Wednesday 7 December 2016

A feast of Fiction

John Boland picks his top 10 novels from our own literary lights and their global counterparts this past year

Published 11/12/2010 | 05:00

Until 2005, there was a recognised quartet of major American novelists whose latest books would have made obvious Christmas gifts for the literary-minded, but with the deaths of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike, only Philip Roth survives to tell his tales.

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This he's been doing with the urgency of someone who knows that time is not on his side -- his latest, Nemesis, published a few months ago, was his fifth novel in five years.

By comparison, Jonathan Franzen is a sluggard, this year's much talked-about Freedom coming nine years after his last bestselling The Corrections, while Cormac McCarthy isn't much more prolific, having published nothing since The Road in 2006.

Some of the best Irish novelists were also quiet this year, with no new full-length fiction from John Banville, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin nor Anne Enright, though there were novels from such other established figures as Joseph O'Connor, Hugo Hamilton and Emma Donoghue, while some striking new talents -- notably Paul Murray -- also made their presence felt.

Anyway, despite the absence in 2010 of some big names, here are 10 works of fiction from the year which should be welcomed by any family member, friend or loved one.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

The year's most talked-about novel, and with good reason: this is a big, old-fashioned and immensely satisfying family saga that also manages to say telling things about the recent America in which it's set. The characters are so vividly drawn and their plights so funny and poignant that you'll feel a wrench of loss when you get to the last page. Perhaps it's not quite The Great American Novel, but it was certainly the greatest this year.

Collected Stories by William Trevor (Penguin Viking)

A luxuriously presented two-volume set in a cardboard slipcase, this doesn't come cheap (more than €70), but it includes every story written by this master of the form up to his 2007 collection, Cheating at Canasta. There's a lifetime's reading and rereading in these 1,827 pages.

Solar by Ian McEwan (Cape)

Its climate-change musings are less impressively handled than its comedy, which, although owing something to David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, manages to be very funny in its own right. And that's not something you'd expect from McEwan.

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre (Penguin)

Not Le Carre's best book, but the 79-year-old is still amazingly sprightly in this tale of British agents trying to accommodate the wishes of a corrupt Russian oligarch who fears for his life and seeks sanctuary in the UK. It fizzles out somewhat at the end, but it's a witty and absorbing page-turner.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury)

A surprise winner of this year's Man Booker prize, given that the award has tended to ignore comic novels. But there's real poignancy, too, in this story of three men looking back on their lives and also in its reflections on what being Jewish means.

Room

by Emma Donoghue

(Picador)

An imaginative tour de force and the novel that many felt should have won the Man Booker prize. The Irish writer finds a pitch-perfect voice for five-year-old narrator Jack, imprisoned with his mother, who persuades him that the dreadful circumstance in which they find themselves is really quite normal. What could have been grotesque is instead handled with warmth and tenderness.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

One of the year's most controversial bestsellers. Its attackers, and there have been many, accused it of misogyny and racial stereotyping, but there's a furious energy to this chronicle of how a slap administered to a child by a non-family member at a suburban Melbourne party leads to appalling domestic and social consequences.

Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor (Harvill Secker)

The Irish writer delicately evokes the troubled romantic affair between young actress Molly Allgood and dramatist John Millington Synge and the life that she lived afterwards. Not just an historical novel but also a delicately written and moving reflection on passion and loss.

The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

Finely wrought stories of exile and estrangement, love and loneliness from the author of Brooklyn. The sexual frankness of a couple of the stories may startle admirers of that discreetly understated novel, but it's a riveting collection.

The Granta Book of Irish Short Stories edited by Anne Enright (Granta)

A book to dip into rather than read from beginning to end. The 31 stories include classics by Frank O'Connor, Sean O Faolain, Elizabeth Bowen and Maeve Brennan, but there's a bracing number of contemporary writers, most notably Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, Philip O Ceallaigh and Gerard Donovan.

Irish Independent

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