The literary landmarks of 2008

 

Literary Correspondent Eileen Battersbyselects her favourite fiction books and finest non-fiction works of the past year

1 The Wolf

By Joseph Smith (Cape)

Nothing this year approaches the sheer magic of Joseph Smith's daringly sophisticated first novel, which enters the mind of a starving wolf patrolling the harsh winter landscape. A strange encounter with a fox results in an uneasy odyssey. Disney it's not. An austere beauty dictates the lyric, measured prose, which avoids all taint of period pastiche in achieving the dignified glory of an Anglo-Saxon epic.

2 The Wasted Vigil

By Nadeem Aslam (Faber)

Yet another truly great novel from the author of Maps for Lost Lovers. Lara is Russian and arrives in present-day Afghanistan to unravel the mystery shrouding the death of her soldier brother some 25 years earlier. Already the chance victim of a punishment beating, Lara finds sanctuary in the home of Marcus, an English doctor whose fellow doctor wife and daughter were brutally murdered. There are echoes of Ondaatje's The English Patient and many marvellous images. Pakistani-born, London-based Aslam's third novel is a beautiful, angry, courageous and universal book about the legacy of war and the insidious new horror, terrorism.

3 The Twin

By Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmar (Harvill Secker)

Helmar, the laconic narrator of Bakker's intelligent debut, has spent his life tending the family farm. His formerly vicious father is now old, dying and obsessed with a hooded crow. A ghost from the past, Riet, the one-time fiancee of Helmar's twin brother, Henk, who died in the car she was driving, has made contact. Now widowed, Riet is hoping Helmar can help her troubled teenage son. Wonderful stuff from a Dutch writer with a feel for believable characters and a flair for what should be said and what needs only to be hinted.

4 Novel 11, Book 18

By Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad (Harvill Secker)

A middle-aged man takes stock of the mess known as his life. Having initially made good, Hansen then abandons his wife and baby son in Oslo to follow his mistress back to small-town Norway. There, she runs everything, and all local life revolves around her theatre group. Things fall apart, and he finds himself living alone. Then his unpopular son arrives. Hansen's eventual bid for freedom is shocking, eccentric and unexpectedly moving as is this wry, fantastic book.

5 A Perfect Waiter

by Alain Claude Sulzer, translated by John Brownjohn (Bloomsbury)

Erneste is the perfect waiter, so perfect he barely has a personality. A letter arrives reminding him of an earlier life. Years earlier he trained at a hotel in the Swiss Alps and became immersed in the most important relationship of his life. The flashback sequence returns us to war-time Europe and the arrival at the hotel of a famous German writer en route to somewhere else. Elegant, poised and rather brutal (think Henry James and Thomas Mann), Sulzer's adroit, understated narrative proves a chilling study of betrayal.

6 The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles

By Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (John Murray)

Jacobsen sets his subtle tale, first published in Norway in 2005, in Finland during the second World War when, following the Finnish refusal to grant bases to the Soviets, the USSR invaded on three fronts. Initially the Finns outskiied their enemy but, after 15 weeks, the Soviets were in charge. When his fellow villagers plan to burn down the town and leave, Timo the woodsman is determined to stay. Detached and possibly autistic, he tells his story with deadpan lucidity, while Jacobsen, making inspired use of the vicious winter temperatures against which his characters tense and contort themselves, never explains too much.

7 The Impostor

By Damon Galgut (Atlantic)

Five years after his great comeback novel, The Good Doctor, the always interesting Galgut returns with this intense, atmospheric thriller, in which Adam, a man in a mess, attempts to make sense out of his life in the new South Africa.

Having been unexpectedly befriended by an entrepreneur of sorts who claims to have known him at school, Adam, bewildered in what proves to be a diseased paradise, emerges as an unsettled Everyman. Galgut sustains the mood of uncertainty, menace and unease as well as the symbolism.

8 Lichtenberg and The Little Flower Girl

By Gert Hofmann, translated by Michael Hofmann (CB Editions)

Lovingly and crazily based on the life of the 18th-century German mathematician, who was a dandy despite having a hunchback, Gert Hofmann's final book translated by his poet son is delightfully anarchic and imaginative in its exploration of an unlikely love found and lost.

9 In God's Own Country

By Rob Raison (Penguin)

Meet Sam Marsdyke, a young outsider on the loose - well, about as loose as his father's farm on the rugged Yorkshire moors allows. Contentedly tormented by the two worlds he is living in, the one that is taking place about him and the other one going on in his head, Sam has already had his problems with authority. More are on the way when smart London yuppie types move in, complete with flirty daughter and pet Labrador. Vivid, shocking - what an odyssey, what a terrific first novel - and all told in the compelling voice of Sam, the angry, betrayed dreamer.

10 Our Story Begins

By Tobias Wolff (Bloomsbury)

Even if the 10 new stories included here fail to match the genius of the 21 established classics such as Hunters in the Snow, Two Boys and a Girl, The Night in Question and Firelight, Wolff is a master and this is a handsome volume offering both the comfort of proven old friends and the wary uncertainty of untested new acquaintances.

