The best fiction of 2013

There were mighty tomes from Donna Tartt and Eleanor Catton, pastiches for lovers of Bond and Wodehouse, and a final novel from Iain Banks. We look back at the year’s big hitters

The GoldfinchTwo novels will loom large under Christmas trees this year: Eleanor Catton‘s record-breaking Booker winner (longest novel, youngest author) The Luminaries (Granta), and Donna Tartt‘s vast study of art and loss,The Goldfinch (Little, Brown). Tartt’s story of a young boy whose life is knocked off course by the loss of his mother is only her third book, and a decade in the writing. She has described her fiction as “painting wall-size murals with a brush the size of an eyelash”, and The Goldfinch combines narrative grandeur with dazzling detail. The Luminaries is a similarly involving read – like a Wilkie Collins mystery set against the New Zealand gold rush – which slowly reveals a complex structure raising questions about fate, free will and the human search for meaning.

A Man in Love Other notable big reads this year included Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel A Man in Love (Vintage), a brutally honest self-examination in what feels like real time, and Philipp Meyer’s extraordinary epic of family, power and violence in the American west, The Son (Simon & Schuster). It was a strong year for American fiction generally, with Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Harvill Secker) introducing a fresh new voice, Thomas Pynchon riffing on the internet’s early days inBleeding Edge (Jonathan Cape), and Dave Eggers publishing not one but two critiques of the faltering American dream: The Circle (Hamish Hamilton), his second novel this year, is a compelling dystopian parable about the dangers of giving over our hearts and souls to Facebook, Twitter et al. InChimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah (Fourth Estate), meanwhile, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria and her husband-to-be behind for an assured and witty exploration of love, ambition, globalisation and the meaning of home.

soloFor those in search of familiar comforts, 2013 was also a year of sequels and pastiche, with death no bar to an expanding bibliography. Fans of Ian Fleming and PG Wodehouse were treated to new books: William Boyd‘s Solo(Jonathan Cape) took Bond on an African adventure, while Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (Hutchinson) set Bertie Wooster off on a typically madcap caper replete with am dram and aunts. Joanna Trollope began a project to update Jane Austen, rewriting Sense and Sensibility(Harper Collins) for the internet generation (Marianne strumming Taylor Swift songs on her guitar). All three were respectable efforts with fun to be had by reader and pasticheur alike – though for a more illuminating angle on Austen, turn to Jo Baker’sLongbourn, which cunningly retells Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective.

Doctor SleepBridget Jones was back, too, in Helen Fielding’s much-anticipated Mad About the Boy (Jonathan Cape), but her fiftysomething heroine’s misadventures with social media and the school run fell flat, even as diehard fans wept over the demise of Mark Darcy. Stephen King had more luck with Doctor Sleep (Hodder & Stoughton), in which the little boy at the centre of The Shining has grown up to be a damaged adult, still with psychic powers. Nostalgia was bittersweet in Roddy Doyle‘sThe Guts (Jonathan Cape), which caught up with the music-mad hero of The Commitments, weighed down by illness and middle age, while Elizabeth Jane Howard, now 90, added a final volume, All Change (Mantle), to her upper-class family saga the Cazalet chronicles – still comfort reading supreme.

The QuarryWe bade a sad goodbye to Iain Banks this year; his final novel, The Quarry (Little, Brown), was published only days after his death from cancer. With a central character raging against a terminal diagnosis, surrounded by old friends who’ve either sold out or drifted into life’s doldrums, it’s a spiky finale to an extraordinary publishing career, and features Banks’s trademark rants against political laziness and greed along with his easy humour. Also blurring genres to great effect were Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies(Faber), a speculative page-turner that takes in everything from Dr Johnson to reincarnation, and Javier Marías’s The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton), a metaphysical murder mystery.

Off the beaten track, Juan Pablo Villalobos followed up his Guardian first book award-shortlisted Down the Rabbit Hole with a satire of Mexican politics and dysfunctional families, Quesadillas (And Other Stories): black comedy done with a light touch, it’s stylish, scabrous, and hugely enjoyable. Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, meanwhile, is a spare, startling tale of love and survival during the Holocaust, written by a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and brought to a wider audience by Peirene Press.

Life After LifeBut there are three novels I’ve pressed most enthusiastically on people this year. Jim Crace‘s Booker-shortlisted Harvest (Picador), about land enclosure and dispossession, transports the reader into a past that feels more present than the world outside, yet also sheds an uneasy light on today. Neil Gaiman‘sOcean at the End of the Lane (Headline Review) weaves fantasy, realism and memoir to construct a fairytale of childhood brimming over with meaning. And Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life (Doubleday) – though it put off some readers with its endlessly regenerating heroine and Hitler cameo – swept me away with its profound and beautifully written exploration of fate, family, endurance and a changing England.

 – The Guardian, Tuesday 3 December 2013



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