15th December 2015 - Jonathan Ruppin
Our web editor, Jonathan Ruppin, sifts through another year of great fiction and picks out the ten books that he'd most like to share with fellow readers.
I once sat down and worked out how many more books I was likely to read in my lifetime. The number I came up with was so distressingly small that I wish I had never done it and I'm certainly not going to scar anyone else by telling them what it was. But it's remarkable how much guilt there is in unread books. Perhaps, when the time comes, I can be buried with them.
With the constant flow of beguiling fiction that I encounter – working in a bookshop is endless temptation – I doubt I'll ever read half the novels published this year alone that I'd like to, so my apologies to the many doubtless deserving books that don't feature here because I simply haven't found time to read them.
Of the many microtrends in fiction publishing at the moment, I find the increased appetite for translated fiction the most exciting. Research by Literature Across Frontiers indicates sales in the UK have grown by half since the turn of the century. This, however, is only from 3% to 4½% of total fiction sales, a measly amount when compared to most of continental Europe, where the figure is as much as 50% in some countries.
But I can't help feeling that in a globally connected world, in which events anywhere can now affect us directly, readers' curiosity about the lives and cultures of others can only continue to grow. I do also expect that the new-format Man Booker International Prize, which will offer a translation-focussed twin to the most influential award in the Anglophone world, will accelerate matters.
Three of my choices below were not originally written in English and I have been careful to include the names of those who translated them, as these poorly paid polylinguists are rarely afforded the acclaim their remarkable work deserves. (We're trying to make sure that we do this on Staff Picks instore now: #namethetranslator)
As to the authors themselves, my wonderful website colleague Frances Gertler and I have had the privilege of interviewing a number of them for the Foyles website. You'll find individual links beneath the entries, but you can find an index of the many hundreds of interviews we've conducted over the last few years here.
The list, by the way, is in order of UK release date and you'll find 20 very near misses underneath. And if there's something from 2015 you think deserves a wider readership, do, please, share it in the comments.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
Originally conceived as three short stories, The Vegetarian uses a dietary choice considered highly unorthodox in Korea to explore a society evolving in ways that leaves traditionalists outraged and incomprehending. Its confrontation of patriarchy and social protocols flowers into an exploration of fetishistic erotic obsession and visions of Kafkaesque transformation. Yeong-Hye, the young woman at the centre of it all, offers a beguiling dichotomy of ethereality and intransigence, mirroring the beguiling combination of the intellectual in the novel as a while.
Unusually, fiction writing in South Korea is dominated by female writers and Han Kang is one of their most acclaimed. Her next book to be made available to Anglophone readers is Human Acts, which tackles Korea's Tiananmen Square, the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, and it's even better than The Vegetarian. Han Kang and her dynamic translator, Deborah Smith – who launches her own publisher, Tilted Axis, focussing on fiction from Asia and Africa, in 2016 – will be discussing it at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on Wednesday 13th January: booking details here.
Our Endless Numbered Days (in paperback imminently) by Claire Fuller (Fig Tree)
The survivalists of the 1970s took each generation's hand-wringing about the fate of humanity a step further and made practical plans for how to they might make it through the coming apocalypse. In Claire Fuller's debut novel, eight-year-old Peggy's father is one of them and, one summer day, he announces that the end is coming, that her mother is dead and that they must seek refuge. The novel switches between their new life in a remote forest cabin deep and nine years later, when Peggy is back with her mother, minus half an ear, with a younger brother to become acquainted with.
This is a compellingly dark fairy-tale from the other side of the looking glass, a trail of broken boundaries and broken trust as one man's paranoid fantasy implodes. As one of the judges for this year's Desmond Elliott Prize, I had this down as my favourite from the start and I was delighted that we did indeed come to choose it as our winner.
The Shore by Sara Taylor (William Heinemann)
Aeschylus meets southern gothic here, as the remote Virginia coastline, chronicled in episodes that range back and forth across more than two centuries, almost seems to harbour a matrilineal curse. While the region itself declines from prosperous farmland to destitute wasteland, its menfolk weakened first by alcohol then by methamphetamine, the women suffer with stoic endurance.
Its opening chapter exemplifies how Taylor lures unsuspecting readers into this swamp of festering violence, hatred and despair, as blood spatters across goofy scenes of crabbing and reading library books in the sun. This is the backlot reality behind the gaily painted facade put out for tourists.
The vogue for interlinked stories undoubtedly owes much to the genre-defying exploits of the sublime David Mitchell, particularly Cloud Atlas, and Sara Taylor is one of very few whose efforts don't pale by comparison.
By the way, isn't the jacket beautiful? I'm so disappointed it's being ditched for next year's paperback.
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe)
Hypothesising expansively on accepted history, this sees Frederick Engels' eyes opened to the iniquitous circumstances of the working class by Lizzie Burns, a factory worker from the Irish slums. Its backstage view of Engels and Karl Marx preparing to storm history's stage is poignant and occasionally absurd, an early version of Islington socialism. Lizzie meanwhile is caught between her own revolutionary instincts and the realisation of her domestic fantasies.
Powered by vivid characterisation, sharp dialogue and satisfying detailed mise-en-scène, this is a novel that exposes the emotive realities beneath the ill-starred ideology that rose and fell in the twentieth century. Excitingly, it's the first of a trilogy about revolutionary women: the second will feature Jiang Qing, often referred to Madame Mao, and the third will be set amid the collapse of eastern European communism.
