The Best Fiction for Christmas: Literary novels of 2014
John Boland on a dozen literary novels that made this year special
It was the year of the blockbuster. Following on from Eleanor Catton's 2013 Man Booker-winning The Luminaries, which ran to 830 pages, and Donna Tartt's almost equally verbose The Goldfinch, many of the year's most talked-about novels were as notable for their bulk as for anything else, as if sheer length was being equated both with value for money and with reader satisfaction.
But size isn't everything, and some of the year's most memorable fiction was of less daunting length, including Colin Barrett's debut collection of stories, Young Skins, which won the Guardian First Book Award - Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart having taken the same prize the previous year.
There was new Irish fiction, too, from such established writers as Niall Williams, whose quirky History of the Rain enjoyed general critical success, and from John Boyne, whose first Irish-set adult novel, A History of Loneliness, tackled clerical sex abuse in its story of a well-meaning priest who was unaware of the nefarious doings of some of his colleagues.
There were no new novels by John Banville, Anne Enright, Colum McCann or William Trevor, but a couple of other major Irish writers produced outstanding books.
NORA WEBSTER - Colm Tóibín The Wexford-born author's latest novel, with distinct echoes of his own family background, may well be his best yet. In the Enniscorthy of the 1960s, the recently widowed title character must come to terms with her changed circumstances as she copes with four children who are now fatherless and who all have different needs. Her discovery of the joys of music helps her to find and fashion her own identity in this minutely observed, psychologically acute and beautifully written book.
THE TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN - Sebastian Barry The author's fascination with his own family history continues in this latest chronicle of lost lives. Here, the narrator is the personable adventurer Jack, who nonetheless causes ruination to those closest to him, especially his wife Mai, whose luminous beauty and spirited personality are undone by intimate association with him. Jack's confiding charm makes his actions all the more unsettling.
MUNICH AIRPORT - Greg Baxter American-born Baxter, who lived in Dublin for some years, followed his arresting fictional debut, The Apartment, with this even finer study in displacement and alienation. Stranded at an airport terminal with his elderly father and the coffin of his estranged sister, the narrator casts a sardonic eye on his surroundings as he ruminates on his unsatisfactory past and uncertain future. There's real wit as well as poignancy in this story of dysfunctional lost souls.
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES - Matthew Thomas Perhaps over-long at 600 pages, this story of an Irish-American woman's youth, adulthood and marriage still manages to engross; its first-time author showing a real feeling for the small dramas that are inherent in even the most ordinary of lives. Determinedly old-fashioned in its storytelling, it's a strikingly confident debut nonetheless.
THE FIRES OF AUTUMN - Irene Nemirovsky The latest rediscovered masterpiece from a writer who perished in Auschwitz, this poignantly charts the lives of a group of Parisians who endure the calamity of two wars, though Nemirovsky's empathy with her characters doesn't blind her to their venalities and other failings.
LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU - Richard Ford Get beyond the wince-inducing title and fans will find much that's engrossing in these four interrelated stories recounted by Frank Bascombe, who was previously encountered in Ford's masterly trilogy of The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land.
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH - Richard Flanagan There had been fears that making American novels eligible for the Man Booker prize would lead to US writers dominating the shortlist, but in the event, this Australian novel walked away with the award. An astringent and compelling story of Australian POWs forced to slave on the Burma Railway during World War Two, as was the fate of Flanagan's own father.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR - Joel Dicker Set on the American east coast, this convoluted and constantly wrong-footing thriller about a young girl's disappearance plays all sorts of narrative tricks while hurtling along at an exuberantly giddy pace. The young Swiss author clearly had a lot of fun writing it, and if you're in the mood, you'll have as much fun reading it.
THE THRILL OF IT ALL - Joseph O'Connor The rise and fall of a London rock band as recalled by one of its members. There are inspired comic moments in this exuberantly told tale, though readers not intimately conversant with the English music scene of the 1980s might need a preliminary crash course on the bands of the era.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST - Martin Amis Amis had previously tackled the Holocaust in the chronologically tricky Time's Arrow, but he's more accessible here, if hardly less provocative. Readers can make up their own minds about whether the book's Nazi characters are being treated with more indulgence than they deserve, but there's no denying Amis's serious intent.
HOW TO BE BOTH - Ali Smith Two novels for the price of one and, depending on the edition you acquire, you can start with either the contemporary tale of a teenage girl coping with her mother's sudden death or with the story of the Renaissance painter with whose frescos the teenager has become obsessed. The Booker-winning author plays some tantalising narrative games that will intrigue some readers more than others.
THE PAYING GUESTS - Sarah Waters The latest novel from the author of Tipping the Velvet vividly evokes 1920s London in its story of a genteel widow and her daughter financially obliged to take in lodgers. Sexual stirrings lead to a violent death and a murder trial in an absorbing narrative, expertly paced by the author.