15th December 2014 - Jonathan Ruppin
Many at Foyles feel that 2014 been a very good year for fiction and our customers seem to agree, with sales of novels and short stories going up in all our shops. Our web editor, Jonathan Ruppin, looks at why this might be, selects his top titles and explains why Dutch novelist Peter Buwalda's Bonita Avenue is his book of the year.
My annual Top 10 Fiction of the Year blog for Foyles is a little different from those of previous years: there are 15 books in it.
I couldn't do it. I couldn't find one to drop from my shortlist, let alone five. It's been a fantastic year for fiction and I've had a whale of a time gorging myself; indeed, there's another selection underneath of a number of other favourites that might well have made the list in leaner years. What's more advance proofs from publishers mean I've already identified several likely candidates for this blog next year, so why it is that we're considering the possibility of, if not a golden era, at least a considerable resurgence in the health of contemporary literature?
The previously isolated commercial successes of smaller indies, many of them driven by the crowd-sourced passion of social networking, are now regular enough to indicate a groundswell of public passion for the novel as more than a simply storytelling device. Without indies, we'd also not now be seeing the crumbling of the artificial barriers to the wholehearted embrace of fiction in translation: over a third of the nominated titles for the latest International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award were translated and, in June, translated fiction took the top three places in the new fiction charts. At the time of writing, the bestselling fiction title at Foyles is translated from Japanese: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.
Meanwhile, the bigger publishers have conceded the dwindling influence of Richard & Judy's Bookclub, with its preference for the mass appeal of the middle-ground, and this has drawn some focus away from books heart-sinkingly declared in publishers' catalogues to be 'perfect for bookclubs'. The accolades for Eimear McBride's startlingly original A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction among others, are giving editors, some of them tell me, more leeway to be more adventurous in their acquisitions; we must be careful not to let all this self-congratulation in the trade overshadow the efforts required to keep such distinctive books coming.
The establishment of the Folio Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, in similar territory to the revitalised Man Booker Prize, along with the more savvy marketing of several other awards, has highlighted the breadth of literary fiction available: there's little credibility in the notion that it's all variations on middle-class existential angst and post-colonial soul-searching any more!
All of which indicates that publishers and retailers have grasped that a huge sector of the market is desperate for books that don't merely pass the time entertainingly enough, but that lodge immovably within us for the rest of our lives. We underestimate the intelligence and curiosity of readers at our peril.
That's not to say everything is rosy: the wonderful #readwomen2014 campaign and authors speaking up about other shortfalls in diversity remind us that there is some way to go in terms of representation and the worries voiced about the future of indie publishing by Alessandro Gallenzi from Alma Books, UK Independent Publisher of the Year barely twelve months ago, are a reminder of how slim the margins between success and ruin can be for small presses.
But I remain, on balance, optimistic about the book trade generally and my particular passion, contemporary fiction, in particular: as a reader, I'm feeling very spoiled! So, here's my 'ten', presented in the order in which they were published. Do share yours in the comments beneath.
The Dig by Cynan Jones (Granta)
Jones overthrows the bucolic fantasy of life in the countryside with this taught novella: the relentless cycles of the calendar show no pity to a bereaved young farmer, while nature's savagery is uncomfortably reflected in an ingrained custom for badger baiting. Jones portrays the drudgery of agricultural life in workmanlike sentences, but the simple language is studded with moments of poetry: the wonder of a quiet sunrise or the miracle of a calf's birth. It adds up to an arresting read: brooding and febrile, stark and savage.
