It was a great year of reading for those who want something set in the "real" world, with "real" characters and "real" situations. It was very difficult to choose a favorite from the eight books listed below, as almost all of these would be a leading contender for top book in any given year. But for those of you leery of "mimetic" fiction, these books also contain some damn good storytelling.
A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book
From my original review:
Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, one of Great Britain's most prestigious literary awards, A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is a sprawling, 675 page historical novel that spans from the last years of the Victorian Age to the immediate aftermath of World War I. At the center of the novel is the family of children's novelist Olive Wellwood and how their lives, full of bittersweet romances, flights of fancy, and tragic events, relate to the seven stories that Olive pens about them. During the quarter-century that the novel spans, The Children's Book takes an interesting dual-narrative approach that serves to weave a story that is much stronger as a whole than if it were to be considered by its component parts.
The Children's Book can be read on two levels. First, there is the complex narrative of the Wellwood children and the adopted runaway Philip. Byatt does an excellent job fleshing out the characters and their unique traits. The scene quoted above serves as a microcosm of what transpires between the pragmatic Tom and the idealist Charles (later, Karl). Byatt breathes life into these characters, so as Tom, Charles, their siblings and Philip grow into adulthood, the reader becomes immersed in what they are experiencing. From every hope held to every betrayal done, the Wellwood children and Philip live lives that hint at another interpretation of Dream that differs from those given by Tom and Charles. Some might find Byatt's treatment of these characters to be overly bleak and dour, but considering the second narrative level from which this novel could be interpreted, I found the sometimes-brutal, heart-wrenching agonies that the children experience to be suitable for the parallels that Byatt created to their times.
In addition to the novel working as a tragic look into the lost innocence of childhood, The Children's Book works as an excellent historical novel that presents a vivid image of the British Empire just before the calamities of the 20th century. From the idealistic Fabians to their darker, more violent anarchist brethren, the Great Britain of 1895 to 1913 was a study in contrasts. Charles/Karl's flight into the world of the anarchists, his rejection of his comfortable (and somewhat hypocritical) bourgeois upbringing parallels the rise of the Guides in England and the Wandervogel movement among German youth in the two decades before World War I. Byatt depicts the world of opulent decadence almost pitch-perfectly, as the reader is immersed in a mindscape that correlates almost perfectly with the imagines of a genteel, tamed landscape where the bourgeois dared to dream that eternal prosperity was about to emerge. Some dreams, when shattered, are damning to those betrayed by them.
Paul Auster, Invisible
Invisible is one of those novels that starts out in a normal fashion and then suddenly, the perspectives shifts and what you might think you understood after reading the first few chapters changes radically. It is a story that spans several decades and is told via several points of view. What the reader might think is "true" based on one section turns out to be incomplete or misleading after another voice is heard.
The overall effect is to create a mystery surrounding the goals and desires of a single character. When the final word is read and the book is closed, it was for me as if a bout of literary vertigo had subsided. I still find myself, weeks later, contemplating what Auster had achieved here, in what perhaps is his finest work since his accalimed New York trilogy.
Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones
Not only was The Kindly Ones one of the best translated fictions I read in 2009, but its mixture of historical tragedy and fictional desires of a truly depraved (and ultimately, unreliable) character made for an engrossing read, even though the book's near-900 pages might seem daunting at first to readers. Littell mostly succeeded in capturing the trainwreck fascination many people have with the Holocaust and the motley crew that instigated it. Although several scenes from the book might seem to be unpolished and raw, I found that it added to the overall atmosphere of the novel and that it helped convey the messages that Littell seemed to want readers to take from this mostly fine novel.
Other Worthy Reads:
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City
Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura
Monica Ali, In the Kitchen
Any works of "literary" or "mimetic" fiction released this year that you believe ought to be considered as among the year's best?