Books of the Year 2012: Fiction

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year's books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

In theory, an internet-led book culture means infinite choice and endless abundance. In practice (with a nod to Henry Ford), too many consumers read, buy and think in any colour so long as it's… 50 shades of grey. With EL James such a fearsome dominatrix of the bestseller charts during 2012, the hunt for excellence and originality in a fiction scene prey to digital pandemics feels more urgent than ever.

What a pleasure, then, to recommend a slow-burning love story – and a droll philosophical comedy, and a fable about the quest for happiness - called The Missing Shade of Blue, by Jennie Erdal (Abacus, £12.99): her witty, warm and smart Edinburgh-set first novel. Further north in Scotland, Kirsty Gunn transformed the history and tradition of the pipes – and of the families who play them – into an astonishing work of fiction. The Big Music (Faber & Faber, £20) matches the structure of its story to the virtuoso improvisations of the Highland piper's art, but the pulsing bass here remains a moving story of fathers, children and a culture in peril. Less experimental, but just as enriching, Dundee-raised James Meek turned to rock stardom and its aftermath in The Heart Broke In (Canongate, £17.99), folded it into the ethics of medical research and the media, and harmonised the lot into a symphonic saga of the way we live now.

From Wales (and from Welsh) came a gem of a short novel – rooted in family history – about a self-sufficient rural way of life, as modernity encroaches with all its gifts and thefts: The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (translated by Lloyd Jones; MacLehose, £10). The fictional voice Price gives to her great-aunt compels and captivates. Now, you could hardly move further from Price's spinster farmer than the Bangkok ladyboy-turned-Islamist warrior in southern Thailand and Indonesia who narrates Timothy Mo's Pure (Turnaround, £16.99). But Mo's spectacular first-person picaresque makes his unlikely heroine an irresistible companion on adventures in flesh and spirit from a writer of prodigal talent – and jaw-dropping chutzpah. Elsewhere in Asia, Tan Twan Eng - reviewed first in these pages - rightly came to the Man Booker jury's notice with The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon, £12.99), which arranges the mysteries of art, memory and warfare into a landscape of secrets as gorgeous – and deceptive – as its Malaysian vistas. With its shifting viewpoints and freight of disputed history, Patrick Flanery's outstanding Absolution (Atlantic, £12.99) told a prismatic story of post-apartheid South Africa. And in The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (trans. Anne Mclean; Bloomsbury, £16.99), the Conrad of Colombia layered story upon enigmatic story amid the drugs-related mayhem of his nation's tormented recent past: a subtle take on sensational events.

Here, the Man Booker went, again, to Hilary Mantel and her resurrected Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20): a second proof of her capacity to make the blood-drenched Tudor past sing, and sting, in livewire prose that shuns both archaism and anachronism. A century on, and the domestic upheavals of civil war in England gave a backdrop to the mouth-watering flavours of John Saturnall's Feast (Bloomsbury, £17.99), Lawrence Norfolk's scrumptious foodie tale of a low-born master cook and his survival. A little later, the downbeat final years of Charles II's reign did nothing to dampen the spirits of Rose Tremain's Merivel: a man of his time (Chatto & Windus, £18.99) – a sort of sequel to her Restoration, and equally delicious in the voice of its brazen softie of an anti-hero. Further down history's tunnel, Will Self's Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £16.99) – a Man Booker finalist - braided the First World War with the 1970s and the present into a Modernist triptych. Demanding but tender and comic too, it rooted Joyce's "nightmare of history" in the stricken minds of a mechanised age.

If Self seemed to channel Joyce, then Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has summoned Proust in the six-volume autobiographical sequence he riskily calls "My Struggle". Given his ordinary upbringing, it ought to be a risibly pretentious project, but the first volume - A Death in the Family (trans. Don Bartlett; Harvill Secker, £17.99) - opened the door on a triumph. This suburban epic, electrifying in candour and eloquence, feels streets ahead of the comparable Jonathan Franzen.

