The year brought new fiction from writers such as Philip Roth ("Indignation"), Marilynne Robinson ("Home"), Toni Morrison ("A Mercy"), and John Barth ("The Development"). But the novel that delighted me more than any "big book" was a sleeper, published not in 2008 but in 1924. "The Rector's Daughter," by F. M. Mayor, is a slim masterpiece whose first sentence - "Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties" - encapsulates the life we are about to enter; that of Mary Jocelyn, a spinster daughter, whose dutiful existence is shaken by love. If you had your fill of weighty fiction in 2008, here's the antidote: a brilliant portrait of unforgettable yet unremarkable characters by a forgotten master: Flora Macdonald Mayor, herself a clergyman's daughter.
The subtle mood created by neglected writers like Mayor is deliberately echoed in Jonathan Coe's exquisite novel "The Rain Before It Falls," which depicts the modest life of elderly Rosamond, whose voice, on tapes bequeathed to a blind relative, tells the story of three generations of women. To explain the past, Rosamond describes 20 family photographs in sequence. Each picture prompts a recollection that gains significance as Rosamond's humdrum life and Coe's sly plot unfold.
The heroine of Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture" is more ancient than Coe's Rosamond, and her recollections are more disturbing, but, like Rosamond, Roseanne McNulty attempts to untangle the past. Locked away for decades in a mental hospital in the Irish midlands, she secretly writes her story, which encompasses the nation's rebellion and civil war. The tension increases when we begin to see Roseanne not solely through her recollections but also through the eyes of the hospital psychiatrist reviewing her case who gradually unearths the shocking truth behind her incarceration. In "The Secret Scripture," as in Barry's other works, even brutality can be redeemed by mercy.
In Brian Hall's superbly evocative "Fall of Frost," the world recollected by its narrator, Robert Frost, is the wider one of art and fame. Yet this is an intimate novel, and that is its greatest triumph. Frost's inner life is revealed in an ingenious, elegant loop from its near-end in 1962, back through childhood and adulthood to the poet's death, in 1963. He endured the death of four of his six children, his wife, his best friend, and the committal of a daughter to a mental hospital. "Grief takes so much away, but with the left hand it gives you naked ears, wide-open eyes," he observes. And Hall, with astonishing skill, repeatedly captures Frost in that moment when experience is transformed into art, and art into a form of salvation.
That alchemy is violated in Nadeem Aslam's beautiful novel of Afghanistan, "The Wasted Vigil." Here art, like Aslam's characters, is mutilated by the Soviet and US invasions and by the Taliban's oppression. The house in which much of the novel is set is filled with books and paintings; the garden shed was once a perfume factory. But the books are nailed to the ceiling and the paintings bullet-riddled. When Marcus, the English doctor whose Afghan wife was murdered by the Taliban, opens this defaced refuge to travelers - Lara, a Russian woman searching for her brother; David, an American friend and former spy; James, a US Special Forces officer; and Casa, a young jihadi - their stories intersect, and the novel becomes a taut thriller. This setup sounds unlikely, but the heightened reality that Aslam creates is as convincing as it is monstrous.
"Sea of Poppies," by Amitav Ghosh, is a more buoyant saga of another dark age, that of China's 19th-century Opium Wars. The first installment of a proposed trilogy, Ghosh's exuberant novel transports us to 1830s India, where the British Empire prepares for war with China, its most lucrative drug market. We first meet Deeti, who survives on the poppy crop and faces ritual death when her husband is killed in an opium factory. The novel's cast soon expands to include the American son of a slave and Deeti's master; a local prince dispossessed by a British businessman; a courageous French orphan fleeing a loathsome betrothal; and numerous other villains and heroes. Each character, however minor, commands our interest as the party sets sail on the Ibis, a former slave ship, bound for the plantations of Mauritius and then for war. The novel's playful language, ranging from Anglo-Indian to seafaring dialect, and its descriptions of opium's cultivation, use, and trade are fascinating, but "Sea of Poppies" is first and foremost an irresistible adventure story.
Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" is, by contrast, a brilliant and sardonic portrait of modern India as reflected in the life of Balram Halwai, businessman, thinker, killer. "I am tomorrow," Balram declares as he recounts, over the course of seven nights, how he achieved success in a brutal world. But Adiga's mordantly funny novel, which won this year's Man Booker Prize, dispenses its own brand of hardboiled compassion.
Mohammed Hanif takes a similarly satirical view of 1980s Pakistan in "A Case of Exploding Mangoes." This airy yet intricate novel depicts the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq as it impinges on the life of Ali Shigri, a seemingly innocent yet cunning young soldier who notices too much for his own good. Hanif's indictment of the psychopathic Zia and of the military - any military - is deadpan and deadly. As Ali observes: "If you are in a uniform, you salute. That's all there is to it."
Uniforms command little respect in the detective novels of Donna Leon, and "The Girl of His Dreams," the 17th in the Commissario Brunetti series, is perhaps her darkest and best. The darkest hours, literally and figuratively, provide the setting for Morag Joss's engrossing suspense novel "The Night Following," while Kate Atkinson's "When Will There Be Good News?" depicts a more predictable, though hardly sunnier, world where guilt is still a reassuringly criminal, not existential, matter.
Children's voices - haunting, funny, and courageous - guide us through Per Petterson's "To Siberia," a flawless novel of Nazi-occupied Denmark; Matthew Kneale's irreverent and ingenious "When We Were Romans"; and Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost," a delightful first novel set largely in a British mall.