Sparks, glitterballs and masterworks
The greatest works of fiction published this year
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
- The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus, £16.99).
- The Magician by Colm Tóibín (Viking, £18.99).
- In The End, It Was All About Love. by Musa Okwonga (Rough Trade Books, £11.99).
- The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99).
- A Shock by Keith Ridgway (Pan Macmillan, £16.99).
- Tokyo Redux by David Peace (Faber & Faber, £16.99).
- The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban (Penguin, £9.99).
In an industry that’s still, mostly, too self-consciously classy to give star ratings on its reviews, we nonetheless long to share — just as you demand to know — the best of the best. Is it that book I raved about and you bought but never got around to? The prizewinner where the chippy author interview put you right off? Or perhaps an improving Kindle download which, at least, can be safely abandoned without glaring at you from the table like those horrid paper books?
If a novel doesn’t feature on this list, it doesn’t mean it’s not good; it just means it’s not good enough
To locate the goods, you may wish to browse the history of this column in your practical binder of back issues of The Critic, and that will uncover some of the greatest fiction published this year: Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, a domestic horror comedy so cutting and perfect that its absence from prize lists can only be the result of fire, theft or a lost password; Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, a book as light or rewarding as you want to make it, and one that makes serious play with the business of language; Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, a black comedy that’s a rare crossover between “books John Self likes” and Sunday Times bestsellers; Phillip Ó Ceallaigh’s Trouble, a flawless collection of stories that would have got him cancelled if anyone had read them, from a man who, when he says “there are too many books and too many writers”, knows he’s not one of them; and Roddy Doyle’s Life Without Children, a set of stories so good that the fact they were inspired by Covid lockdowns seems merely incidental.
But you are hungry and you want more. And I am happy to deliver, with a selection of paired offerings of the other greatest works of fiction published this year, all guaranteed to provide pleasure to literature-jockey, gift card recipient and out-of-control hoarder alike. And remember: if a novel doesn’t feature on this list, it doesn’t mean it’s not good; it just means it’s not good enough.
Heavyweights of the year
Stiff competition in this category came from Rachel Cusk and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose new novels Second Place and Klara and the Sun may not have been their very best, but stood proud in a strong year. But the outstanding contributions from literary big boys were indeed from the boys: Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Colm Tóibín’s The Magician comprehensively bowled me over. And both proved — as with Cusk and Ishiguro — that the really exciting writers are not, contra publicity materials, new voices, but experienced ones who are perfecting their art.
On the back of The Promise, Edmund White proclaims it “the most important book of the last ten years”, a claim I thought wild until I read it. In 300 pages Galgut gives us a mirrorball of a novel, reflecting a South African family from multiple angles over three decades. It is a deeply serious but firmly playful book, swooping in and out of the minds of its desperate subjects with aplomb, leaping great distances and always landing on its feet.
Galgut has always been admirably bullshit-free (“nah, that doesn’t happen,” he said in a recent interview when asked to name the book that changed his life), so I will put it plainly and say that with The Promise, he has — Edmund White was right again — become one of the world’s great writers.
Colm Tóibín, a man as sparky as his books are restrained, has also achieved a career best with The Magician, an exceptional rendering of the mind of Thomas Mann. The book creates characters in a few lines, adheres strictly to the facts of Mann’s life but performs wonders of imagination in its sharp dialogue and convincing recreation of his thoughts, which were mostly taken up with contemplating his place in literary history and remembering handsome young men. Yet he is never a figure of fun; this is a sympathetic portrait that had me mesmerised through its slow unreeling.
Debutants of the year
Experience may be unbeatable but there are still new writers doing fascinating things, though it may be telling that my choice of best first novels this year comes from two writers not quite in the first flush of youth, being forty- and fifty- something respectively.