In London's Olympic year, Zadie Smith's NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) came closest to a full-spectrum capture of the city's kaleidoscopic energies, although even her dynamic, street-smart, immersive prose couldn't quite sustain its inspired first-half evocation of a mixed-up time and mixed-up people. John Lanchester packed a city's worth of modern archetypes - bankers to builders to asylum-seekers - into the single gentrified street of Capital (Faber & Faber, £17.99): a metropolitan meltdown saga that, for all its modish décor, rested on a solid foundation of old-fashioned social realism. But one of the year's most accomplished London fictions evoked a city that never existed: the smog-bound, defeated metropolis of CJ Sansom's Dominion (Mantle, £18.99). His chillingly persuasive "alternative history" drew a forlorn, fearful Britain in 1952, truly broken by surrender to Nazis abroad and dismal semi-fascism at home.

Fascism triumphant, in Prague in 1942, prompted Laurent Binet's genre-bending but still gripping novel of Nazi leader Heydrich and the plot to assassinate him, HHhH (trans. Sam Taylor; Harvill Secker, £16.99). The author showed his face and told his own tale, in the process interrogating the fables and fictions that we fashion from the past. Tyranny of another sort framed Georgina Harding's exquisitely written Painter of Silence (Bloomsbury, £7.99), with its mute, elderly man in a Romanian hospital looking back via his drawings, and his nurse's memories, on a convulsive age. Further back, Traveller of the Century by the Argentinian-born Andrés Neuman (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia; Pushkin Press, £12) managed with verve, charm and erudition to throw a line between past and present. A Romantic wanderer of the 1830s fetches up in a frontier town out of fairy-tale, where Europe's art and thought comes under teasing scrutiny.

Across the Atlantic, old masters looked back across the decades in relaxed, expansive mood. Edmund White tracked a history of desire, gay and straight, in New York from Mad Men days to the age of Aids in Jack Holmes and his Friend (Bloomsbury, £18.99). White's friend John Irving found happy transgender romances under every New England tree in the shaggy-dog progress of his omnisexual hero through In One Person (Doubleday, £18.99) - a serenely comic vindication of the wisdom of the outsider.

Another far-seeing veteran, Richard Ford laid bare the fatal family secrets of the American 1950s in Canada (Bloomsbury, £12.99), a novel whose masterly poise partners a story of chaotic characters in flight from themselves. Among younger transatlantic contenders, Chad Harbach signalled the arrival of a major player with his baseball-themed The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate, £8.99), a keen-eyed and fleet-footed college-based novel of youth, love and obsession. The always incendiary AM Homes exposed the black-comic mayhem behind the American front door in May We Be Forgiven (Granta, £18.99), while Shalom Auslander's taboo-trouncingly funny Hope: a Tragedy (Picador, £7.99) planted a Woody Allen-esque narrator in rural exile, with an aged and crochety Anne Frank (really) in his attic.

Internet-driven manias tend to leave little room for humour – the laughter of scepticism, and of sanity. So readers ought to cherish even more those books that relish the smiles – and jokes – of the free mind. Howard Jacobson not only set his attack-dog writer-narrator loose on our dumbed-down post-print culture in the glorious dyspeptic arias of Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, £18.99), but made his grumpy hero a classic fool for love. The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate, £18.99) out-Amised Amis with its freewheelingly inventive golfing confessional-cum-state-of-the-nation satire - set in Luton. With Skios (Faber & Faber, £15.99), Michael Frayn set in motion a beautifully engineered farce-of-ideas on a Greek island. And Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (trans. Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean; Harvill Secker, £16.99) sent a world-weary Barcelona publisher on a rackety jaunt to the city of Joyce and Beckett that celebrated literature of every vivid shade – except grey.

Further reading

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Travel and place

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Art

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: Memoirs

Books of the year 2012: History

Books of the year 2012: Poetry

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