As the annual flood of published novels grows ever greater, it’s a hard a job to keep up, let alone sort the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, literary sleuth and academic John Sutherland is on hand to do precisely that. In the course of over 500 wittily informative pieces he gives us his own very personal take on the most rewarding, most remarkable and, on occasion, most shamelessly enjoyable works of fiction ever written – the perfect reading list for the would-be literary expert.
His taste is impressively eclectic. An appreciation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – arguably the first-ever novel – is followed by a consideration of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. The Handmaid’s Tale is followed by Hangover Square, Jane Eyre by Jaws. There are imposing Victorian novels, entertaining contemporary thrillers and everything in between, from dystopian works to romance.
The flavour of each is brilliantly evoked and its relative merits or demerits assessed. At the same time, John Sutherland shows how the work fits into a broader context – whether that of the author’s life or of other books from the same genre or period. And he offers endless snippets of intriguing information: did you know, for example, that the Nazis banned Bambi or that William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying on an upturned wheelbarrow; that Voltaire completed Candide in three days, or that Anna Sewell was paid £20 for Black Beauty?
Encyclopedic and entertaining by turns, this is a wonderful dip-in book, whose opinions will inform and on occasion, no doubt, infuriate. It is also effectively a history of the novel in 500 or so bite-sized pieces.