Literary Fiction: Schoolboys, conjurors, cannibals and cows

Christmas books of the year: All human life – and death – is here: there are quirky debuts; short, sharp jabs; and the odd knock-out from a big-hitter

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The Independent Culture

It's been a punchy year for new literary fiction, with emerging names sparring with the usual suspects; a prizefight that reached a crescendo with this year's Man Booker prize.

Who thought that the old "is the Booker dumbing down" question would come back off the ropes? And while everyone was sucker-punching and haymaking about the shocking readability of the shortlist they failed to notice that the winning novel was, in pagination terms, actually a novella.

And so, Julian Barnes finally won literature's premier veil after all those bridesmaid years. The Sense of an Ending (Cape, £12.99) might be slimline but it's quite a tonic. Barnes's unreliable narrator, Tony Webster, adjusts uneasily to the arrival of a whip-smart newcomer into his 1960s schoolboy clique. The new friendship will have a fundamental effect on his future. The unfolding years are told through the skewed prism of Tony's memory, resulting in an unnerving analysis of our understanding of the past. As Tony realises, "What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." Total recall this is not.

Brevity has allowed for some short, sharp successes this year. Gallic Books, Britain's boutique Francophile house, gave us two brilliant novellas of wildly differing styles. In Anna Gavalda's Breaking Away (£6.99), three siblings take a country drive to a cousin's country wedding. Adulthood may have taken their lives on disparate paths but for this short journey, and a surprise detour, they find themselves retying yesterday's bonds. Want to reconcile with a brother or sister over a turkey platter this Christmas? Buy them this book. Jean Teule's Eat Him if you Like (£6.99) is a harsher, darker little number. France's most esoteric comic novelist has taken a grisly portion of the country's history and served it up as a grim, memorable dish. In the crackling summer of 1870, a minor aristocrat went into his local village fair in Dordogne. The wine-fuelled mob, nervous over the Franco-Prussian war, turned on him, tortured him, roasted him and ate him. It's true. It's horrible. It's an extraordinary tale.

Wartime woes also lie at the heart of Mary Horlock's accomplished debut novel – this time the conflict is just off the Breton coast during the Forties. The Book of Lies (Canongate, £12.99) is set in the only Nazi-occupied British territory – the Channel Islands. While life under the swastika provides numerous moral and practical difficulties, 40 years later the granddaughter of one of the islanders finds the ripple effect of those troubles washing over her.

There were plenty of yesteryear regrets also riffing through the pages of A Visit From the Goon Squad (Corsair, £7.99) by this year's Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan. Her episodic take on a cross-generational group of American friends and lovers is loosely linked by the music industry and flows through tracks of various characters' tears. From the slam-dunk sensibility of the punkish Seventies to the techno-savvy present day, modish behaviour has rarely been so well observed.

From the raving to the roving for Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). If ever there was a woefully overlooked entry for the Man Booker Prize this was it, mixing as it does autobiography, cinematic imagery and romantic nostalgia. To say nothing of a cast of bit-players who seem to have stepped out of the pages of Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham. As an 11-year-old boy takes a trip from Sri Lanka to England on a great ocean liner in the 1950s (as Ondaatje himself did), a rogues' gallery intrudes on his coming-of-age journey. Doomed romantics and crafty conmen are all aboard. Ondaatje is expert in creating hothouse environments and this floating last chance saloon is a fine example, one with myriad possibilities. "Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden," explains the boy. "The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task."

Leaving his post as literary editor of The Daily Telegraph seems to have been a boon for Sam Leith. His debut novel, The Coincidence Engine (Bloomsbury, £12.99), shows that he has flair for fiction as well as the red pen. His comedy caper mixes elements of Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Evelyn Waugh into a heady, crazy cocktail. The engine of the title is a device that messes with the rules of probability. For instance, when a Midwest tornado hits a scrap merchant's pile of twisted metal it reforms it into a full-size Boeing 737. What are the odds? Well too high for there not to be something mischievous at work. Leith's concoction is experimental science-fiction laced with comedy, all the while drawing on cinematic mainstays such as the chase narrative. It is an imaginative, inventive, and expertly crafted piece in which there is no such thing as a coincidence. Or is there?

From a quirky entrance to a last hurrah. Beryl Bainbridge's The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (Little,Brown, £16.99) was a fitting postscript to an extraordinary talent: a finale as bittersweet as her introduction to Craven A cigarettes. A 1960s road trip across America, it is everything Bainbridge extolled: honest, curious and puzzling. Weaving historical events into a fictional journey became a trademark schema in her later works and this is no exception. Vietnam, race riots and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy provide the backdrop to one girl's tale.

Another Pulitzer winner, Steven Millhauser, has rifled through a lifetime's stories for his collection We Others (Corsair, £20). It's a Pandora's box of offerings. Magical, mysterious, full of arcane spheres, it's a book that transports readers out of their everyday lives and into the bizarre narratives of society's peripheral characters: conjurors, knife throwers, museum curators and, at the furthest hem of existence, ghosts. Millhauser's genius is in illustrating characters' desire for the exotic and fantastic, and by doing so holding up a mirror to human insecurity. One for fireside evenings, it's the stuff of great storytelling.

This year, however, "storytelling" appeared to be a dirty word among literary types. Just where does the border between popular and high-end fiction lie? My final choice is a case in point. More than 20 years ago, Peter Benson won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Encore Award. He's been out of print for the past decade, but 2011 saw him return with the West Country yarn Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke (Alma Books, £12.99). Admittedly, that isn't the most auspicious title, and it hasn't the most promising cover. But then that's today's publishers for you – forever bludgeoned by the marketing department. Yet this is prime Benson. A Huckleberry Finn for the Somerset wilds, it shows us why the countryside provides an alliance for readers and writers alike.

But, I hear you ask, is it literary? Well I'm sure there will be plenty of people to step into the ring on that debate. Who cares? It's a great read. Oh dear, what have I said now? I fear the gloves are off.

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