Sunday 15 September 2019

One-sentence novels and the musings of an unborn baby

While some of the big-hitters of fiction were absent, John Boland looks back on a year of many fine works

Eimear McBride followed up A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing with the wonderfully evoked The Lesser Bohemian
Eimear McBride followed up A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing with the wonderfully evoked The Lesser Bohemian
William Trevor's Collected Stories is a book crammed with miniature masterpieces
Robert Harris returned with Conclave, a tautly-paced and intelligent thriller
Conclave by Robert Harris
Collected Stories by William Trevor
Prosperity Drive by Mary Morrissy
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordan
The Girls by Emma Cline
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Some big names were missing from literary fiction in 2016. There was no new novel and no new collection of stories from Anne Enright or Colm Tóibín. Nor was there a novel from John Banville, although Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir kept his admirers happy with its intriguing blend of reminiscence and quirky guide to some of the capital's enduring treasures.

Across the Atlantic, Philip Roth stayed true to his declaration that he was finished with fiction and he also saw his lifetime of achievement being ignored yet again by the Nobel academy, who instead controversially honoured singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

But some very fine novels and story collections were published throughout the year and any of the following would make engrossing gifts for literary-minded friends or loved ones.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber, €23.99). Family ancestors once again provide the inspiration for a Barry novel, with the protagonist here a Sligo-born teenager who ends up soldiering in the American civil war and participating in massacres of Native American tribes. A gay romance is also at the heart of a story that's by turn tender about personal lives, and unflinching in its treatment of human savagery.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Cape, €19.99). Noted for his arresting set-ups, McEwan here ventriloquises the life of a yet unborn child. "So here I am, upside-down in a woman," is the memorable opening line of a novel that deals, among other matters, with the adultery of the narrator's mother, whose love-making disturbs both his foetal repose and his peace of mind. This is McEwan at his most playfully provocative.

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber, €21.99). If you wondered how McBride would follow her astonishing 2013 debut, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, the answer is with a novel that employs similarly fractured syntax to tell a similarly transgressive story, here concerning the love affair between a sexually inexperienced, insecure young drama student and a much older actor with his own psychological baggage. The London of the 1990s is wonderfully evoked in a book whose resolution is a good deal more optimistic than that of its predecessor.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, €27.75). From her exuberant debut, White Teeth, to the intricately observed NW, contemporary London has been the locale of much of Smith's fiction, but here she roams across continents and decades in a story of friendship between two very different women. Race, identity and social mobility still preoccupy her, but music and dance are also added to the mix in an engaging and thought-provoking novel.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press, €15.00). Winner of this year's Goldsmiths prize, McCormack's one-sentence novel is as formally daring as McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the same award two years earlier, though readers should find it a lot less daunting. Fusing the local with the cosmic, this chronicle of a day in the life of a county engineer takes in family concerns, civic responsibility and other issues affecting the decent man who is at the book's absorbing centre.

The Noise Of Time by Julian Barnes (Cape, €20.99). In terms of plotting and character, every new novel is a departure for Barnes and here he focuses on the travails of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as he seeks to keep on the right side of his Soviet masters while holding on to his musical ideals. Written with Barnes' characteristic low-key elegance, the book becomes a meditation on artistic integrity and its limits in a brutal regime.

The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordan (Bloomsbury, €23.79). An unnamed but hauntingly evoked European city is the setting for a novel that has elements of a whodunnit, but then moves into stranger territory. It's also an affecting portrait of a failing marriage as the main character pursues his demons to the detriment of his family and his own precarious sense of identity. Jordan's touch is so assured that even the book's ghostlier aspects are persuasive.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (Fourth Estate, €26.59). Perhaps only Proulx could make a 600-page blockbuster about tree-felling and the timber trade an absorbing chronicle of American ­enterprise and ambition over four centuries. The huge cast of characters come and go, some of them fleetingly, but Proulx's dramatic sense is so vivid that even the most minor of them register strongly.

The Girls by Emma Cline (Chatto & Windus, €18.19). These girls are in the Los Angeles of the 1960s and become involved in the Charles Manson cult that ended with slaughter in the Hollywood hills. The unsettling story is seen through the eyes of troubled teenager Evie in a precociously-assured debut from the 27-year-old Cline.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan (Doubleday, €16.99). Ryan's touch has been unerring since his 2011 debut, The Spinning Heart, and here he's once again depicting lost souls on the forlorn fringes of rural society. Outcast Traveller woman Melody is the central figure in a book that's as tender towards her predicament as it is unflinching in its social gaze.

Conclave by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, €28.00). A master of historical fiction, whether set in 20th century England or classical Rome, Harris here looks into the future as a papal ­conclave seeks a successor to a suddenly deceased pontiff. The machinations of conniving cardinals with their own unholy agenda loom large in a tautly-paced and intelligent thriller.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, €19.00). Winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, this exuberant, indeed sometimes ferocious, satire on American race relations features a black protagonist who successfully reintroduces segregation to his Los Angeles neighbourhood.

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Hamish Hamilton, €15.99). The acclaimed author's first novel in a decade features forty-something Jacob Bloch who, feeling trapped in his marriage, begins an affair with a work colleague. But among the broader themes that are tackled in an ambitious novel is the fate of the Middle East in general and Israel in particular.

Collected Stories by William Trevor (Viking, €23.79). There is no better way to honour William Trevor, who died last month, than to give this marvellous collection to anyone who hasn't yet read this great short-story writer. The book is crammed with miniature masterpieces, some of them comic, others tragic, all of them informed by the author's unerring eye for the telling detail. "The art of the glimpse" is how Trevor described the writing of short stories, but his glimpses reveal whole worlds.

The year's finest book of stories is Prosperity Drive by Mary Morrissy (Cape, €18.19). The collection concerns characters who are all associated with the suburban Dublin street of its title. The author's blend of beady-eyed humour and genuine empathy may remind readers of William Trevor, but her style is very much her own as she observes the foibles and frailties of her diverse people, some of whom recur throughout the stories as minor or major characters in the lives of their neighbours.

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