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The best fiction of 2007

Email|Print| Text size + By Gail Caldwell
December 2, 2007

The Welsh Girl
By Peter Ho Davies

Falling Man
By Don DeLillo

The Gathering
By Anne Enright

Tree of Smoke
By Denis Johnson

On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan

Cheating at Canasta
By William Trevor

If the map of human consciousness is largely delineated by its gaps - the wishes unfulfilled, the questions that drive us onward, the oceans that lie between the landmasses - then certainly literature, and our reliance on it as a natural resource, are partly about the books we've never read. Proust's madeleines appear on every buffet of genteel conversation, Hamlet's soliloquy or Beckett's tramp articulates our universal loneliness, and yet the thing itself - "Middlemarch," say, or "The Golden Bowl," or "Ulysses" - is often the signifier for the future. "I'll read 'Swann's Way' when I retire," one declares, dreamily and energetically, or, conversely, "It's too late to endure 'Moby-Dick.' " The particular voids matter less than their position in the unfinished blueprint of our lives. The unread books, I think, serve as a kind of promise - hopeful road markers for the territories not yet traveled.

French psychoanalyst and literature professor Pierre Bayard must have had a hunch this phenomenon would strike a nerve; his half-satirical "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," published in October, was a runaway bestseller in France and is getting lots of ink here. No one has actually read it, of course - that would be cheating, or missing the joke - but Bayard's implicit point is the supremacy of literature itself. We need all our unread books, whether we're title dropping at holiday parties or making lists for the La-Z-Boy somewhere down the road. I consider my own list with a kind of sanctimony, unwarranted, on the grounds that I read for a living. The fact is that I quite enjoy pondering the books I may never get to. Like New York in the 1940s or camping under the stars, such Shangri-las are prettier when they're slightly out of reach.

More attainable is the fictional bounty of 2007, a year that promised much and delivered less but still managed to produce a shelf or two of memorable titles. Let's dispense with the disappointments first: In "Ten Days in the Hills," Jane Smiley wrote a meandering, largely insufferable novel about a group of bored neurotics having a Hollywood slumber party. Michael Chabon was equally garrulous in "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a reimagining of a Jewish diaspora that proved both ambitious and overwrought. British writer Graham Swift had smaller sights; his "Tomorrow" traced a woman's predawn interior memo to her children about a dark lifetime secret, but the novel's revelations were so tepid we wanted to call it "Whenever." The singular Philip Roth decided to do away with his doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, in "Exit Ghost" - an elegiac novel that has moments of sheer Rothian brilliance, but still devolves into a Thanatos-Eros mud-wrestling match before Zuckerman's last hurrah.

Well, at least the author didn't smother his character with a pillow. That's what Alice Sebold's plucky melancholic did to her mom in the opening pages of "The Almost Moon," and while I seem to be the only reviewer in America who liked this novel, I'm sticking to my guns. It's unremittingly grim - matricide hardly leaves room for ambiguity - but it's riveting, lean, and emotionally precise. So, too, is Jim Crace's "The Pesthouse" - a post-apocalyptic novel, à la Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," that envisions a world after the fall, a bleak place without tools or hope. Michael Ondaatje gave us two pieces of a beautiful, fractured mirror in "Divisadero," which roams between a passionate drama in the Western badlands and a love story in rural France. Returning to the infinite corridors of small-town America, Richard Russo drew a heartfelt portrait of a broke-down tannery town in upstate New York in "Bridge of Sighs." In "The Air We Breathe," Andrea Barrett delivered an intelligent portrait of a group of tubercular patients during the First World War. And Ethiopian emigré Dinaw Mengestu, in his impressive debut novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," depicted a collision of cultures in a shifting neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Khaled Hosseini followed up the extraordinary success of "The Kite Runner" with this year's "A Thousand Splendid Suns," another wrenching story of an Afghanistan in turmoil. Amy Bloom brought her empathic sensibility to "Away," a classic immigrant tale in which a young Jewish woman, having fled the pogroms, lands in New York in the 1920s, driven by her love for her missing daughter. Transplanted Irishman Colum McCann rendered a tragic and authentic portrait of a Gypsy woman's flight in "Zoli," a novel based on the real life of the Romani poet Papsuza. Ha Jin, whose emigration from China after Tiananmen defines his sensibility, gave us a sprawling epic of an immigrant family's journey in "A Free Life." After wowing the world with the stories of "Drown" nearly a decade ago, Junot Díaz returned to the Dominican Republic for an electrified, even neon-lit novel in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Novelist-physicist Alan Lightman, who proved his prowess at inhabiting several realms of reality with "Einstein's Dreams," conjured a metaphysical vision in contemporary garb in "Ghost." Justin Evans, in his debut effort, concocted a psychological thriller about memory and malevolence in "A Good and Happy Child." Novelists Tom Perrotta and Dennis McFarland both turned to more earthbound dramatic tensions this year: In "The Abstinence Teacher," Perrotta limned a suburban tale of the warring pulpits of liberals and evangelicals. McFarland went back to his native Alabama in "Letter From Point Clear," a resonant domestic novel that evokes a family gathering upon the death of a patriarch. Ann Patchett, who has a fondness for plumbing the depths of ordinary people in extraordinary straits, imagined an interracial Boston family in a labyrinth of trials and revelations in "Run." And Joshua Ferris's first novel, "Then We Came to the End," is a hilarious account, told deadpan in the royal "we," of the shenanigans of office culture at a Chicago advertising agency.

