Best & Worst 2018 - Novels

Milkman.
Milkman.
Ponti.
Ponti.
Warlight.
Warlight.
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.
Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.

BEST

Milkman

Anna Burns

This experimental novel, with its nameless cast and run-on paragraphs, was a dark horse in the Man Booker Prize, but deservingly won.

It depicts a young woman's experiences during the Irish Troubles of the late 20th century, as she is sexually harassed by a senior paramilitary figure in a society fraught with paranoia.

Harrowing yet somehow also hilarious, the book stretches language in unfamiliar ways to tell a story that resonates heavily in the #MeToo era.

Ponti

Sharlene Teo

In hazy 2003 Singapore, 16-year-old Szu is trapped in a convent school with her best friend, the wealthy, acerbic Circe.

Szu's unbearably beautiful and distant mother Amisa, once briefly famous for starring in a cult horror film series about a pontianak, is dying.

This dreamy, disquieting debut makes teenage girlhood in Singapore into something rich and strange, yet at the same time, achingly familiar, and marks Teo as a writer to watch.

Warlight

Michael Ondaatje

In 1945, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister are left behind by their parents in the care of a group of mysterious maybe-criminals.

 

Years later, an adult Nathaniel tries to piece together his mother's covert career as a war spy and reconcile himself with her sins.

In exquisite lines that layer beauty with menace, Ondaatje's haunted post-war novel takes one's breath away.


WORST

Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff

By Sean Penn

This celebrity novel by Hollywood star Penn has earned praise from the likes of Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie, but this reviewer lost it at the line: "Never one for psychosexual infantilism or paedophilic fantasy, after their sex he said, 'Good vagina. Maybe more Vietnam.'"

The tale of Bob Honey, septic specialist and serial killer of senior citizens, is laughably, grandiloquently awful.

It is the fantasy of a man who firmly believes, despite mediocrity and incoherence, that he should be the centre of the narrative.

Bob Honey may Just Do Stuff, but perhaps Sean Penn Just Should Not.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 23, 2018, with the headline 'Best & Worst 2018 - Novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe