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Reviews

2011 in fiction

Andrew Tate

'We are not suited to the long perspectives ... They link us to our losses,' claimed Philip Larkin, poet, librarian and all-round bringer of sunshine. Looking back on the year in fiction scarcely involves such a risky backward gaze but melancholy hindsight has been a big feature of novels in 2011. 

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Julian Barnes's Man Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending, for example, turns on the mysterious ravages of the ticking clock. Barnes's title is a precise echo of Frank Kermode's superb, theological 1967 study of 'end determined' literature; both books are concerned with stories that emerge from devastating moments of epiphany. 'We live in time . . . but I've never understood it very well,' reflects the Larkinesque narrator, Tony Webster. This not-terribly remarkable statement prefaces a wholly remarkable, gutsy novella; one that evokes everyday regret, failures of empathy and, ultimately, the human need to be forgiven.  The narrative's brevity is fitting for a piece which crackles with reminders that our experience of life is fleeting and that actions are rarely neutral.

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A similar mood of twilight retrospection pervades David Lodge's A Man of Parts. At 576 pages, this sympathetic but unsentimental re-telling of the long, odd life of H. G. Wells, might seem like one of the 'loose and baggy monsters' of the Victorian era. It is also, however, a real return to form for Lodge.

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Alan Hollinghurst - whose last novel, The Line of Beauty won fiction's most famous prize in 2004  -   also returned to the fray with The Stranger's Child, another delicate, witty narrative which gained the author yet more acclaim (but no place, this time on the Booker shortlist). 

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Hollinghurst's narrative span - 1913 to 2008 - is very close to that of Jo Baker's fourth novel. The Picture Book revitalizes the family saga genre, in a multi-generation story: from William, a factory boy turned First World War sailor (and sender of the postcards that form the eponymous album of memories) to Billie, his great granddaughter, a London-based photographer in 2005. Making sense of the mess of cruelty and progress that is the twentieth-century is a near-impossible task and faith plays little obvious place in the lives of Baker's characters. It's fascinating, then, that The Picture Book should take as its epigraph words from a book of biblical wisdom: 'One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. All the rivers run on to the sea, and yet the sea is not full' (Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 7).  

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Echoes of the Bible in literature are older than the relatively sprightly narrative form known as the 'novel'. The 400th birthday of the King James Version has prompted a plethora of praise from people not normally associated with religion. A number of novelists - including Jeanette Winterson, Stella Duffy (a hit at last summer's Greenbelt festival), and Toby Litt - are among the 66 writers and 130 actors who contributed to the theatrical cycle Sixty-Six Books:  21st-century writers speak to the King James Bible.

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The Jewish and Christian scriptures - in whatever translation - continue to fascinate supposedly secular writers: James Frey has followed Philip Pullman's  recent (ir)reverent  demyth-ologizing of Jesus/Christ with The Final Testament of the Holy Bible which imagines the Messiah dwelling in 21st-century New York city, angry with the holy, consorting with the marginalized and engaging in a lifestyle that might raise one or two eyebrows. 

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The man of sorrows is also (sort of) central to Richard Beard's literary transfiguration of Christ's most famous miracle:  Lazarus is Dead  is not in the Jim Crace Quarantine mode of attempting to debunk signs and wonders. Beard, an experimental writer, fuses techniques of creative non-fiction with a compelling, imaginative take on miracles and the problem of suffering. It is as likely to prompt a re-examination of scepticism as it is of uncritical faith. Highly recommended.

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Literary resurrections of a less obviously spiritual kind were conducted by Anthony Horowitz and Jeffrey Deaver of, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Deaver's  post-War-on-Terror incarnation of 007 is readable but less atmospheric than Charlie Higson's page-turning 1930s-set sequence of Young Bond adventures.

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Where Bond and Holmes occupy a fictional realm in which cold logic and/or being rock hard reign, Ben Aaranovitch's Rivers of London blends myth and the supernatural with the mundane reality of police procedure. A kind of Sweary Potter, DC Peter Grant is the most likeable narrator in recent detective fiction. The secret of good genre fiction (said somebody smarter than me) is the creation of a world to which readers wish to return and I'm looking forward to reading the second book in the series, Moon Over Soho.

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Finally, a genre-bending-and-blending work by the US illustrator and writer, Craig Thompson. Readers familiar with, for example, Art Spiegel-man's Maus or Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery will know that graphic novels  are no longer the exclusive domain of vigilantes wearing tights. Thompson - whose previous work includes the gorgeous, wintry rites-of-passage tale, Blankets (2003) - has produced the most visually arresting book of the year. In Habibi  delicate Arabic calligraphy frames a bold narrative of faith and exile, slavery and the search for freedom. This is a vivid meditation on the risk of love in a fallen world and an allegory of the shared history of Christianity and Islam. The image-maker does not flinch from representing the worst elements of human behaviour but Thompson is a sensitive, serious writer. Habibi is alert to political division but seeks its answers in prayer, justice and mercy. 

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