Annual Holiday Book Guide

Simply the best fiction

By Anna Mundow
December 6, 2009

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Throughout the year, with growing fervor, disciples of Kindle and other wizardries proclaimed paper dead and the screen triumphant. “A book is just a delivery system’’ I heard one argue on the radio as “Wolf Hall’’ by Hilary Mantel lay open in my lap, its reassuring bulk making his assertion seem lightweight. Here Mantel performs her own wizardry, a kind of literary mesmerism that invites us to stroke the velvet of Anne Boleyn’s sleeve or look through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, adviser and enforcer to Henry VIII.

“Rubies cluster on his knuckles like bubbles of blood,’’ Mantel writes of the king who, as the novel opens, desires a male heir and a new queen. Cromwell - England’s most powerful fixer - will engineer the second wish and become chief architect of the Protestant Reformation. But Mantel presents him in 1500 as a flogged youth before following him through his apprenticeship to Cardinal Wolsey, religious persecutions, court intrigues, and the plague. Her novel ends in 1535 with Cromwell ascendant, Thomas More beheaded, and the king’s “flat blue eye’’ about to settle on Jane Seymour. But, fear not, there will be more, as a sequel to “Wolf Hall,’’ which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, has been promised.

With similar psychological acuity, Bulgarian writer Iliya Troyanov, in his sumptuous novel “The Collector of Worlds,’’ conjures up the 19th century British explorer and spy Richard Francis Burton. Best known for discovering the source of the Nile and translating the Kama Sutra, Burton materializes here as an elusive visionary for whom the imperial mission was also a spiritual awakening. (In one exchange about Burton comes the question: “Did you see him do anything strange?’’ And the answer: “He only did strange things.’’) As the novel takes Burton from India to Egypt then Africa, we observe him elliptically, often through the eyes of others, among them a former slave who recalls the Burton/Speke expedition to the Nile’s source. It is there, fittingly, that the brutality of empire, the abominations of slavery, and the enduring truths of an ancient, alien culture are cinched together.

Leaner but equally captivating, Barry Unsworth’s sublime “Land of Marvels’’ exposes the human frailty and cost behind Lord Palmerston’s famous declaration: “There are no longer permanent principles, only permanent interests, and we pursue these to the exclusion of all else.’’ In Mesopotamia in 1914, an Assyrian site being excavated by Somerville, an idealistic British archaeologist, is polluted by sexual and political betrayal. “John was pathetic,’’ Somerville’s wife thinks. “He lacked what Daddy would have called a firm grip.’’ As construction for a new German railway threatens his excavations and war looms, Somerville’s tragedy and that of the region become intertwined. Unsworth, best known for “Sacred Hunger,’’ his novel of slavery, writes at his distilled best here.

Bombay in the 1980s is the setting for Amit Chaudhuri’s vividly evocative yet timeless novel “The Immortals,’’ which tells the story of the prosperous Senegupta family and the impoverished music teacher whose life becomes inextricably enmeshed with that of his star pupil, Mrs. Senegupta, and her rebellious philosopher son. With exquisite delicacy, precision, and wit, Chaudhuri brilliantly depicts a modern India where preoccupations with commerce and class are derailed, often comically, by deeper meditations on art and identity. When the novel briefly travels to England, that country too is freshly revealed. “Shyamji had never encountered such silence before,’’ Chaudhuri writes of the visiting music teacher’s first impressions, “so much composure.’’

By contrast, “Red April,’’ the astonishing new novel by Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo, plunges us into the chaotic, often disorienting world of modern Peru where political and paramilitary atrocities of the 1980s resurface in a series of grotesque murders. Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is the meek official who must investigate the killings in the Andean city of Ayacucho. Soon he wonders whether the insanely mystical Shining Path guerrillas who slaughtered whole communities in the 1980s and 1990s have returned. “Don’t see horses where there are only dogs,’’ Chacaltana’s commander responds. But Chacaltana, while monitoring presidential elections in a remote town, has seen dogs hanging from lampposts. As Chacaltana’s investigation lures him even farther out of his depth, Roncagliolo, with exquisite skill, compassion, and dark humor, leads us into Peru’s brutal past and the personal history of this tragically odd hero.

“This is How,’’ the fearlessly disturbing new novel by M.J. Hyland, takes us inside the mind not of an innocent but of a killer. Young Patrick Oxby murders a fellow lodger in an English boarding house for no apparent reason, is speedily convicted, and begins his prison sentence. “Both blankets are grey and heavy,’’ Patrick notes of his new possessions. “We’re also given a spoon and fork, each the colour of mud, made of thick plastic, hard and stiff.’’ From that moment on, we too are inside. Hyland’s pared-down descriptions of Patrick’s life - as it once was and as he now endures it - convey excruciating tension and pain. Yet the claustrophobic world that she creates has at its core a disfigured yet recognizable humanity.

What is there left to say about William Trevor? That after almost 50 years of writing novels and short stories of unique beauty and stillness he continues to salvage grace out of desolation. “Love and Summer,’’ Trevor’s 14th novel, is a slender, flawless portrait of disappointment and fragile consolation in 1950s Ireland.

Among the year’s many fine story collections, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Look at the Birdie,’’ a selection of 14 early works, brings us the late writer’s young voice as he skewers - sometimes gently, always lethally - post World War II America. One character sells linoleum; another makes hearing aids; another is a psychiatrist turned “murder counselor.’’ Airy as fables, these stories recall not only a vanished time but also an almost extinct writing style: direct, funny, and free of slickness.

“The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard’’ is an indispensable volume of 98 short works by the late writer best known for his autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun.’’ In stories such as “The Subliminal Man’’ Ballard depicts the individual confronting a reality - earthbound or astral - that has cracked just enough to let reason evaporate. Ballard once observed that his writing, although often labeled science fiction, is set not in the future “but in a kind of visionary present.’’ Now here it is, in these pages and before our eyes.

Delicate readers may find themselves reluctant to continue past the first story in Alice Munro’s latest collection, “Too Much Happiness,’’ which won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize. But they should. In “Dimensions,’’ Munro certainly bestows a world of pain on one little life and dispenses plenty more throughout the remaining nine stories. Few writers, however, can match the clarity and immediacy of Munro’s descriptions whether she is portraying a subsiding marriage, a treacherous childhood, or the erotic and intellectual sojourn of a 19th century Russian mathematician.

This year also brought us the final novel in the peerless Inspector Javier Falcón series by Robert Wilson, “The Ignorance of Blood’’ which, with its unbearable tension, Russian Mafia villains and terrorist subplot, reveals how profoundly Falcón’s world has altered since its first incarnation in 2003. By contrast, Walter Mosley’s engaging new novel, “The Long Fall,’’ introduces a new African-American private investigator, Leonid McGill, who encounters fresh crimes that are nonetheless as familiar to him as are the New York streets he inhabits.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

By Hilary Mantel

By Iliya Troyanov

By Barry Unsworth

By Amit Chaudhuri

By Santiago Roncagliolo

By M.J. Hyland

By William Trevor

By Kurt Vonnegut

By J.G. Ballard

By Alice Munro

By Robert Wilson

By Walter Mosley

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