Fiction: Histories in a spin
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 25 November 2011
Some of the year's most striking home-grown fiction combined enjoyment with enlightenment to draw revealing maps of the nation. You might begin a tour with Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money (Bloomsbury, £12.99), his droll, sharp and deftly-crafted tale of private bankers and public downfall: an astute alignment of social satire and family saga.
With pathos rather than comedy its leading note, and profound tenderness matched by a lyrical sense of place, Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here (Picador, £18.99) took burning questions – overseas wars, dissolving communities, crisis in the countryside – but nourished them with an almost mystical vision of "deep England". By contrast, an apparent "miracle" in a south London parish gave Francesca Kay in The Translation of the Bones (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) the canvas on which to paint a group portrait of inner-city lives notable for its literary grace and humane sympathy. More overtly topical, Stephen Kelman's ambitious debut Pigeon English (Bloomsbury, £12.99) took a killing on a "sink" estate as the trigger for a verbally inventive quest for truth, filtered through the words of a young migrant seeking sense in this urban jungle.
The richest fictional visits to the past allowed readers to grasp how history and its threads bind the ways we live now. Alan Hollinghurst's sumptuously furnished "country house" novel, The Stranger's Child (Picador, £20), unrolled its family stories of love, art, war and remembrance over broad acres of the English 20th-century, with a captivating balance of far-flung vista and fine detail. Another book of memory, attuned to its treacheries, Julian Barnes's succinct Man Booker winner - The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) - might be read as a quietly suspenseful, and angry, judgment on postwar suburban culture.
Bucking and plunging with the risky vigour of a more intrepid age, Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate, £12.99) grafted Victorian high-seas escapades onto a searching scrutiny of authority and its abuses. Questions of justice, of wealth and of the fine line between oppressors and oppressed also drove The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth (Hutchinson, £18.99). His belated follow-up to Sacred Hunger, it juggled picaresque comedy with principled debate as 18th-century entrepreneurs switched their fortunes from slave ships to English mines and factories. Set in Paris, in the same era, Andrew Miller's Pure (Sceptre, £17.99) also showed reason and enlightenment entwined with cruelty and corruption, in a reekingly sensuous journey into the lower depths of a society on the brink of revolution.
From further afield, global blockbusters delivered history creatively shaken and stirred. Most extraordinary among these time-bend cocktails was 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel; Harvill Secker, £20 and £14.99). Over two volumes and 1000 pages, the Japanese spellbinder conjured an alternative 1984 in Tokyo and – via his addictively cunning story-telling – made us care about the people within an outlandish plot of cults, conspiracies and resistance. Secret knowledge and its malign force also fuelled Umberto Eco's The Cemetery of Prague (trans. Richard Dixon; Harvill Secker, £20). Both a smartly entertaining fin-de-siècle romp, and a timely prism through which to view today's conspiracy mania, it inserted a fictitious villain into the all-too-actual matrix of myths that bred Europe's genocidal bigotry. The tragic finale of those delusions inspired The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg (trans. Sarah Death; Faber & Faber, £14.99), as the Swedish author recreated the wartime Lodz ghetto, and its "king", Chaim Rumkowski, in a shattering epic of humanity in hell.
The idea of reinventing a flawed past, and the perils of that urge, allowed Stephen King to make of 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99) not just an accomplished time-travel yarn but an action-heavy meditation on chance, choice and fate. Even that French prince of provocateurs, Michel Houellebecq, massaged the facts by killing himself off in The Map and the Territory (trans. Gavin Bowd; Heinemann, £17.99). In his Goncourt-winning tour de force, the mordantly mischievous trickster skewered a range of juicy targets – from conceptual art to tourism – but reserved most scorn for the literary racket itself.
Some grim actual history gave rise to fiction that still managed to engage and enchant. Winner of the Orange Prize, Téa Obreht spun Balkan traumas into family fables of a bittersweet poignancy in The Tiger's Wife (Phoenix, £7.99). Hisham Matar, son of a Libyan dissident kidnapped by the Gaddafi regime, transformed a story of childhood and youth branded by exile and loss into an erotically-charged coming-of-age novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking, £16.99). Compressed into one man's experience in one-tight-lipped town, the fate of the "disappeared" under Argentina's junta supplied Carlos Gamerro with the focus for his subtly nuanced study of memory, guilt and oblivion, An Open Secret (trans. Ian Barnett; Pushkin, £9.95). Amy Waldman found a fresh and involving approach to the "9/11 novel" in The Submission (Heinemann, £12.99), with its Muslim architect the human ground-zero around whom coalesce New Yorkers' hopes and dreads. Another newcomer, Juan Pablo Villalobos, channeled Mexico's drug wars via the voice of a narco-baron's son in his touching and invigorating Down the Rabbit Hole (trans. Rosalind Harvey; And Other Stories, £10).
Some spectacular talents shone this year in risk-taking but deeply pleasurable novels. With The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate, £20), Jeffrey Eugenides set the Jane Austen-era fictional arc of courtship and wedlock against the ironic, reflexive and super-cool ironies of 1980s college life. A Proust for the rock generation, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair, £7.99) cleverly harmonised American music-biz history with the loops of subjective time. In Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar (trans. Judith Landry; Dedalus, £9.99), a sailor stranded in wartime Italy became the focus for an entrancing, disturbing exploration of the limits of speech and self. Ali Smith's There But For The (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) took a crisis at a London dinner party as the seed for a soaring, swooping novel of belonging, community and alienation. Edward St Aubyn – an equally acrobatic stylist - wrapped up his bizarre, Baroque and irresistible quintet of aristocratic family romances with At Last (Picador, £16.99).
In a year when the Man Booker went to a work of 150 pages, readers of fiction could appreciate that good things often come in smallish packages. Compact treasures included Deborah Levy's Swimming Home (And Other Stories, £10), with its subversive intruder casting a dark spell over a Riviera villa; Ferdinand von Schirach's Crime (trans. Carol Brown Janeway; Chatto & Windus, £12.99), a strange and scary fictionalised casebook woven from offences the German lawyer-writer has defended; Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella (trans. Anthea Bell; Peirene, £8.99), a vertiginous story of a life reviewed and revised with trap-door surprises that make it a good companion for Julian Barnes; or Cornelius Medvei's Caroline (Harvill Secker, £10): a pitch-perfect fable of a lonely man, a chess-playing donkey and an Asian metropolis. It will stay with you long after the seasonal hype has faded.
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