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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border