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Satire, sci-fi and a sting in the tale

It’s time for our annual guide to the best new fiction of the year

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A bookish friend said to me recently, “It’s been a terrible year for books.” Well, up to a point. The sheer volume of new novels, together with the difficulty of seeing through the thickets of bandwagonesque-trend-centred publishing, mean that it’s easy to feel oneself submersed in substandard fiction. But at The Critic we are here to help. It’s time for our annual guide to the best new fiction of the year, which excludes those worthy candidates — including Tom Crewe’s The New Life, Jacqueline Crooks’s Fire Rush and Deborah Levy’s August Blue — already reviewed in these pages.

The “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother” award

The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

Mothers have always been a rich seam to mine in fiction: the loving, the monstrous, the absent. In Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book, the narrator’s mother has recently died, and the novel becomes a memory capsule. If I say that the story comprises an American writer walking around London thinking about her mother, you may reasonably suspect it to be “one of those novels”.

But solvitur ambulando, and this meditation is pure entertainment of the happiest and saddest kind, as artful a tribute to a deceased parent as was Philip Roth’s masterful Patrimony. The narrator, who moonlights as the author, worries her book is not “relevant”, doesn’t “speak to our moment”. In a world of off-the-peg fiction about contemporary concerns, that is one reason why it is so welcome.

The mother in Claire Kilroy’s novel Soldier Sailor is front and centre — she’s the narrator, and she’s not happy about it. Martin Amis said The Information was not a novel about a mid-life crisis — “the novel was the mid-life crisis” — and the same can be said for Soldier Sailor, which took Kilroy eleven years to write because she was living the story as a new mother.

This is less autofiction than bespoke fiction, a flight of sustained brilliance that highlights the particular even as it provides general insights. As well as being very funny and very angry, the book is full of just-so observations (putting a dummy in her baby’s mouth is “like putting a pin back into a grenade. The explosion was sucked back in”) that show 11 years of wisdom, distilled. It is also a lament for lost youth — “I miss my old life like I’d miss a lover” — that will have any middle-aged reader crying like a baby.

The mind-bending metaphysics award

In Ascension, Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books, £16.99)

It’s a blurb-writer’s cliché to claim that almost every novel “shows us what it means to be human”, but the books that best hit that target this year did it with a sideways approach. Martin MacInnes’s In Ascension is a less confounding read than his earlier novels, but even more ambitious, taking us from an undersea crevasse which, impossibly, appears to be three times deeper than the Mariana trench, to the Oort Cloud, three light years from the Sun.

Like the best science fiction, this is done in the service of a human story, which comes in two aspects. First we live through the central character, Dr Leigh Hasenboch, whose escape from the violence of her upbringing takes her to the farthest reaches of space.

It also addresses human life in its context on earth: “Life is already alien, is already rich and strange,” Leigh tells a colleague. “We don’t need to say it arrived seeded on a meteor to make it more so.” This book, which dares to unfurl itself slowly, like a flower, is one of the most giving works of fiction of the year.

Mike McCormack’s This Plague of Souls is a novel which has united critics in puzzled admiration, though for me the puzzlement was an enhancement to the admiration, not a tempering of it. His last novel, the multi-awarded Solar Bones, had a narrator who turned out to be a ghost, but his new book is not so simple. Nealon, a man alone, returns to his house after a period of imprisonment to find it empty, but for his memories — and a persistent stranger on the other end of his mobile phone.

The story is full of mysteries — where are Nealon’s wife and child? What is the national emergency unfolding in the background? — but the clear, calm prose takes the reader by the hand toward understanding how societies as well as people can break down and rebuild themselves, in a story as post-Covidly contemporary as it is timeless.

The seriously funny award

It should not need to be said, but funny is not the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of solemn, or sombre. I say this from the memory of one commentator asking whether Paul Murray’s very funny novel The Bee Sting, currently on the Booker shortlist, was worthy of consideration for a “serious prize”. The question was rhetorical, but the answer anyway is a thousand times “yes”.

The Bee Sting, Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

It is a bumper family story of the Barneses in rural Ireland, headed by Dickie, owner of a second-hand car business and a man once ambitious but now fated to a life “selling hatchbacks to shitkickers in some godforsaken backwater”. We get Dickie’s voice as well as those of his wife Imelda and children Cass and PJ.

Their stories are full of jokes but topped up with the sadness of promise unfulfilled, of desires thwarted, and escapes narrowly missed. This is a rare example too of a long novel which doesn’t outstay its welcome: indeed, the length only adds to the pure immersive pleasure.

What is more serious than the proximity of death? On her 95th birthday this year, the insufficiently celebrated American novelist Lore Segal published Ladies’ Lunch, a collection of stories which records the conversations of half a dozen nonagenarian Manhattanites — all women, of course, because at that age the men are mostly dead.

Brightness is baked in, as we might expect of an author who, born the year before Anne Frank and put on the first Kindertransport out of Austria in 1938, realised that “instead of crying, I was thinking, ‘Ooh, I’m going to England’”. So the ladies lunch, and reminisce, and speculate. “Our children would not believe how calmly we look around the table wondering which of us will be next.”

The book is a great paean to sociability and community in our isolating age. When Covid descends (“my pre-existing condition was being 92 years old”) the ladies Zoom instead, all the while battling their children who think they know what’s best for them. When one of them does go, she is not forgotten: the talk goes on; the address books remain unaltered. “Dead or alive, one cannot throw people away.”

Octogenarian of the year

The Pole and Other Stories, J. M. Coetzee (Harvill Secker, £20)

If ninety-something authors are understandably rare, those in their eighties seem to be plentiful, with new novels from Ferdinand Mount, Thomas Keneally, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates and others this year. We reviewed Rose Tremain’s splendid new book Absolutely and Forever in these pages last month.

For this reader, the best of all must be J.M. Coetzee, whose novella The Pole is one of the best books of the year by any author of any age, exhibiting not the slightest diminution in his powers. It is the story of a woman, Beatriz, who is pursued romantically by a famous pianist, Witold, and the disequilibrium which his obsession causes her.

As ever, Coetzee’s prose is simple: there is not a sentence that is difficult to understand, and yet the book provokes thought and wonder on every page. Sometimes this is through the questions Beatriz asks herself (“What does it say about her that the man expects she will respond?”), sometimes through the implications of the story (does art provide consolation more to the reader or the creator?) and sometimes through sheer sadness (what does it mean to never be understood?). May Coetzee’s famously austere lifestyle keep him healthy and writing for years to come.

Year of the year

Lord Jim at Home, Dinah Brooke (Daunt Books, £9.99)

There are now so many modern classics imprints clamouring for old books to reissue that the risk of undermining the benefit of the enterprise must be rising. Yet this year it became clear that if we stick to novels first published in 1973, all will be well. Dinah Brooke’s Lord Jim at Home, reissued by Daunt Books, is a bracingly black story of a young upper-class Englishman whose fetid upbringing leads to feral results.

Elizabeth Mavor’s A Green Equinox, reissued by Virago Modern Classics, was stranger still: the tale of a woman whose romantic awakening at the hands of her snobbish, rococo-obsessed lover leads to a great deal of eccentric antics, bordering on capers.

The latter, in fact, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1973, alongside a trio of genuine modern classics — each sharing its idiosyncratic dark comedy — in Beryl Bainbridge’s The Dressmaker, Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince and (the winner) J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. It was a vintage year for the prize, and it makes us wonder whether any of this year’s shortlist — or indeed any of the novels listed above — will be around in 50 years’ time. Put the date in your diary, and place your bets.

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