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Reviews

Fiction of the year 2013

Andrew Tate

Dread of an imminent day of reckoning has been a surprisingly abundant source of narrative possibility in the last 12 months. Zombies, robots and/or aliens precipitated noisy Armageddon at the cinema and on TV screens but novels seem more concerned about the destructive outcomes of human folly.

Margaret Atwood is always good with bad news but MaddAddam constitutes a muted finale to her end-of-the-world- as-we-know-it trilogy. This parable of grief, ecological catastrophe and survival is less urgent than the previous instalments. Atwood, however, remains a powerfully inquisitive and subversively principled writer, the nearest we might have to novelist as prophet.

A much more jaded - and considerably less persuasive - vision of the end of days is shared by Raymond Gunt, the titular narrator of Douglas Coupland's murkily comic Worst. Person. Ever. Whoops, apocalypse? Coupland has often been a writer of warm, Oscar Wilde-worthy wit but this thin tale lacks either the naughty zing of JPod or the empathic generosity of Eleanor Rigby. The book began as a contribution to McSweeney's and Coupland thanks the editors of the pioneering literary magazine, including Dave Eggers.

Eggars has had an impressively prolific year with two successful novels: A Hologram for the King - a book in which not much happens but much is said - and, more recently, The Circle, a chilling critique of conformity and the dystopian potential of consumer culture.

Red or Dead is a title loaded with political resonance but David Peace's ninth novel is not quite an elegy for the British left; rather, in a return to the sporting terrain and era of The Damned United, it's a peculiar paean to Bill Shankly, the near mythic manager of Liverpool FC in the club's 1970s prime. The writer's litany-like style, full of rhythmic repetition, is an acquired taste and one that gives this narrative an oddly ecclesiastical feel. Faith in football and the kind favoured by Saint Paul were not, Peace suggests, simply rivals in Shankly's mind. The writer borrows his epigraph from the book of Revelation 3. 20 ('Here I am. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me') which technically makes this an apocalyptic fiction in the truest sense. Behold: Peace shows us a mystery and one that might be of interest even if you don't know Kevin Keegan's Anfield-years shirt number.

If the Bible, the 'book of books', is echoed in style and theme by Atwood and Peace, it is the defining source of Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary. This Booker Prize shortlisted novella - originally published at the end of 2012 - belongs to a tradition of postmodern gospels, apparently answering gaps in the canonical records of the life of Jesus. Tóibín's Mary is a grieving, angry mother burdened by memory ('I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape') and weary of the zeal of her dead son's friends. This alternative evangel, furrowed with spiritual ambiguity, is unlikely, I suspect, to become required reading on the Alpha Course but Tóibín is too careful a lover of language to have written either a crassly cynical or polemically anti-theist novel.

Tóibín is also not the only eminent writer to have acknowledged the imaginative power of biblical narrative in the last year. JM Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus is a tease of a title but, in its oblique way, this spare, Samuel Beckett-like piece plays intriguingly with New Testament tropes of sacrifice, loss and the sensation of unexpected belief. Indeed, the story, in which a child and his adoptive father adapt to life in a nameless land that seems to have dispensed with all strong feeling, is estranging in a way most reminiscent of Jesus' parables.

The willowy, sometimes stark quality of Coetzee's absurdist nativity is a major contrast to Eleanor Catton's baroque Booker- Prize winner, The Luminaries. Full of gorgeous sentences, salty dialogue and characters named, for example, Edgar Clinch, this is a 21st-century version of what Henry James' named the 'baggy monster' style novel. To wit: 832 pages. It's a hugely impressive achievement and I feel slightly bad for not quite loving such an ambitious experiment in the form.

As ever, the year produced a stack of intriguing-sounding novels that demand to be read but which I either haven't begun or am still to complete. Donna Tartt will surely forgive unhurried readers as she has taken a little more than a decade to complete The Goldfinch, her third book in 20 years. She is a fastidious writer and one who produces rich, page-turning stories full of sin, regret and mystery. Another puzzle has already been solved: the enigmatic debut novelist, Robert Galbraith, proved to also known as J. K. Rowling and I look forward to reading his/ her/their The Cuckoo's Calling.

Two of my favourites of 2013 were written by people I regard as friends. Taste is never wholly a question of objectivity but I recommend, without reservation, Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels and Jo Baker's Longbourn. The former tracks 24 hours in the life of one family and displays an acute eye for the miraculous amid the mundane. 'Longbourn', as readers of Austen will recognize, is the home of another famous family. Baker's book retells Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of those who minister to the Bennets. The servants' story is an extraordinary rival to a classic and is quietly, elegantly political in its depiction of hidden labour and its true cost.