Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christmas 2013: best fiction books of the year

We select the best novels of 2013 in what has been a vintage year for lengthy fiction

Christmas 2013: In an exceptional year for readers, Tim Martin looks back at the best fiction books
Christmas 2013: In an exceptional year for readers, Tim Martin looks back at the best fiction books 
Was 2013 the Year of the Huge Book, or does it just look that way to the person doing the fiction round-up? Either way, those looking to duck below the parapet of a massive novel for the festive period will be well supplied this year. 
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winner The Luminaries (Granta, T £16.99) is the longest novel ever to win the prize (800+ pages), written by the youngest writer (28), though even those exalted records may be broken as the Booker prepares to admit American fiction to its next competition. Written to an arcane astrological schema, drawing heavily on 19th-century models and relaying a tangled tale of Antipodean gold-rush skulduggery, The Luminaries is almost bound to be an acquired taste: this reviewer feels that the dead hand of Wilkie Collins lies all too heavily on its endless rambling narrative, and that it might be more digestible and sustaining a novel if you just ate it instead. But £50,000 of Booker cash now says different.

More gripping, but just as good for pressing flowers or subduing home invaders, is The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, T £16.99), Donna Tartt’s third novel in 21 years. This is a huge, shambling, Dickensian beast of a novel, one that wanders from teen love story to drugged-out bildungsroman to art-fraud whodunnit over the course of 760 dense pages. I didn’t buy its grandiose aspirations to great truths about life and art, but Tartt’s knowing decision to have the protagonist’s best friend call him Potter isn’t misguided; The Goldfinch really is a Gothic kids’ story in the vein of JK Rowling or Hugo Cabret, tricked out with enough Xanax, anomie, violence and betrayal to draw in the most scornful adult. What Tartt has managed here is the literary equivalent of up-market fast food outlets in the restaurant world: reading it is not unlike queuing around the block for the finest cheeseburger in town.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (Cape, T £18) landed slap-bang amid the first wave of Prism revelations, which dedicated fans naturally took as the final proof that America’s arch-novelist of paranoia really does know something we don’t. Set in 2001, in the New York dotcom bubble that preceded the 9/11 attacks, this was Pynchon’s best novel since Mason & Dixon, an exhilarating shaggy-dog private-detective story that punctured its own garrulous charm with sharp stabs of betrayal and threat. Astonishing, too, that a 76-year-old should produce a novel with such wild and slangy bounce.

You might go straight on from that to Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, T £12.99), of whose spirited and dark short stories Pynchon is himself a fan. Reading this first collection in six years, full of leaps of language and Vonnegut-like doomy hilarity, it’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be. 

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