Review of Books 2005

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Book critics and publishers are too fond of declaring that a particular year has been a vintage one. But the wine-making metaphor has seldom been as apt as when referring to the fiction published in 2005.

The year was barely halfway in before pundits, like vintners after a hot summer, were rushing to declare it “the richest... for contemporary British and Commonwealth fiction” in decades. This, let us remember, was a year when the Man Booker judges overlooked one Nobel laureate and double Booker winner, three other previous Booker recipients and two previously nominated authors. The prize was finally given to Irish novelist John Banville’s The Sea (Picador £16.99), a mesmerising and exquisitely recounted tale of loss, love and the ways in which grief wrestles with remembrance.

In its sorrowful wake The Sea left behind some equally impressive books. Arthur & George (Jonathan Cape £17.99), the fictionalised account of a true case involving Arthur Conan Doyle, reminds readers of Julian Barnes’ capacity for subtlety, empathy and characterisation. Never Let Me Go (Faber £16.99), Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into speculative fiction, imagines a community where children are raised solely for organ donation. Ishiguro’s dystopia is the more chilling for occurring in our own times and in a traditional English setting. The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton £14.99), a simple but pyrotechnically narrated story about the havoc wreaked by a stranger in the course of a family holiday, confirms Ali Smith as one of Britain’s most interesting prose writers. Another Smith - Zadie - pays homage to E.M. Forster in her most ambitious novel to date, On Beauty (Hamish Hamilton £16.99), which takes place in the sedate halls of a New England college but is underpinned by typically British musings on race, family and class.

This may be remembered as the year when fiction engaged with the hefty issues that emerged after 9/11. Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape £17.99) has been hailed as a return to form for one of the world’s most distinguished storytellers, and a timely exploration of the heartbreaking path by which a peaceful man is led to extremism. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (Jonathan Cape £17.99), set against the backdrop of London’s great anti-war march in February 2003, takes a more poised angle on current affairs. Coolly narrated by neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, the novel is an elegant meditation on the randomness, the inevitability and the transforming power of violence. The grim spectre of 9/11 also haunts the pages of Paul Auster’s latest fable, The Brooklyn Follies (Faber £16.99), in which a hapless former insurance salesman relocates to Brooklyn hoping to die, but instead finds himself caught up in an entirely new life.

Auster’s novel has joined a crowded field of outstanding books by US authors. Notable is the long-awaited Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead (Virago £14.99), by Marilynne Robinson, a powerful and moving account of the life of Reverend John Ames and his forebears, as told in a letter to his young son. Unlike Robinson, whose only other novel was published 24 years ago, the prolific John Updike is not in the habit of making readers wait. This year saw the British publication of his 21st novel, Villages (Hamish Hamilton £17.99), a typically Updikean yarn about sex and the suburbs remembered in old age.

While biographers, filmmakers and even musical theatre directors have turned the spotlight on sexologist Alfred Kinsey, the hilarious and poignant biographical novel The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle (Bloomsbury £16.99), cuts the man once known as “Dr Sex” down to size. Better known for novels set in the US’s old, grim and morally ambiguous West, Cormac McCarthy has chosen a modern setting for No Country for Old Men (Picador £16.99), which pits the hapless protagonist against a small border-town sheriff and a posse of murderous drug dealers. Also from US-born authors came an energetic and critically acclaimed debut - Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (Picador £12.99) -and a successful second novel - Benjamin Markovits’ Either Side of Winter (Faber £10.99).

It was a good year for short stories, too. Alice Munro’s latest collection, Runaway (Chatto & Windus £15.99), proves again why the Canadian author, now in her seventies, is considered the finest living short-story writer in the English language. Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories (Bloomsbury £20), a compilation of short fiction written between 1938 and 1982 by Patricia Highsmith, doyenne of the suspense novel and creator of psychopathic Tom Ripley, shows her not only limbering up for longer works but demonstrating her mastery over the genre. After two successful novels, Dutch-born Michel Faber returns to short fiction in his new collection The Fahrenheit Twins (Canongate £12.99), while William Boyd is at his quirkiest in his compilation, Fascination (Penguin £7.99).

Foreign fiction in translation was well represented in 2005. Argentine novelist Rodrigo Fresan’s Kensington Gardens (Faber £12.99), an exhilarating literary romp based on the life of J.M. Barrie, brings one of Latin America’s most interesting authors to an English-language readership. Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez surprised and delighted (and even outraged) many readers with the publication of Memories of my Melancholy Whores (Jonathan Cape £10), the brief and delicate tale of an old codger’s romantic obsession with a 14-year-old virgin. Japan’s most popular living writer, Haruki Murakami, is back with his usual blend of bizarre occurrences, pop references and philosophical meandering in Kafka on the Shore (Vintage £7.99). From a country rent by violence came Lovers and Strangers (Bloomsbury £14.99), two novellas about betrayal, salvaged love and forgiveness by Israel’s David Grossman. In The Insatiable Spiderman (Faber £6.99) Pedro Juan Gutierrez, known for his fierce depictions of another besieged country - Cuba - serves up a raw and wryly comic novel about Cubans trying to survive at home and abroad.

There were no new novels by Dan Brown (why bother, if four of his previous titles are still on the UK’s bestseller list?) but the book-charts were stormed by a spirited first novel about a diplomat’s daughter who stumbles across documents related to the hunt for Vlad the Impaler and the truth behind the Dracula myth. Who can say if Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (Little, Brown £10.99) is, as her publishers claimed, “destined for immortality”, but it is certainly a surprise hit.

Readers of genre fiction will have been delighted to see the return of three much-loved characters. P.D. James’s superbly reliable but emotionally troubled inspector Adam Dalgliesh is summoned to solve a crime on Combe Island, but ends up with more dead bodies than he has bargained for in The Lighthouse (Faber £17.99). Erast Fandorin, the secret agent created by the Georgian author Boris Akunin, finds himself embroiled in intrigues surrounding the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 in Turkish Gambit (Phoenix £6.99). Meanwhile, England’s most infamous cad, scoundrel, rotter, drunk, bounder, hero and philanderer gets into his own scrapes in the Abyssinian War of 1868 in George MacDonald Fraser’s twelfth installment of the Flashman Papers, Flashman on the March (HarperCollins £17.99).

Transporting readers further back, to the Trojan War, Margaret Atwood rewrote The Odyssey from the point of view of the long-suffering but mostly forgotten heroine, Penelope. The Penelopiad (Canongate £12) is funny and acerbic, a rollicking read that shares some of the original version’s timelessness, and, like other titles in the same series, also happens to be beautifully designed+-.

Lucy Kellaway dragged the epistolary novel into the 21st century with Martin Lukes: Who Moved my BlackBerry? (Viking £12.99), a gleefully satirical take on corporate culture born from Kellaway’s FT column documenting the travails of Chief Personal Ethics Champion at a-b global (UK) - self-aggrandising, cliche-spouting Martin Lukes, a sort of David Brent of the Fortune 500 world.

So many books, so little time. John Crace, has published a selection from his weekly Guardian column The Digested Read (Guardian Books £9.99). Deliciously catty, it is a good place for to find potted versions of McEwan’s Saturday, Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go and many other recent works by today’s literary heavyweights. It also proves that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

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