The Godfather: Peter Corris on his best books of 2016
I haven’t read any books this year, but have had the great privilege of listening to 89 audiobooks narrated by superb actors. As in past years, I gave each book a mark out of 10. Listed here are the five that have most impressed me, not in order of merit but in the order they came to me. I should add that I’ve omitted the many books revisited – those I read when I still could. I gave high marks to many books I’d admired before, including Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. These have won praise over the years and I thought NRB readers would be more interested in recent works.
The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (Penguin 2016). On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic I told my then seven-year-old grandson about the event. ‘Do we get a long weekend for that?’ he said. But the loss of the Titanic was no joke, with 1517 people, rich and poor, being lost. David Dyer has approached the disaster from a different angle – from the standpoint of people aboard the SS Californian, who saw the firing of the liner’s distress rockets but took no action. He plots their course through the traumas and investigations that followed with extraordinary narrative skills and depiction of character. A book not to be missed for anyone interested in historical faction at its best. (Read Linda Funnell’s review here.)
Arthur Philip, Sailor, Mercenary, Governor and Spy by Michael Pembroke (Hardie Grant 2014). A superlative biography of an interesting character, making the best possible use of sparse materials aided by intelligent speculative suggestions, something not always handled well by biographers. In this book the central character and the manners and mores of his age come vividly to life.
Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Penguin 2016). Detective Sean Duffy never has a quiet moment. As one of the very few Catholics (not that he practises the religion) in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he is always on edge, with enemies inside and outside the force striving to bring him down. Duffy, drinker, smoker and occasional drug user, applies his considerable talents to solving the locked-room mystery at the heart of the book, but, as with the whole Duffy series, it’s the sectarian tension that gives the story its flavour. That, and its blend of humour and violence.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber 2016). Thomas McNulty and John Cole meet in an America in flux. Cole has Native American ancestry and McNulty is in flight from the Irish famine. They are vagabonds and homosexuals. They perform, with McNulty cross-dressed, in a minstrel show, fight in the Indian wars against the Sioux as troopers and in the American Civil War on the Union side, enduring wounds, disease and betrayal. This summary does no service to the lyrical sweep of Barry’s story. This is not queer fiction; the characters’ homosexuality is virtually incidental, a given, and no distraction from the power of the narrative. This is the best American Western novel I’ve encountered since Philipp Meyer’s The Son and is up there with McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Text 2016) is a novel presented as a set of documents, some fictitious, some historically factual. Roderick McCrae is a teenage crofter who kills three people, including a child, in revenge for slights against his family. The tale unfolds from Roddy’s journal written in prison and is partly supported by other testimonies, partly not. The book is fascinating from the first for its depiction of the world of the crofters, its examination of class, the 19th-century beginnings of psychological examination of criminals, and its masterly account of Roddy’s trial and fate.
Graeme Macrae Burnet is to be in Sydney in February 2017 and I, for one, will hope to be there to hear him talk about his extraordinary book.