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Picador)
Viewed through the weary disillusionment of his four wives, Wood navigates the twin paradigms of Ernest Hemingway as literary genius and drunken womaniser. The slow concession of his affections by his first wife Hadley to Fife, the journalist with whom he conducts a blatant affair, is pitifully poignant; his third, Martha Gellhorn, whose legend matched his, is perhaps the only one to emerge with dignity intact, as their wartime marriage collapses with the dissipation of their embedded reporters' adrenaline at the conflict's end. This is a novel that more than delivers on the promise of Wood's striking debut, The Godless Boys, suggesting she has the potential to become one of Britain's most significant novelists.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape)
I fell in love with this debut collection of short stories, which won this year's Guardian First Book Award, before I'd finished the first paragraph: Barrett's prose is sublime, roiling with rhythm and plucking words from nowhere to formulate an idiom all of his own. They're stories of small-town life in Ireland, where violence simmers and sex seethes, and there's nothing so heinous as finding a means of escape from it all. The longest story broods darkly at its heart, a fulcrum which tips the mood from blinkered bravado to desiccated despair. I can't wait to read whatever comes next from Barrett.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
A death-row prisoner in Oregon watches on, ever silent, as an investigator builds an appeal on behalf of another prisoner incarcerated in their festering subterranean bunker, despite his protests that he just wants to die. As she uncovers the brutality and deprivation that led to his crime, our nameless narrator finds his escape in books from the jail's appalling culture of corruption and violence. Denfeld's experience as an investigator herself makes this is a trenchant condemnation of society's savage ceremony of retribution, but it is the contrast between her radiant prose and the horror she so unremittingly details that evokes pity, even sympathy, for the denizens of this blind spot for humanity. Acknowledging that the most shocking crimes are often committed by those who have never known compassion or kindness, the novel offers offers the flickering hope of moments of transcendence even when human decency has been stripped away.
- Read my interview with Rene Denfeld here
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda; trans. from Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (Pushkin Press)
This is my book of the year and, to be honest, I've known it probably would be since I finished an advance proof back in January.
Set in the Netherlands, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Bonita Avenue focuses on a university rector and his family. Siem Sigerius, the consummate politician, only turned to mathematics when a freak injury destroyed a promising judo career. His daughter Joni is talented, confident and strikingly beautiful, so her choice of boyfriend, the seemingly unremarkable Aaron, is a puzzle, although he and Siem have certainly bonded. Meanwhile, Wilbert, Siem's son from a previous marriage, is due to be released from prison. Unloved and delinquent in his youth, he has served a term for manslaughter.
As relationships begin to unwind, madness, paranoia and betrayal infiltrate the picture-perfect Sigerius clan: a cataclysmic explosion in a fireworks factory, the advent of online pornography, an illicit affair and a harrowing discovery all contribute to this spectacular fragmentation of the family, with Aaron's psyche proving the most fragile.
Joni, the only character permitted a first-person perspective, is the only one of them capable of that compartmentalisation of identity demanded by contemporary society's contradictory public and domestic roles. Siem, on the other hand, is left behind by the generation gap exacerbated by the rapid incursion of the online world.
This is just one aspect of the novel's subtly ingenious structure; Siem's suicide is revealed at the end of the first chapter, before the narrative slips back and forth across a period of eight years, with each swell of incident withdrawing to reveal something new to factor in. Buwalda is like a storytelling card sharp, shuffling his narrative deck to deal a triumphant royal flush. Deftly constructed, dark, disturbing and sharply funny, Bonita Avenue is a masterpiece of characterisation and one of the first great European novels of the 21st century.
- Read my interview with Peter Buwalda here
Life Drawing by Robin Black (Picador)
A bare-bones summary of this quietly affecting novel probably suggests something of which you've read countless iterations before: a middle-class couple - Augusta is an artist, Owen is a writer - move to a tranquil country cottage to rebuild their marriage after an affair and to reignite their creativity. But the revelation of Owen's death in the first line isn't there to reassure the reader of imminent drama: it signifies the machinations of fate, slowly and surely drawing its plans against them. Made fearful by her own infidelity, Augusta battles with her suspicion that Owen will betray her. Recalling the lesson of history's resilient presence in Graham Swift's masterpiece, Waterland, the new life they try to assemble together is inevitably founded on all facets of their past.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
There's nothing quite as exhilarating as a debut novel that throws everything at the page, missing occasionally, but carrying the reader along with such brilliance and bravado it scarcely matters. To my mind, Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World are recent examples, and so is this. Rahman plunges nervelessly into mathematics, politics, history, religion, literature, psychology and neuroscience; he even has the chutzpah to float an alibi for the financial sector's complicity in the recent global economic crisis.
