These are five of the best novels I read in 2014. I’ve never been, nor will be, one for tracking books based on their publication date. Good novels have legs. Interestingly, all my choices are in a profound way American. Am I getting nostalgic for the USA or is my subconscious still working out the split between love and fury that America inspires in me? You don’t need unresolved expatriate issues to appreciate these books, however. Read and be amazed.
1. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain
Holy god this book is good. Beyond good. Brilliant. Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier on leave from Iraq, being feted for acts of heroism he’d rather not have performed. Debut novelist Fountain pulls off the improbable feat of sustaining a compassionate satire that is as funny and tragic as it is bracingly smart.
2. Trilobites – Breece D’J Pancake
Short stories for those of you who find Raymond Carver a bit jolly, or who want to know what a darker version of ‘Winter’s Bone’ would be like. ‘Trilobites’ tales are set in Appalachia and peopled with hard characters doing hard things. Absolutely addictive. Don’t start it near bedtime or you’ll be up all night.
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
This is classified as a ‘young adult’ novel which goes to show how silly classifications can be. There is nothing not grown-up about this wry, bittersweet autobiographical account of growing up on a reservation. Not surprisingly, it’s been banned by various schools. It can — and should — cause discomfort as it reveals a sliver of the human cost of America’s disgraceful history of genocide and marginalisation of First Peoples.
4. Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
I’ve been hearing Lahiri’s name for a long time. Now I finally got around to reading her debut short story collection I am happy to add my voice to the chorus of fulsome praise. Poignant, sharp, engaging, and insight in the way great fiction can and should be.
5. Stoner – John Williams
Williams’s writing is like water: cool, clear, consistent, somehow restorative. This is the life-story of William Stoner a dedicated but unexceptional man; a professor, husband, father and friend. It’s quiet specificity elevates it to the universal. Though I’ll say this: if it were written by and about a woman it would be called a ‘domestic’ novel and would have sunk without a trace. Not all so-called women’s fiction hits this literary standard, but I fear we dismiss even the stuff that does because we can’t see beyond gender.