December 2, 2011 9:58 pm

Tales for under the tree

From the Egyptian secret service to dystopian China, FT writers and guests pick their favourite fiction of 2011

 Fiction

Last Man in Tower , by Aravind Adiga, Atlantic, RRP£17.99

Residents of a decrepit Mumbai tower block are made an offer they can hardly refuse by an unscrupulous property developer. This rich and acutely observed novel about a city whose inhabitants are caught between extremes of wealth and poverty is a worthy follow-up to Adiga’s Man Booker prize-winning The White Tiger.

The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam, Canongate, RRP£16.99

This fine sequel to Anam’s debut, The Golden Age, tells the story of Maya and Sohail, a brother and sister torn in opposite directions by Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Maya is a liberal doctor. Sohail is veering towards Islamism. Their clash of perspectives reflects the fledgling country’s search for an identity.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress , by Beryl Bainbridge, Little Brown, RRP£16.99

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The author was working on this, her 18th work of fiction, when she died last year. In her inimitable style, Bainbridge tells the story of Rose, a young English woman, driving across America in 1968 with the much older Harold, in their peculiar quest to find the elusive Dr Wheeler.

The Sense of an Ending , by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99

Barnes won this year’s Man Booker prize for this slim volume about memory and mortality. Elegant and precise but brimming with contained emotion, it tells the story of Tony, Adrian and Veronica, whose lives are linked through friendship and failed relationships.

Other People’s Money , by Justin Cartwright, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99

A feel-good novel about the financial crisis? Certainly one of the funniest you’ll read. Featuring a cast that includes an ailing old-school banker, his unfaithful wife, his hedge-fund-mad son, an unemployed actor and a jaded newspaper editor, Cartwright’s latest offering is a sophisticated comedy of manners for this gloomy age.

A Visit from the Goon Squad , by Jennifer Egan, Corsair, RRP£11.99

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Egan’s shape-shifting novel comprises a sequence of loosely connected stories that defy narrative conventions. A cross between the works of Proust and The Sopranos, according to the author, it is an inventive investigation into the cruelty of time and the music industry.

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20

Surely one of this year’s most eagerly anticipated novels, Wallace’s unfinished and posthumously published follow-up to Infinite Jest revolves around tax agents at the Inland Revenue Service’s office in Peoria, Illinois. Fragmented, challenging, humorous and typically digressive, it is perhaps the most intriguing work of fiction ever written about boredom.

The Stranger’s Child , by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, RRP£20

Seven years after his Booker-winner The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst has delivered another outstanding novel. Heartbreaking, humorous and filled with wondrously precise prose, the novel centres on Cecil Valance, a mediocre and sexually ambiguous poet killed in the first world war.

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James, Faber, RRP£18.99

This unusual offering combines two of P.D. James’s greatest passions: the detective novel and the work of Jane Austen. In this gripping sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy find their pleasant matrimonial life rocked by a murder in the woodlands of the Pemberley estate.

Anatomy of a Disappearance , by Hisham Matar, Penguin, RRP£10

Its timing could hardly have been more propitious. The second novel by Libyan-born Matar, about a child haunted by his father’s kidnap by the Egyptian secret service, appeared just as the Arab Spring began sweeping through the region. A beautifully written, poignant story.

We Others: New and Selected Stories, by Steven Millhauser, Corsair, RRP£20

A magnificent collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winner. These stories, published over the past two decades with a few new ones thrown in, feature settings as varied as 19th-century Vienna, modern Connecticut and Thomas Edison’s laboratory. Surreal, disquieting and surprising.

The Tiger’s Wife , by Téa Obreht, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£12.99

This year’s surprise Orange Prize-winner is the story of Natalia, a young doctor returning to a Balkan village to find out the circumstances of her grandfather’s death. A bold mix of history and myth, filled with dreamlike sequences and ghostly characters, it is a remarkable debut.

Saints and Sinners , by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP£7.99

It’s been more than 50 years since O’Brien published her debut novel, The Country Girls. Her latest short story collection proves her powers of observation and description to be undiminished. There is much tenderness and compassion in these tales about childhood, exile and return, and the way we repress our desires.

