When Anna Burns won the Booker Prize in October for her highly original, challenging novel, Milkman, chair of the judges Kwame Anthony Appiah compared the experience of reading it to scaling a mountain. "It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top," he said.
It wasn't long before the backlash began, though. In The Times, James Marriott wrote that "the judges have confirmed the tendency to see novels as status-markers rather than joyful, life-changing entertainments". Journalist Sarah Shaffi posted a much-shared thread on Twitter, complaining that "literary fiction is not better than other types of fiction". Elsewhere, Milkman was dismissed as "odd" and "hard work".
It is dispiriting that so many people seem to equate a novel's merit with its accessibility. Clearly, a novel does not have to be demanding to be worthwhile (many of the novels I have flagged up for 2019 are unlikely to vex the reader). But nor should readability be celebrated above all else. By turning our back on experimental novels, we risk finding ourselves in a flat literary landscape, one that is no doubt full of entertaining morsels, but bereft of anything truly nourishing.
Besides, sales of Milkman, which is set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and told from the perspective of a girl forced into a relationship with an older man, have been exceptional. It went straight to the top of the Amazon UK book chart after the Booker Prize was announced and its publisher, Faber, has been forced to print a further 120,000 copies to meet demand. Critics underestimate – and patronise – the public if they believe we can't cope with novels such as Milkman.
Elsewhere, there was a glut of very fine novels – some challenging; others less so – published in 2018. So many, in fact, that in a piece for The Guardian, American novelist Jonathan Franzen was moved to ask whether "we're living in a literary golden age". What a shame it would be if people were put off reading some of these wonderful novels for fear of being overworked. Dive in; the rewards are endless.
Here are my top 5 novels of the year.
1. Normal People by Sally Rooney
Faber & Faber
Sally Rooney is only 27, but she has already written two extraordinary novels and is being hailed as the voice of her generation. Normal People seems like a straightforward love story between two young people. What elevates it, though, is Rooney's crisp, unhurried prose and her astonishing eye for detail, as she explores class, social media and mental illness.
2. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
The narrator of this bleak, at times very funny, novel attempts to cure her (many) ills by going to sleep for a year. Moshfegh, who was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2016 for Eileen, digs out moments of profound tenderness from a cloud of darkness and despair in this strange, moving tale of a drug-induced hibernation.
3. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber
The final part of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy features another series of strange encounters that seem to simultaneously illuminate and obscure the narrator, Faye. This is a novel only in the loosest sense – it’s more of a series of thoughts, really – but Cusk’s prose, as sparse as ever, brings an eventual, beautiful clarity.
4. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Warlight is an odd, unsettling work of sparkling brilliance that follows Nathaniel from the age of 14 to adulthood, as he tries to solve the mystery of his mother's disappearance. A slippery tale full of shadowy corners and shady characters, this is Ondaatje's best novel since The English Patient.
5. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
A thrilling debut novel about a young editor called Alice and her affair with a much older writer, Ezra, who bears more than a passing resemblance to American novelist Philip Roth. All of modern life is here, as Halliday prods us into thinking about immigration, art, literature and, most fundamentally of all, human relationships.
Writers at The National pick their favourite books of 2018:
1. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Based on the real life story of Lale Sokolov, a Jewish prisoner tasked with tattooing every Auschwitz inmate with their identity number, this is a tale that showcases the best and absolute worst of humanity. When Sokolov tattoos the arm of a young and terrified Gita, it is love at first sight, and so follows a renewed fight for survival, giving him light in the darkest of places.
2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Penguin Random House
The story of Eleanor Oliphant can feel overwhelmingly sad at first, but despite the fact that she has no friends, is socially awkward and harbours a heartbreaking secret, she is fine – even if everyone else doesn’t think so. The endearing unconventional heroine’s tale is an emotional roller coaster, and I liked the fact that Honeyman didn’t give it a convenient happy ending.
3. Lullaby by Leila Slimani
Faber & Faber
Lullaby, published in English earlier this year, tells the story of parents' worst nightmare: murder at the hands of their kids' caregiver. Inspired by a true story, the author sets this moment of horror against the interlocking web of the guilts and pleasures of the employing parent. The fact the parents are Moroccan-born and the nanny French, adds a layer of postcolonial tension.
4. Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes
The 1936 Olympic Games was perhaps the first time in the modern era that a repressive political regime used a major global sporting event as a propaganda tool to give itself validity. Oliver Hilmes chooses not to focus on the wider political context, offering instead an OK! magazine-style look at the activities of celebrities of the era over those 16 days in August.
5. How to Break up with Your Phone by Catherine Price
In today’s social media age, our smartphones have taken over our lives. We’re all hooked on them – snapping and sharing photos, and checking likes. This book provides a 30-day plan to help you get away from “checking in” when there’s no need for it. I would argue that this is the most important read of the year and a break-up is very much recommended.