’s 13th novel, a computer worm enters the control systems of prisons across Australia and America, and thousands of prisoners walk free. It’s like a starting pistol from which the story races thrillingly forward. Felix Moore is an oddly endearing left-wing “shit-stirrer”, obsessed with the idea that Australia has forfeited democracy by “brown-nosing” to the cia. Commissioned by a millionaire property developer with a stapled stomach, he disentangles hours of recordings to write the life of 30-year-old Gaby Ballieux, responsible for the “Angel” worm. His task: to “make the bitch lovable”, and so prevent her extradition to America. To enjoy this ride, you need to stay alert not only to the serpentine plot, but to the subtleties of Carey’s tone: playful, yet deadly serious—a kind of puckish noir.
RELIGION Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell, Simon & Schuster, hardback, out now. We tend to think of Islam and tolerance as mutually exclusive. In fact, for 14 centuries, the Muslim world was far more benign than the Christian West to religious minorities—many of which survive to this day. Gerard Russell, a former diplomat fluent in Arabic and Farsi, has spent 20 years travelling to the marshes, mountains and wildernesses of the Middle East, discovering religions whose roots go back way beyond the birth of Christ—Mandaeans and Yazidis in Iraq, Zoroastrians in Iran, Copts in Egypt, Druze in Lebanon, Kalasha on the Afghan-Pakistan border. He wears his research lightly, combining fairy-tale detail—Yazidis sacrifice bulls and revere a peacock rebel angel—with warning and elegy. Western invasion has left the Islamic world less and less open-minded; ancient religions are imperilled. Russell watches them “vanishing almost before my eyes”.