The Cat’s Table , by Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99

“What had there been before such a ship in my life?” asks narrator Michael, remembering a life-changing sea journey from Colombo to London. In Ondaatje’s characteristically image-rich prose, we meet an extraordinary cast including a millionaire afflicted by rabies, a shady convict and an Indian circus troupe.

There But For The , by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99

A dinner-party guest locks himself in the host’s spare room and refuses to leave. Around this simple storyline, Smith convenes a fascinating mix of characters, ranging from smug middle-class philistines to a precocious, pun-loving nine-year-old. But the novel’s greatest joy is in its linguistic inventiveness.

At Last , by Edward St Aubyn, Picador, RRP£16.99

The FT called St Aubyn’s novel, the fifth in the extraordinary cycle charting the life of Patrick Melrose, “a miraculously wrought piece of art”. Set during the funeral of Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, it sends the protagonist on an unpredictable course to reconcile himself to the damage caused by his parents.

Wish You Were Here , by Graham Swift, Picador, RRP£18.99

Grief, loss and memory are the themes of Swift’s elliptical novel. Over a single night Jack Luxton, an uprooted farmer who has sold his family’s estate in Devon to manage a trailer park on the Isle of Wight, ponders the death of his brother Tom, recently killed in combat in Iraq.

The Collaborator, by Mirza Waheed, Viking, RRP£12.99

As war rages in India’s volatile border region, a 19-year-old Kashmiri is recruited by an Indian army officer to perform a grim task. He must go into the valley where Kashmiri rebels have been killed and retrieve their weapons and ID cards. But will he find his own childhood friends among the dead? A powerful first novel.

The Submission , by Amy Waldman, Heinemann, RRP£12.99

What if the anonymously chosen winner of the commission to design a memorial for victims of 9/11 turned out to be someone called Mohammed Khan? This is the provocative question at the heart of Waldman’s extraordinary debut. A sharp and searching study of the ways in which the tragic event has torn the US apart.

Ángel Gurría-Quintana

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Chris Wormell's books illustration

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Fiction in translation

Hate: A Romance, by Tristan Garcia, translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein, Faber, RRP£12.99

Garcia was awarded the prestigious Prix de Flore for his powerful debut, which charts the friendships and fallings-out of four French intellectuals at the centre of Paris’ buzzing gay scene in the 1980s.

The Fat Years , by Chan Koonchung, translated by Michael S. Duke, Doubleday, RRP£12.99

First published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009, The Fat Years was banned in China for posing uncomfortable questions about the Communist regime’s selective memory. A disturbing glimpse into a dystopian (though not-so-distant) future, in which China has become the world’s economic powerhouse.

Dream of Ding Village , by Yan Lianke, translated by Cindy M. Carter, Corsair, RRP£12.99

The title’s “dream” refers to one of the great tragedies in recent Chinese history, when corruption and incompetence in rural blood donation centres caused an Aids epidemic that wiped out entire villages. This sordid episode inspired Yan to write a grimly satirical novel that was banned by Chinese authorities.

The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallander Mystery, by Henning Mankell, translated by Laurie Thompson, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99

Twenty years after the publication of his first book featuring the dour Swedish detective, and much to fans’ displeasure, Mankell has called it a day. This final novel follows the ailing and increasingly irascible sleuth as he uncovers cold-war plots and a rightwing military conspiracy.

New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry, Dedalus, RRP£9.99

A wounded sailor is found on a Trieste quay – amnesic, unable to speak and with nothing to identity him but a nametag suggesting a Finnish origin. A passing doctor resolves to teach him Finnish in order to restore his memory and rebuild his identity. Charming and beguiling.

Purgatory, by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99

Martínez’s valedictory novel explores one of Argentina’s most devastating historical episodes: the military dictatorship that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s. The story of Emilia Dupuy’s search for her husband, who disappeared 30 years ago, allows the author to peel away layer upon layer of history – both personal and political.

