Best literary fiction of 2009: Cromwell's soul, a Chilean labyrinth and small-town Ireland
Sunday 13 December 2009
"To everything there is a season." Well true, for the most part, but even Biblical prophecy couldn't allow for the dubious reliability of publishing literary fiction. As the past 12 months bear out, a hit or miss often proves as predictable as a hurricane or a heat wave. So who's been subject to a freak downpour and who's found themselves in the unexpected glare of the sun?
Some notable big hitters failed to connect in 2009. The Angel's Game (Wiedenfeld, £18.99), Carlos Ruiz Zafón's prequel to his bestselling The Shadow of the Wind, was less focused than his first trip to Barcelona's Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December (Hutchinson, £18.99), a potentially timely tale of corrupt bankers and militant Muslims, proved a cartoon take on the current UK predicament. Why is it that so called state-of-the-nation novels so often revolve around the city and the Thames, media types and politicos? There's a big country out there, you know.
Conversely, we were caught unawares by some un-forecast gems. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) romped home to win the Man Booker Prize, with a new view on a well-worn face. Thomas Cromwell, Rome-basher and Henry VIII's spinmeister, has been given a welcome makeover. Mantel is already donning her doublet for a sequel. And who would have believed that a 900-page Chilean opus would become a bestseller? In one of the most blatant dismissals of a late author's wishes (perhaps rivalled by one Mr Nabokov Jr), the executors of Roberto Bolaño's literary estate ignored his directions to publish his heaving swansong 2666 (Picador, £20) in five parts. The Mexican border town of Santa Teresa provides the setting for this wildly ambitious novel that bubbles up a hotpot of literary flavours from Murakami to Cervantes, Poe to Proust.
This year also saw the return of the Manhattan party pensioner Jay McInerney. After the 9/11 drama The Good Life, he returned to what he does best with The Last Bachelor (Bloomsbury, £12.99): short, sharp shots of bed-hopping bad behaviour. A dozen tales tell of socialites finding their tender vision fading from a lifetime of romantic cataracts. One eye, however, remains firmly fixed on that elusive house in the Hamptons. Philippe Claudel, the creator of the celluloid smash I've Loved You So Long, stepped back to the bookshelves with the portentous Brodeck's Report (MacLehose Press, £18.99). As with his film work and his fiction debut Grey Souls, it further examines the ruts and cuts felt by outsiders. In Alsace-Lorraine's mountainous borderland between France and Germany, in the equally in-between territory shaped in the wake of the Second World War, the "Anderer" (meaning "other") walks into a village, with sinister results. Also steeped in the shadowy aftermath of the same conflict, Georgina Harding's The Spy Game (Bloomsbury, £12.99) was to my mind the most elegant novel of the year. Two children concoct a theory about their mother's past that might not, we learn, be entirely fantasy. With subtly dispatched wisdom, it asks the question, what do we really know about our parents?
The summer provided us with a great, glitzy follow-up to Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside (Sceptre, £17.99) takes us back to the heyday of popular entertainment. While the dawn of Hollywood and an egotist by the name of Charlie Chaplin provide the bombastic opening, Gold also manages to frame the Russian Revolution, Kaiser Wilhelm's cowboy obsession and true love in his widescreen lens. My summer sleeper, The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Doubleday, £12.99) by Paolo Giordano, is more of a European indie flick. The ballad of Mattia and Alice, two tarnished Italian teenagers dealing with their own, private traumas, is an exercise in perfect plotting, while broaching the notion that broken people can heal one another. Love and Summer (Viking, £18.99) by William Trevor has Ireland's prose laureate smoothly sketching out the hypocrisies and passions inherent in rural small-town life. "Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there." Of course, everything and nothing happens in such places. In the late autumn of the author's career, he has written a small masterpiece.
And finally, from a late flourish to a sparky entrance and quite possibly the most inventive book of the year. Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry (Bloomsbury, £12.99) chronicles an affair through the various lots in an auction-house catalogue of the couple's shared belongings. It perfectly details the provenance of love and disillusion. It's a true original and yet another beautiful and unforeseen shift from a year of literary climate change.
What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to email@example.com) nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.
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