When I thought about what books mean the most to me I thought I would probably pick one that revealed some kind of essential humanity, a book that reminds me of what it’s like to love and live etc etc, something with redemption at its heart. A book to give you hope. Maybe after 2016 I’m done with sentimentality, though, and it’s hard to think of a less sentimental book than The Piano Teacher, objectively a masterpiece, subjectively a book that changed my life and that I always return to.

Cover of The Piano Teacher
I love it even though sometimes it almost physically hurts to read, and for me there’s a double element to this – the pain of the story, and the pain of the prose too, which is precise and weaponised, a narration a step removed from the protagonist Erika that coolly documents her life and her actions. There is no flinching away in this book. We are voyeurs to Erika the way she is a voyeur, both in the sense that she’s into hiding in car parks to watch people having sex, and the sense that she is acutely watching life passing by her, an intense frustration and self-loathing coming from this that permeates everything.

Maybe enjoying painful books is satisfying in the same way as watching a horror film, a kind of voyeuristic compulsion. But I know there’s more to The Piano Teacher than that. I’m drawn to the book stylistically, for scenes such as the unforgettable one where she lists, for pages, the things she wants Walter to do to her, each thing worse than the last. I’m drawn in admiration to the technique of telling such a story with incongruous beauty, the balancing act between gratuitousness, between satire, between making Erika horribly real to us. How far she can push the sadism, both for Erika and for the reader, and keep it just the right side of overwhelming. There’s also this sort of grim archness to it that I find both really pleasing and really horrific, as if to say – cool, we are all repulsive, human desire is essentially ridiculous, and we are all just bodies lurching towards death.

More than anything though I’m drawn again and again to this book because of the white-hot fury in every page. The distillation of a very female sort of pain. Power dynamics build and lurch. She hurts herself and she hurts other women, a fury directed either on her own body or on their bodies, but the men remain whole. She knows even from the first flushes of their relationship that the love of her blonde, ruddy-faced, offensively wholesome pupil isn’t for her. That when she reveals her true self, he’ll reject and humiliate her. And how he does, the inevitability in every page. Of course the woman gets hurt in the end, even the one with immense control – but this one dares to articulate her own terrible desires and in the process makes herself monstrous to him, and to us.

Best Book of 1994: The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller
Best book of 1964: Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr