30 NOVEMBER 1985, Page 29

Francis King

The two best novels that I read this past year were Jane Gardam's Crusoe's Daugh- ter and Brian Moore's Black Robe. I feel no surprise that neither appeared on the Booker short-list. I should have felt sur- prise if works so subtle and so technically adroit had done so. Part fiction and part fact, John David Morley's Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan struck me as extraordinarily perceptive about a people who seem to baffle, attract and repel the author in equal measure.

For me the most overrated book of the year was Philip Roth's The Prague Orgy. So weak and emaciated that the only possible diagnosis of what is wrong with it is the literary equivalent of AIDS, it has evoked a generous response from review- ers. There should now be a moratorium on books about English or American intellec- tuals paying fleeting and for the most part uncomprehending visits to Soviet Bloc countries. In general, the inhabitants of those countries tell better jokes about them.