6th December 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin
Our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, a judge for last year's Costa Novel Award and this year's Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Muslim Writers Awards, struggles to whittle down his favourites to just ten at the end of a vintage year for fiction, by both new and established writers.
It's been a gloriously bountiful year for fiction. I've experienced that tingle of excitement, a chapter or two in, when it becomes apparent that I'm reading something very special so many times that to reduce this round-up to such a brief list has required a fair degree of ruthlessness. But it seemed best to prioritise digestibility over self-indulgence, so I've capped it at ten.
Further refining the list by putting them in order of preference is just beyond me though, so my choices appear chronologically by date of publication.
One caveat: I've given no thought to being representative of the marvellous diversity of fiction out there. There are no token inclusions to make sure particular genres or author backgrounds get a mention. These are just the ten new books I've been keenest to press into the hands of other readers this year.
The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan (Simon & Schuster, March)
At the heart of this terrific second novel is a complex friendship between two women. Maggie is the widow of an idealistic man with whom she had set up a wildlife park in Derbyshire, Louisa a solitary falconer who still lives in the grounds and shared a dark secret with Maggie's husband before they met. The two circle each other warily, slowly drawn together by Maggie's need for support in an enterprise that leaves her out of her depth, and by Maggie's stepson's bitterness at losing his remaining family. With these flawed and vivid characters, Hogan achieves a thoroughly authentic and affectingly bittersweet depiction of endearment.
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador, April)
The debut novel of the year, as far as I'm concerned. In an alternative post-war scenario, Britain has become a theocracy, governed by the Church of England. Following acts of terrorism, all heretics are exiled to an island. When the weekly supply boat also brings a young woman in search of her mother, the staunch atheism that binds the islanders begins to weaken. With complex characters, an intriguing story and more thoughtfulness on the polarising issue of religion than a hundred op-ed pieces, this is a stylish, strikingly original novel in which Wood demonstrates a fully developed voice of her own.
The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings (Polygon, April)
In five stories ranging across millennia, characters from priests to prostitutes are caught up in the search for a possibly mythical book that documents all human history, including the future. Some seek power by it, others to destroy what would surely be a curse upon all humanity. The obvious comparison here is David Mitchell and if Meekings doesn't always quite match his ventriloquism, he certainly gives each story a distinctive style and knows how to intrigue.
History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May)
A novel spangled with all the glories of La Belle Epoque, with a hero to make everyone swoon. Piet Barol, born of humble stock, is charged with nurturing the troubled genius of the young son of one of Amsterdam's most influential families. He must also navigate the social machinations of the boy's sisters as he strives to rise in polite society armed only with a quick wit, an irresistible charm and looks that catch the eye of men and women alike. This is a sensuously described period piece, full of large-than-life creations, sweet, frolicsome and decidedly saucy.
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift (Picador, June)
The absence of this book from even the Man Booker longlist is Exhibit A in the case against this year's panel of judges. Set in 2006, it focusses on Jack Luxton, a former farmer who now runs caravan park on the Isle of Wight with his childhood sweetheart. His brother, Tom, fled the farm and their taciturn father to fight in Iraq, but now Jack must conduct his brother's body to its resting place in the village of their birth. It's a stunning novel, intimate in the way it recreates the relentlessly churning thought processes of a man struggling to come to terms with where his life has left him, and universal in its understanding of how major political issues have repercussions at an individual level for the most ordinary of people.
Waterline by Ross Raisin (Viking, July)
His justly acclaimed debut already seems a little unsophisticated alongside this powerful follow-up. After the Yorkshire dialect of God's Own Country, he turns his ventriloquism to Glaswegian with similar effectiveness. Mick is a shipbuilder made redundant, then widowed when his wife contracts a lung disease from the poisons on his clothes. Robbed of all that he cares about, he escapes the awkward sympathy of his remaining family and friends by going to London, only to end up on streets. It's a sharply unsentimental portrait of destitution, isolation and homelessness, a reminder that all of us are just one step away from the wilderness.
