Eileen Battersby’s fiction of the year
Works in translation, some neglected gems and a modern master’s farewell stood out most strongly
The Voyage By Murray Bail
Frank Delage, Australian inventor and natural optimist, decides to take on Vienna with his new piano. Why exactly he would choose to bring his instrument to a city already full of pianos is best answered by Delage – or, rather, Bail himself in this astonishingly brilliant, defiant and utterly singular novel of intelligence, narrative shifts and frustrated desire, which makes more than a few nods to Voltaire’s Candide.
The Spectre of Alexander Wolf By Gaito Gazdanov, translated by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)
A young man is haunted by the memory of having killed an enemy soldier during the Russian Civil War. Years pass, yet the guilt remains. Gazdanov’s elegantly eerie 1940s novel about an emigre journalist’s ongoing trauma is tightly constructed and fast-moving. Just when it seems that the central character may be able to put his past behind him, a chance reading of a collection of stories lures him on. He travels from Paris to London to meet the writer yet is warned away by the mysterious author’s disgruntled publisher. Why? The plot thickens; it is wonderfully rich in “cosmic catastrophes”.
The Maid’s Version By Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre)
Formidable narrative power and barbaric grace shape this dark tale of one woman’s life played out beneath the shadow of an unsolved crime that refused to be forgotten. Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone (2006), understands the essential menace subverting human nature at moments of crisis.
A Permanent Member of the Family By Russell Banks (Clerkenwell Press) One of the finest contemporary American writers, and invariably among the most intense, Banks is a teller of truths whose moral courage knows no bounds. These fine stories reflect the diversely vulnerable US of the here and now, and the very best one, Blue, summons a rare moment of Banks comedy in preparation for a finale of sheer terror.
In Times of Fading Light By Eugen Ruge, translated by Anthea Bell (Faber) Ruge, the half-German, half-Russian mathematician son of a historian father, has written an intelligent, factual, blunt and at time hilariously shocking memoir-based novel about life in the GDR that is apolitical and full of silent weeping. Balanced somewhere between Thomas Mann and The Simpsons, its triumph rests in Ruge’s assured portrayal of his tormented – and tormenting – characters.
A Life Apart By Mariapia Veladiano,
translated by Cristina Viti
In this beautiful limpid novel a young girl recalls how her lovely mother was destroyed by her daughter’s lack of beauty and retreated into isolation, leaving the narrator to seek comfort in music.
The Watch Tower By Elizabeth Harrower (Text Classics) In the 1940s suburbs of Sydney, two sisters who are cast aside by their mother and left to fend for themselves endure through compromise and suffering. First published in 1966, this book has traces of Patrick White mixed with the darkness of the brothers Grimm. It is a great novel due a rediscovery in the way that Stoner was championed by John McGahern.
Julia By Otto de Kat, translated by Ina Rilke (Maclehose Press) De Kat’s remarkable novel gives an account of a life barely experienced by a passive man tormented by his memoires and his failure to act. The eponymous character, although brave and independently-minded, even heroic, is hardly present. Instead she acquires a mythic allure and is unobtainable and doomed. It is an extraordinary evocation of absolute melancholy.