11 The Spare Room

By Helen Garner (Cannongate)

Helen the narrator prepares for the visit of her old friend Nicola. But this is no ordinary stay; Nicola is dying of cancer and desperate to try yet another wacky cure. Helen quickly realises that easing the dying is difficult and that she is neither a nurse nor a saint. The writing is razor-sharp and exact as are the conflicting emotions. Unnervingly astute.

12 Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)

No gags, no eccentric characters and absolutely no gimmicks surface in Lahiri's meticulous, formal and deliberate stories about Bengali families established in middle-class America yet still tested by festering personal histories.

13 A Fraction of the Whole

By Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton)

The big hearted, exuberant and deadly serious first novel that should have won this year's Man Booker - but didn't. A son gives his version of life with dear old Dad, who has his say as well, and several major issues are raised, such as how children initially observe and later remember their parents.

14 Molly Fox's Birthday

By Deirdre Madden (Faber)

A playwright is staying in the Dublin home of an old friend, an enigmatic, highly successful actress. The playwright is single, experiencing a personal and artistic crisis and is reviewing her past through a series of vivid memories. She also continues to have deep feelings for her old college pal, Andrew, who has fully re-invented himself as a media art historian. Deirdre Madden brings all her subtle intelligence to this elegant, thoughtful and engaging study of how lives expand, contract and cohere.

15 Kieron Smith, Boy

By James Kelman (Hamish Hamilton)

Another living, breathing and passionately alive narrative from a writer who knows how people speak, in snatches, in a code, not in speeches.

The young boy hero deals with his mother's snobbery, his brother's cruelty, his personal doubts and his enduring love for his grandparents.

16 A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories

By Machado De Assis, translated by John Gledson (Bloomsbury)

Echoes of Gogol filter through these lively tales by the Brazilian master in this, his centenary year. De Assis has wit, economy, a flair for the anecdotal offbeat and conversational irony. What more do you need?

17 Machine

By Peter Adolphsen, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Harvill Secker)

The tragic death of a tiny prehistoric horse some 55 million years earlier causes the mare's heart to become a drop of oil. This highly original Danish writer follows the journey of that drop of oil in a masterfully metaphysical narrative worthy of Pynchon.

18 Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, translated by Howard Goldblatt (Hamish Hamilton)

This is hardly a novel, though it is presented as one. Jiang Rong's terrifying, bloody tale draws on his life experiences during the 1970s among the nomadic shepherds of the Mongolian steppes. The wolf is treated both as a god and as a victim of man's brutality. Whatever genre this book is, its bold nature writing makes it a masterpiece, defiantly daring the reader to forget it.

19 Trauma

By Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury)

Consistently one of the finest writers at work, McGrath has devoted his art to a compelling theme, the disorder ever stalking the dark prison of the human mind. Charlie, the sympathetic and lost central character, could have walked off the pages of JG Ballard. There is a queasy brilliance about this novel as it develops into a study of a group of damaged individuals.

20 The Diving Pool

By Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)

Ogawa's trio of surrealist narratives, which look to the European fairy tale, are polished, original and strange. She reveals humour, menace, and humanity in a quietly explosive book that looks to the imagination as an exciting and terrifying place. Her narrators peer at the world; the reader can only wonder.

21 I Have Something to Tell You

By Hanif Kureishi (Faber)

Something of a surprise package, this often horrifically funny burlesque saga of mid-life crisis is narrated by Jamal, a successful if world-weary psychoanalyst who is divorced and currently at the mercy of his 12-year-old son, half-small boy, half-emergent thug. Kureishi almost keeps the show on the road and even retains control of Jamal's dangerously larger-than-life sister. There is a gooey romantic core but sufficient laughs keep the reader smiling and prove that Kureishi is far less bombastic than Howard Jacobson.

22 The Siege

By Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from a French version of the Albanian original (Cannongate)

Everyone suffers in this allusive and colourful tale in which Albanians withstand Turks determined to force them into the Ottoman empire. Kadare's Shakespearean grasp of the evil men do and his marvellous imagery elevate this inspired polemic to a level of high comic art. It is a tremendous book, the kind of novel Salman Rushdie may well have intended The Enchantress of Florence to be before he became lost in his inevitable stylistic overkill.

23 Forever Nude

By Guy Goffette, translated by Frank Wynne (Heinemann)

Goffette's impressionistic, dream-like, quasi-biographical novel of the life of artist Pierre Bonnard draws on his subject's response to the world. Central to the tale is Bonnard's relationship with Marthe, whom he met when she was 20. She became his muse and lived with him for 49 years until her death when her unsigned will placed Bonnard and many of his works in an appalling legal quagmire.

24 Child of All Nations

By Irmgard Keun, translated by Michael Hofmann (Penguin)

Although mainly remembered as Joseph Roth's companion, Keun was a gifted writer as revealed in this lively picaresque account, first published in Germany in 1938 and this year in English for the first time, of a streetwise young girl's travels across pre-Nazi Europe in the wake of her hapless father. Central character Kully is shrewd and brave and Michael Hofmann's translation conveys the energy and life.

25 The Truth Commissioner

By David Park (Bloomsbury)

Last but far from least, Park's brave, angry book takes on all the hope and ambivalence of the new peace. There are no heroes in The Truth Commissioner, only humans; Park, Ireland's most committed truth-teller, pursues their stories with compassion and his characteristic quiet irony.