Speaking Volumes: 2008’s best fiction

(I know: best-of-the-year lists are the ultimate cliche, the lazy columnist’s easy standby, and I’ve been doing them since 2002, so I should know. The truth is I like doing them for entirely selfish reasons: they give me an excuse to potter around my bookshelves, page back in my reading diary and reconnect with books I liked but that might otherwise sink to the back of what I fondly like to think of as my mind. {Visualise the room at the back of the house where all the stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else has been piling up since the 1980s–you know, the one where Miss Havisham has her own rocking chair and yes, that would be my brain.}
This is the published and necessarily truncated column: I’ll be adding to the list over the course of this week. Many thanks to Vikram Johri, my colleague and fellow reviewer, who gently pointed out that I’d absent-mindedly portmanteaued Haruki Marukami’s name together, creating a brand-new author called ‘Harukami’.)

If you needed any proof that the novel has become more international than ever, and that it is still as much of a carrier of “news” as it was in the 18th century, 2008 provided ample evidence.

The year was bookended by two masterpieces. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, was technically a late 2007 release, but reached India only in early 2008. The Dominican-American writer exploded onto the literary scene in the 1990s and survived writer’s block for ten years before coming out with this Pulitzer-Prize winner. Oscar Wao is an overweight Dominican Star Trek fan, pursued by the lurking ghosts of “fuku” and the fear that he will never lose his virginity. Diaz is hilarious and savage by turns, and this definitely qualified for heartbreaking work of staggering genius status.

Roberto Bolano’s 2666 came out a full six years after the author’s death, and consolidates the posthumous fame that came to him after the publication of The Savage Detectives in 2007 in English. Its central theme is the unsolved murders of over 300 women in Santa Teresa, and he brings together a group of literary critics, a mentally unstable professor and a mysterious writer in classic Bolano style. Don’t be deterred by the 1,100-odd pages—it’s worth your time.

Though Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie and Pat Barker had works of varying degrees of excellence out this year, some of the real surprises came from less well-known names. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland polarized opinions: critics thought this post-9/11 novel with its evocation of the hidden world of cricket in New York was brilliant, while the Booker judges disagreed. I’d say O’Neill’s perfectly tempered prose and the immigrant world he conjures up are irresistible. Less satisfying was Sebastian Barry’s beautifully written The Secret Scripture. This novel about an old woman incarcerated in a mental asylum in Ireland had promise, but lets you down in the final stretch. For more demanding but infinitely better reads, try The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich or Rawi Hage’s explosive, bitter Cockroach.

The first part of Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, A Sea of Poppies, was a fast-paced read that made up for occasionally one-dimensional characters by offering an unusual take on the Opium Wars and maritime India. Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence was often mired in complexity, but the breadth of his ideas made many of his fans look at concepts of East and West differently, even as the novel made some of us nostalgic for his non-fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth was an almost pitch-perfect, moving collection of short stories; she has an unusual gift of compassion that makes up for the sometimes narrow focus of her work.

Nadeem Aslam’s intricate The Wasted Vigil approaches Afghanistan from a distinctly fresh viewpoint—worth reading despite his predilection for dense thickets of prose. Mohammed Hanif’s black comedy, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, took on General Zia’s assassination with verve and devastating wit—definitely a keeper. And from another age, The Adventures of Amir Hamza in a fresh translation reminded us that black farce and outrageous sexual innuendo were not invented in our century, but much earlier.

P D James offered a classic murder mystery in The Private Patient, which also hinted that her poet-detective, Adam Dalgliesh, might be on the way to retirement. Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a sharp-edged thriller that took on financial skullduggery and sexual abuse in Sweden, was one of the surprises of the year—sadly, Larsson died before he could witness the success of his book. Stephen King’s Duma Key is the second book from the master of horror in recent times to signal his return to form, after a string of duds.

But if you’re looking for the unusual, try one of these. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a work of alternate history that introduces us to the “frozen Chosen”, two million Jews rescued from the death camps and relocated to Alaska. Closer to home, Manjula Padmanabhan explored an alternate reality, a world without women, in the provocative Escape.

For those who prefer light reading, Mark Crick’s parodies of great writers in Kafka’s Soup and Sartre’s Sink were brilliant and deadly. He mimics the voices of the greats, from Steinbeck to Dostoevsky, Goethe to Murakami, with incredible wit. The first of his collections gathers together recipes that the greats might have written about; the second collects D-I-Y mishaps. Brilliant work, and far more satisfying than the overhyped but ultimately weak The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.






2 responses to “Speaking Volumes: 2008’s best fiction”

  1. mekie Avatar

    Talking of Latin American writers, may I add a book by one of Bolano’s favorite writers? In addition to Bolano’s 2666, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness was translated into English this year. ‘Senselessness’ is about an obsessive writer who has to edit a report which documents the gruesome atrocities committed during Guatemalan civil war.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Shouldn’t that be Haruki Murakami?

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