Here’s one of the most pleasant dilemmas I can think of: The year in fiction was so good that you have dozens of titles you could single out for praise as among the year’s best. I’ve spent the past couple of days rereading the notes I wrote for more than forty books. Most of them were titles I reviewed for Bookreporter, but some were books I read for fun and thought so highly of that I needed to jot down my reactions. It has been a delightful couple of days. Every year should be like 2013.
I don’t claim to have read every book released in the past twelve months, but, of the many I found time for while writing my own novel, these are the five I have recommended most often to other readers.
The best work of fiction I read in 2013 was The Infatuations, the latest novel by the great Spanish writer Javier Marías. This work of philosophy masquerading as a crime thriller is the story of an unmarried woman whose biggest delight every morning is watching the happily married couple at a nearby table in the café in which she eats breakfast. One day, the couple doesn’t show up. María, the unmarried woman, learns later that the man was murdered. A homeless man stabbed him sixteen times in the chest and left him on the street. What follows is a profound meditation on death and its reverberations. That may not sound like much fun, and it won’t be if you prefer a traditional plot to gorgeous prose and intellectual pyrotechnics. But The Infatuations is one of the most thrilling reading experiences I have had in years.
Add my name to the long list of reviewers who thought Tenth of December by George Saunders was not only the best collection of stories in 2013 but also one of the best in a long time. You are reading a blog post by a man who dislikes most dystopian fiction. But every genre has its paragons. Dystopian fiction can be done well, as it is here. Each piece is a masterwork of invention, from “Escape from Spiderhead,” a story about convicts on whom emotion-altering drugs are tested, to “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a wild tale of status-seeking Americans who hire Filipina women with a microline threaded through their temple and hang them up as ornaments.
If you enjoy narrators who are not just unreliable but also not particularly likable, then you’ll love Nora Eldridge, the foul-mouthed protagonist of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Nora, a 40-year-old third-grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has never got over her failure to become a great artist. But then eight-year-old Reza Shadid joins her class. His mother, Sirena, is an internationally known installation artist. She befriends Nora and suggests they share a studio together. Nora accepts and, with renewed enthusiasm, begins work on a series of dioramas about famous women. This story of misplaced trust and stunted ambition could have been depressing, but Messud’s well-drawn characters and beautiful sentences compensate for the novel’s nastiness. A complex and challenging book.
One of the more ingenious sleights of hand of the past year was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The first half of the book tells fictionalized versions of three significant events in Irish history: John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s 1919 attempt to fly from Canada to Ireland and complete the world’s first transatlantic flight, the young Frederick Douglass’s 1845 speaking tour of Ireland, and former Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 efforts to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. But the book is really about several generations of women, all related, who interact with these celebrated figures. The women’s stories make up the second half of the book. And that’s when we see the main themes of TransAtlantic: the relationships between parents and their children, the struggle to reconcile ambition and family, the forsaking of religions and countries of origin. McCann compensates for the novel’s occasional contrivances with some of the most poetic writing in any novel this year.
My final choice is a book that came out two days ago: The Apartment, the début novel by Greg Baxter. Most war novels are either harrowing accounts of combat or madcap stories of irreverent recruits reluctantly accepting their assignments. The Apartment is a quiet novel; its simplicity and restraint make this story of an Iraq War vet all the more powerful. The unnamed American narrator has moved to a European city. On a snowy December day, he and a woman he recently met search for an apartment for him. That’s the extent of the plot. Most of the narrative consists of reminiscences that gradually reveal the narrator’s role in the war and his attempts to come to terms with his contribution. Baxter sometimes tries too hard to be profound, but this is still a devastating work of fiction that deserves to be mentioned along with the fine Iraq War novels of 2012.
Two other books are worth noting, only one of which was released in 2013. The Most of Nora Ephron is a compendium of the late director’s writings. Many of the pieces collected here were previously published, but this volume highlights her range. Filmgoers who know Ephron only from movies like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail may be surprised by the variety of topics she wrote about as a journalist. The other book was published in 2010, but I read it this spring on the recommendation of my friend Harvey Freedenberg: Memory Wall, by Anthony Doerr. The six stories in this collection are, along with the pieces in Tenth of December, among the most innovative works of short fiction I have read in some time. If, as I did, you missed Memory Wall when it was first released, I encourage you to find a copy and savor Doerr’s considerable storytelling skills.
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