13th December 2012 - Jonathan Ruppin
Always passionate about contemporary writing, our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin, looks back on a memorable year in fiction and picks the books he's loved most, including a masterpiece from a Pulitzer Prize winner, some terrific debuts, books translated from Dutch and Japanese, a faultless short story collection and his book of the year.
After a couple of patchy years, 2012 has seen the publication of a wealth of great fiction. It's simply been an outstanding year. Narrowing my favourites down to ten has been tough - hence the fifteen honourable mentions underneath them! - and even then I know there are books I haven't got round to reading that might well have featured, going by what colleagues have reported.
You'll find nothing from the Man Booker Prize and Orange Prize shortlists (click on the links to see them) here, although not on the grounds of quality. The former featured the finest selection of six since at least 2004 (the year Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty triumphed over wonderful books by David Mitchell, Colm Tóibín , Sarah Hall, Achmat Dangor and Gerard Woodward) and any of the six up for the latter would have made a worthy addition to that prize's generally excellent roster of winners. But all those books have had their share of the literary limelight and such are the spoils of 2012 that I felt I should concentrate on alternatives. But if you don't fancy anything below, pick something from that superb dozen (Alison Moore's Man Booker candidate The Lighthouse is the one I'd nudge you towards).
But these, in order of publication, are my top ten fiction titles of 2012.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Viking)
The story is that of Japanese picture brides sent to partner countrymen who had migrated to America around a century ago, but the magic is in the telling. Otsuka combines many perspectives into one mesmerising narrative voice, creating an oral history of one distinct cultural variant on the immigrant experience. It opens with the hopes and fears with which they first cross the Pacific, then observes their different ways of assimilating into new circumstances. Ultimately they are all to suffer the indignity of internment camps after Pearl Harbor. It's a prose poem of sorts, beguiling, incantatory and utterly superb.
Read our interview with Julie Otsuka
What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
A deserving winner of this year's Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, this collection tackles the essence of Jewishness in the modern world with empathy, wry humour and piercing clarity. My favourites in this (as you might guess) Carver-infused collection include the author forced by a one-man audience to consider why he writes - there's something of the ghost story about that one - and a faux folk-tale of ancestral obligation that sees entrenched attitudes persist as the settlement on the West Bank smothers even recent history, but there's not a dud here.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Doubleday)
It seemed that this picaresque story of a North Korean spy obliged to take on the persona of a military national hero was being written before my eyes, teasing and tantalising, spinning off in yet another unexpected direction every time I thought I'd got to grips with how it would unfold. The ersatz Commander Ga even inherits his unfortunate predecessor's wife, Sun Moon, a beautiful film star he has tattooed on his skin, and the surreal parley of their enforced marriage encapsulates the absurdity of a nation gone mad.
While never shying away from the penury and oppression of life under Kim Jong-Il, it's romantic, preposterous and endlessly surprising. David Mitchell is amongst the eminent writers whose words of praise adorn the cover and it is perhaps his fiction that Johnson's jaw-dropping novel most closely resembles.
Read our inteview with Adam Johnson
Snake Ropes by Jess Richards (Sceptre)
Many debuts are promising, but novels of this level of accomplishment are rare even amongst those with many more books behind them. If there is life after death, Angela Carter has been spending her midnight years teaching Jess Richards everything she knows, although the author of Snake Ropes need declare obeisance to no one.
The islanders live by their own creeds, trade with the tall men their only contact with the mainland. Just one family has travelled to settle there, but eldest daughter Morgan must wait until she's twenty-one to learn the secrets told only in the women's sanctum, the Weaving Rooms. Meanwhile, Mary's little brother Barney has been snatched by a trader, like many boys before, and she seeks justice from the Thrashing House, a mysterious place said to have grown from the island's last tree.
From the islanders' subtle creole to their myths of sea and sky and earth, Richards has nurtured a remarkable community, their home glimpsed in the sea-mist like a new Avalon. It's the best debut I've read since Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal (published in 2009), the book I've recommended to anyone who'll listen and my book of the year.
Read Jess Richards on how she came to write Snake Ropes, plus the first chapter and an exclusive short story
Canada by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury)
Almost every review has quoted the opening lines, but novels don't begin much better than this: 'First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.' And these words herald another masterpiece from a living legend of American literature.
After World War II, the Parsons family has lived a peripatetic existence, but seem to have found a place to settle in Great Falls, Montana. Fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister are shocked to realise that their parents, in an attempt to pay off debts, have resorted to robbing a bank. Following their arrest, Dell is taken to Saskatchewan, housed and employed by the enigmatic Arthur Remlinger.
Thematically, the book tackles what it means to call a place home, how the past gives us all roots and whether fate only becomes apparent in retrospect. But it's the writing itself that, as always, particularly distinguishes Ford: this is prose as high art, so deftly and intricately assembled that to race through it would be desecration. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Updike... Ford - he's that good.
Read our interview with Richard Ford
Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus)
'Trainspotting on a sugar rush' has been my pat description when recommending this spirited debut novel. Informed by Kerry Hudson's own experiences, Janie Ryan's story is one of growing up in some of the poorest, most disenfranchised areas of Britain, domestic violence is widespread, where educational and employment opportunities are limited, and drink, drugs and sleeping around are conventional rites of passage for teenagers. Always condemned to be friends with the other outcasts at school, Janie's hopes are dashed by each new twist in a life lived on the breadline.
It makes for a remarkable story of love and loyalty, of fierce passion and scabrous wit, full of characters whose broad vernacular is direct and expressive. This is about a culture with just as much right to be called British as that of middle-class suburbia.