Musa Okwonga’s In the End, It Was All About Love is a short, striking novel about a black Englishman in Berlin, and the bouleversement of his experiences there. (“That Nazi march was terrifying but the schnitzel here is nice.”) He fears he is “too old, too British” to do what he really wants to with his life — make music — and his deliberations are delivered in a seductive, intimate second person voice that never seems tricksy. Okwonga’s novel was published at the start of 2021 and has stayed with me all year.
After the success of her collection of stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets, which won her £150,000 across two awards in 2019, Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel The Art of Falling seems to have been oddly overlooked. Perhaps that is because it’s a work of traditional character-driven literary fiction, and so doesn’t break new ground. But what a work! Bringing together art, family life, ageing, love — all the biggies — McLaughlin dispatches her targets with wit and panache. In a world where similar practitioners such as Tessa Hadley and Francis Spufford receive bouquets and diamonds, McLaughlin should be the next big — but not too big — thing.
Experimentalists of the year
But if you’re in the mood for something that does break new ground, that gently tilts you off balance without trapping you in a headlock of unreadability — fracturing form is easy, making new shapes is harder — then I have just the things.
Keith Ridgway’s A Shock came as a great relief to those of us who were quasi- religious in our fervour for his last book, 2012’s Hawthorn & Child. First because it exists at all after nine years of silence, and second because it adapts the form of that book (“a shattered novel in a bag”, Ridgway called it) to something more coherent and satisfying still. A Shock shuttles through the residents of a particular area of London, connected by a shared residence and shared mindset: fed up, fucked off, burnt out. Some are hopelessly organising around local politics, others investing in dreams or drugs; but Ridgway’s real innovation is less structural than empathetic. He gets into each character’s head, and in so doing gets them into the reader’s head; despite ourselves, we fall for them. It’s a ruthless seduction, and a sort of literary miracle.
It’s a risk, and arguably folly, to recommend the last book in a trilogy, but David Peace’s Tokyo Redux — even longer in its genesis than A Shock — is the best of the three. It restrains the stylistic tics that neared self parody in Tokyo Year Zero (2007) and the repetitions that made Occupied City (2009) a chore, and gives us instead a Japanese-British James Ellroy novel: a multi-protagonist compressed epic blending crime, corruption, history and insanity.
If the delay in finishing it indicates struggles on Peace’s part, none of that makes it through to the reader. The result is a confident, mesmerising masterwork following three men over four decades “in the middle of the century, the American century”, variously seeking a solution to the death of the head of the Japanese railways, cut in two by one of his own trains. It moves from mystery to elegy via an American army investigator, a missing author, and a washed-up translator who forgot when it was time to leave, all flavoured with the tincture of a country filled with shame over its wartime surrender. And if that’s not festive reading, I don’t know what is.
Unpairable of the year
Let’s hear it for Russell Hoban, the inventive creator of eccentric novels, each quite unlike the others but sharing a unique sensibility: playful, exploratory and stuffed with esoterica. Hoban’s first eight novels for adults were reissued this year by Penguin Modern Classics, and they provide a miniature library of delights (and, occasionally, horrors). His work tends to be overshadowed by Riddley Walker (1980), that dystopia with melted language, but his other novels are lighter and brighter.
Try Turtle Diary (1975), a heartfelt take on two lonely oddballs plotting to free the turtles from London Zoo; or Fremder (1996), a sci-fi voyage through the mind of a man floating in space; or Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer (1998), a Faustian tale of sex and death (“Mmm, yes! Dark pleasure! Secret joy!”) drilled through with US-born Hoban’s love of London.
But it may be The Medusa Frequency (1987) which represents him most fully, in the sense that although it was unique when written, it became the model for his later books, which were not quite unlike the others (perm three from artworks, landmarks, charming crosstalk, loose-limbed plots, and sexy younger women who can’t resist Hoban-aged men) and which, perhaps wisely, have not been elevated to Penguin’s iconic list. With Hoban by your side, the strangeness of the world no longer seems quite so alarming, and these reissues affirm that 2021 was a strong year for fiction: why, its star power has rubbed off even on the books that were written long ago.
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