If I been told this was a fifth book and I just hadn't come across the author before, I would have happily gone on believing that. Remarkably, however, it is a debut, one of rare gifts, and my Book of the Year.
All Involved by Ryan Gattis (Picador)
The death of Michael Brown in 2014, the ensuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and the deplorable necessity of the #blacklivesmatter campaign make All Involved, which dedicates each chapter to one of the six days of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a horribly pertinent novel.
Gattis has spent time with gang members, open about the research he was doing, and his book has been hailed as much for its insight into affected communities as for the vitality of its storytelling. Consecutive days are each covered from the point of view of character involved in the disturbances, including gang members, a nurse, a firefighter and special ops. The books pulls no punches, laying bare the brutality of gang life and the utter lack of trust between poor ethnic neighbourhoods and the authorities that means there are no easy solutions.
I was lucky enough to read this novel in manuscript in 2014 and it is a testament to how enthralling it is that that was startled to find out that finished copies of a book I'd read in two sittings came out at 384 pages. HBO have a television series in development too.
Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (Jonathan Cape)
Jarvis' vast novel, based on his own detailed research into Seymour's life – he rediscovered the artist's gravestone, the whereabouts of which had been unknown for century – is structured around an ongoing investigation into the idea, supported by many scholars, that the idea of The Pickwick Papers was originally conceived by Seymour. Dickens himself always rejected the idea, going so far as to write a foreword claiming that the story was entirely his own work.
Starting from their earliest years, the books reveals how Seymour and Dickens came to be paired up for what turned out to be one of the most sensational projects in publishing history, exploring the Victorian fashion for bitingly satirical cartoons, and the sad aftermath for Seymour's family as Dickens took possession of Seymour's carefully plotted ideas.
It's novel worthy of Dickens himself, and also reminiscent of Moby-Dick, with its fascinating and detailed dissection of the culture of the time. You really don't need to have read Dickens' novel to appreciate it either: the brief summary and background on its Wikipedia page will do just fine.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador)
Released to minor acclaim in the States in the spring, it was the passion of British readers on its August release here and its subsequent appearance on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, that saw this become the most passionately debated new novel of the year on both sides of the Atlantic. There are many who have been vocal in their dislike of it, more, perhaps, who share my view of its superlative qualities. Indifference, however, is not an option.
It slowly becomes apparent that our protagonist is Jude, one of small band of stalwart college friends, all of whom are to become significant figures in their respective professions. For Jude, this is his first real experience of trust and acceptance, having survived appalling abuse in his childhood. But even as he establishes himself as one of New York's most sought-after lawyers, and forms bonds with people whose dearest wish is that he should know that he is loved, he retreats into pitiful bouts of self-harm; for him, there are scars, both literal and figurative, that simply cannot heal.
Much has been made of the devastating emotional power of this vast novel, and, yes, it scoops you out emotionally, but what distinguishes it most is its narrative architecture. Its subtle drip-feeding of the plot is married to a substantial cast of convincing characters, pulling off a act of storytelling of which most authors could scarcely dream.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from German by Charlotte Collins (Picador)
A huge hit in Germany before it made its way here, this Austrian novella encapsulates a life in 124 elegant pages. Andreas is raised in the Alpine valley whose rim marks the horizon of his world for almost his entire life; his only years beyond are as a soldier and most are spent in a Russian gulag. He bends with the winds of change, embracing plans to install an electric cable car that will transform the local community. His apparent reserve belies a blazing passion that wins the heart of his true love.
Seethaler's approach made me think of time-lapse photography: the years flash by with Andreas the calm centre as the gleaming modern world springs up around him. I found it an ideal companion read to Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal's classic Catalan novella, translated a few years ago by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell for Peirene Press.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (Picador)
As a long-time short story agnostic, this first ever UK publication of perhaps America's most undeservedly obscure writer was what finally convinced me of their importance to the literary canon. These brief, bittersweet sketches build a world and breathe life into her characters in a sentence or two. Informed by her own nomadic childhood, the menial jobs she passed through, her own heartaches and health problems, she highlights the exoticism of ordinary lives.
There are no suggestive washes of pigment here. Her writing is vibrant, earthy and candid. Pedestrian details banish the artifice of storytelling: every person, every place, every thing is a real as a memory. I've actually still got a handful of the 43 stories here to go, as they're too precious to gorge on, and I really don't want this experience to end.
The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil, translated from French by Sam Taylor (Scribner)
I suspect all novels explore the theme of identity, to a greater or lesser extent, but it's the heart and soul of this Prix Goncourt-shortlisted novel that addresses Western multiculturalism in a way very little British fiction set in the present day seems to manage.
Students together in Paris, Samir and Samuel's friendship founders when neither can resist the charms of Nina. Samir flees to America and, driven by a need to assimilate in order to prosper professionally, assumes Samuel's backstory. The void left by Nina's decision to stay with Samuel proves to be his tragic flaw and, drawn back to Paris, his confabulation unravels in an accelerated fall from grace only magnified by the heights to which he had risen.
Tuil's stylistic tricks, such as thumbnail sketches of incidental characters in footnotes and her use of the solidus to link concatenated adjectives, are initially distracting, but I certainly came to view them as legitimate. I also can't agree with critics who dismiss her trio of main characters as glibly portrayed; their identities come from how others perceive them and their fates are determined by these impressions.
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