Christmas Books Special: Fiction reviewed

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The Independent Culture

It was, as so many pundits crowed, a vintage year for the grander names in British fiction. Let's hurry swiftly past the scene of the critical calamity that gave the Man Booker to the pale, stale brew of John Banville's The Sea. Elsewhere, the fictional paladins who came to prominence two decades ago deserve a toast for doing what they do as well as they have ever done it: to Julian Barnes, who gently but compellingly brought the startling, true story of Arthur Conan Doyle and a persecuted Scots-Indian lawyer to light and life in Arthur & George (Jonathan Cape, £17.99); to Kazuo Ishiguro, whose eerie power to fuse trivia, terror and tragedy found supreme expression among the school-age clones of Never Let Me Go (Faber, £16.99); to Ian McEwan, seeking through a surgeon's finely dissected day to define the meaning of the good life in bad times, in Saturday (Jonathan Cape, £17.99); and to Salman Rushdie, whose robust and heartfelt evocation of afflicted Kashmir in Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape, £17.99) ranks with his finest work.

These books confirmed, or reclaimed, the skills and strengths we already knew. Among the newcomers, Diana Evans conjured up a magical but - eventually - traumatic London suburban childhood, and the mysteries of being a twin, in the cherishable 26A (Chatto & Windus, £12.99). Tash Aw took the broad-brush, multi-voiced historical novel somewhere new, rich and strange in his epic of love and war in mid-century Malaya, The Harmony Silk Factory (HarperPerennial, £7.99). Another debutant offered superior fun to readers who like their light relief clever and literate: Richard Gwyn, whose The Colour of a Dog Running Away (Parthian, £9.99) fused rackety scenes from bohemian Barcelona with engaging hokum about the survival of Cathar cults.

Mid-career novelists who raised an already accomplished game included Hilary Mantel, casting Blair's Britain in a bleak, perhaps supernatural light in Beyond Black (HarperPerennial, £7.99): for many of her fellow-novelists, this was the book of the year. Ali Smith added drive and dark comedy to her restless ingenuity as she sent a memorable nemesis to plague a smug family in The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Lionel Shriver grabbed the Orange prize, a raft of headlines and a well-merited name for taboo-busting provocation in her fictional bad mother's handbook, We Need to Talk about Kevin (Serpent's Tail, £9.99). Sebastian Barry dug the First World War story out of the mire of cliché with his pairing of Western Front and Irish rebellion in A Long Long Way (Faber, £10.99).

A second Sebastian, Faulks, swapped trenches for couches as he delved into ideas of madness and the origins of psychoanalysis across the generous, absorbing, early 20th-century European landscapes of Human Traces (Hutchinson, £17.99). Set in the war-ravaged backwaters of Siberia after the Russian revolution, James Meek's The People's Act of Love (Canongate, £12.99) looked at the human waste and ideological horrors of the past century with the clearest of eyes and strongest of minds. And Zadie Smith's inter-racial campus comedy On Beauty (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) saw a tremendous talent produce much of her most enjoyable work to date.

Many of the above featured somewhere, at some stage, in the big prize lotteries. Among the unjustly overlooked, Caryl Phillips elegantly, movingly recreated the life and mind of the black entertainer Bert Williams in Dancing in the Dark (Secker & Warburg, £12.99). Andrew Miller, in The Optimists (Sceptre, £16.99), again proved his ability to blend a sturdy and satisfying architecture of character and plot with headline-hot themes - here, wars in Africa and media responsibility. Maggie Gee wove sprightly satire, domestic comedy and global conscience into My Cleaner (Saqi, £9.99). And - to me the most baffling oversight of all - Rupert Thomson showed all his uncanny gifts for bewitching, ideas-led fantasy in Divided Kingdom (Bloomsbury, £16.99), with its fissile Britain quartered into rival psychic zones. It may be that, like Ballard with Empire of the Sun, Thomson will have to write a big realistic novel before the critical consensus accepts his mesmerising abilities as visionary and storyteller.

American novelists, as often, delivered rather less than they promised: an effect of the relentless hype-machine. At least John Updike, with Villages (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99), and Bret Easton Ellis, with Lunar Park (Picador, £16.99), stuck to their trademark fortes, even if nothing much else (except, of course, sex) links Updike's sumptuously crafted return to bourgeois New England and Easton Ellis's teasing, pseudo-autobiographical fantasia on the pleasures and pitfalls of fame. Beyond all hype, Cynthia Ozick resurrected the prewar Bronx of refugees and radicals in The Bear Boy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), Cormac McCarthy again lent the modern West all his Biblical vigour of style and vision in No Country for Old Men (Picador, £16.99), while John Haskell found a beguiling new spin on the road-novel in American Purgatorio (Canongate, £12.99).

It was a great year for fans of the short story: a form often pronounced extinct but looking brisker than for many years. A handful of titles suggests the riches that await its connoisseurs: Rose Tremain, expertly versatile with voice and form in The Darkness of Wallis Simpson (Chatto & Windus, £14.99); Alice Munro, proving her perfectionism in form and language alike in Runaway (Chatto & Windus, £15.99); David Constantine, flawless but unsettling in Under the Dam (Comma Press, £7.99); Michel Faber, Gothic and ingenious in The Fahrenheit Twins (Canongate, £12.99), and the young German writer Judith Hermann, a poised, enigmatic chronicler of drift and desire in Nothing but Ghosts (translated by Margaret Bettauer Dembo; Fourth Estate, £9.99).

Other delights to be found in translation included Stefan Chwin's commanding tale of Poland's postwar trauma, Death in Danzig (trans. Philip Boehm; Secker & Warburg, £15.99). All roads led to the same Polish (but once German) city in Pawel Huelle's wonderfully droll Mercedes-Benz (trans. Antonia Lloyd Jones; Serpent's Tail, £8.99), a comic spin on tragic events via one family's procession of dodgy motors. Philippe Claudel went behind the front lines of 1917 to explore the burden of total war on one French town in the chillingly atmospheric Grey Souls (trans. Timothy Bent; Weidenfeld, £12.99). And, from Norway, Per Petterson illuminated the life-changing crises of adolescence and the sunlit summer forests in Out Stealing Horses (Harvill Secker, £16.99): a true gem, compact yet radiant, superbly translated by Anne Born.

Lighter in tone, but shadowed by pain and loss, Kafka on the Shore by the Japanese virtuoso of the shaggy-dog novel Haruki Murakami offered a perpetually intriguing - if sometimes infuriating - marriage of the sublime, the sweet and the silly (trans. Philip Gabriel; Vintage, £7.99). A vein of pure silliness also runs through 54 by "Wu Ming" (trans. Shaun Whiteside; Heinemann, £16.99), co-authored by the Italian quartet of pranksters formerly known as "Luther Blissett". Set in 1954, 54 somehow manages to bring cameo roles for Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Lucky Luciano and an errant TV manufactured by the "McGuffin Company" to bear on a crime caper that doubles as a quest for the roots of consumerism. It's dazzlingly smart, but so shamelessly enjoyable a romp that you might need to do some rewarding holiday penance with Anthony Briggs's vigorous new translation of War and Peace (Penguin Classics, £16.99). However long you spend with Tolstoy, not a minute will be wasted.