Standing tall on an uncluttered horizon

The best new fiction of 2022

Books Magazine

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“This was a quiet year. There were no sensational or overpowering entries.” That was Douglas Hurd, chair of the 1998 Booker Prize judges, author of the thrillers Scotch on the Rocks and A Vote to a Kill — and holder of one or two other claims to fame — explaining why the prize that year went to Ian McEwan’s middling novella Amsterdam.

2022 has been a quiet year for new fiction

Now I know how he feels — at least in part. 2022 has been a quiet year for new fiction, not in volume but in quality. Many confident riders have fallen at the first hurdle, from big beasts old (John Irving) and new (A.M. Homes, Sandra Newman), to overhyped debutants (James Cahill). Prizes from the Costa to the Sunday Times Short Story Award to the Desmond Elliott Prize have paused or pulled down the shutters permanently. After last year’s glut of greatness, from Colm Tóibín to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Damon Galgut to Gwendoline Riley, the horizon this year has been uncluttered.

But that means that the good stuff this year — and there was some — stands all the taller. As is now traditional for the end-of-year issue, this column brings you the best new fiction of 2022. The focus is on books not previously covered in these pages: so it is only the avoidance of repetition that makes me omit valuable work such as Wendy Erskine’s Dance Move, Miriam Toews’s Fight Night or Ian McEwan’s Lessons.

The Funniest Family Fiction

This year’s “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother” award goes jointly to a debutant and an experienced chapter-handler. Charlotte Mendelson specialises in writing about families, particularly those London-based and Jewish. The Exhibitionist, her first novel in nine years, is set in 2010, which may reflect its gestation period. It was time well spent.

The narrative comes from Lucia, an artist whose career is just getting off the ground after decades of raising children and pandering to her enormous baby of a husband, Ray. He’s an artist, too, whose reputation is threatening to go in the other direction, especially when faced with the worst horror of all: critical acclaim for his wife.

Lucia’s frustration and passion must find an outlet somewhere, and the target is the local MP, Priya, with whom she begins an affair. Having a politician for a lover is food for only the stoutest soul, as Lucia discovers at social events where everyone has an opinion. “‘I could tell her a thing or two about local government,’ said Gerry, a jazz album reviewer.” And so the clash of parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and haters (including one woman “who gets through husbands like Tube tickets”) gets under way.

The Exhibitionist is the funniest novel I read this year. It is one of those rare books that could be driven purely on the strength of its witty, flexible sentences, even if there weren’t an emotional payload and (a bit of) a plot. It will delight anyone who takes pleasure in words, and what is reading but taking pleasure in words?

Claire Powell’s debut novel At the Table offers its high concept in the title: it tells the story of a family through their meals and social occasions over a one-year period. Each time, grown-up kids Nicole and Jamie are faced with the difficulty of maintaining adult amour propre when they’re just kids again, and that’s even before they find out their parents Linda and Gerry are divorcing.

We get to hear from all four, so the portraits are rounded. Gerry has had an affair and “a bit of a heart attack”; Linda is perpetually rude to her children but kind to her older friend Beryl; Jamie is worrying about his relationship with fiancée Lucy (“they have only had sex in the living room once, and that was because they were sleeping in there whilst the paint in their bedroom dried”); whilst Nicole runs from one bad decision to another: she doesn’t know if she wants kids, but “what she really wants is another drink”.

Best of all, Powell’s novel doesn’t end until the very last line

At the Table does not pretend to do anything new, but what it does do, it does well. Nicole’s friendship with Fran, for example — her only friend who drinks and sleeps around more than she does — reminds me of Denis Johnson’s classic Jesus’ Son and the washed-up boxer Kid Williams: “He was in his fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d only wasted a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.”

Best of all, Powell’s novel doesn’t end until the very last line — a corker and a clear full stop — which makes it stand out in a world where the mimsy coda (the turning back to the house, the standing up and contemplating the view) seems de rigueur.

The Perpetual Improvement Award

This category is also a shared one, and proves that in a world of debutants, the mid-career fortysomething novelist can still be the one to beat.

Benjamin Wood’s The Young Accomplice, his fourth novel, is a treat for those who have followed his career through Secret History-ish The Bellwether Revivals, the bonkers art-world mania of The Ecliptic and the slow-build, gut-punching violence of A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better. The new novel is a more subtle work than any of those, and in contrast to the florid explosions of the earlier books, the shocks here are mostly off the page.

It brings together previous interests of Wood’s: creativity (in this case architecture) and enclosed environments — this time the progressive architectural practice and farm at Leventree in 1950s Surrey. The owners of Leventree, Arthur and Florence Mayhood, run a competition to offer two borstal kids a new chance working for their practice. The winners are a brother and sister (no coincidence, it turns out) Joyce and Charlie Savigear, each distinct in size and personality.

There is too much in this book to summarise it adequately, but its greatest quality is its understanding of how characters exist only in relation to one another. Each pairing — Charlie and Florence, Charlie and Joyce, Florence and Arthur, to say nothing of the colourful secondary players like Hollis and Mal — gives us a new angle and added depth, with the clarity of a diamond.

One book has held all others in its shadow

Wood’s daring narrative decisions show he hasn’t lost the old spark, but has just added to it with his new repertoire. What, it asks, are the opportunities available to someone who wants to leap clear of their wrong beginnings, when everything that hurts has already been cut?

Ross Raisin should be a literary superstar, and he started off on the right track — Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, Granta Best of Young British Novelists — yet he seems to have dropped in profile even as his work gets better and better. His new novel A Hunger is his best yet and has received almost no attention. Nobody knows anything.

A Hunger, narrated by a middle-aged sous chef called Anita who is juggling the pots and pans of work and life, including a husband with dementia (“the other job”), manages to be both experimental and welcoming. It uses a split time frame — chapters alternate between “now” and one for each year of her life up to now — which immerses us in how she got here.

It is also, perhaps uniquely, a first-person narrative which doesn’t use the word “I”. Anita has for so long looked after others and put them first — her mother, her kids, her husband — that it seems quite natural for her narrative to focus on what they do to her rather than what she does to them.

The result is a novel that shows how it’s done, a book that sinks in and stays there. Raisin was once the next big thing; he should be read by everyone interested in what fiction can do.

Novel of the Year

But one book, read at the outset of the year, has held all others in its shadow. Audrey Magee’s The Colony is a story of zealotry, where an English painter (Lloyd) and a French linguist (Masson) descend on an island off the coast of Ireland, each with his own agenda and to hell with what the locals think. Lloyd is cowardly but bullying; Masson is arrogant enough to see himself as the islanders’ saviour, but is really working out his own issues.

The story is set in the summer of 1979, and the chapters are punctuated with blunt reports of terrorist murders, which connect the abstract arguments on the island about language and ownership to real life. The book contains multitudes besides this: women and men’s roles in rural societies, comedy and threat, sons and mothers, and how politics are flavoured by personalities. Most of all it is written in an original, spare but satisfying style. By its refusal to pander, it treats the reader as a grown-up — a rare treat in these hand-holding days.

The Colony would have been a standout even in a strong year: in the fallow period of 2022, it appears almost freakish. The only downside is that Magee has so far taken eight years between novels. Hurry, please, with the next one.

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