The long-lost college friend of an unnamed banker reappears and, with a past betrayal overshadowing their reacquaintance, weaves a vast, excursive tale in which his upbringing in poverty in Bangladesh leaves him a perpetual outsider, his race and class an unharmonious blend that leaves him trapped between cultures. This philosophical crucible even inveigles Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem - which, in mathematics, suggests that there are things that we know to be true but cannot be proved - as a metaphorical perspective on the nature of fiction, complemented by Rahman's delicious layering on of an unreliable listener to an unreliable narrator. The novel fizzes and burns like potassium dropped into water - it's probably as well for Rahman that he managed to get this volatile fictional concoction out of his system and safely preserved on paper.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
I concurred with the judges' decision that this deserved, by a fieldmouse's whisker, to be awarded the Man Booker Prize over Ali Smith's How to Be Both: it's destined to be viewed as a classic. Indeed, it was chosen from an outstanding shortlist, perhaps the best final six since Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty won in 2004*. At its heart is a harrowing account of the use of POWs as slave labour by the Japanese in the construction of the Burma Railway, but what gives it context is the interwoven depiction of the consequences of this dehumanising experience upon surgeon Dorrigo Evans in the decades that followed. Episodes in the jungle where Evans argues with Major Nakamura about which of his men can be considered fit to continue are like prayers in the dead of night, pleading for mercy from an implacable agent of death. A scene of hollow, desultory sexual congress from later in his life was, perversely, shortlisted for the Bad Sex Award, even though it is one of the novel's most potent depictions of the damage done.
- Read Foyles' interview with Richard Flanagan here
The Suicide by Mark SaFranko (Honest Publishing)
A suicide that may well not be what it seems, a detective with demons, shady characters from the mean streets, abuses of authority: combined with prose with a whiff of the hard-boiled, this might seem to be simply a modern slice of contemporary noir. But the way the pieces fit together is anything but predictable, with Brian Vincenti's investigation lurching between worlds in a New Jersey city uncomfortable with its rapid gentrification. Its authenticity comes from its characters, contradictory blends of individual, archetype and unknowability: real people. It's a thriller that's nothing you quite want to be, but everything it could be, a potent reminder that real life doesn't fit into narrative arcs. Brian Vincenti will live on in the reader's mind because he has to do so somewhere and there's nowhere else for him to go.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Fortunate are we who live in the age when Ali Smith is writing books. Consistently shortlisted for major awards, I've no doubt she'll have that Hilary Mantel moment soon enough and pick up that prize that will elevate her to her rightful place among contemporary literature's pantheon. There are two editions of How to Be Both, one opening with the story of a 1960s teenage girl whose family is struggling with the death of her mother printed first and the other with the parallel narrative of the creation of a spectacular Renaissance fresco that Georgia was, five centuries later, to see in the National Gallery with her mother shortly before she died. Despite heavyweight themes of bereavement and society's hostility to otherness, the novel toys with its threads with kittenish verve and Smith entertains as much as she engages with her ingenious undermining of stylistic conventions, making the novel glow with compassion.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre)
I absolutely gorged myself on this whipplescrumptious delight, reading until I couldn't see straight one night and then polishing it off over an extended breakfast. The original plan had been for 70 short stories, a year for each one, but ultimately The Bone Clocks was distilled into six longer stories, each roughly a decade on from the previous one. The central narrative, which dips in and out of view like a railway line passing through hills, is an ancient war between two factions of immortal souls, one of whom takes refuge within teenage runaway Holly. This premise is perhaps a knowing wink at Mitchell's penchant for recurring characters from previous novels, and there are plenty here.
