Join the gold rush with a weighty winner: literary fiction

 

This was the year of big books: two 800-page-busters on the Man Booker longlist alone had bookworms lifting weights. The winner, Eleanor Catton’s  The Luminaries (Granta, £18.99), is a good old-fashioned page-turner set in New Zealand during the 19th-century gold rush, but it was its narrative structure, mirroring astrological movements in a beautifully-wrought minuet, that really set it apart.

Another heavyweight, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (Little Brown, £20) was not eligible for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but she will be from next year under new rules: the American writers are coming. Tartt will always be a contender, and this novel, which stars Fabritius’s tiny painting of the same name, took the breath away.  A sort of miniature on a large scale, The Goldfinch begins with a description by a  13-year-old boy of a birthday cake in a dark room seen just before his mother died: “... that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace happiness that was lost when I lost her.”

Speaking of America, Lionel Shriver (pictured) was back on form this year with Big Brother (Harper-Collins, £16.99), a frightening picture of obesity in modern America, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie triumphed with Americanah (4th Estate, £20) – the slightly autobiographical story of a young Nigerian woman’s life as a “Black American”. If a writer with a bigger ego had produced a novel this magnificent, huge, intimate and devastating, it would have been hailed immediately as a Great American Novel. Its younger, more hyperactive sister We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Random House, £14.99), in which a young girl moves from a shanty town called Paradise to the false paradise of the USA, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

There were some surprises from well-known faces among the year’s best fiction. Pig’s Foot by (yes, the dancer) Carlos Acosta (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is a magic realist, satirical, historical novel spanning 150 years of Cuban history and some really filthy jokes. Polly Courtney is better known for light-hearted popular fiction set in The City or lad-mag offices, but Feral Youth, set amid the background to the 2011 London riots (Troubadour Books, £8.99) marks her out as a serious voice and one to watch. Many novels spanned continents with great success. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate, £8.99) spins a thread between a 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl in trouble and a Canadian woman who finds her diary washed up on a beach. It is bewitching. The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti (Arcadia, £11.99) gives us two unlikely heroes: a 1970s priest from English suburbia who disappears mysteriously from a rural Philippines town, and the 21st-century boy sent to trace him. It is too complex and wonderful to condense into a “best of year” round-up, so you’ll just have to buy it. Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement  (4th Estate, £18.99), a typically Tan-esque tale of mother-daughter struggle, is narrated by the wonderful Violet Minturn, who starts as a wilful seven-year-old living in her mother’s courtesan house, and walks us through a history of Shanghai and women’s role in the world.

Finally, fans of 2012-13’s hit, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, should try The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald (Faber, £7.99). A terrifying thriller about a baby snatched from a roadside, and the storm of accusation and guilt that follows, it’s enough to make anyone lose sleep. Don’t give it to any new parents this Christmas.

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