Fiction: The year's best books reviewed

Chile, Brum, and all that jazz: an offbeat year in fiction
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The Independent Culture

The Booker judges have already been rebuked by Julian Barnes for writing superfluous newspaper columns as a means of bulking out their fees. He can relax: what follows is simply a list of the ten or so novels, picked from the 117 Man Booker submissions and many more catchment areas, that I read in 2003 with pleasure, rather than out of duty. Ominously, only two appeared on the shortlist, which is a sad comment either on my critical faculties or on those of the other judges. Naturally, I prefer to think the latter.

A Sweetheart Deal by Ben Richards, published three years ago, was a London novel of a kind rare these days: set in the antediluvian world of trades unionism, crammed with the scarred survivors of the GLC, but full of plausible characters and neat procedural tricks. I looked for more in this year's The Mermaid and the Drunks (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £10.99) but found instead an equally welcome Chilean travelogue artfully concealed beneath a thrillerish tale of unfinished business from the Pinochet era.

Back here in the Midlands, the fuss made about Birmingham's Tindal Street Press in the wake of its first big hit, Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour (£7.99), rather dulled the impact of Going the Distance (£7.99), a sinewy collection of short fiction edited by Alan Beard and featuring, among others, Julia Bell and Annie Murray. Joel Lane is an alumnus of the Tindal Street Fiction Collective, out of which the publishing firm grew. Many a fragment filched at random from his second novel The Blue Mask (Serpent's Tail, £10) would be enough to convict their author of epic portentousness. "The queue on the staircase was like a line of silhouetted trees bent by the wind" runs the opening sentence. Later on the night is represented as "warm and cloudy, as if you were standing at the bottom of an unchilled glass of beer". Despite these flourishes I was hooked by Lane's doomy account of life on the gay/student West Midlands front line, its soundtrack a dismal hum of 1990s indie music.

There were the usual books by undersung talents whom no amount of critical prodding ever seems able to push beneath the public gaze. One or two reviewers complained that John Murray's Jazz etc (Flambard, £8.99) was less a novel than a series of scintillating digressions. Nevertheless, this latest instalment of Murray's patented Cumbrian magic realism, in particular its Italianate version of the local dialect, cracked me up. Just as idiosyncratic was The Taxi Driver's Daughter (Viking, £12.99), Julia Darling's account of a Tyneside teenager who gets in with a bad lot after her mother is jailed for shoplifting. More idiosyncratic still was Lucy Ellmann's Dot in the Universe (Bloomsbury, £12.99), aflame with Ellmann's trademarked CAPITAL LETTERS, full of briskly comic musings on happiness in a world which DOESN'T GIVE A DAMN.

Among venerable presences still managing to produce in an age of publishers' cutbacks, I liked Francis King's The Nick of Time (Arcadia, £10.99), full of the eternal King frissons - the mysterious foreigner, the two semi-detached women beneath the single roof, the endless fastidiousness - together with a carefully applied contemporary gloss. Of the novels that at one point or another were in some kind of contention for the Man Booker - sorry, Jules - Julie Myerson's Something Might Happen (Cape, £12.99) was an eerie piece of Suffolk noir, J M Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg, £14.99) a mesmerising study in character, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (Bloomsbury, £16.99) an all-too-believable future shock dystopia; not, as Bryan Appleyard appeared to believe, a piece of science fiction.

My novel of the year was Carol Birch's Turn Again Home (Virago, £6.99). In the past, Birch has tended to specialised in post-hippie English bohemia, populated by put-upon women and weak, unreliable blokes. Longer and more dextrous, this was is a real departure - an epic reinvention of the Northern working-class saga, full of sharp little glances at the flow of history, but never losing sight of the painfully ordinary individual destinies at its core.

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