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Reviews

Novels of the year

Andrew Tate

Of making many books there is no end, observes the preacher in Ecclesiastes, possibly talking about The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Did this melancholic philosopher (surely a regular on book of the year lists, circa 300 BC) also foresee an era when readers could carry more volumes than they'd ever have time to peruse stored in a snug little box o' magic such as the Kindle? Whether you are an old school, one-novel-at-a-time, pages-marked-with-cinema-tickets or download-it-straight-into-my-cerebral-cortex-please-my-good-man kind of reader, there has been an abundance of lustrous new fiction published in the last twelve months including novels by Jonathan Coe, Andrea Levy, Peter Carey and Maggie O'Farrell.

Not everybody, however, shares my continued enthusiasm for fiction's consolations and skewed pleasures. Not even, it would seem, all writers. In his 2010 manifesto, Reality Hunger, David Shields, a disillusioned and, one assumes, former novelist, argues the case against imaginative fabrication, celebrating instead, what Zadie Smith, in a witty, ambivalent response, calls 'the  superiority of the messy real'.

RMcEwan.jpgShields, who apparently turned away from realm of invented stories in the 1990s, contrasts with the tenacious faith of Ian McEwan who continues to write lean, popular fictions that fuse compelling story-telling with contemporary anxieties. Solar, McEwan's eleventh novel, addresses incipient environmental crisis via the tale of one of his typically flawed, obsessive scientist figures.

RCoe.jpgCompulsive male behaviour is also an area of expertise for Jonathan Coe whose picaresque, sad and inventive tale, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, suggests that isolation is perpetuated rather than cured by modern forms of social networking. In an odd parallel with Shields manifesto, Coe's novel is also implicitly sceptical about the ethics of fiction itself.

Major literary awards went to Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna (Orange Prize for Fiction) and Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, an ostensibly comic narrative that is nevertheless concerned with fracturing friendship, grief and contingent violence, which won the Man Booker Prize, beating Tom McCarthy's  and Andrea Levy's The Long  Song.

RMartel.jpg Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi is one of the most-widely read winners of the Booker, published his first novel since that extraordinary tale of faith and survival. Beatrice and Virgil was not universally praised (indeed, Sarah Churchwell, writing in the Guardian, described it as 'by turns pretentious, humourless, tedious, and obvious'). But such assessments are unfair to another dark allegory, at once oblique and vivid, that articulates significant questions about art's capacity for violence as well as its vital role in bearing witness to humanity's unyielding aptitude for cruelty.  

RPullman.jpgPhilip Pullman is probably the most widely read contemporary British storyteller with a predilection for theological cut and thrust. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - published as part of Canongate's intriguing sequence of myths, retold by major modern writers - revisits the old quest for the 'historical Jesus'. I wonder if Pullman might now embark on an epic cycle, in which the Oxford-based national treasure interrogates the founders of every world religion (I'm particularly looking forward to Buddha? Meh, Not So Much).

Although neither Margaret Atwood (interviewed by Third Way in September)  nor John Irving published brand-new books in 2010, any year in which paperbacks appear by these two Toronto-dwelling writers appears is a good one: Atwood's Year of the Flood, a dystopian, religiously-inflected parable and Irving's tragi-comic Last Night In Twisted River, originally published in 2009, both deserve your time.

RCoupland.jpgDouglas  Coupland's Player One resumes the chilly, apocalyptic mood of his last novel, Generation A.  If it is unlikely to win new converts to Team Coupland, it is, I suspect, the only novel published this year to include an acknowledgement to a former editor of Third Way (go, Brian Draper!).  

Ramis.jpgPlayer One is less than flattering to humankind but it does not come close to the determined levels of misanthropy on display in Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow.  This spectacularly unhappy narrative traverses the 40 years since the sexual revolution with few good words to say about anybody. As ever, Amis is exceptionally sharp on narcissism, the persistence of male folly and he, like Howard Jacobson, obviously loves Jane Austen. The book is much less satisfying in its treatment of religious longing but it does articulate one crucial question: is there a difference between liberty and licence?

This is also the challenge that haunts the protagonists of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom - one of my three favourite novels of the year.  Franzen writes families in all their mess of dysfunction, love and resilience better than anybody else. Freedom is ambitious enough to take on Iraq, environmental concerns and (different kinds of) infidelity without becoming horribly didactic. Another personal favourite is Scarlett Thomas' fifth novel proper Our Tragic Universe. Thomas' tale is a weird, beguiling hybrid of rites-of-passage, popular science and eschatology. Thomas' heroine, a struggling writer, explores the possibility of writing a 'storyless' story. This could be deeply irritating but I was smitten.

RMitchell.jpgTop of my personal canon for 2010 is David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Set on an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay in 1799, Mitchell's tale of personal sacrifice and cross-cultural contact redefines historical romance as something rich, strange and beautiful. Like all the best fiction, The Thousand Autumns requires us to decelerate in a way that is distinctly at odds with the velocity of most cultural activities. And, surprisingly, the ethics of Mitchell's novel, like his righteous eponymous protagonist, appear to be shaped by the book of Psalms. Read it soon. 

Andrew Tate

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