The six-decade journey to post-apocalyptic Ireland stops by locales as contrasting as a ski resort and Iraq's Green Zone, as well as a sharp satire on the book world's foibles. The writing fizzes with Carrollian playfulness, ideas orbiting like electrons, but it's not as random as cursory reading suggests: there a little gems such as the the first track of the only LP Holly takes with her in the first chapter turning up as the name of her dog in the last.
Isolated negative reviews have taken issue with the fantasy aspect, but objections can be classed in three ways: personal taste, failing to notice that this is hardly the first time Mitchell has blurred the edges of reality or the relatively simple resolution of affairs, the last of which could have saved JRR Tolkien some lengthy exposition. For me, The Bone Clocks is very much about the journey, rather than the destination, making it the ideal book in which to indulge oneself in a cosy nook as winter tightens its grip.
- Read my interview with David Mitchell here
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Picador)
Set alongside Howard Jacobson's J, Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things and Antonia Honeywell's The Ship (due out next February), not to mention the superb final chapter of The Bone Clocks, this signifies the reclamation of the grand tradition of the literary dystopia from the countless YA novels published in the wake of the success of the Hunger Games trilogy. Mandel's vision of society's rapid collapse in the face of a pandemic onslaught switches between the alarmingly few days during which society unravels and years later, when even those who survived can scarcely believe their own memories of a world bound together by such marvels as air travel and the internet. The threads it yokes together offer a pensive appraisal of what it means to be human. It's a cracking story too, never sanctimonious or overly earnest: there's an echo, perhaps, of John Christopher's The Death of Grass, which, in 1956, explored the dichotomy of the sacrifices needed for mere survival and an understanding that human values ought not to be discarded in pursuit of it.
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman - Denis Thériault; trans. from French by Liedewey Hawke (Hesperus Press)
A postman lives vicariously through the soap opera of the lives he reads about on the pages of letters he steams open; he is particularly transfixed by single sheets containing nothing more than haiku by a woman from Guadeloupe he regularly delivers to a nearby house, poems which seem to render his own existence unbearably mundane. It's joyous in its celebration of the transcendence of artistic expression, humbling in its folkloric admonitions about taking life's simpler rewards for granted. Credit must also go to the translator, with whom Thériault worked closely, for rendering the haiku so elegantly.
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel; trans. from Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories)
Annobón, where Ávila Laurel was born, is a remote island in the south Atlantic forming part of the nation of Equatorial Guinea. His fictionalised account of his childhood there employs a striking voice, adult revisionism of his child's-eye perspective, trying to make sense of a culture where the primitive - bartering is still preferred to money - rubs up against the intrusions of the industrialised world. There's a rhythmic lyricism to his prose, enforced by the use of repeated phrases, that echoes the ritualism of lives shaped by patterns of ingrained custom and superstition. But when the island is wracked with tragedy, the communal introspection about their society is universally recognisable, even if their nature of their response is not.
- Read Foyles' interview with Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel here
Bilbao - New York - Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe; trans. from Basque by Elizabeth Macklin (Seren)
This ingenious and original historiographical novel tells the story of its own writing, as Uribe explores the history of his family and the Basque Country fishing community of which they have long been a part. Framed by the author's plane journey to the States, the web of digressions is mapped by ever-lengthening and constantly entwining cultural tendrils as the family diffuses around the world, led off by his father's trawler. The intersection between truth and storytelling is a particularly potent theme, contrasting the prosaic and the poetic, the pragmatic and the romantic. It's a view from the inside of the novel, looking out upon the reader in consideration of what might prove engaging, a metafictional conceit made engaging by the genial candour of Uribe, or at least his novelistic avatar, as he explores the process of researching and honing his book.
Huge credit must go to Wales-based indie Seren Books for bringing this book to English-language readers; it's extraordinary that this winner of Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Literatura wasn't picked up by a major publisher.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @tintiddle
* The other five books on the 2004 Man Booker Prize shortlist were: Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Master by Colm Tóibín and I'll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward.