Saturday, December 31, 2011

My best fiction reads of 2011

Of the 40-odd works of fiction I read in 2011 I'm going to name some favorites. I'm still working on Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, we'll see if I have time to finish it and write about it. This year, I won't break this group into further sub-genres as the representation of YA fantasy, classic literature, or short works are not significant enough. The original reviews are linked to each title, with an excerpt below. My favorite novels this past year were:

The Story of the Night - Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin's 1996 The Story of the Night is a multi-strand coming-of-age novel. In it, Richard, a young gay man in 1980s Buenos Aires comes into himself, learning to love and shedding his naivete so as to operate successfully in the changing political landscape of his country. Argentina tries to grows up to become a playing partner in the international political and economic community. Gay life in Western culture comes out of the closet - in some ways by dint of political determination and to some degree it is forced out by illness. Toibin's three stories meet in the person of Richard. The Story of the Night is compulsively readable, not because the political story is an entertaining thriller, as the blurbs claim. I find Toibin's skill more subtle (or his talent more blatant) in that he takes a rich intellectual understanding of the politic landscape and writes plot of political complexity, keeping its events clear as well as tension-filled. At the same time, he writes a gay love story straight from the heart, that is uncliched, full of character-driven details.

Reading in the Dark - Seamus Deane
Deane renders the indignation of a child who knows he is excluded from the mysteries of adulthood with great conviction. In the case of this novel, these are not just the work-a-day mysteries of sexual relations or violence considered too great for a child's understanding. Our first-person narrator is aware of deep secrets that rule the internecine feuds within his family, secrets of informing and murder that haunt his parents' every waking action. They flavor his life like a strong spice one can taste in every bite of a stew and yet not know what it is. He learns the full story in dribs and drabs, sometimes from unknowing truth-tellers. Deane's talent, is withholding it from his reader as well in such a fashion that the not unfamiliar story of an Irish childhood becomes riddled with suspense, and his coming of age filled with the regret that accompanies the realization that being excluded from this knowledge is no less tormenting than possessing it... Some of his paragraphs could be sung, so beautiful are the processions of simple words that accomplish his rich and deeply-felt descriptions. This memoir-like novel is tinged with deep sadness, but the way Deane renders his story is shear pleasure.

A Long Long Way - Sebastian Barry
What Barry makes most plain in this beautiful book is the confusion and the utter waste of war, even in the case of a noble cause. It ruins the men (and now women) who fight it, the earth under them, the families they left behind. It ruins lives not even totally formed yet. One of its great tragedies, this book tells us, is that it ruins boys before they ever grow up enough to know their own minds.

To the End of the Land - David Grossman
When Ora's son Ofer decides to stay beyond his required military service in the Israeli army to serve in an important military mission rather than hike with her in the Galilee, Ora feels hurt and deserted. She commandeers Avram, her husband's best friend and her old love, who has been living on the fringes since his capture and torture in the Yom Kippur War, to hike with her in a desperate act of avoidance. If she is not there to receive the news that Ofer has been killed, she reasons, he is not dead. She can indefinitely keep him alive by telling the stories of Ofer, his brother Adam, his father Ilan, and herself, to Avram. This is story telling as an act of defense. People approached with love are bottomless, says David Grossman's powerful new novel, no matter how much you know, there is still more.

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
Hardy's last and greatest novel (I think) tells us that people beg for conventions to resolve paradoxes inherent to human nature. They substitute them for deep and independent thinking because they find it so hard to live in the presence of more than one truth. Hardy is not just talking about the uneducated worker, but also of scholars and clergy - the learned men of his time. And when a few enlightened souls discover that they can have richer, happier lives by refusing to substitute convention for lives of courageous independence, those who crave the comforts of convention make sure that they're miserable for trying to do so.

A Change of Climate - Hilary Mantel
Kit... lives in a world in which people are divided into good souls and sad cases. The strength of Hilary Mantel's 1994 novel is that she is not one of the people to so divide the world. This novel is political and domestic, it is ruthless and tender, but it is never preachy. It is comfortable with its contradictions.

Angel - Elizabeth Taylor
Angel is a brilliant study in self-deception. It is wickedly satiric, and a wonderful psychological study of someone who escapes from the pain of the world with fantasy so successfully that she sees no reason to ever leave her hiding place. On the flip-side, however, Angel is also what happens when education amounts to nothing more than learning the minimal skills necessary to make one's living, rather than opening up the student to the possibilities the world has to offer. The adults in Angel's world were all bashed down to size by their circumstances, so they think it practical to curtail their children's dreams to protect them from disappointment...

The Road - Cormac McCarthy
The father and son who are the book's main characters live isolated in a cold, damp scab of a world where there is little sustenance, the other beings are few and impossible to predict, but usually violent, and where the only rule is to survive. But, my gosh, the writing is enveloping to the point of blotting almost all else out, the love between the two characters is deeply moving, and the impression this novel left is indelible.

I don't really see a need to declare a solitary "winner" among this group. The Road and To the End of the Land perhaps stand out among these strong, rich, and humane novels for their sheer indelibility. Looking back on these eight novels, I really had a year of robust and fulfilling reading! The bar is set high for 2012. May you all have a rich and involving year in reading and otherwise.


Christy said...

Sebastian Barry's book sounds good. Reading about WWI interests me. I really liked Wilfred Owen's poetry when I read it back in college.

Ted said...

Christy - It's one of my favorite periods to read about and from. It was so influential of our modern world, such changes occurred around this time.
Happy 2012 to you!