Saturday, 31 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Five: Fiction

 Hello there, and welcome to the thrilling final installment of my books of the year - it's time for fiction! Hurrah! A good year, all in all, Booker mishaps aside, I'd say. It was also a good year for novels by my contemporaries - there was Ivo Stourton's slick The Book Lover's Tale; Anna Stothard's warm and vivid The Pink Hotel, and Jonathan Lee's inventive and accomplished Who is Mr Satoshi?, not to mention Leo Benedictus' post-modern The Afterparty.

1. At Last by Edward St Aubyn

Beware the teeny martini
The latest (and possibly final) book in St Aubyn's acidic Patrick Melrose series, this elegantly skewers the super-rich, and shows a deeply troubled man moving towards peace. There's a fabulous cast of grotesques: Nancy, who, though richer than Croesus, lies and steals and constantly bemoans her fate; Nicholas, a flamboyant and viperish socialite; and the mad drunk Fleur. Patrick seems almost sane by comparison. There are some brilliantly witty vignettes, too, including one about a Grand Duke who drank 20 martinis every day before lunch, which, I have decided, will be my New Year's Resolution. Cheers!

2. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

King Arthur: Real?
There are layers upon layers at work in this dazzling novel; it centres around a 'lost' Shakespeare play about King Arthur (itself based on Holinshead), which the author's father may or may not have forged whilst in prison. The book takes the form of an introduction to this play (which you must read first, and you will appreciate the beauty of Phillips' - I mean Shakespeare's - efforts), in which Phillips attempts to tell the story of his life and the events surrounding the play. The reader never finds out whether, within the context of the book, the play is real or not - it's totally fascinating.

3 The London Train by Tessa Hadley

What a novel should be - well-observed, beautifully written, surprising, funny and moving, this diptych shows two marriages in disrepair. Hadley's prose is filled with light; her eyes are keen, and her heart is clearly warm and open. 

4. My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly

A Parrot. Possibly psychotic.
Connolly's debut novel, about the loves and lives of three generations of women. Lilting, luminous prose and a deep understanding of human nature combine to make a polished gem. And there's a delightfully insane parrot called Birdle, as well as some lesbians, if you like that sort of thing.

5. Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru

A very involving tale whose themes and plots bounce around like echoes in a cave, involving the consequences of an autistic boy going missing in the desert. His parents are hounded; their lives interconnect with many other tales of strange disappearances, aliens and angels. Kunzru is a superbly strong writer, and this book won't disappoint.

6. The Champion by Tim Binding

This funny and highly acute satire of middle English life was somewhat overlooked this year; I highly recommend its tale of a Kent boy done good who wreaks havoc on his home town, to the detriment of its professional classes, it's full of insight and wit.

7. Ragnarok by A S Byatt

A numinous and powerful retelling of the myths of Asgard and the ends of the gods, it also works as part memoir and part ecological warning. More of a between novels stopgap, it's still worth reading to watch a master of prose at work.

8. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

A married middle aged man falls in love with a beautiful young man; Cunningham perceptively and feelingly dissects the fallout of despair.

9. A Kind Man by Susan Hill

Taut and tense, this tale of the miraculous seeping into the everyday brings with it wisdom and strength. 

10. Ransom by David Malouf and The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

These both came out last year but they are marvellous: Malouf retells the last book of the Iliad, delving into the concept of ransom - Priam himself was ransomed as a boy, and he gained his name from that - it's a beautiful, eerie, poetical work. Mason's is dreamlike - he relates, in kaleidoscope fashion, different versions of the Odyssey; in which the latter's identity is subsumed; where Ariadne becomes Calypso; where Achilles is a robot. It's great fun.

11. The Hunter by Julia Leigh

Leigh's Disquiet  was a brittle, sharp, poised thing, like an arrow; this is her first novel, based around a man's search for the last Tasmanian tiger. It's just as fluid and elegant as her second, and I can't wait for her next.

So a Happy New Book Year to you all, and I look forward to seeing you in 2012. Now, another martini? 


  1. Have you read Andrew Miller's Pure? Possibly my favourite of the year! I also really liked the new Magnus Mills.

  2. I really want to read both of those - I have Pure at home; I also love Magnus Mills.

  3. You will despise last years Booker prize even more when you read those two novels as they are both absolutely incredible and should have been longlisted at the very, very least.

  4. Hah hah, there's no way I could despise it more! I knew about these two and wished I could have tucked into them this year...