1Q84 (3 volumes), by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker £20 (volumes 1 & 2); £14.99 (volume 3)

Fans who have come to expect baffling and surreal occurrences in Murakami’s fiction will be well served by this gargantuan three-part novel in which Aomame, a Japanese physical instructor, falls into an alternate world in which “anything can happen”. Beneath the weirdness there are touching reflections on alienation and loneliness.

The Foxes Come at Night , by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Ina Rilke, MacLehose Press, RRP£12

“Few writers exude worldliness like this Dutch stylist,” said the FT’s reviewer about novelist and travel writer Cees Nooteboom. His latest book, an atmospheric and meditative collection of eight short stories, dwells on death and on reality’s unwillingness to conform to the patterns of art and literature.

Ángel Gurría-Quintana

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Caroline Daniel

Caroline Daniel,
Editor of FT Weekend

Keen to flee the Euro financial apocalypse? Look no further than Haruki Murakami. In his brilliant earlier novel, Kafka on the Shore, within pages I believed cats could talk. In the opening chapter of his new epic 1Q84 (Harvill Secker), one of the characters gets out of a taxi on a highway, hitches up her miniskirt, descends an emergency stairwell and enters another world. Immediately you are on a 932-page journey, spread over three books, embracing two worlds, two moons, a sinister cult, and a cat town (obviously). Pure fictional escapism.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan,
Novelist

Angela Davis-Gardener’s Butterfly’s Child (Dial Press) deserved more readers than it found. “Butterfly” is the protagonist of Puccini’s famous opera, whose mixed-race child Davis-Gardener follows to a Midwestern farm with his American father, Pinkerton, and his new wife, in the late 19th century. But Davis-Gardener’s plans are more elaborate and subversive than a mere reimagining and the novel is a brilliant, poignant study of the dangers of operatic mythmaking. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Picador) was another favourite; his scholarly leapfrogging through several generations of gay life becomes a meditation both on the nature of scholarly reconstruction and of what being “gay” means.

AN Wilson

AN Wilson,
Writer and critic

My novel of the year is The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie (Bloomsbury), an extraordinarily lyrical, moving, funny evocation of a Welsh mining town and its inhabitants as seen through the eyes of “the coward”, who witnessed the collapse of the Kindly Light pit. A poet’s novel, really. The disparate bits turn out not to be just beautifully written prose-poems and good jokes, but part of a cunningly wrought whole. A terrific achievement.

Jean-Claude Carrière,
Screenwriter / writer / actor

Atiq Rahimi’s powerful and mysterious novel, Maudit Soit Dostoievski (A Curse on Dostoevsky), (POL), takes us into the land of guilt and raises the question of where that land begins and ends. Are its borders Christian? The novel is set in Afghanistan and follows the uncertain path of an avowed criminal, leading the reader to ask who, why and how he has killed and why does he want to give himself up? Is Europe to be blamed? Perhaps in spreading our customs and ways of living to other regions, we also disseminate our obsessions, secrets and anxieties - indeed, our crime and punishment.

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Poetry,

Black Cat Bone, by John Burnside, Cape Poetry, RRP£10

Burnside’s limpid melancholia won him this year’s Forward Prize. As in previous collections, some of his poems are drawn magnetically into the woods, where he explores the idea of hiding places, not least in human hearts. The love poems have a courtly but middle-aged yearning – the poet is thwarted, sidelined, but still ardent for the passions and pleasures of youth.

The Bees, by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador, RRP£14.99

Duffy’s first full collection for six years, and her first as Poet Laureate, does not have the love-consumed urgency of Rapture but her quieter voice still can be powerful, particularly in mourning for her mother. The metaphor of bees extends brilliantly through the book to represent industry both literary and human.

Night, by David Harsent, Faber, RRP£9.99

Silky evocation of the liminal world between night and day, conscious and subconscious, with dreams half-remembered.

Natalie Whittle

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Chris Wormell's books illustration

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Crime

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin, Macmillan, RRP£7.99

This award-winning crime novel that invited comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of white and black boyhood friends in rural Mississippi, separated by an apparent crime that changes their lives. A beautifully crafted thriller that explores the nature of friendship and bigotry.

