Best general fiction books for Christmas

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 11 December 2009 01:00 GMT

In a year of broad, bold novels that deservedly grabbed our collars, the pleasures of good fiction came in smaller parcels too. Bulk can have its charms: AS Byatt's The Children's Book (Chatto & Windus, £18.99) needed all its epic sweep and rich ornament as artistic clans in the two decades up to the First World War became both vectors and victims of epoch-making changes in British life that embrace culture and politics, family and sex. Yet, as a portrait of artists, the smaller, finely detailed canvas of Francesca Kay's An Equal Stillness (Phoenix, £7.99) – with its vibrant questing heroine based, in part, on the sculptor Barbara Hepworth – had luminous virtues as well.

Likewise, the wartime savagery depicted with mesmeric force via the warped mind of a cultivated SS monster in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (translated by Charlotte Mandell; Chatto & Windus, £20) does call for a span to match its monstrous theme. But, in the sublimely written Brodeck's Report (trans. John Cullen; MacLehose Press, £18.99), writer and film-maker Philippe Claudel proved that a gem-like fable – part-Kafka, part-Brothers Grimm - of atrocity and aftermath could also find a route into Europe's heart of darkness. Meanwhile, Simon Mawer's Man Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room (Little, Brown, £16.99) made, with authority and empathy, one Czech family the focus of Europe's war and peace.

History in fiction did indeed enjoy a bumper year. The stylistic swagger and psychological acuity of Hilary Mantel's all-conquering chronicle of Thomas Cromwell's rise, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99), ought to ensnare even readers allergic to Tudor period drama. Its Booker competitor, Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (Virago, £16.99), brought the ghost story, the country-house mystery and the hidden injuries of class together in a satisfying brew that, for all its postwar setting, read as a tale for our times. As did the overthrow of American revolutionary myths in Manituana (trans. Shaun Whiteside; Verso, £14.99). Here the Italian "Wu Ming" collective craft a splendidly surprising, Mohawk-centred view of white colonists' rebellion against the "Great English Father", George III. Domestic passions and earth-shaking events also fused in Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury, £7.99), which swept between A-bombed Japan, the US and Europe, and across the postwar era, without losing a feel for the intimacy of private lives played out on this cross-continental stage.

Also leaping down the years, John Irving raced back to form in the sprawling and seductive Last Night in Twisted River (Bloomsbury, £18.99), with its swift-flowing yarns of loggers, cooks and writers across five torrential decades. And Thomas Pynchon, no less, somehow blended Chandler-esque noir with pastoral comedy in his tale of California at the butt-end of 1960s hippie idealism, Inherent Vice (Cape, £18.99). South of the porous US border, 2666, the late Roberto Bolaño's wonderfully extravagant, multi-layered picaresque epic of politics and poetry, poverty and war, in Mexico and Europe reached English readers at long last (trans. Natasha Wimmer; Picador, £9.99).

After Bolaño, even the hardiest of long-haul fiction buffs might crave a palate-cleansing volume of short stories. This year saw choice collations: from peerless Alice Munro in Too Much Happiness (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) to Kazuo Ishiguro, artfully braiding music, ageing and faded hopes in Nocturnes (Faber, £12.99); from Wells Tower, who grabbed a place in the front rank of new US fiction with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Granta, £10.99) to Petina Gappah, lyrical but courageous in her episodes from Zimbabwean experience at home and in exile, An Elegy for Easterly (Faber, £12.99). And David Constantine in The Shieling (Comma, £7.99) gave us another pitch-perfect masterclass in the story's repertoire.

Two Irish masters did what they do so well, to a formidable peak of insight and control, as they imbued seemingly small lives with weight and grace: William Trevor in Love and Summer (Viking, £18.99), and Colm Tóibí*in Brooklyn (Viking, £17.99). Another virtuoso of tone and form, JM Coetzee, showed the softer, more playful side of an often austere style in Summertime (Harvill Secker, £17.99), which might have pipped Mantel for the Booker. Its virtuoso mosaic of women's voices, recalling the mishaps of gauche "John Coetzee" in 1970s South Africa, has a humour and humanity that should win new fans. From the other end of Africa, Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis (trans. Humphrey Davies; Sceptre, £18.99) recreated semi-colonial Egypt in the 1890s with a flair for character and context that made this "Arabic Booker" winner a richly-textured treat.

It proved a vintage season for novels of great cities on the cusp of vast change. Although welcomed as a historical thriller of rare ambition, Robert Harris's Lustrum (Hutchinson, £18.99) combined its portraits of Cicero and Caesar as the Roman republic plotted its way towards disintegration with a persuasive picture of the soon-to-be imperial capital. Berlin, another empire of ruins, featured in two fine city fictions: in Julia Franck's The Blind Side of the Heart (trans. Anthea Bell; Harvill Secker, £12.99), as generations of women survive, most movingly, in the wreckage left by total war; and in Chloe Aridjis's exquisite Book of Clouds (Chatto & Windus, £11.99), a cityscape both spaced-out and down-to-earth. First published in Bengali in 1962, Chowringhee by Sankar (trans. Arunava Sinha; Atlantic, £15.99) centres on the dreams and dramas of staff and guests at a Calcutta hotel. With its warmth, generosity, relish for human oddity and sheer storytelling verve, this supreme soap was the year's most seductive discovery.

New York's chaotic 1970s lent all the era's unruly power to Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin (Bloomsbury, £17.99), with the lofty calm of the wire-walker's vantage-point standing for the art that can bring order to such mess. And, in A Week in December (Hutchinson, £18.99), Sebastian Faulks captured the fissile energies of Londoners on the brink of credit-crunch, from hedge-fund barons to Tube drivers, each lost in a world of their own but still bound by secret affinities. It all rings hauntingly true – save for the charmed and easy-going existence Faulks bestows on his newspaper literary editor. For Christmas, I want that fellow's leisurely lifestyle.

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