It’s fair to say this has been a great year for British fiction. A crop of vintage novels has been produced by both our most established authors and by a generation of younger writers emerging to take their place. Prizes such as the esteemed Booker variety are meant to show us ‘lesser-beings’ the way forward in literature, but with so much debate this year, which way should we turn? Here’s the definitive guide.
Both Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown take tangential looks at the issue of terrorism. McEwan, through the eyes of a British neurosurgeon driving round London on the day of Britain’s largest ever anti-war march; Rushdie, through the eyes of a Kashmiri tight-rope walker who turns to violence after the American ambassador steals his wife.
Rushdie’s novel has a twin trajectory, charting Shalimar’s journey from sweet-natured innocent to murderer and terrorist, and Kashmir’s fall from a multi-religious idyll to war ravaged dystopia. What the novel has over McEwan’s is that the central act of violence, Shalimar’s murder of the ambassador, is not merely an eruption of the irrational, but rather a psychologically convincing act which is concretely grounded in historical reality. The sensuous details of Kashmir live long in the memory as do Rushdie’s insights into the troubled realities of the region.
Saturday suffers in comparison because too often we are aware of the authorial hand twisting the narrative, distorting it to make a political point. The joyful marchers are largely patronised or dismissed by the novel’s plot. Instead, it is the sense of unease generated by the book’s opening incident (a plane performing an emergency landing) which is taken seriously and which McEwan suggests characterises our present condition. The novel’s grappling with the big subjects of the day is frankly unconvincing and it is only when issues are addressed in a more minor key that you remember what an excellent novelist McEwan is.
Less well known, but just as well written is Ali Smith’s The Accidental. Superb ventriloquism brings to life four individuals whose fragmented existence is unified once more by the appearance of a mysterious stranger.
Not dissimilar is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty which also examines the fissures that appear in family life. Reworking E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the novel is Smith’s finest yet, observing the micro-politics of race relations with an unerring eye. While there are a few clunky set pieces towards the end, few writers are so comfortable elucidating both the rituals of both ‘high’ and ‘street’ culture.
So there you have it. Armed with this literary guide, you now have the chance to be bold and challenge those high-brow relatives at the Christmas dinner table. Good luck.