Best Literary Fiction of 2009: The Soul of Cromwell, a Chilean Labyrinth and a Small Town in Ireland | The Independent

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“For everything there is a season.” True, for the most part, but even Bible prophecy could not afford the dubious reliability of publishing literary fiction. As the past 12 months prove, a hit or miss is often as predictable as a hurricane or heat wave. So, who was the victim of an abnormal downpour and who found themselves in the unexpected glare of the sun?

Some notable big hitters failed to connect in 2009. The Angel’s Game (Wiedenfeld, £18.99), Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s prequel to his bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, was less focused than his first trip to the cemetery of forgotten books in Barcelona. A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, £18.99), a potentially timely story of corrupt bankers and militant Muslims, has proven to be a caricature of the current predicament in the UK. Why do so-called state of the nation novels so often revolve around the city and the Thames, media types and politicians? There’s a big country there, you know.

Conversely, we were taken aback by a few unexpected nuggets. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £18.99) has gone home to win the Man Booker Prize, with a fresh look at a worn face. Thomas Cromwell, detractor of Rome and spinmeister of Henry VIII, has had a makeover. Mantel is already donning his doublet for a sequel. And who would have thought that a 900-page Chilean opus would become a bestseller? In one of the most flagrant rejections of a deceased author’s wishes (perhaps rivaled by a certain Mr. Nabokov Jr), the executors of Roberto Bolaño’s literary estate ignored his instructions to publish his swan song 2666 (Picador, £20) in five parts. The Mexican border town of Santa Teresa serves as the setting for this wildly ambitious novel that bubbles up a hotpot of literary flavors from Murakami to Cervantes, Poe to Proust.

This year also saw the return of Manhattan party retiree Jay McInerney. After the 9/11 drama The Good Life, he’s returned to what he does best with The Last Bachelor (Bloomsbury, £12.99): short, crisp shots of bad behavior. A dozen stories tell of socialites finding their tender vision fading after a lifetime of romantic cataracts. One eye, however, remains firmly fixed on this elusive Hamptons home. Philippe Claudel, the creator of the celluloid smash I’ve Loved You So Long, has slid back into the shelves with the prodigious Brodeck’s Report (MacLehose Press, £18.99). As with his film work and his fictional debut Gray Souls, he examines in more detail the ruts and cuts felt by outsiders. In the mountainous border region of Alsace-Lorraine between France and Germany, in the equally intermediate territory shaped after the Second World War, “the Anderer” (which means “other”) enters a village, with grim results. Also steeped in the dark aftermath of the same conflict, Georgina Harding’s The Spy Game (Bloomsbury, £12.99) was in my opinion the most elegant novel of the year. Two children concoct a theory about their mother’s past that might not be, we learn, entirely fanciful. With subtly dispensed wisdom, he asks the question, what do we really know about our parents?

Summer gave us an excellent sumptuous follow-up to Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside (Scepter, £17.99) takes us back to the height of popular entertainment. While the dawn of Hollywood and an egotist by the name of Charlie Chaplin provide the explosive opener, Gold also manages to frame the Russian Revolution, Kaiser Wilhelm’s cowboy obsession and true love in his big screen lens. . My Summer Sleeper, The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Doubleday, £12.99) by Paolo Giordano, is more of a European independent film. The ballad of Mattia and Alice, two tarnished Italian teenagers struggling with their own private traumas, is a perfect exercise in plot, while also tackling the idea that broken people can heal each other. Love and Summer (Viking, £18.99) by William Trevor has the Irish laureate in prose gently sketching the hypocrisies and passions inherent in rural life in small towns. “Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its residents said, but most of them continued to live there.” Of course, everything and nothing happens in such places. At the end of the autumn of the author’s career, he wrote a small masterpiece.

And finally, from a late bloomer to a bubbly entry and probably the most inventive book of the year. Important artefacts and personal possessions of Leanne Shapton from the collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including books, street fashion and jewelery (Bloomsbury, £12.99) chronicle an affair through the various lots of an auction house catalog of the couple’s shared assets. It perfectly details where love and disillusion come from. It’s a true original and yet another beautiful and unforeseen change from a year of literary climate change.

What was the most memorable artistic event of 2009? In the comments form below (or email [email protected]), name your favorite – in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts – with a brief explanation of why it tops your list and we’ll publish a selection in The Independent Readers’ Review of 2009.

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