The best world fiction for Christmas

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The Independent Culture

Any honest observer of the book business in Britain will spend much of any year sunk in head-shaking gloom about its condescension to readers, its timid addiction to every passing fad, and its urge to throw good money after feather-light ephemera. Come Christmas, and the chain-store displays wear these marks of shame as badges of pride. Yet plenty of exciting and enduring books do break through the barrier of hype. From fiction to food, art to science, history to biography, this section celebrates a wide variety of the year's finest titles. Any book here can be ordered from Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk, with a 10 per cent discount and free p&p on all orders: quote X10/06. So give your mind, and imagination, a truly festive feast.

The United States remains a muscular superpower - in fiction, at least. Its President may totter and its foreign policy stumble, but when it comes to consistently outstanding novelists near the peak of their powers, the balance of trade remains thumpingly in credit. This year saw Richard Ford continue the lavishly appointed sequence of novels about his New Jersey sportswriter-turned-estate agent Frank Bascombe with The Lay of the Land (Bloomsbury, £17.99), set in 2000 - when Dubya first "won" - and as perceptive, humane and addictively readable as ever. At the opposite pole from Ford's cornucopian realism, Cormac McCarthy stripped back America - and his style - to a post-apocalyptic core in his biblically resonant fable of family, love and loss, The Road (Picador, £16.99). The nation, of course, has known its Armageddons before, and that nimble giant of historical fiction, EL Doctorow, revisited its Civil War version, and Sherman's Blitzkrieg through the South, in the incandescent drama of The March (Abacus, £7.99).

Always, in major American fiction, the cherished "fullness" of life confronts the "utter nothing" that follows it. Philip Roth condensed that collision into a little elegiac bombshell, Everyman (Cape, £10). What happened in Manhattan on 11 September 2001 briefly enters the final reckoning of Roth's ad man. The event broods over Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children (Picador, £16.99), set mostly before the calamity, but using its shadow to add depth and point to the drifting lives of her finely drawn New York sophisticates. Sweeter in voice, but every bit as incisive, Anne Tyler's comically touching saga of naturalisation and adoption, Digging to America (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), proves that this most accomplished of "domestic" novelists has never been in the least parochial.

What can Old Europe offer in the face of such transcendent transatlantic confidence? How about a masterpiece raised from the dead? Rescued from the trunk where it languished for six decades after her murder in Auschwitz, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (translated by Sandra Smith; Chatto & Windus, £16.99) lived up to all expectations and unforgettably exceeded them. Sweeping, seductive and almost superhuman in its breadth of sympathy, this epic but intimate novel of the fall of France in 1940 thrills, moves and bewitches.

Némirovsky's rediscovered grandeur put in perspective Sarah Waters's gently subversive wartime romance The Night Watch (Virago, £16.99), and many readers felt the reverse time-scheme did the book few favours. Yet her French forerunner would have saluted its narrative virtuosity, scene-painting panache and plucky, quirky humanity, as Waters braids her stories of love and heroism in bomb-battered London. Waters lost out in the Man Booker stakes to Kiran Desai, whose quick-witted, free-spirited tragi-comedy of migration, The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), zipped across decades and time-zones with a creative charm never sounded glib.

Desai dovetails the memories and landscapes of post-imperial India with the raucous energy of neo-imperial New York. Yet the year's greatest novel of city life came via a re-translation: Maureen Freely's superlative version of Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book (Faber, £9.99). This is his masterpiece of Istanbul's labyrinth, and proof that the Nobel Prize judges made (for once) a watertight decision.

Other urban settings bred distinctive tales this year. The strife-shaken Parisian banlieue found a teenage voice that melded sassiness and sensitivity in Faïza Guène's Just Like Tomorrow (trans. Sarah Adams, Chatto & Windus, £6.99). That's a short, sharp shock of a city novel; Sacred Games (Faber, £17.99), Vikram Chandra's Mumbai mammoth of a literary thriller about cops and thugs, film-stars and financiers, unspools with Dickensian brio and at Dickensian length, but seldom loses its touch for street-smart observation and suspense.

Shorter, lighter, but witty and assured, The Truth about Sascha Knisch by Aris Fioretos (translated by the author; Cape, £12.99) conjures up the seedily hedonistic pre-Nazi Berlin of the Cabaret years. As for Eva Menasse's Vienna (trans. Anthea Bell; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), it offers a droll but unsettling take on that city's monster-shadowed history, told through the escapades of a saltily eccentric part-Jewish clan. However baroque, Menasse's Vienna can hardly compete with the rancid pre-apocalyptic London that re-enters the drowned metropolis of the future via a cab-driver's surviving rant in Will Self's The Book of Dave (Viking, £17.99) - consistently inventive in the way it pairs today's petty snarl-ups with the terminal jams of an eco-catastrophic tomorrow.

Fiction goes nowhere and does nothing without a voice that grabs and gratifies the reader - a voice Self always has in spades. As does Howard Jacobson, whose Kalooki Nights (Cape, £17.99) raised his special game - a Mancunian Jewish shtick that mingles abjection, angst, nostalgia and delirious comedy - to fresh heights, and depths, of personal panic and historical grief. The latter subject surfaced, on the other side of the great dictators' divide, in Martin Amis's concise but ambitious ventriloquism of a Soviet camp survivor as he recalls his broken world from US exile in House of Meetings (Cape, £15.99). Based in the US, and writing in English, Olga Grushin also explores the legacies of Soviet life in The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Viking, £14.99). Her eloquent, enchanting debut paints a deliciously damning picture of a party-hack artist who betrays his art.

That reliably adventurous Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist goes back to the intellectual ferment of Paris a century ago in The Story of Blanche and Marie (trans. Tiina Nunnally; Harvill Secker, £16.99). He takes his (real-life) heroine from Dr Charcot's asylum to Marie Curie's lab in a dramatic, episodic novel of one woman's role in in the origins of modern science. Another rewarding fictional journey took the form of a grippingly panoramic saga of war, dislocation and survival in Africa: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, £14.99), which unfolds during the Biafran secession crisis in 1960s Nigeria.

Two tales of Italy, past and present, also yielded treasures. Barry Unsworth gorgeously recreated 12th-century Sicily, as Christian militants start to wield the crusading sword against Muslim neighbours, in The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99): a masterclass in the arts of fiction. Coming up to date, Niccolo Ammanati blended twisty crime fiction with a well-crafted "literary" perspective in Steal You Away (trans. Jonathan Hunt; Canongate, £12.99): a thrillingly sinister study of children's cruelties and adults' lies set in a seaside backwater.

Back in Deep England, David Mitchell spun the growing-up novel (in a becalmed Worcestershire village, with noises off from the Falklands War) into a funny and acute portrait of adolescent dreams and disenchantments with Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £16.99). Just as impressive in its grasp of the emotional pull of pop culture, equally artful in style and vision, Bill Broady's Eternity is Temporary (Portobello, £10.99) sought inspiration in the dawn of punk - in the febrile Camden of summer 1976.

Unsworth aside, no period piece showed a finer command of style and structure than Kate Grenville's The Secret River (Canongate, £7.99). Beautifully phrased and paced, free of costume-drama folderol, it traces the progress of an unjustly transported Londoner who, in New South Wales 200 years ago, slips almost without knowing it from victim to oppressor. Although on the shortlist, Grenville missed the Booker, but won the meticulously-judged Commonwealth Writers Prize - an American-free zone, but still a dependable stamp of fictional quality at this, or any other, Christmas.

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