Solace by Belinda McKeon (Picador, August)
A passionate and moving first novel, written with brittle lyricism, by a talented playwright whom, it is to be hoped, will be lured back to realm of novel writing on a regular basis. McKeon has received endorsement from Anne Enright, Edna O'Brien and Colm Tóibín and there are echoes of all three in Solace, but her writing deserves considerable recognition its its own right. Mark has left behind the rural Irish community where his family has farmed the same land for generations, to study for a doctorate in Dublin, a vibrant, contemporary city full of possibility. His bright new relationship with a trainee solictor, Joanne, survives unexpected complications until a sudden tragedy makes Mark look afresh at the life he thought he had left behind.
The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, August)
In a London suburb, a woman whose life consists of the church and caring for her sickly mother believes she has witnessed a miracle. While the local priest weathers the onslaught of pilgrims, Mary-Margaret wonders why God has chosen her. This is another hugely satisfying follow-up to a superb debut - the Orange New Writers' Award-winning An Equal Stillness - but where that book was ethereally beautiful, this offers a down-to-earth poignancy in its comparison of religious ideals and the practicalities of belief.
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (Sceptre, October)
The caretaker of a mountain lodge, Luce, who sloughed off her femininity long ago, is charged with the care of her niece and nephew. Theyv are seemingly rendered mute by the trauma of seeing their mother murdered by her husband and an unsuccessful murder prosecution has left them all in mortal danger. This took me totally by surprise. I picked it up in advance of an opportunity to meet him, intending to skim a couple of chapters... I didn't put it down until I'd finished it. Blending fairy-tale qualities with the tautness of a thriller, Frazier documents the idiosyncrasies of an isolated community like a combination of Annie Proulx and Daniel Woodrell, and stands alongside Ron Rash as a novelist guide to the Appalachians.
The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall (Faber, November)
Sarah Hall should be on everyone's reading list: I think she's the best British writer around right now. These short stories encapsulate the motifs that have prevailed in her novels: women defined on their own terms and the wild territory where humanity and nature jockey for control. Her deftly exquisite marshalling of language - rendering it fierce and brutal, poetically stark, liltingly sensuous, even unabashedly sexual - matches the sinuous moods of these seven distinctive and accomplished stories.
As I said above, it was decidedly challenging to narrow my list of favourites down to just ten this year, so I feel a few honourable mentions are in order:
The Facility by Simon Lelic (Mantle, January): this thriller about sinister government motives suggests that Lelic has the same ability to make us look at the society we're creating as John le Carré
The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell (Faber, February): a misisonary couple are posted to the Middle East, but the wife finds her own faith challenged by her experiences - heartbreaking at times
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Corsair, March): smart and surprising, this travels back and forth through the lives of a group of friends who orbits are brought together by music
Girl Reading by Katie Ward (Virago, May): absorbing stories ranging across centuries unpicking the stories behind seven portraits
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail, June): the only real gem on this year's feeble Man Booker Prize shortlist; it's driven by dialogue that crackles with prickly passion
Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre, June): a gripping story of love, decay and death, as a young engineer sets to work on a municipal project just as the first stirrings of revolution emanate through Paris
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge (Little, Brown, June): a fine posthumous gift from one of the greatest of post-war novelists, extrapolating a picaresque tale from historical events
There But For The by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, June): she plays with language like a child with Lego and her storytelling is, as ever, delightfully leftfield
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray, June): the second book in the Ibis trilogy is just as heady and affecting as the first, Sea of Poppies
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, June): no round-up of 2011 would be complete without this unique perspective on the 20th century
On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Faber, August): a tumultuous flight to America for another of the family about whom Barry wrote with such beauty and passion in Annie Dunne and A Long Long Way
So that's my 2011 in fiction and a thoroughly memorable year of reading it has proved to be. I find that most of the best books I read come by recommendation, so do share with us on Facebook what you've particularly enjoyed this year.
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