There are some years when the practitioners of fiction seem almost embarrassed by their profession – not because that profession still hasn’t turned its back on own charlatans, but rather because it sometimes seems like the reading public itself is increasingly turning its back on their profession in favor of pap. I’ve lost count of how many times in the last few years I’ve read some jaded op-ed or blog post lamenting the death of the novel, this time doomed not by TV or the Internet but by the rapid erosion of your average adult’s ability to pay attention to anything longer than a tweet or more complex than a YA novel. But if there’s some truth to that (I now know dozens of of adults who openly admit that all they read these days is fiction written for children – although even the bravest of them no longer try to justify this degradation to my face with the blasphemous follow-up of “I’ve read everything else …”), it certainly isn’t reflected in the Best Fiction of 2014! Each of these wildly separate novels has one thing in common with the others: confidence, not only in their own craft but in the architecture of fiction itself, as vast and elaborate as their builders can make it. Here are the best examples of that craft in 2014:
10. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) – Waters’ story of a staid mother and daughter in post-WWI London forced for economic reasons to take in a young married couple as boarders is, much like a handful of other choices on this list, deceptively quiet at its outset, a remarkable small-scale drama that Waters steadily complicates. This is the author’s most elegant and confident work – a joy of subversion.
9. The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate) – There are a couple of examples on our list this time around that display not just confidence but elaborate confidence, and Hensher’s is the first of them, a great sprawling thing dramatizing the subtleties of ostracization in, I think I counted, five different time periods (and in many soft gradations inside each of those periods) and all of it coming together in the end in a great symphonic superstructure exceeding anything Hensher’s ever done.
8. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown) – I’ve been a fan of Ferris’s work almost since the moment when I stopped being an enemy of it. His low-hanging-fruit workplace-novel debut, Then We Came to the End, filled me with the same combination of ennui and contempt that I’ve felt in bookstore break rooms over the decades, hearing co-workers gripe and whine. But I thought his second novel, The Unnamed, was incredibly strong, a masterpiece of modern personal dislocation. That dislocation them certainly continues in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a winningly garrulous story of a hapless dentist whose life is gradually and mysteriously appropriated online.
7. The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn (Pegasus) – It’s certainly a stunning act of authorial confidence to write a Tudor-era novel with hardly a Tudor to be found anywhere in it, but Dunn not only does this but does it magnificently, telling the captivating, raw human story of a strong-willed young woman who marries into the rising Seymour clan and eventually finds herself at the heart of a wrenching scandal. You can read my full review here
6. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf) – Sergeant Lester Ferris finds himself on the dilapidated cut-adrift former colonial possession of Mancreu in Harkaway’s sharp and unforgettable novel about heroism and life-saving. Lester’s adrift himself when he encounters Harkaway’s most hilarious creation to date, a young boy so smart and pop culture-saturated that he’s effectively superimposed his own fantasy world over the rotting hulk of Mancreu. The chemistry Harkaway creates between these two quickly spreads to the whole of this utterly marvelous book.
5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner) – The threat of cliches that hovers around the premise of Doerr’s book – a blind French young woman and a technically-oriented German young man, tossed together by the Second World War – very nearly disinclined me to read it. I was drawn in by the lyricism of Doerr’s prose, and the complexity of what Doerr was doing – the confidence of it all, again – kept me eagerly reading his unabashedly, gloriously conservative novel to the end.
4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House) – As with Philip Hensher’s book, so too here: hyper-abundant narrative confidence. Mitchell returns to the storytelling profusion that won him such renown with Cloud Atlas, joyously elaborating an intentionally disjointed story of two rival sects of immortals and the young woman who finds herself caught between them and then gradually, impeccably drawing the whole mass of it to a precisely-controlled and masterful conclusion.
3. Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – We turn from sprawling symphony to intimate sonata in Robinson’s stunningly moving novel anchored in small-town Iowa and explicating the torturous, groping love between hapless preacher John Ames and his much-younger and much-wilder wife Lila. Robinson has been on the good and bad sides of these Stevereads lists, but this book is a calm and questing demonstration of genius.
2. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions) – It would be too easy to describe Galgut’s beautiful fictionalization of the years E. M. Forster spent in India as “Forsterian” (I know this because roughly 200 book-reviewers unhesitatingly did just that), and it would sell the book short, too. Actually, our author is here taking several narrative risks all his own – almost always with praiseworthy results.You can read my full review – and note how much my appreciation grew with this re-reading – here
1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press) – Alameddine’s novel is a miracle of understatement. Its heroine Aaliyah, is thoroughly bookish in a way every one of Alameddine’s bookish readers will instantly recognize, and Alameddine steadfastly refuses to load her story with epiphanies or princes charming. The story is immeasurably stronger for this restraint, and the book lingers a long time in the memory, mainly because we feel that we know Aaliyah and have known her all our lives. You can read my full review of this, the Best Novel of 2014, here.
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