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Fiction: 2014 round-up

Andrew Tate

Literature frequently thrives on the challenge of other art forms. The truism about a picture being worth a thousand words echoes in The Goldfinch, one of the least clichéd popular novels of recent years (Donna Tartt's long-awaited third book, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize). The titular painting by Carel Fabritus - student of Rembrandt - becomes an obsession for traumatized 21st-century boy, Theo Decker, the orphaned narrator, and an abiding symbol of beauty, guilt and grief across a traumatic decade or so and close to 900 pages.

Dutch seventeenth-century aesthetics also frame Jessie Burton's debut, The Miniaturist, in which an exquisitely crafted doll's house mirrors the complex domestic politics of the 'real' world. Nick Hornby's new novel similarly takes inspiration from a visual medium but Funny Girl is prompted by the golden era of British television comedy rather than the Old Masters. The author of Fever Pitch and High Fidelity has a fine record of writing about the ways in which popular culture gives shape to interior lives; his careful, laconic narration might be mistaken for a rejection of style but Hornby's minimalism is rich and affecting.

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is a multi-genre epic for our times, and quite a few others too, including the deep past and decades-yet-tocome. Mitchell's sixth novel moves between 1980s rites-of-passage angst and dystopian future via a comedy of literary jealousy. Characters and plot-lines from all of his previous books connect with the pilgrimage of Holly Sykes, our sceptical witness to a skewed, dangerously magical reality. Despite an absence of talking dragons or sentient trees, Mitchell, with his particular gift for world-building and bold experiments with supernatural cosmology, reminds me far more of Tolkein than he recalls, say, Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. Both of these big names published new novels in 2014: Amis' The Zone of Interest heads back into the territory of Time's Arrow and what Hannah Arendt named 'the banality of evil'. How to represent the unrepresentable horrors of the Holocaust? Amis never makes things easy for himself or his readers.

McEwan's The Children Act is less obviously risk-taking, though its plot about the collision of faith and reason framed by complex, ambivalent characters, resists predictable humanist outcomes.

Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood is as strong - and as strange - a fictional debut as I can remember. Perry has spoken of the way her Strict Baptist upbringing, shorn of contemporary culture's shiny symbols but replete with the Bible and Charlotte Bronte, gave her a 'wonder at the strangeness of things'. The story of a lonely man in search of himself, this is a novel that pairs the spareness of parable with the insolent, irresistible rhythm of dreams.

Transcendent oddness and earthy disappointment are also crucial to Tim Winton's iterations of Western Australia. Eyrie, his 25th book, is a prose psalm to 'the little bloke, the reject, the no-hoper'. Winton is celebrated for his acute vision of landscape but he is best when evoking the failures and persistent hope of thwarted idealists like Tom Keeley. I was fascinated by Keeley's gradual, dazed awakening and experienced the rare sensation of wishing that he were part of a longer novel.

The fear that the world as we know it is on the brink of catastrophe continues to fascinate and, I presume, to sell books. Emily St. John Mandel is the latest in a long tradition of Canadian writers - hello, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and David Cronenburg - with apocalyptic presentiments. As I write this piece, I am part way through her utterly compelling Station Eleven, an evocation of life, art and memory in and before a 'post-collapse' world.

Also on my current bedside stack is Michael Faber's The Book of Strange New Things, a beautifully odd narrative of a Christian minister who is dispatched from a near-future earth to communicate the gospel to an alien civilization. This might sound like a candidate for worst plot ever but Faber is a skilled, visionary artist and, on my reading so far, this is a novel that treats faith as more than a punch-line to a corny joke.

There is no living novelist with a greater sense of the nuances of Christian belief and anxiety than Marilynne Robinson. Lila, the third in her Gilead sequence, is a lyrical narrative of the longing for home. It is also my favourite novel of the last year, one that troubles as much as it comforts.