Every year a few books emerge as outstanding: a triumph of voice, an unforgettable vision, a structural feat or characterization that takes up residence in the reader's mind. Each of the following six works - the best fiction of 2007 - managed a virtuoso achievement that set it apart from the fray; they all got us, even momentarily, a little farther down the road toward grace.

"The Welsh Girl," by Peter Ho Davies. Set in the mountains of northern Wales during the months surrounding D-day, "The Welsh Girl" is a careful, deceptively simple story of war and moral consequence: A 17-year-old barmaid and daughter of a shepherd befriends a German prisoner of war. How they each translate these ill-timed affections forms the ballast of the novel. What Davies manages to evoke in this straightforward tale, marked by irony and fate, is a beautifully wrought portrait of humanity under duress - held by the greater forces of land and time.

"Falling Man," by Don DeLillo. What other writer could dare to capture the shadowy cataclysm of 9/11 and pull it off with such masterful precision? In its close-focus lens on one man's walk away from those collapsing towers, "Falling Man" is a spare, brilliant novel that evokes an elegiac world of ash and anguish. Because DeLillo has used his breathtaking narrative intelligence with such restraint, he manages to take that sunny September morning of 2001 and render history into myth.

"The Gathering," by Anne Enright. Irish writer Enright won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for "The Gathering," which has shades of classic tales of the body being borne: It brings to mind Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," set to the dirge of Joyce's "The Dead." The nine surviving siblings of the Hegarty family are in Dublin to bury their brother Liam, who walked into the ocean to end his pain; the narrator, his 39-year-old sister, delivers a memory-laden story as marked by the sad errors of the past as it is by Enright's shimmering prose.

"Tree of Smoke," by Denis Johnson. This sprawling, acid-mad Vietnam novel, which just won the National Book Award, is Johnson at his visionary best: muscle-bound prose, Mistah Kurtz characters, and a Byzantine military-intelligence clubhouse that even Yossarian would find daunting. Johnson captures the rock 'n' roll hubris of the Vietnam War and visits it upon a full-throttle plot of sinister intrigue; his memorable cast includes an aging CIA cowboy, retired from Psy Ops, who sustains himself with old football memories and Bushmills whiskey.

"On Chesil Beach," by Ian McEwan. In structure and design, this small and exquisite novel is markedly different from McEwan's magisterial "Atonement," but it still possesses the author's moody worldview, wherein beauty and human intimacy are frailties too often crushed by chance. A newly married couple in mid-20th-century England, bringing their worries and their pasts to their wedding night, try only to connect: The result is a cello suite of sadness, encompassing an entire swatch of English culture and the legacy of roads not taken.

"Cheating at Canasta," by William Trevor. This collection of stories from the Irish master is so finely wrought, delivered with such confidence and grace, that even their most shocking consequences possess the inevitability of truth unfolding. In his unerring tales of redemption and regret, Trevor can deliver a glimpse of all Ireland through one simple dilemma: a man protecting his dementia-ridden wife, a broken soul facing the cruelties of his past. But because Trevor's fatalism is always trumped by his humanity, even the darkest of these stories can be consoling: His is a moral sensibility even larger than the world of sorrows he assumes.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Anne Enright's "The Gathering," winner of the Man Booker Prize, explores the grim circumstances of an Irish family mourning a loss.

ECHOES OF FAULKNER, JOYCE

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