Laura Cumming got the year off to a luminous start with The Vanishing Man (Chatto & Windus), which consists of two abbreviated life stories, entwined like a double helix. The first strand concerns Diego Velázquez, who painted life at the 17th-century Spanish court, culminating in the wonder that is Las Meninas. Alongside this elevated loveliness, Cumming runs the story of John Snare, a Victorian bookseller from Reading who becomes convinced that he has found a Velázquez portrait in a grubby country house, and then ruins his life trying to prove it. In shimmering prose fuelled by an intriguing mystery – if Snare’s painting isn’t by Velázquez then whose is it? – Cumming explores the nature of artistic obsession and desire.
Another fine original biography appeared from Frances Wilson, whose Guilty Thing (Bloomsbury) matched its voice to that of its subject, the opium-eating Romantic author Thomas De Quincey. Wilson’s prose has some of the same hallucinatory loveliness that De Quincey used in his verse and journalistic essays, and the result is thrillingly immersive.
You might have expected Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther (Bodley Head) to be a more sober affair, but it turns out that the man who railed against the sinfulness of the established church had his own dark side. A swaggerer and a swearer, Luther tore through the world like a dark star, leaving Europe split in two. Roper’s immaculate scholarship doesn’t simply locate her subject in the complex religious and political context of the 16th century, but also gives a persuasive account of his inner life, without ever straying beyond what the evidence will allow.
The best debut of the year was surely Keiron Pim’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Jonathan Cape), an account of the mesmerically ghastly David Litvinoff, an inspired chancer who scampered between the worlds of art, music and organised crime in the 1960s, creating nasty trouble. Pim’s sturdy narrative is studded with interviews from raddled old survivors, many of them now confined to care homes with only their sociopathic tendencies to keep them warm. You’ll worry at your hunger to keep on reading, but you won’t be able to stop.
One way of raising the tone might be to try Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café (Chatto & Windus). Existentialism in its purest form isn’t for people who want to be stroked and soothed. Yet by showing us Sartre and De Beauvoir sitting in a cafe swigging apricot cocktails while working out how to live, Bakewell makes us feel that we too might be able to use philosophy to elevate our humdrum existence to become something more considered.
Charles Foster’s Being a Beast (Profile), by contrast, encourages us to wallow in our own filth. In an eccentric but revelatory attempt at personal rewilding, Foster spends weeks living like a badger, snug in a hole and snacking on earthworms. Next, he is up above ground again, snuffling around dustbins in an attempt to pass as an East End fox. There are stints as an otter and a red deer, too. Into this visceral narrative, all grunts, smells and mad dashes, Foster braids a meditation on what it means to be a human animal.
In The Return (Viking), Hisham Matar sets out to discover what really happened in 1990 when his father was kidnapped, thrown in an infamous Tripoli jail and never seen again. Matar has previously captured the fractured polity of Libya in two astonishingly accomplished novels. Here, though, the story becomes profoundly and painfully personal as he sifts through not only the monstrosities of Gadaffi’s regime but also, in later years, the moral dereliction of the Blair government in looking determinedly the other way.
Ian Buruma, meanwhile, tells the story of his family’s migration. To be more precise, that migration has already happened by the time Their Promised Land (Atlantic) opens in 1915 and Buruma’s future grandparents are safely berthed and assimilated as upper-middle-class Hampstead Jews. But when European war comes along, not once but twice during their long relationship, Win and Bun Schlesinger are obliged to confront their multiple identities as Britons, Jews and the children of Frankfurters. Using the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other while Bun was serving in the army, Buruma charts the way in which his grandparents dealt with antisemitism, both of the ferocious kind (close family perished in the Holocaust) and the genteel variety (Bun’s medical career was stymied by “45” – the family’s personal codeword for “being Jewish”).
If Buruma uses family history to ask questions about belonging, Olivia Laing’s remarkable memoir The Lonely City (Canongate) examines the state of being apart. Decamping to New York in her mid-30s after a failed relationship, Laing walks the city solo and ponders the nature of loneliness. Arming herself with biographical fragments from Warhol, Hopper and the janitor-painter Henry Darger, Laing considers the necessity of being alone as the precondition for producing art. And, then, what about the power of that art to connect us once again to the great continent of human experience? The Lonely City is the perfect book to have as your shield if you’re about to head into the forced togetherness of the festive season feeling curiously detached from it all and suddenly desperate to get away.
• Save at least 30% on this year’s critics’ choices when you buy at the Guardian Bookshop. Visit bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Support the Guardian and its journalism with every book you buy this Christmas. *Free UK p&p for online orders over £10. Minimum £1.99 p&p applies to telephone orders.
Best book lists of 2016
Best crime and thrillers
Best science fiction and fantasy
Source: The Guardian