You know it’s a great year for fiction when you have no trouble coming up with titles that are worthy of mention in a best-of blog post. I needed less than two minutes to come up with the list of eight books I’ve included here. I had the pleasure of reviewing all but two of these works. Six countries of origin are represented here, and the protagonists include a scientist trying to find music in DNA, a young man in 1960’s France struggling to make sense of his country’s role during World War II, and a judge who must decide whether to let a hospital give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old who objects on religious grounds.
These eight books were my favorites from 2014 (links take you to my corresponding Bookreporter review):
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr—I wrote in May that I didn’t expect to read a better book in 2014, and I was right. Doerr’s novel proves that it’s possible to find fresh and exciting stories about World War II. All the Light We Cannot See is the story of two children: a blind French girl who flees Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940 to live with an eccentric great-uncle in the walled city of Saint-Malo, and a German boy whose talent for fixing radios earns him a spot at the National Political Institutes of Education, a training school for Hitler Youth. Linking their stories is a 133-carat jewel thought to bring ill luck. The beauty of Doerr’s book lies not only in his gorgeous prose and many richly drawn characters but also in his ability to see the inherent decency in his protagonists. A magnificent achievement.
Orfeo, Richard Powers—Peter Els is a retired music professor with a unique hobby: He has set up a microbiology lab in his home to find music in the modified DNA of the bacterium Serratia marcescens. When Federal agents find out about his laboratory, they suspect he may be a bioterrorist. Orfeo is the portrait of a man so obsessed by the need to create that he’ll sacrifice just about everything for the sake of his quest. A surprisingly moving work from one of the most intellectual American authors at work today.
The Children Act, Ian McEwan—Two days after her husband of 30 years tells her he plans to have an affair, Fiona Maye, a High Court judge who regrets her childlessness, must decide whether to grant a hospital’s emergency request to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old boy dying of leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses who have refused the treatment on religious grounds. Few authors have McEwan’s gift for unnerving readers with provocative plots. The Children Act is one of McEwan’s finest novels.
Kinder Than Solitude, Yiyun Li—In 1989, three teenage friends are among the residents of a Beijing quadrangle in which all the neighbors know one another. It’s four months after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Twenty-two-year-old Shaoai, one of the residents, was among the Tiananmen protesters. One day, the friends discover that someone has poisoned Shaoai. This mystery is the backdrop of a novel about jealousy and the ways in which the traumas of adolescence can devastate one’s adulthood. Kinder Than Solitude is a grim novel, but it contains some of the most beautiful writing of the year. There’s a lot of telling here, but what gorgeous telling.
All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu—Set in the 1970s, All Our Names alternates between two radically different environments: the violence-torn landscape of Idi Amin’s Uganda, and the bucolic Midwestern college town to which a refugee from Kampala immigrates. As in his two earlier novels, Mengestu’s elegiac writing dramatizes the struggles of African exiles trying to conform to American life while grappling with memories of the horrors they witnessed in their home continent. His greatest achievement here may be his ability to make scenes of prejudice in the U.S. as devastating as the depictions of horrific acts of violence in Uganda—a message that has taken on even greater resonance since the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island.
Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti—Readers in the US may have said, “Who?” upon hearing that Modiano had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but anyone who takes the time to read this collection of three novellas will understand why the Swedish Academy chose him. Each piece is a first-person narrative told by a man who, like Modiano, was born in 1945 and who reflects on his life in France in the two decades after the end of the Nazi Occupation. The stories involve a photographer with a murky past, black marketeers, and a mysterious murder-suicide. Modiano’s use of repetition and short sentences makes his writing far less Proustian than some reviewers have suggested, but both authors share a passion for mining the past to come to terms with the present.
Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood—What living author has a friskier imagination than Margaret Atwood? Her wit is as keen as ever in the nine stories collected here, most of which feature the sharp-tongued female protagonists for which Atwood is justly recognized. The first three stories—“Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady”—are the best in the book and dramatize the relationships among a group of writers and artists, including the now-celebrated author of a series of fantasy novels. “Torching the Dusties” is a chilling tale about a populist organization that burns down retirement homes out of anger toward Baby Boomers. “The Freeze-Dried Groom” is about an unexpected discovery in a storage unit a man acquires in an auction. Only “Lusus Naturae,” a short vampire tale written for a collection of “astonishing stories,” mars this otherwise amazing collection.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler—Fowler’s book came out in 2013, but I read it this year and loved it so much that I wanted to bring it to the attention of readers who may have missed it. I admit that the back-cover description didn’t make me want to read the book: a young girl grows up with her parents, her brother Lowell, and an unconventional sister. But the novel is a surprisingly moving tale of secrets and betrayal. The narrative voice is one of the wittiest and most engaging I’ve read in recent years. This is a beautiful book.