Life

Sunday 18 August 2019

Novel ideas to help fill your Christmas stocking

2016 has been a stellar year for top-notch literary fiction. Anne Cunningham selects 12 of the finest novels - and says there really is something for everyone

Thriller: Emma Donoghue's 'The Wonder' deals in mystery and dark powers
Thriller: Emma Donoghue's 'The Wonder' deals in mystery and dark powers

Christmas shopping is always a daunting task, but if you've got a book lover (or several) in your life, then you're spoilt for choice this year as some of the greatest contemporary novelists in the UK, Ireland and the US have gone into print in 2016, and here's just a smattering of what's in the shops this Christmas.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a tale of the enduring friendship between Gustav and Anton, who first meet in Switzerland at the beginning of World War II. Following their lives from then to now, it's a story soaked in grief and has been hailed as Tremain's finest work yet.

Mike McCormack's Solar Bones, winner of both the Bord Gais Eason Novel of the Year and the UK's Goldsmith Prize, is as much a hymn to fatherhood and family as it is a fantasy novel. Marcus Conway returns from the dead on All Souls' Day. And that's just the beginning.

Graham Swift's Mothering Sunday is a sweeping historical novel about the persistence of memory and the loss of innocence. Jane Fairchild, a housemaid, has been given the day off on Mothering Sunday, March 30, 1924. But Jane is an orphan with no mother to visit. She instead visits the son and heir of the neighbouring estate, and her life is changed utterly.

Lives are also changed as the result of a single drunken kiss in Ann Patchett's latest novel Commonwealth. The aftershock of this bungling kiss is to determine the lives of the Keating and Cousins families for many decades afterwards.

Zadie Smith has wooed the literati yet again with her recently published Swing Time. Following the lives of two mixed-race friends from working-class London, moving on to West Africa and America, Smith explores familiar and unfamiliar ground, covering issues of identity and ethnicity with pathos and her trademark wry humour.

Donal Ryan has different ethnic issues on his mind in his latest novel, probably his best, All We Shall Know. When married schoolteacher Melody Shee falls pregnant, not by her husband but by a member of the Travelling community, she brings the ugly wrath of the whole parish on her head.

Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan have each had novels published this year. Barnes's The Noise of Time is based on fact, tracing the life of Shostakovich through the dark years of Stalin's Russia, while McEwan's Nutshell is a true original. Narrated by a foetus, the story follows an adulterous couple's plot to kill the foetus's father, who happens to be married to its mother.

It's a wonderfully dark and funny morality tale.

Emma Donoghue's The Wonder deals in mystery, superstition and the dark powers of the Catholic church in 1850s Ireland. Little Anna O'Donnell from Athlone has not eaten for four months, yet appears to be in good health. Until English nurse Lib Wright arrives to investigate, finding that all is not as it seems.

Sebastian Barry's Days Without End is also set in the 1850s and has a strong Irish flavour. Young Thomas McNulty has fled the famine and builds a life for himself in America, joining the army and enduring the savagery and turbulence of the bloodsoaked fight for the Wild West.

Staying in America, Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton finds Lucy Barton in hospital for a nine-week stretch, during which her estranged mother decides to maintain a bedside vigil.

And finally, Jo Baker's A Country Road, A Tree is another novel based on fact, tracing Samuel Beckett's journey from Paris to the south-eastern French village of Roussillon, where he continued his Resistance work - and where he started to write.

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