Read our interview with Kerry Hudson
The Dinner by Herman Koch (Atlantic)
I read this, appropriately enough, in one sitting. Two brothers and their wives meet at high-class restaurant, their table in a prime spot assured by the probability that one will be the next leader of his country. Their bubble of sophistication and privilege is threatened by a problem: their sons have been involved in a shocking act caught on CCTV and now a national scandal. While it is apparent early on that we have an unreliable narrator, it's the slow revelation of family history that eventually clarifies matters, the menacing atmosphere of repressed aggression all the more potent because we don't know its source.
There are comparisons to be made with recent bestseller The Slap, but where Christos Tsiolkas roams the suburbs to find the truth about Australian society, Koch allows this microcosmic family situation to speak volumes about divided social attitudes in a country that prides itself on its tolerance.
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura (Corsair)
I suppose this is a crime thriller of sorts, but its adrenaline rush is soothed by the brooding phlegmatism of the pickpocket (whose artistry inevitably recalls what Roald Dahl called a 'fingersmith' in his short story 'The Hitch-hiker') whose reacquaintance with a former partner in crime draws him into a complex and deadly plot.
He also finds himself unwitting surrogate parent to young boy being abused by the boyfriend of the prostitute with whom he develops a complicated relationship, neither properly business nor quite pleasure: are his skills something that might help the boy fend for himself or the first step on road with no turns? From the thief's perspective, organised crime is the city's lifeblood and Tokyo itself seems alive with its own enigmatic purpose: crouching, looming, shadowed, dank. Winner of the prestigious Kenzaburō Ōe Prize in Japan, this is the first of Nakamura's books to be translated into English and a tantalising glimpse of contemporary Japanese fiction for anyone wanting to look beyond the ubiquitous Haruki Murakami.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre)
It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen that first introduced me to that shocking dichotomy between the brutality of war and the frequent refinement of literature that reflects upon it. Michael Herr's Dispatches was later to prove similarly resonant and I suspect this book will do much the same for future generations. Powers' descriptions of combat in Iraq are couched in a language of transcendent beauty, which only heightens the grim horror of what the troops endure, with every thousand-yard stare exposing the profound hollowness of their mission.
Since Powers was himself a gunner in the Gulf conflict, there is a deeply poignant aspect of autobiography in the story of Private Bartle, who returns home after his tour, numbed by the trauma of fighting in the heat and dust and traumatised by the death of his closest friend out there, to whose mother he'd made a solemn promise that he would ensure his safe return. It would seem that, even a century on from the Great War, Owen's 'old Lie' still has currency.
Read our interview with Kevin Powers
May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes (Granta)
This blackly humorous and borderline absurd story of a Nixon biographer made unwilling surrogate parent to his niece and nephew after their father kills their mother features a charmingly confusing cameo from Don DeLillo, a confessed influence on Homes. But she deserves to be named alongside him, alongside Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Richard Russo.
In contrast to his brother George, whose primal, alpha-male aggression is the source of his success and the cause of his downfall, Harry is lost in life. A stillbirth has brought a stuttering relationship to an acrimonious end and he is left with a class full of indifferent students and occasional hook-ups with mildly disturbed women found online. His blithe dependence on abundant pharmaceuticals suggests an unbreachable gap between hope and reality: Harry is contemporary America, prematurely old and tired, already trading on nostalgia, with only the idealism of youth keeping the American dream alive.
Also highly recommended (again ordered by publication date)
Lake Erie is the evocative setting, and Anne Michaels the comparison, for this poetic, bittersweet story of regret and loss.
The Easter Rising sees a man return to his village a hero to some but an enemy to the Church.
A rakish photographer meets his match when trying to seduce a enigmatic woman whose mugging he photographed.
Read our interview with Christopher Burns
In old age, Thomas Edison reflects upon how business came before family in his remarkable life.
Read our interview with Anthony McCarten and his exclusive article on the Gilded Age
- Honour by Elif Shafak (Viking)
Tradition and modernity clash in this sensitive take on the immigrant experience and the horror of honour killings.
Read our interview with Elif Shafak
- The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Hogarth)
A modern take on Sophocles' Antigone that takes an unflinching look at combat in the Afghan mountains.
Read our interview with Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
An ancient Greek hero holds court on an Icelandic merchant ship, but one man remains unmoved by his tales.
Read our interview with Sjón
An epic story of a Hasidic Jewish family split by one daughter's refusal to bow to orthodoxy.
Dazzlingly inventive nested stories that offers up a new mystery for each clue uncovered by two detectives.
A missionary expedition a century ago is contrasted with the parochial attitudes that persist today.
Read our interview with Suzanne Joinson
A shocking act of violence compels a man to return from America to face a life he had tried to leave behind.
Read our interview with Stuart Evers
A lyrical and touching debut that explores the bonds of family and what it means to call a place home.
Read our interview with Natasha Soobramanien
A haunting, uncompromising novella that finds beauty and resonance in an Idaho life perhaps not so ordinary.
- NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Social division in contemporary London, full of nimble tricks that would fall flat in the hands of most writers.
Read our interview with Zadie Smith and her list of favourite recent reads
Courage and compassion, steadfastness and sorrow, as two Australian sisters volunteer as nurses in the Great War.
So those are my favourites from a year of magical reading. Now I'd love hear what you enjoyed most. What have I missed out on? Maybe you'll even make me reconsider something I didn't really take to the first time around. Let us know on Facebook or Twitter. I'll be back with my regular round-up of forthcoming fiction at the start of the New Year - I've already had the chance to read some real gems out in 2013. Merry Christmas!
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