Reading the Decades: #6 The 1980s

I am more often than not devoted to contemporary fiction, the shiny and the new. But I do read some older books too as my stats will attest.

This series picks out some of those old books that I’ve read, sorted by publishing date, not reading dates which can be any time. You can read the previous posts here: 1930s1940s1950s; 1960s1970s.

The 1980s were an odd reading decade for me. In the first couple of years, I was mostly reading SF and fantasy. Then with my first job, I didn’t read much at all. That resumed when I relocated for my second job and gained an hour commute and found a bookshop over the road from the station and I started reading more widely, only to return to SF when Star Trek: TNG came along, with loads of fun novelisations. But I also turned to literary fiction, especially contemporary literature and consequently, my trusty spreadsheet contains over 90 books from the 1980s that I’ve read since I started keeping records. It was very difficult to pick just one book per year, so there are a few runners-up for this decade!

1980: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Hoban’s most challenging novel, and the cult one! Set in a post-apocalyptic Kent, language has degenerated along with tech etc, so the whole is narrated by twelve-year-old Riddley in a kind of pidgin English. Stay with it though and the language will gel, and the rich symbolism from the Green Man to Mr Punch will become apparent. A richly rewarding read. Also: Rites of Passage by William Golding

1981: Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Frequently cited as one of the best thrillers ever written, and one of Mick Herron’s favourites, Gorky Park introduced us to Soviet homicide detective Arkady Renko who is called to the park when three bodies, faceless and fingertipless are discovered. It’s a deliciously complex investigation for the one good cop in Moscow. Also: In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood

1982: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

OMG! – it’s over 40 years since we were introduced to Adrian Mole, who is now nearly 45. Back in 1982 he was a spotty pubescent Midlands teenager yet, for someone so pompous and superior, surprisingly easy to love. Underlying his unerring seriousness about life and his secure knowledge that he is a great intellectual, tortured poet and novelist manqué, is an insecure young man who just wants to be loved.  This is Townsend’s triumph; if Adrian hadn’t been so, it couldn’t work as brilliantly as it does.

1983: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Back in 2019 I hosted a readalong of this intellectual thriller in three chunks which turned out to be an ideal way to revisit the novel in depth. I read it when it was first published and wasn’t enamoured of all the religious politics, longing for the intrigue at the abbey where monks are dying and Brother William of Baskerville is brought in to find out what’s happening. I loved it second time around. Also: The Dark Tower #1: The Gunslinger by Steven King.

1984: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

One of the best debut novels ever. When I first read it, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me. It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it, and it continues to deliver on re-reads. Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager, catcher of local wildlife, who lives on an island with his abandoned father.  Also: Money by Martin Amis

1985: Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd’s third novel won the Whitbread Award and Guardian Fiction Prize. I first read it in the late 1980s and remember loving and being mystified by the novel in equal measure. A re-read thirty years later made much more sense. Hawksmoor is a very structured novel with dual timelines which alternate strictly: we begin in the early 18th century, and then move to the book’s present in the 1980s. It is also split into two parts, with chapter six introducing a new main character and thus a new train of thought into the present day timeline just to confound one! Loved it. Also: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

1986: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

I adore Block’s Matt Scudder novels. This is the sixth one, and ex-cop turned PI Scudder has been drowning his sorrows, but needs needs to turn his alcoholism around when he is a witness to a heist in an illegal drinking den, and the owners book him to find the culprits, while another witness wants him to investigate the murder of his wife. It’s amazing that Block was able to make Scudder more interesting once sober and there ended up being 18 in the series.

1987: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

My favourite novel of all time, comprising three linked novellas which take the traditional gumshoe detective from the golden age of noir and make that rôle into something new. New York itself also has a starring part – all Edward Hopper-ish, dark shadows yet with bright lights, a place full of strangers and lonely people. There are many similarities across the three novellas: questions of identity, the writer’s life – writer’s block and overcoming it and getting published, the dangers of obsession, are all given a psychological twist so that you can never work out quite where it’s going – and Auster even puts himself into the first novella. Also: The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

There is so much packed into O&L’s 500+ pages, that it reads like a book that is far longer. That’s not a bad thing though in a really good novel, and this is one.  The density is in the dazzling detail which has a Dickensian quality to it, making it a book to be savoured and not rushed – it’s chapter 46 before the title characters are on the same page of the book, and their relationship is slowburning all the way – I wanted to yell ‘Get on with it!’, but I was mesmerised from start to finish. Also: Utz by Bruce Chatwin and The Risk Pool by Richard Russo.

1989: An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Shortlisted for the Booker in 1990, this is another of Bainbridge’s stories with a strong element of autobiography to it based on her experiences working at a Liverpool theatre. Set in 1950, it’s coming up to Christmas and they’re putting on Peter Pan. Young Stella begins work at the theatre as an ASM and becomes obsessed with the play’s director and then is taken up by the lead actor playing Captain Hook/Mr Darling. Full of backstage intrigue and sexual politics, this is a dark novel and doomed romance. One of my Beryl faves.

What are your personal favourites from the 1980s ?

15 thoughts on “Reading the Decades: #6 The 1980s

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Wonderful selection, so many good books there – which I mostly read in the 1990s, although I do remember reading The Name of the Rose quite early on, swiftly followed by Foucault’s Pendulum.

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    The Name of the Rose I think is the only one I’ve read of these but so long ago that it needs a revisit. Riddley Walker was recommended to me by a friend ages ago and I have still not got to it though I have read and loved one of Hoban’s children’s books.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    Like Marina Sofia I too followed Eco’s break-out novel with the Foucault title (I still have copies of both). Most of the titles from that decade have been more recent reads, such as the Diana Wynne Jones fantasies and the Alan Moore graphic novels.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Me too – I must re-visit Foucault’s Pendulum – I now own (acquired at great expense) the matching Folio edition to TNofR!

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    I was 8-18 in the 80s so I went from young adult that there was then to incredibly pretentious, hard reading lists in my later teens! The Faerie Queen? Tick. History of Western Philosophy? Tick. I am missing 1982 and 1985 in my quite-lapsed Reading the Century project but I’ve read yours for those years. I love Oscar and Lucinda, even though reading it led me to claim I liked postcolonial literature in a university interview!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That made me giggle. We do go through that age of pretension don’t we! At 18 I was devouring the Russian greats, but also the incredibly dense Greek and Latin classics – Herodotus, Thucidides, Cicero, Suetonius etc.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I understood so much more second time around with Hawksmoor, having got to know William Blake etc in between times

  5. Lory says:

    I had to look up a list, I could not remember what was published in the 80s … some that I remember strongly and that I actually read in the 80s or shortly thereafter include The Name of the Rose, as well as The Blue Sword, What’s Bred in the Bone, Fire and Hemlock, The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved, Housekeeping, The Joy Luck Club, and The Remains of the Day. Some that I caught up on only much later are The Color Purple, Maus, The House of the Spirits, Little, Big, and Wyrd Sisters. Yes, lots of good reading in that decade!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Remains of the Day certainly could have been a contender for me from your list above. I remember enjoying the Robertson Davies, Isabelle Allende too, and Atwood, although it’s not a favourite. At the time I loved Little, Big, but I tried to re-read it a few years ago and couldn’t get on with it second time around. I do need to re-try Beloved though.

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