IoS Books of the Year 2012: Literary fiction

All life is here: love, war, nuclear physics ... and golf

The year began with the promise of big novels by major writers. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Richard Ford, and the Johns Banville and Lanchester all had new fiction in the offing. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Hampton Court, Hilary Mantel was preparing the sequel to Wolf Hall. We braced ourselves for the opening of Will Self's Umbrella. And having sold half a billion books, J K Rowling conjured a grown-up pastiche of Anthony Trollope out of a local council election.

Looking back, all that anticipation feels faintly silly. Most failed to deliver in any obvious way. Zadie Smith's NW was ambitious and full of vivid sections that neither cohered into a whole, nor fragmented into a heap of broken images. Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo made me laugh (as any novel driven by incestuous relations with your grandmother should) and then feel ashamed for that laughter (as any novel driven by incestuous relations with your grandmother should).

I rather enjoyed JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy, which at least dumbed up, not down. And while she can't write old people or anyone aged 20 to 45, she is brilliant on angry teens and parents. Nevertheless, perhaps only Self and Mantel emerged with reputations enhanced – something not even recognition by the Man Booker prize could tarnish.

Yet, none of the above make my Top 10. For some reason best known to itself, the Booker cocked a snook at Philip Hensher's glorious Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99). Hensher's delicately measured but sensuous sentences captured a moving, closely observed and frequently funny family story set in Bangladesh in 1971. Nicola Barker's The Yips (Fourth Estate, £18.99), a bravura concoction of golf, social comedy and gloriously bonkers invention, did at least make the Booker longlist, but surely deserved to progress to the final group stages.

There were two bold, challenging works about South Africa written by novelists at opposite ends of their careers. Patrick Flanery's Absolution (Atlantic, £12.99) may have been a little too bashful about its thriller aspects, but this was a bold calling card from a major new talent. Nadine Gordimer's No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, £18.99) tackled similar subject matter: how those who risked their lives fighting Apartheid now struggle to adapt to life in "free" South Africa. As always, Gordimer's prose is a wonder of unsettling rhythms, vivid dialogue and striking imagery.

America provides its own May-September pairing. Anne Tyler's short, bittersweet The Beginner's Goodbye (Chatto and Windus, £14.99) was either a ghost story or a sideways portrait of a marriage. Meanwhile, Kevin Powers's debut, Yellow Birds, (Sceptre, £14.99) was inspired by his experiences as a soldier in Iraq. By turns shocking, philosophical, frightening and elegiac, it was deservedly nominated for a National Book Award.

2012 was a year of impressive first novels. Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat (Virago, £12.99) was a slippery but addictive read, propelled by one of the year's best premises: following the sinking of the Empress Alexandra, 39 survivors clamber aboard a lifeboat made for considerably fewer. The narrator, a deceptively cold fish called Grace, possessed one of the most striking and elusive voices of the year.

Alice Munro's inclusion in best-of-year lists is, I have been reliably informed, a legal requirement. Where Munro is concerned, the law is not an ass. From its finely weighted title to the four personal vignettes that end this exquisite collection, Dear Life (Chatto and Windus, £18.99) feels more plain-speaking than previous collections. I have already reached for it again to re-read these profound searches for lost time in small-town Canada. If someone has written 20 pages that are more unobtrusively powerful than the title story, then I am happy to eat them come Christmas. "There was quite a lot of killing going on, now that I think of it," is one of the lines of the year.

Finally, my two, somewhat unexpected favourite novels of the year: I have always enjoyed Jake Arnott's glam-rock gangster novels, but they hardly prepared me for The House of Rumour (Sceptre, £17.99). Confirming that the inter-linked short story is the coolest literary form du jour, Arnott shuffled narratives about science fiction, Scientology, Eighties pop stars, doomed love, nuclear physics and the occult into a knowing, clever and intricately woven collection that deserves to rain on Cloud Atlas's parade or accompany Jennifer Egan on a visit to the goon squad. Brilliant and oddly moving, The House of Rumour deserved to win every prize going, including Eurovision.

Thomas Keneally's The Daughters of Mars (Sceptre, £18.99) completed a strong year for Australian fiction. Keneally was inspired by the diaries of real Australian nurses and soldiers to craft a tour de force of storytelling that is both epic and intimate, experimental and traditional. This tale of sisters Naomi and Sally Durance leaving Australia to serve as nurses on the European battle front includes a shipwreck, visceral descriptions of the realities of hospital life, and morally complex meditations on empire, war, and the meaning of human life.

Reviewing this list now, it is curious to detect common themes to these diverse books. Shipwrecks. Ghosts. War, global and civil. Physics. Terrorism. Experiments with word, form and images. Short stories. And thanks to Nicola Barker and Alice Munro, rather more golf than expected. Novelists, it would seem, are partying like it's 1919. Long may they continue.

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss