The Best Books of 2012 (and Honorable Mentions)

Lee Polevoi


Since joining the Highbrow staff in 2011, I’ve reviewed a wide range of novels, short story collections and nonfiction. It’s a privilege to share news of books I’m enthusiastic about and to hopefully bring attention to authors unknown to some readers. What follows is a selection of best books read in 2012 and a couple from years prior.


Canada by Richard Ford

The bravura opening of Richard Ford’s new novel suggests a story heavy on plot (“First I'll tell about the bank robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”). There will be a bank robbery and murder, but the story of 15-year-old Dell Parsons and his troubled family, as told by Dell at an older age, encompasses far more than these sensational elements.  Canada is a deeply ruminative work, written in spare, evocative language. It is, above all, a novel about voice.


Capital by John Lanchester

In late 2007, a series of baffling and vaguely sinister postcards arrive at the homes of residents of Pepys Road in South London. Each card carries a single message: WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about the perpetrators behind the mysterious (and increasingly violent) campaign, but the true focus of Capital stays squarely on the Pepys Road residents as they rush to comfort, confront or hurt each other. Lanchester is a master of tone, crafting the perspective of a sardonic, yet genuinely curious narrator standing just off-screen while these Londoners (and others) fall prey to their social and self-induced disasters.


Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

Each new book by Martin Amis seems to trigger a media frenzy involving sensational details from his past. By now (Lionel Asbo is his 13th novel), this frenzy serves not to enlighten but to distract from the work itself. In that respect, Amis remains one of the most consistently interesting and—on a purely sentence-by-sentence level—one of the best writers around. Language is his true dominion, a manic, bubbling and light-footed style that depends as much on the reader’s ability to keep up as on its own hard-earned effects. Readers turned off by prose that calls attention to itself should choose another book off the shelf. For the rest of us, Martin Amis remains an international treasure.


NW by Zadie Smith

Throughout this energetic new novel, Zadie Smith demonstrates a deep understanding of the complex ebb and flow of human relationships—between mothers and daughters, between best friends, between a reformed addict determined to stay clean and his flamboyant, drug-using ex-girlfriend. The reader becomes so absorbed in these characters’ lives that, even forewarned of an impending tragedy, calamity comes as a breathtaking surprise and with a penetrating sense of loss. The stories Smith tells, and the language she employs, are by turns surprising, nimble, effortless and wise. NW is a book that, like the part of London it describes, lives and breathes from one page to the next. It is the work of a master.


Honorable Mentions

C by Tom McCarthy (2010)

Tom McCarthy’s remarkable and beautifully written novel, C, traces the life and times of Serge Carrefax, from his childhood in the English countryside through young adulthood in a Central European spa to battle in the skies of World War I and finally the tombs of Egypt. While the protagonist of this picaresque tale never becomes fully known to the reader, there’s a limpid immediacy to McCarthy’s writing that’s irresistible, as when young Serge accidentally tumbles into a stream:

“And then he’s in, tumbling and turning like the blocks as water rushes up his nose and burns his throat. His hands push muddy slime and he bobs up again, his face back in the air, his legs beneath him … Beneath the surface of the stream, he opens his eyes. The water is bright and murky at the same time, like honey. Snake-like fronds wave and dance in its lit-up darkness; particles of mud hang between these, stirred up into canopies of blossom. The water’s right inside him; it’s not nasty anymore, just cold. And he’s no longer sinking: if anything, he’s been lifted up, by strong arms coiled around him, hugging him …”


 Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (2012)

An excerpt from Hawthorn & Child entitled “Goo Book” appeared late last year in the New Yorker. It told the story of a pickpocket who moonlights as a chauffeur for a London crime boss. As short fiction goes, it’s something of a compressed masterpiece. The novel itself takes on a much broader dimension, careening from the meditations of the title characters (a pair of hard-bitten detectives) to accounts of sordid “deviant” sex, the follies of youth and the mysteries of love and sadness. Take, for example, the opening lines:

“He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving. Driving but not moving. He was sleeping on the passenger seat and Child wrestled with the wheel, but the car was still. It was the city that was moving. It was dark. The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast. He was filled with sorrow. It trickled through him and filled his eyes. He wept and he didn’t know why, and he was embarrassed by it but he could not stop. He cried so much that his face disappeared. He dreamed that the siren was on, and it was so loud that it woke him.”


Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson (2011)

The reputation of the 20th century master of stripped-down prose has taken a beating in the decades since his death by suicide. This hasn’t stopped a tsunami of biographical and critical examinations of Hemingway’s work, nor the publication of posthumous novels he probably never intended to see the light of day. Paul Hendrickson has taken a more roundabout approach to looking at the writer and his life—through a rambling account of Hemingway and the life he spent aboard Pilar, the 38-foot cabin cruiser he used for fishing, writing, hunting German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico and all the rest. An intriguing approach, to be sure, but what truly distinguishes Hemingway’s Boat is Hendrickson’s exquisite, crystalline prose. The precise details and clarity of his sentences invite the reader to happily explore any number of arcane subjects:

“And now Hemingway’s boat sat beached and grime-coated and time-stunned in the Cuban sun. There were rips in her canvas topside; little hair-like pieces of fabric stuck up from the roof. Her brass and copper fastenings had gone green with corrosion, her bottom a hideous pink. Someone had reconfigured her power plant: instead of two propellers, there was just the big one, coming down the center of the boat … here she was, intact, beneath this awning, on this hill, sliced with midday heat and shadow.”


Author Bio:

 Highbrow Magazine chief book critic Lee Polevoi is completing a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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