Best reads 2007: Yves Vanderhaeghen

2007-12-05 00:00

I'm only halfway through, but Mark Gevisser’s bulky biography of Thabo Mbeki, The Dream Deferred, is in some way the most stimulating book I’ve read this year. Gevisser’s knack is to combine exhaustive research with psychological and political insight and round it off with enough human empathy so that even when he’s being critical, his subject is protected from the reader’s wrath. In offering a portrait of Mbeki from childhood to the presidency, Gevisser also follows the course of many of today’s South African debates on personal identity, social duty and political reconciliation from their earliest manifestation. Gevisser also sums up the many ambiguities and ambivalences that so poignantly, agonisingly consume our society. His triumph is to do so without trying to score political points.

For some irrational reason I avoid Booker Prize winners like the plague. Over-intellectualised artifice makes me puke, and somehow I’d come to a sweeping judgment that this summed up the Bookers. So it’s taken me nearly 10 years after it was published to pick up Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, which was such a great read that I promptly read a couple more. His eye for moral morasses and catastrophic foibles is deadly sharp. I still think his final conceit is overwrought and lazily convenient, but it’s a small thing to forgive.

Bernard Schlink is best known for his stupendous story The Reader, but in his other life he’s a mystery writer. Self’s Punishment (originally written in 1988 in German but only recently readily available in English), is the first of his books to feature as its hero Gerhard Self, a private detective whose Nazi past still haunts him. Schlink meshes corporate intrigue, personal ambition and loyalty in a thriller that manages deftly to touch on the big themes of guilt and retribution without getting bogged down in them. It’s not the lightest of light relief, but the extra meat makes this distraction not feel like time-wasting.

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