We often make too much of a fuss about literary anniversaries, but the 150th birthday of Joseph Konrad Korzeniowski will pass with a more muted fanfare than it should. Born on 3 December 1857 in Berdichev (now in Ukraine), Conrad became the first great British novelist to grapple with the pre-1914 era of steam-ship and telegraph globalisation. A century on, its internet, mobile-phone and cheap-flights successor has inspired some of the year's most memorable works of fiction. Rose Tremain's The Road Home (Chatto & Windus, 16.99) took an Eastern European migrant everyman and traced his progress through an England of cosmopolitan cheap labour, feral entrepreneurs and fraying social bonds. No novel could be timelier, but Tremain's deeply satisying flair for character and narrative packs a very modern tale with a panoply of traditional pleasures.
Broad in gags and big of heart, Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans (Fig Tree, 12.99) married the native humour of Chaucer and the Carry On gang with an equally panoramic vision of the global forces that push incomers from Malawi or Moldova into the strawberry fields and poultry farms of deepest England. Romeo and Juliet love story, Ken Loach-like expos, rollicking road-novel, it mixed its carnival spirit with a bracing compassion.
On a more intimate scale, Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo made an auspicious English-language debut with A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Chatto & Windus, 12.99), its young heroine adrift in a London whose people and customs prove as full of pitfalls as the tongue she struggles to master. Set in Prague as the Velvet Revolution lost its sheen and artists yielded to dealers, Tom McCarthy's funny, ingenious Men in Space (Alma, 12.99) gave a subversive tweak to the dream of a border-busting age of people, ideas and money on the move. His knack of harnessing bold ideas to offbeat wit and close-focus storytelling skills makes McCarthy one of the fictional finds of the decade.
A previous wave of migration propelled the finely drawn and wholly involving family tensions of Nikita Lalwani's debut novel Gifted (Viking, 16.99), with a mathematical prodigy in Cardiff reluctantly shouldering the parental burden of hope. The struggles and rewards of becoming, or not becoming, British also underlay Justin Cartwright's searching and eloquent fictionalisation of the 1930s friendship between Oxford philosopher (and Latvian migrant) Isaiah Berlin and the suave, anti-Nazi patrician Adam von Trott, The Song Before It Is Sung (Bloomsbury, 16.99).
Talented authors persisted in finding eye-opening ways to dramatise the events and aftermaths of total war. AL Kennedy did so with the stricken RAF tail-gunner of Day (Cape, 16.99), and Peter Ho Davies via his elegantly crafted encounter between earth-shaking wartime intrigue and the passions of a tenacious rural culture in The Welsh Girl (Sceptre, 12.99). Second World War trauma also made a bridge between the Hardy-esque 1930s and the age of affluence in Kitty Aldridge's unjustly overlooked Cryers Hill (Cape, 16.99): the story of two linked stages in the life of a Chilterns village-turned-commuter estate, whose modest setting belied a glowing richness of language and imagination.
Another work with a fiercely evocative sense of English period and landscape was Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (Cape, 12.99), which hardly lacked for admirers. McEwan described its theme to me as not merely the sexual dread of a pre-permissive age, but the Conradian "shadow line" between innocence and knowledge, which his buttoned-up lovers must cross.
Erotic misery and fear drove Anne Enright's divided Dublin clan in the family drama that pipped McEwan to the Man Booker: The Gathering (Cape, 12.99). Discomfiting comedy and nimble, flab-free prose render her book far more of a dark delight than its bleak reputation would allow. But another Man Booker-shortlisted novel trumped even Enright in the art of plucking literary pleasure out of human pain. Indra Sinha's astonishing Animal's People (Simon & Schuster, 11.99) gave the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 the artistic monument it has long deserved through the salty, scabrous monologue of the survivor-hero "Animal". More relaxed in style, Sujit Saraf's The Peacock Throne (Sceptre, 12.99) transformed the recent Indian past into the satirical epic of a Delhi tea vendor who tumbles into political stardom and, via his misadventures, opens a window on post-Independence history.
Other regions of upheaval gave rise to first-rate fiction that delivered the humanity behind the headlines. The US wunderkind Dave Eggers raised his sometimes self-indulgent game with a documentary novel that ventriloquised, with tender literary care, the ordeal of the refugee "lost boys" of Sudan: What is the What (Hamish Hamilton, 18.99). Turkish novelist Elif Shafak found uproarious comedy as well as culture-crossing wisdom in her transatlantic tale of the hidden affinities between Turks and Armenians, The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 16.99). Set in Cairo during the first Gulf War, Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (trans. Humphrey Davies; HarperPerennial, 7.99) wove its cast of dreamers, chancers and lovers into a human tapestry that (like Shafak's novel) celebrates the cosmopolitan heartbeat of a great capital of Islam.
One of the American novels of the year triumphed thanks to its commanding vision of the Deep South as an afflicted outpost of the Third World. It came from a "mere" crime writer: James Lee Burke of Louisiana, whose surreally intense novel of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, The Tin Roof Blowdown (Orion, 12.99), showcased a master at the top of his formidable game. Jane Smiley depicted American society in a more purely entertaining, if no less divided, light in her digressively sexy, Hollywood-set remake of the Decameron: Ten Days in the Hills (Faber, 16.99).
Looking south of the Rio Grande, English-language readers finally had the chance to read the late, Chilean-born maestro Roberto Bolaño's exuberant, picaresque elegy for a lost generation of Latin American poets, dreamers and rebels: The Savage Detectives (trans. Natasha Wimmer; Picador, 16.99). A fresh wave of talent from the continent made its voice heard via the Peruvian-American Daniel Alarcon, in his vigorous fable of grief and renewal in a "post-conflict" Latino nation, Lost City Radio (Fourth Estate, 12.99). Colombia's Laura Restrepo returned to the cocaine-fuelled 1980s heyday of Pablo Escobar in a moving and mesmeric novel of the links between repression in the family and in the state, Delirium (trans. Natasha Wimmer; Harvill Secker, 16.99).
Closer to home, the free-market Poland that sends its industrious children to these shores also gave us a blistering existential thriller of dodgy deals and forsaken ideals in Andrzej Stasiuk's Nine (trans. Bill Johnston; Harvill Secker, 12.99). But the year's most illuminating novel about the roots of a globalised culture was also the wittiest. In Measuring the World (trans. Carol Brown Janeway; Quercus, 7.99), Daniel Kehlmann managed, like some Viennese Tom Stoppard, to intertwine the lives of the great Enlightenment explorer Humboldt and the stay-at-home pioneer mathematican Gauss. Poised between travesty and tribute, Kehlmann teased their many achievements into scintillating life while never missing the chance of a nifty comic turn, whether up the monster-ridden Orinoco with Humboldt or stuck in the feudal mud of Hanover with Gauss. By travelling far or thinking hard, both helped to forge our networked world.Reuse content