Books of the year 2013: Fiction


Body Tonkin
Friday 29 November 2013 23:41

In the year when Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize sealed the status of the short story, don’t forget that in Britain we belatedly discovered another doyenne of the form. Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (Pushkin, £8.99) collects stories from the Massachusetts writer into an eye-opening compendium radiant with wisdom, humour, mischief and – not least – a sense of the tragic history behind individual lives.

Elsewhere, big proved beautiful again – but in different ways. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning The Luminaries (Granta, £18.99) cunningly designs a mosaic of tales from the New Zealand gold rush so that its span of diverse voices and histories achieves a TV-series quality, with braided, episodic plotlines. Almost as long, but tighter in focus and even richer in texture, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, £20) alchemises one little Dutch painting, and one act of shocking violence, into a sumptuous, generous and entirely captivating chronicle of lost love, passing time and the abiding consolations of art.

Another wide-screen novel with the gift of intimacy, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin, £12.99) twins parallel lives – one Australian, one Sri Lankan – into a double narrative that strides over decades and continents to explore the upheavals of our globalised age. That modern traffic of peoples and identities also drives other memorable novels: in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah (Fourth Estate, £20), with its blended notes of satire and romance as Nigerians mutate – or don’t – into Americans; in Taiye Selasi’s auspicious debut about the turbulent emergence of a transoceanic “Afropolitan” caste, Ghana Must Go (Viking, £14.99); and in Tash Aw’s highly topical, sharply observed but affecting portmanteau novel of aspirant Malaysians seeking their fortune in boom-town Shanghai, Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate, £18.99).

The protean and mutating conflicts of the 21st century challenge novelists to rethink the literature of war and peace. Nadeem Aslam did just that, his humane lyricism stiffened by political insight, in a novel of brothers who bring succour to the ravaged landscapes of post-9/11 Afghanistan, The Blind Man’s Garden (Faber & Faber, £18.99). A gigantic experiment, bracing, thrilling and worthy of a medal for narrative heroism, Richard House’s four-volume The Kills (Picador, £20) plays an epic set of variations on the shadow war for loot and influence behind the chaos of Iraq.

The most accomplished novelists can illuminate the present while making their chosen past live, move and talk. In Harvest (Picador, £16.99), Jim Crace leaves the precise era unspecified as he writes, with all his near-hallucinatory skill, about an English village destroyed by the advent of agribusiness. This intensely local story becomes, by the rhythmic majesty and fervour of its writing, a universal one. Another spellbinder in prose, Rupert Thomson with Secrecy (Granta, £16.99) proved that he can evoke the past – in this case, gloomy, declining Florence in the 1690s, where an accursed sculptor flees his noble enemies – with all the eerie and sinister panache of his contemporary fictions.

Other resurrection artists also raise the dead in style. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (Picador, £12.99), a remarkably assured debut, takes a tale of crime and punishment in 1820s Iceland and through it opens a window, lit with harsh brilliance, on to an alien world. In The Breath of Night (Arcadia, £11.99), Michael Arditti returns to the Marcos-era Philippines and, via his radical-priest hero and the later investigation of his deeds, fashions that English rarity: an intelligent and engaging novel of faith.

With All the Birds, Singing (Cape, £16.99), Evie Wyld merges into her mysterious tale of a lonely shepherdess a savage Australian back-story that lends a haunting extra dimension to a novel of troubling beauty. Lighter, but far from frothy, Jonathan Coe hits his comic stride again in Expo 58 (Viking, £16.99). His English innocent abroad at the Brussels world’s fair of 1958 focuses a witty, allusive but acute farce of postwar change and its personal fall-out.

Robert Harris, as he reliably does, raises the tone and pushed the boundaries of the bestseller lists with a deeply researched but still suspenseful recreation of the Dreyfus case in the voice of Colonel Picquart, the fearless army whistle-blower. An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, £18.99) is a wholly admirable novel about a wholly admirable man.

As ever, JM Coetzee manages to dodge every category with mesmeric cunning. Does The Childhood of Jesus (Harvill, Secker, £18.99), with its poor, philosophical migrant and his precocious adopted son, count as a religious parable? A political dystopia, or Utopia? A dream-vision about paternity and prophecy? In any case, this limpid, gnomic and surprisingly witty tale will take root in your imagination.

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