Books of the year 2014: The best fiction

Man Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan led the vanguard in a triumphant year for Antipodean fiction

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The Independent Culture

It was a triumphant year for Antipodean fiction, the vanguard led not by grandee Peter Carey's Amnesia, but by the winner of the Man Booker prize, Richard Flanagan, who not only gave us an astounding love story in The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), but dared to enter into territory – the cruelty inflicted by the Japanese on Australian PoWs – which Carey confessed his generation had feared to tread.

The most striking of debuts came from New Zealander Fiona McFarlane, while a scorched outback was the backdrop to Evie Wyld's brooding, suspenseful second novel, All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), which claimed the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize and Miles Franklin award among its accolades.

Flanagan's wasn't the only deserving Booker winner. This year's jury got it so right that two of its shortlistees might equally have won it: Ali Smith's how to be both (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), a novel that rearranged itself depending on which of two versions you picked up, with a tricksiness that did not sacrifice heart and soul at the expense of the "concept". Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), defied the idea that a 516-page epic won't hold the attentions of the Twitter generation: opening with a scene of startling brutality, this politicised sub-continental saga is a page-turner 'til the end.

Siri Hustvedt's luminous The Blazing World (Sceptre, £18.99) tells a woman's life story yet simultaneously draws "meta" limits around its telling. The wife of an art dealer, now dead, who cleverly exposed the male bias of New York's art-world, is disinterred here: this book is a palimpsest of documents, diary entries and witness statements that attempt to pin down her ideas, intentions, her "real" identity, through the less-than-reliable medium of the word.

Michel Faber's space-travel story, The Book of Strange New Things (Canongate, £18.99) was published not long after Jonathan Glazer's avant-garde film adaptation of Faber's previous "alien" novel, Under the Skin (2000), and yet this story outshone the last with its imagination. A minister's zeal to take his Christian message to another planet gave ground to a Conradian critique of colonialism (with a near allusion to Kurtz) while asking the deepest questions of faith, love and survival. Environment warnings were thrown in, but Faber is too masterful a storyteller to sound preachy. A Samuel Beckett story that was to end his debut collection, More Pricks than Kicks, but was rejected by his editor in 1934, finally saw publication. Echo's Bones (Faber, £20) entertained with its verve and its signs of things to come – the nihilism, word play and absurdist humour of his plays. The editor was wrong!

Fast forward to an age when electronic technology meets – and morphs – narrative experimentation in The Silent History (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), first composed as an app by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett, who conjure a dystopia where some children bypass language, their silence akin to a viral strain that renders them an underclass. In Outline (Faber, 16.99), meanwhile, Rachel Cusk breaks all the rules of creative writing with an almost disembodied interplay of dialogue and ideas, at times. Yet it captivates – a dynamic tension building between the clarity of its prose and the opacity of its characters, particularly its creative-writing teacher protagonist, who fades in and out of view as conversations around marriage, family breakdown and creativity deepen.

Being a Muslim outsider under the wary watch of the West is the subject of Tabish Khair's fabulously satirical How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position (Corsair, £12.99), which studies three Asian men stranded in a Danish town. A grander Islamic tradition in Ottoman-era Turkey forms the basis for Elif Shafak's enthralling The Architect's Apprentice (Viking, £14.99). Revolving around the life of the great architect Mimar Sinan, it is a historical tale that incorporates the omissions of history within its scope. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent's Tail, £7.99) by Karen Joy Fowler gave us the best plot twist of 2014, while Dinaw Mengestu's tale of revolutionary violence in Uganda and the limits of immigrant reinvention in All Our Names (Sceptre, £17.99) delivered its own explosive twist. Finally, Colm Tóibín's study of a quietly heroic mother and widow in Nora Webster (Viking, £18.99) confirmed his talent for rendering "ordinary" women extraordinary.

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