Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sex sells... but Selina rules

The extraordinary thing about the Fifty Shades phenomenon which dominated the book trade in 2012 was just how bad the books were. We all know that sex sells, but this stuff was so clunky it was laughable rather than erotic. Yet it sold in lorry loads, the first book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, becoming the fastest selling paperback since records began.

Dip in anywhere and it's hard to keep a straight face. Early on, Christian Grey, the troubled hero with the S&M problem, drops into his local hardware store where English student Anastasia is working part-time. He wants some rope (as you do).

As she leads him around (sorry) and shows him the ropes, she feels a charge of internal electricity – "a current zapping through me like I've touched an exposed wire. . . all the way down to somewhere dark and unexplored, deep in my belly." And they've only just met!

The storyline is Pretty Woman (with whips and cuffs), but at least that had a passable script. Fifty Shades, despite all the bondage, is very old rope indeed.

Following its publication in April it dominated the book charts for months, which could have made 2012 a year to forget.

Fortunately, although it wasn't exactly a bumper year for good books, there were many others which deserve to be remembered.

One of those was the last book by Maeve Binchy, A Week in Winter, completed shortly before she died at the end of July. It wasn't vintage Maeve but in comparison with Fifty Shades it was Shakespeare.

A series of overlapping short stories that almost added up to a novel, it explored the relationships of a group of people who spend a week in an old hotel on the west coast of Ireland in the off season. It was full of Maeve's extraordinary insight and acute ear, both for dialogue and the subtext beneath.

She was the biggest selling Irish writer ever. What she did was popular fiction, but it was excellent popular fiction. She was, to quote Marian Keyes, "a genius at characterisation". She will be missed.

The year was also important for Marian, our bestselling writer after Maeve, because she made a welcome return with her first novel in almost three years after a long and harrowing battle with severe depression. Typical of Marian, she described what she had been through with candour and courage, and not a little humour. And there are touches of it in the novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close, which also saw the return of the legendary Walsh sisters.

The novel of the year, either in Ireland or anywhere else, was John Banville's Ancient Light, which drew a lot of attention because it included occasionally explicit descriptions of an affair between a 15-year-old boy and a married woman in her thirties (his best friend's mother) in 1950s Ireland. But of course the book was about much more than that, a reflection on desire, love, what we remember and don't remember, on getting older.

As always with Banville, the writing was fastidious and exquisitely intense. Sometimes this intensity (and hard words you've never come across before) can make him demanding to read, but this novel was particularly engaging and accessible from the beginning.

Also unforgettable was Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, the second part of her trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, which won the Booker this year, just like part one Wolf Hall had won the Booker in 2009. A remarkable achievement but not really surprising because she recreates the period so vividly.

Non-fiction books in 2012 probably eclipsed fiction and one of the very best was Irish. Selina Guinness's The Crocodile by the Door was a memoir so exceptional that it was our Irish Book of the Year, regardless of category. It was not just the compelling story of her efforts to save a crumbling Big House in the Wicklow foothills, it was about family, farming, speculators, the health service and much more, adding up to a commentary on the boom and bust here.

Another memoir, much anticipated over the past few years, was Edna O'Brien's Country Girl. Edna is now 82, so one could say it was time to get it done. But there is no sign of any tiredness in the writing, or any lessening of the fire that drove her to make the impact she did when her books were being burned.

It's also mildly flirtatious and a picture of the swinging sixties in literary London – her night with Robert Mitchum is one of the revelations.

Mary Robinson's memoir Everybody Matters also appeared in 2012 and was engaging even if there was an underlying self-regard that was occasionally off-putting.

It was interesting that she complains at length about how unhelpful Kofi Annan was to her at the UN when she became High Commissioner for Human Rights, but his autobiography – which also appeared in 2012 – does not even mention her.

There was less of an inflation of books on the financial crash in 2012 than in the year before and the best by far was The Untouchables by Shane Ross and Nick Webb. The subtitle was The People who Helped Wreck Ireland and are still Running the Show, and the book exposed a long list of them, the same top civil servants, bankers, accountants, lawyers and other "experts" who presided over the boom and are now "advising" us on what to do about the bust.

In non-fiction outside Ireland, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage was written with the first couple's co-operation and gave a window into everyday life in the White House.

Elsewhere, there were some outstanding non-fiction books, including Antony Beevor's single volume history of The Second World War and Paul Ham's Hiroshima Nagasaki, which showed not just the horror but that dropping the nuclear bombs was unnecessary and had more to do with a show of strength at the start of the Cold War than with ending WW2.

But overall, it was the year of Fifty Shades, which spawned dozens of copycat books, jokes, puns and headlines. Probably the best was Fifty Sheds of Grey, with lovely pictures of 50 garden sheds and faux interviews with lines like: "We tried various positions – round the back, up against a wall, but the bottom of the garden was the only place for a really good shed" and "'Hurt me,' she begged, raising her skirt as she bent over my workbench. 'Very well,' I replied, 'You've got fat ankles and no dress sense.'"

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