The House Of Silk , by Anthony Horowitz, Orion, RRP£18.99

Sherlock Holmes sets out to discover why a dead street urchin has been marked with a white ribbon, and what is inside the House of Silk. Horowitz, commissioned by the Conan Doyle estate, provides pitch-perfect atmosphere in a novel that’s both a tribute to Holmes’s creator and a grace note, with a politically damning conundrum at its heart.

The Dispatcher , by Ryan David Jahn, Macmillan, RRP£12.99

Meet the parents whose need for a child at any cost launches them on a bullet riddled cross-state chase. Jahn creates a series of palm-sweating situations that pay homage to the classic noirs while feeling entirely fresh.

Snowdrops , by A.D. Miller, Atlantic, RRP£7.99

Shortlisted for both the Man Booker prize and the Gold Dagger, Snowdrops was for me the year’s real winner. A young corporate lawyer in Russia becomes compromised when he’s befriended by two sexy women who need his help. It’s a sinister, seductive read that paints a murky moral portrait of the new capitalist Russia.

Christopher Fowler

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Science fiction

The Kings of Eternity, by Eric Brown, Solaris, RRP£7.99

Brown writes SF that aims for the heart more than the head. His latest novel took him 10 years to complete (around other projects) and satisfies not only as a homage to the genre’s golden age greats, such as Verne and Wells, but also as a simple, affectingly told love story.

Embassytown , by China Miéville, Pan Macmillan, RRP£17.99

Miéville’s eighth novel does nothing to tarnish his reputation as Britain’s brightest and best SF author. Focusing on the efforts of human settlers to communicate with natives of a very alien planet, it is a powerful and thought-provoking enquiry into how language can both divide and bridge cultures.

By Light Alone , by Adam Roberts, Gollancz, RRP£12.99

A typically bizarre conceit from Roberts – people with hair that can photosynthesise sunlight – is wedded to a beguiling novel about international economic disparity and the burden of parental responsibility. Swiftian satire nestles surprisingly comfortably alongside a graceful, literary turn of phrase.

James Lovegrove

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Teen

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher, Indigo, RRP£6.99

The standout title of the year, a heart-warming tale of a young boy whose elder sister has been killed in a bomb attack in London. Despite the dramatic premise, this book manages to be both solidly realistic and very funny. An exceptional debut.

Mister Creecher, by Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, RRP£10.99

The master of contemporary macabre brings an elegant new twist to the old tale of Frankenstein. A London street urchin befriends the hulking monster and uses him to get revenge. All the excitement and dread of Mary Shelley’s classic without the stuffy prose.

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff, Puffin, RRP£12.99

How thrilling would it be, really, to have a supernatural being fall in love with you? Bob is a lazy and selfish teenage boy who also happens to be God – our God. And then he claps eyes on comely zookeeper Lucy. Bear with it, it’s brilliant and bizarre.

Suzi Feay

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Children’s

How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword, by Cressida Cowell, Hodder, RRP£5.99

Nine novels into her How to Train Your Dragon series, Cowell’s wit and inventiveness show no signs of flagging. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock is on the cusp of manhood and also of realising his great destiny – if, that is, he can yet again thwart his scheming arch-enemy, Alvin the Treacherous.

Bracelet of Bones, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Quercus, RRP£12.99

A Norse saga with a difference: few marauding, beer-swilling Vikings in this book, only a girl whose father has headed south to Constantinople to find employment as a mercenary. Her search for him is a travelogue through a beautifully realised 11th-century Europe, full of incident and subtle characterisation.

The Devil Walks, by Anne Fine, Doubleday, RRP£10.99

A classic Gothic tale that benefits both from Fine’s understated prose and a premise that is made up of familiar elements – huge rambling house, possessed doll, sinister uncle – but with enough new twists and wrinkles to make it fresh and fascinating. Ghostly and ghastly in all the right ways.

Too Small to Fail, by Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, RRP£6.99

The second Gleitzman novel published this year is even better than the earlier Grace. A timely critique of the global banking crisis, it makes the point, without lecturing or hectoring, that macroeconomic decisions have real-world, small-scale consequences. The simple decency of the main character, Oliver, shines through.

James Lovegrove

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