Our favorite works of fiction this year will take you from a trading colony in 19th-century Japan to a boys school in present-day Dublin.
Born in Captivity
“Room” by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown in the U.S., Picador in the U.K.). A 19-year-old college student is abducted by a loathsome creep; when the story opens, she’s been held captive in an 11-foot-square chamber for seven years. Donoghue’s novel has the makings of an unbearably tense thriller. The surprise is how much more it is -- gripping but, because it’s narrated by the 5-year-old boy who was born in captivity, also affecting and, believe it or not, sweet.
Tragicomedy of Love
“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Fourth Estate). This monumental tragicomedy of depressive love savors, and even celebrates, the horrors of the American family: the terrible things spouses do to each other and to their children, and the poisonous coldness with which the children take revenge. If that sounds glum, try reading a few pages. It’s exhilarating, hilarious and just about impossible to put down.
Begging for Donations
“The Ask” by Sam Lipsyte (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A sad-sack university fundraiser has to suck up to an old classmate who’s made it big in order to secure a donation and save his job. The tone is funny-awful: Lipsyte is a world-class venom spewer, and even if his targets (reality TV, elite food fads, academic doubletalk) are sometimes easy, the rage which with he tears into them is a thing to behold.
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell. (Random House/Sceptre) A panoramic novel spanning two decades at the turn of the 19th century, set on a Japanese island where the hero has come to work as a junior clerk with the Dutch East India Company. Fusing elements of a love story, a financial thriller and a maritime adventure, it’s got abductions and poisonings, samurai raids and naval battles. But it also has quieter moments of meditation on the meeting of two civilizations, an encounter that’s less a clash than a wary two-step.
Welcome to High School
“Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray (Faber/Hamish Hamilton). Welcome to Seabrook College, a Catholic boys high school in Dublin. There’s sex and drugs and high jinks, wimps, bullies, queen bees and brains, jaded teachers, a questionable coach and a bloviating headmaster. The inescapable cruelty of young people is a constant, and history is everywhere. The thematic richness of the writing is impressive, yet the book is also just plain fun and compulsively readable.
Polio Hits Newark
“Nemesis” by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Jonathan Cape). Since 2006, Roth has been turning out short, devastating novels every year. In this one, set in 1944, a “profoundly decent” 23-year-old playground director named Bucky Cantor looks on in helpless horror as polio devastates his Newark community. Bucky is both the kind of virile man Roth admires and the kind of less-than-brilliant good citizen he scorns; the ordeal the author puts him through is unnerving and pitiless.
“So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins). The hardworking hero has a wife who’s dying from cancer and a father in a nursing home; he’s going broke from the bills. It would be hard to cram more misery into a novel, yet this one raises so many issues -- artistic, cultural and social -- that it sets all the wheels in your head spinning. The result is improbably likable and, finally, even delightful.
“Private Life” by Jane Smiley (Knopf/Faber). Margaret Mayfield is 27 -- an old maid by the Missouri standards of 1905 -- when she marries Capt. Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, an astronomer 11 years her senior and, according to the general estimate (especially his own), very much her superior in wealth and genius. It takes her many years to recognize him for what he is: a fool. A quietly absorbing and thoroughly chilling portrait of a bad marriage.
To buy these books in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)